If there was a term to describe tour companies in Vietnam, it would be nonprofessional. I may be splitting hairs, but this is different then unprofessional – which has a negative connotation – a slight purposefulness to the lack of professionalism. What I am talking about is a lack of organization, structure, information – but all done with a smile on the face and the comfort of living in the moment. This can be amusing and refreshing until you’ve been waiting over and hour for the bus to take you to where ever it is that you are eating lunch. Only to find that the restaurant is about five blocks away.
When choosing a tour of Halong Bay, the LP warns against choosing the cheapest tour operator. Which is exactly what we did. Not for the sake of frugality, but because the more expensive tour offices didn’t seem to pay much attention to us. One woman kept stalling when I asked her the price. This is a tour she sends out daily – there was no reason to withhold the info. Unless she wanted to continue selling the tour justifying the high price tag.
Our tour guide was a short little man who carried himself with an unhealthy mix of arrogance and the stunned look of a substitute teacher who just started teaching high school (imagine a Vietnamese George Bush mixed with that dude from Mad magazine). The kind you lose respect for pretty quickly. He spoke only in commands: Wait here. Go eat. Kayak now. And when the going got tough he was no where to be found.
The bus from Hanoi dropped us off at Halong City where we waited in the parking lot until our guide figured out on what boat we were supposed to be. Once we got on the boat we were told it was time to eat, then we’d go kayaking then get to drop our stuff off in our rooms (we slept on the boat the first night, then a hotel on Cat Ba Island the next night). But then we learned that lunch wasn’t for an hour so we got to put stuff in our room and had to wait to eat.
Because there were three of us – me, Tina, Shirin – we either had to pay extra for a single room for the third person, or be willing to bunk with someone if needed. We decided to take the chance and not pay the fee on condition that if it was an awkward situation, Tina and Shirin would share a room and stick me with the random person. One caveat: If the other person turned out to be a young, hot single guy, Tina and Shirin got to fight it out to see who bunked with him. If it was a young, hot single girl, I got stuck with Tina.
His name was Alex, and he was from Germany. He was to be my bunkmate. For the first six or seven hours of our relationship, our longest conversation went like this:
“Stuart, do you have the room key”?
“May I have it?”
The scenery in the bay was just like Guilin or Yangshou in China, but instead of towns and fields surrounding the limestone hills, it was the ocean. Most of the time is was sunny, but mornings and evenings were quite hazy which added to the majesty of of the peaks jutting out of the bay. And the bay was big enough that you didn’t feel too crowded even though there were lots of boats taking tourists around.
Our first stop on the tour was Hang Dau Go, an expansive cave within one of the limestone hills. We hiked up the path to the entrance where our guide handed one of the members of our group all the ticket stubs and then disappeared. We stood around wondering if we should wait for him or just go in. After about 15 minutes we decided to go in.
Not having a guide we walked through the first chamber rather quickly, catching up with the group ahead of us. That group had a tour guide. So we all stealthy walked up and stood close enough to hear what the guide was saying. Almost simultaneously we all noticed that our guide was standing in their group listening their guide! He turned and saw us all looking at him, the smiled a “oops, you caught me” smile and kinda chuckled rather shamelessly. Then as the group dispersed he disappeared again.
Someone saw him up ahead so we kinda surrounded him and he started acting like a guide and busted out his little laser pointer and tried to give some of the rock formations names that didn’t fit at all. “Big lion sitting”. “Old Buddah”. “Rice boat”. Soon, we all left him to go follow the other guide which seemed to suit our guide just fine. He slithered off into the cave only to be seen again outside waiting for us.
We finished that afternoon with some kayaking around the bay followed by sitting on the upper deck of the boat as we cruised through the islands watching the sunset and heading to where we’d anchor the boat and spend the night. While we were kayaking, people would row little boats over to us filled with snacks, drinks and fruit, like some kind of floating convenience store. We wanted to buy some Pringles but everyone was charging way too much, so it became a game to see how low we could get it. One boat came over to us and I couldn’t get them low enough on the Pringles, but I didn’t get them down to a dollar for their dog.
After dinner, we got most the group together and spent hours playing Uno. Almost everyone knew how to play, but the more drinks and the more the evening wore on, they started to forget. My bunkmate, Alex, came out of his shell and revealed himself to be quite the player – he even won a couple hands.
Earlier, when we were waiting to eat dinner, and during dinner, the guide was flirting with some of the female crew members. So before it was time for bed he stopped our card game and we asked how things were going with the girl. He smiled and said he’d tell us later. Then he disappeared. And so did she.
* * *
Even though we were all on one boat, there were actually two groups – people going for two days, and people going for three. After breakfast, the two day people headed back to Hanoi while those of us three day-ers took a little boat to Cat Ba Island to do some hiking and then stay that night in Cat Ba Town.
When we got to the island, we were welcomed by a swarm of touts selling all kinds of foodstuffs. It was really hot out and Tina and I were tired of carrying our heavy winter jackets we had bought four months earlier in Saint Petersburg. So I traded Tina’s jacket for some Oreos (we were on a big Oreo kick for a few days) that turned out to be an off brand called “Cream-o’s”. Fine with me-o. I almost got a can of Pringles and some Snickers for my jacket but the woman saw the huge tears in the back and refused. I was tired of lugging it around, so I just gave it to her. She snatched it without even asking if I meant it.
After much confusion about what van we were to get in, what van our luggage was to go in, we were told that some luggage was going in one van, and some in another with a different tour group, but we would all be riding in the same van and would meet up with the other van, and our luggage, later. Confused? We were, too.
We drove to the trail head of a nice hike that took us up a hill with a fire tower atop. The hike was through the jungle so dense we couldn’t tell what the sky was like until getting to the top. The fire tower was pretty cool, altho most of the boards on the view platform were loose so you had to watch where you were stepping.
After the hike, and reunion with our luggage, we drove to another part of the island and hopped a shuttle boat out to Monkey Island. This place was paradise. It was a little cove with some bungalows and an open air room with a thatched roof in which we had lunch. The food on the tour was pretty good. It wasn’t excellent, but way better then I think any of us were expecting. On the island, there were hammocks, a pool table, and some beach chairs down on the shore.
There were also monkeys. One of them walked back and forth along the beach while people sat in the chairs and watched. After lunch, a few of us hiked back up in the hills behind the beach to see more monkeys. Again, our guide said he’d go with us, but then disappeared and I didn’t see him again until I got back from the hike.
After hiking – more like scrambling – up the trail, we reached a false peak giving us a great view of the larger hill behind. Then, along some of the rocks, across on the bigger hill, ran about 20 monkeys. They leaped on to the trees and swung around quickly out of view. Soon all you could make out was the swaying of the trees occasionally seeing a patch of brown fur poke out. After about five minutes they settled down and we didn’t see them again.
* * *
We boated back to Cat Ba Island and took the bus to the hotel in Cat Ba Town. Since we were back to the three – Alex was one of the two day-ers – the hotel asked us to pay the singe person supplement. I explained that it wasn’t our fault there weren’t enough people, so the tour company should pay. Then the guide came over and suggested that he and I share a room. Riiight. Then he made some joke that wouldn’t be there anyway. I didn’t want any part of this, so I asked to hotel if they had any rooms with three beds. And this being Vietnam, they did.
After checking in, Tina, Shirin and I walked around Cat Ba Town – a sleepy little fishing town on the coast. We got some oranges that were so juicy and sweet – best I’d had in a while – from a market then walked over along the shore. The road was covered in little fish that were laid out to dry in the sun. They were too small to eat, so we reasoned they were being used to make fish sauce – the base for so many foods here.
We passed a blue canvas tent with the worst karaoke coming from it, so we had to check it out. Turned out it was a couple kids standing right in front of the tv and stereo screaming as all they could. That was our cue to head back to the hotel to meet up for dinner. Along the way, a girl walked right past Tina and Shirin and gave me a card for Sai Gon Pleasure house – a “massage” parlor in town. And later, when I showed the card to our friends, someone walked by and commented that it was a good place and would be worth my time.
At dinner we sat by a French couple from another tour. He had just finished four years at culinary school, and she was a cook at a restaurant in Paris. Even though they were on vacation, they were doing a bit of informal research of Vietnam cuisine. They have plans to open their own place in a five years and were hoping for some inspiration. I asked them lots of questions, then explained that the Food Network was one of the best things about America. They couldn’t fathom a whole channel devoted to food. Yes, I said, it’s fantastic.
The hotel was throwing a party that night in the bar with free drinks at happy hour. Since it didn’t start for while, our group decided to meet at a little place down the street and wait it out. We sat outside to enjoy the warm salty air. The only thing saltier were these creepy men who would come off the street and start massaging you hoping you’d like it enough to pay for their services. They would go from table to table giving everyone a 30 second preview. Some of them even wanted you to leave with them. Sai Gon Pleasure House didn’t look so bad after all.
We went back to the hotel to discover that there wasn’t much happy about this hour. The music was loud, there was no one else there, and on the tv was this extreme motorcycle tricks show. I was pretty glad for the show because I found these stunts to be the best part of the evening.
After I had really gotten into the show, one of the guys on our tour challenged me to a game of pool. I explained that I was terrible, but he just wanted to show off to his girlfriend, so whatever. We started playing and I realized that he wasn’t that good. And the only reason why he finally beat me was because I was worse. The game should have been over in five minutes, but it took him about 25 minutes to get the eight ball in the pocket.
* * *
The next morning we took the boat back to Halong City where we were to catch a bus to a restaurant for lunch. When we got to the dock, our guide led us out of the parking lot and out to the street and told us to wait. Then he disappeared. We saw him across the lot taking with some girls. Then we lost him. Then he showed up and said it would another 30 minutes. The he disappeared.
Over an hour later, he showed up on the bus we’d been waiting for – that was heading in the opposite direction then he said it would, and we were sure we’d seen it pull into the parking lot a while ago – meaning the bus had been sitting there this whole time. He just didn’t know it. Then we got on and drove about five blocks down the road, pulled over, and ate lunch quick enough to get us back to Hanoi in time to catch our train.