Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Halong Bay is the one essential stop for all who venture to Vietnam. Karst mountains can make anyone drool, but with thousands, stretching for thirty miles along the coast, rising right out of the sea will make anyone...I don't really know of want to imagine the verb for an excess of drooling, but let's say it leaves travelers rabid, for more reasons than just the scenery.
I can't say as I was a fan of the four hour bus ride from Nihm Binh, through endless urban sprawl and dynamited mountains and coal plants. There is money in these peaks for sure, but I'd rather that come from tourism. Though they checked our ticket and saw our destination, the bus still drove past our destination. Thankfully, I caught this immediately, so it was only a five dollar cab ride back to where we meant to go.
The tourist ferry at Halong City was a zoo of people, tourist and touts alike. We brushed by them all and headed straight to the official tourist information building. A man stopped us inside, trying to sell us an expensive tour that did not take us our intended destination, Cat Ba Town, but we ignored him and tried to find someone official. I thought we did, he had lots of information, spoke English and offered us the same tour as the first man, but for only 100,000 dong, over half the price. We told him we wanted to go to Cat Ba Town and he sold us a differnet, five-hour tour through the bay, arriving in Cat Ba Town for 230,000 dong. We met up with a Swiss guy doing the same tour.
We stood on the dock for nearly an hour, finally leaving at 2PM. A five-hour tour would take us to Cat Ba Town around dark. About 20 minutes out to the sea, a man from the boat asked us how we intended to reach Cat Ba Town. "Well," I replied, "I was planning on taking this boat there since we paid extra to be taken there."
He then explained that the boat did not go to Cat Ba Town, but a port 40km away, meaning we were sold the 100,000 dong tour for double price. I argued, but he claimed ignorance, saying, "Somebody must have cheated you." But who? Nobody seemed to know this phantom ticket seller that has been doing business with the boat company. Nobody seemed concerned that they were doing business with a man who ripped off at least four of their customers, making them extremely unhappy with the company just that very day. Nor did they seem concerned that we were being dropped off at some outlying port on a giant jungle island, nor offered us any advice on how to get to some accommodation. And they most definitely did not offer us a refund for the extra money we paid to be taken to town. I threatened to talk to the police, but they weren't too concerned about that either. I'm sure this is a long-standing conspiracy. They even went out of their way to make fun of me, thus stirring me to make a personal crusade against this fraudulent boat company. Let's just say that the Vietnamese Board of Tourism, Lonely Planet, and some online forums will have some angry comments. Yes, it is only five dollars, but it's about the principle, the lying, not the money. I can be overcharged. I can be underwhelmed, but I will not be lied to. So, never do business with Canh Buom Halong tours. Also Pearl Tours as well. One employee from that company told me I was mistaken and our boat did go to Cat Ba Town, before condescendingly and intimidatingly slapped the back of my head before saying, "you're very intelligent."
Let's just say I didn't really enjoy my two and half hour tour much, with an hour and a half of that time docked at tourist attractions I had no interest to see. This is not to say anything bad about the bay itself, which was incredible.
Before I left, I got the captain to scribble the name of the man who fraudulently sold us tickets for the police report they knew I'd never file. Not that I could do much about the scribble anyway. The name was either Ley or Lem or Leu or Lacy or Lucy or Leey or Leej or Licy, you get the gist. We attempted to join the boat's bus to town for a little extra, but they essentially told us the shove it. Michelle, the swiss guy and I then attempted to find a way to town. The motorbikes were insanely priced and not a good option with our luggage. No taxis existed, but we found a local bus. They quoted us 100,000 dong, which was insane for the distance and we eventually talked them down to 70,000 each. Others on the bus did however pay the full 100k. The ticket lady tore off the tickets, but never showed them to us. A crumbled ticket on the floor showed the fare was 15,000. We attempted an uprising, but when they got angry and all but threatened to strand us in the jungle, we complied. I hadn't really been ripped off since Delhi, five months earlier and to have it happen twice in a day was bit much.
Cat Ba town was tourist taint, armpit, asshole, essentially any unattractive, stinky, undesirable part of the body. The room we bought however was lovely, spacious, clean, with air-con a comfortable bed and a balcony overlooking the bay for only $10 a night! We could, however, only book two nights since the entire town would book out on Friday. Michelle slept in quite late, so we decided to rent a motorbike, which we rode all over the gorgeous jungle-karst island, exploring hidden bays and hugging the turns on narrow cliff-side roads. it was a great retreat from the insanity of the one-street resort city.
Food was pricey, though crabs were cheap, so I had my fill of them for the two days I spent there. One night, we hit up a bustling karaoke bar where I attempted to sing a song. The lady assured me there were English songs, but there was no list; she just told me to write down a song. I did, but they never called me to sing. After an hour of hearing the Vietnamese serenade us with sappy, sad, bitter songs about the horrors of war with America, we left.
Day two was going to be our kayaking day, but the sea was rough and the sky threatened rain for the whole day. We hit up the beach instead. Michelle was glued to the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and I body-surfed and fought waves for the whole afternoon. I was even invited by some Vietnamese men to play soccer. I stuck to defense to not betray my complete lack of skill.
We left that afternoon for Hanoi. I was sad to have not gone out in the bay with a kayak. In fact, I saw precious little of the natural wonder, which was unfortunate, but that tiny glimpse, outside of the crowds, the fraud, and the prices made it all worthwhile.