July in Vietnam: The Bad and the Downright Ugly at Ha Long Bay

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I didn’t just whinge to my friends about my bad experience; I thought I’d do something about it by writing to Hanoi Travel Management. Upon advice from the venerable Lonely Planet to complain to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, I wrote to both email addresses then supplied on the website (anthu_sodl@hanoi.gov.vn and travelmanagement.hanoi@gmail.com) but never got a reply. The website has since changed and I think the tourism agency now has a bit more money  to have proper email addresses and I really hope they’ve cleaned up more of these cowboys in Hanoi.

Dear Hanoi Travel Management,

I visited Hanoi in July this year and had a very bad experience with a Hanoi travel agent and a Ha Long Bay cruise. I hoped to forget about it. However, since travelling through much of southeast Asia and having not had any other bad experience similar to this, I hope that informing you of this incident will help Hanoi to make itself more attractive for tourists to return to again and again.

In July, I was walking around the Old Quarter looking for a reputable travel agent for a Ha Long Bay cruise when I saw the A*Z Queen Travel Cafe sign advertising that it had been listed in the Lonely Planet guidebook since 1995. Reassured by this claim, I stepped inside and booked a tour with them. Only much later, after I had paid up, I realised that this A*Z Queen Travel Cafe was not the same one as the real one listed in the Lonely Planet guidebook. The address and telephone number were completely different! This A*Z Queen Travel Cafe was posing as the real one and even advertised on its sign that it was listed on the Lonely Planet guidebook even though it was not the same operation!

I continued with the tour to Ha Long Bay as I had already paid the money. On the tour, the “tour guides” treated the tourists like cattle. After we got off the bus, we were split up and ordered to join various different groups. Those who were staying the night on the boat had their passports very rudely taken from them by sullen and aggressive staff. As you could imagine, this set a very poor mood for the cruise that followed.

As a solo traveller, I had the worst treatment. I had booked a 3 day 2 night tour and even though many others on the bus with me had booked the exact same tour, I was swapped between groups throughout the entire 3 days and 2 nights. At first, I was put together with a group of people who were also on the 3 day 2 night tour to visit some caves. Later in the evening, the rest of the group left while I was left with the boat. Another group of people on their second day of the 3 day 2 night tour came on board instead. When I asked the “tour guide” whether I could join my original group, he said I could not because I was on my own and everyone else in the group was in a pair. He told me that the boat had an odd number of beds (13) and I had to take the last bed on board. He became upset when I repeatedly requested to be put together with the original group where I had already had friends in.

In the end, I had no choice but to stay on the boat since they had already taken my passport. For the activities over the next two days, I was placed in different groups for different activities. It was a very alienating experience for me. I certainly did not enjoy the tour as much as I would have had I been with the same group throughout. The biggest irony was that I saw my original group on the last day and was put together with them for lunch. They were in Ha Long Bay at exactly the same days as me but according to the tour guide, because I was a solo traveller, I had to be in a different group. Poor logic in their part resulted in a very bad experience for me.

In the evening of the first day I went canoing with another group on the boat. All the canoes provided were double canoes. Since I was travelling solo and the tour guide had deliberately placed me in the cruise boat as the odd number traveller, I had no partner. Therefore, I asked one of the tour guides to join me in the canoe. I expect that it should be standard practice that the tour guide joins the odd number traveller for canoing since the cruise boat deliberately caters to an odd number of people.

However, this was not the case. The tour guide told me brusquely that he did not know how to swim when I asked him to canoe with me. Instead, they pushed me onto the canoe and set me adrift alone in the bay. Of course it is impossible for one person to control a two-person canoe, especially not someone who has little experience canoing. I had difficulty avoiding the big cruise boats in the bay. This was extremely dangerous and irresponsible of the tour agency, tour guides, cruise boats and canoe operators because even though each boat was tailored for an odd number of people, the canoes could only take an even number of people. I cannot stress enough how dangerous this was. The lack of concern for the safety of tourists is appalling.

To add to this, the cruise boat almost left behind a pair of tourists who had not returned at the set time. We had already informed the boat staff that there was another pair who had not yet returned, but the boat still set off without them. Thankfully we had not yet left the bay when the boat turned back to pick them up. However, this is again unacceptable that the boat would leave without even checking that all had returned to the boat.

Next, as we tried to buy water from the boats around the canoe stand, one of the boat crew shouted at us that it would cost us more to take it up the boat. She showed us a piece of paper with the charges for bringing our own drinks bought from elsewhere on board: an extra 10,000 dong per bottle of water, more per bottle of beer and USD10 per bottle of liquor. We had not been informed this before, whether upon booking the tour or entering the boat at Haiphong. Even more illogically, almost all of us had openly taken with us large bottles of water when boarding and nobody had mentioned anything about extra charges to us. A very ugly scene involving a group of tourists in the boat and the boat crewed ensued.

The next morning, I chose to pay extra for the water because I just wanted to leave the bad experience on the boat behind and also because they held my passport and would not return it until I paid. Other tourists did not feel the same way and there were some unpleasant confrontations.

There was also a scene involving some girls who had brought a bottle of vodka on board. One the crewmen discovered the empty bottle in the room the next morning and flew at one of the girls with the bottle. He would have hit her on the head with the vodka bottle if not for the swift intervention of other tourists on board.

In the light of the experiences above, the fact that the cruise boat made us suffer other annoyances, such as switching off the electricity at night thus leaving us with no fan and no aircon in the stuffy cabin, seems almost inconsequential.

I am glad that this experience is over and as a result, have no plans to return to Hanoi or Ha Long Bay.

If you would like to take action on these errant operators, the contact details of the travel agent and the cruise boat are below:

A*Z Queen Travel Cafe
Address: 116 Hang Bac Str, Hanoi, Vietnam
Tel: (84.4) 210 5096 and (84.4) 828 1996
Mobile: 0904 518 042
Email: thaohien1221@yahoo.com.vn

Cruise boat details
Tourist Boat Cong Nghia (Tau Du Lich Cong Nghia)
QN-2068-H (2 star)
00028

I am sure that Vietnamese people are not in general like the people I encountered on this Ha Long Bay cruise. I thought I’d let you know to take action on the bad eggs in the tourism industry.

Regards,
Wai San

July in Vietnam: A Day in Hanoi

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Hanoi on its own was fairly charming. Near the Old Town is the famous Hoan Kiem Lake and a rundown little pagoda, Thap Rua, sits on a tiny islet close to the far side of the lake.

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On the other side stood a Chinese temple, Ngoc Son Temple,  that could be reached on foot over a bridge. While fairly pretty, it seemed very generic to me, far too much like the Chinese temples at home in Singapore.

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Inside, I was fascinated by some ornamental statues, like this rather spaced out looking phoenix.

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I thought it was pretty cool and almost cartoon-like. What do you think?

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I wandered the streets till I found an appetising looking place, striking gold when I stumbled across this stall selling spicy pork noodles. It came with a whole host of different pig parts, from mystery sausages and pork balls to intestines, tendons and other unidentifiable parts. I was very pleased to findwhat I later discovered to be the de rigueur pile of herbs and vegetables that I liberally added to my noodle soup.

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Needless to say, it was wonderful and I had to get a picture to commemorate the occasion of Enjoying Good Food.

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And I was off to wander round the Old Town, but not before gawking at this rather odd Communist sculpture, the Martyr’s Monument. I suppose it’s saying that technology is the best (from man holding plug in centre), if not guns are good too (man at side), failing which the women would wipe everyone out with swords. I’m still puzzling over the gender implications of this. If anyone could translate the words at the base of the statue I’d be grateful!

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The Old Town consists of a warren of streets, each having its own specialty product. There’s a street of nothing but stainless steel kitchen fittings, another of mirrors, a third of traditional herbs and medicine, yet another of lanterns, and a mind-boggling array of others.

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I was a little wary of the watchful eyes on me and didn’t get any good pictures of each street. A pity. However, the sight of these two trees being trucked to goodness knows where was a surprise find. It drew the eyes of everyone on the street, including motorcyclists peering round to check that they weren’t about to topple.

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And then there was the St Joseph cathedral. It’s a bit surprising to find a lovely cathedral in the middle of Communist Hanoi, but there it was! I thought the Gothic structure was pretty cool…

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… as were the sober grey granite walls on the side.

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Inside, the breathtaking view from the nave.

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It’s wonderful how they managed to get the stained glass so beautifully done I almost felt like I was somewhere in Europe.

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After all that wandering in the almost unbearably humid weather, I needed a good dinner. This came in the form of Cha Ca La Vong, labelled grilled fish on the menu, but really fish fried in turmeric oil together with local vegetables over a charcoal brazier. It was delicious and also very oily.

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There wasn’t a great deal to see in Hanoi but it was a good introduction to the rest of the country. Next stop, Ha Long Bay.

July in Vietnam: First Impressions

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Vietnam didn’t do well at all in making a good first impression.

It started with getting into Hanoi from the airport. The plane was delayed (not Vietnam’s fault) and I knew for sure that trying to get into town at 11pm was going to be a nightmare. I was sure the $2 Vietnam Airlines minibus described in Lonely Planet  wasn’t going to run at that hour, not when the taxi sharks were all circling at the main entrance.  Determined not to be stiffed, I approached an American couple who agreed to share a taxi.

We bargained with the driver and got him to take us to two different places for a total of $20. For some reason the couple got dropped off first, at a nice colonial-style hotel with twin curved staircases leading up to the main entrance. When it got to my address, it turned out to be a dark, shuttered, deserted street in what looked like a pretty slummy area. Here, the driver informed me that the price was now $40. I just stared at him and laughed, got off and ran up to my own crappy guesthouse. True to my luck, the place was closed even though I’d called ahead with my arrival time. I located the correct unit number and rang the doorbell to the dump of a guesthouse that I stupidly chose out of Lonely Planet (to be fair, it only cost $3 for a bunk bed). The annoying thing was that the guy who appeared didn’t open the gate to let me in. He instead spoke to the driver in Vietnamese, then told me that I had to pay $10.

I was livid. Immediately, I sternly told the driver shame on him for picking on a lone girl at midnight and that he could drive back to the swanky hotel to stiff the American couple instead. I had $7 in my hand and he had a choice to either take the $7 or nothing at all. He left grumbling. The only thing I regret was not taking down his licence number and to complain to the taxi company.

Thereafter, glared at the useless guy who let me in only after I icily informed him that I’d booked ahead. Of course I promptly checked out the next day.

The next morning, I didn’t fare a whole lot better. There were other challenges to contend with, such as the pirate bookseller who tried to sell me a fake Lonely Planet Vietnam for USD13. He tailed me for a good hour even though I’d told him I didn’t want it at that exorbitant price. In that time, I got myself a new hotel room, booked a Halong Bay tour (more about that in another post), bought a local SIM card and test-called Delightt to bitch about him tailing me. He was still waiting for me outside after I bought myself a second-hand real LP at a bona fide bookshop for USD11.

Here’s the transcript of the scintillating cross-cultural exchange that followed:

PB: (seeing the real LP in my hands) F**k off tourist!
Me: Go f**k yourself!
PB: What did you say?????
Me: (ignoring him by concentrating on my real guidebook)

Thankfully, that was the worst of my experiences in Hanoi, though not the worst of my experiences in Vietnam. Things started getting a whole load better from then on and as I wandered around Hanoi, I forgot about the bad first impression and was ready to see more of the country.