July in Vietnam: By the River in Hoi An

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My next stop was Hoi An. Its name sounds a lot like “River Bank” in Cantonese and true enough, a big feature is the river than runs through it.

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It’s an incredibly atmospheric town, as you can see from the riverside pictures.

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With its junks and shophouses lining the banks, I found this a far more peaceful version of Singapore’s riverside.

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There were plenty of cute little boats with little eyes painted on the hull to help navigate the river.

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And there were plenty of “fishermen” casting their nets, not really for the fish…

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… but really for the tourists to get a picture and for them to get a tip.

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Despite how touristy this town was, there was definitely a lot of charisma and charm to it, from which Singapore ought learn.

Towards the end of the day, the light lent a soft veil over the buildings.

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And as the light faded, the buildings, despite being restored, started to take on a slightly shabby look as they aged with the light.

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They started looking almost like ochre postcards of the olden days in Singapore.

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Only to come back to life when the lights came on in the dark.

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Hoi An, what a charmer.

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)
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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: The Good at Ha Long Bay

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I’m going to start off with the good stuff that happened at Ha Long Bay. It was a fairly typical package tour where we were packed into minivans and trucked off in the direction of Hai Phong, stopping at the expected craft centre on the way. After being herded up to my junk and getting my passport confiscated for “safekeeping,” we headed out to Ha Long Bay proper. I was rather underwhelmed, mainly because I’d already been to El Nido, the “Ha Long Bay” of the Philippines. Of course El Nido beat this place hands down. However, taking a look at my photos again, Ha Long Bay is undeniably beautiful. It’s just a pity about the greeny-brown water.

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Our first stop was at a cave complex of sorts. I imagine it would’ve been really pretty on its own. Too bad about the garish spotlights in pink, purple and green. I really didn’t appreciate the suspect taste of whichever tourist association that put up those lights. Needless to say, my already bad mood blackened further at that point.

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At least the mood was lifted slightly by the Fun with English signs. Don’t you think it’s cute how they made sure that there was symmetry in the use of phrasal verbs. I know it’s not allowed, but I’d sure like to see how someone could write down a stalactite or draw into one!

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There were plenty of boat vendors trying to sell us wares at obviously exorbitant prices. They made for nice pictures though.

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There was also a completely pointless excursion to catch a glimpse of some local village after which they extorted money from tourists by insisting on a donation to the local school. I wouldn’t have minded donating if I actually got to see the school and meet at least a teacher, but not being let off the little boat till money changed hands was going too far. This was the one time being an inconspicuous solo traveller helped on this cursed tour. I quietly slipped back onto the boat while the others quarreled. At least the gloomy stalactite formations were vaguely picture-worthy.

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The best thing was probably the weather. It was fine for most of the time and even if the water wasn’t clear, the sky was a lovely blue that contrasted against the foliaged cliffs nicely.

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With the cliffs in the distance, it was almost reminiscent of a Chinese watercolour painting. Very pretty indeed.

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We had a little time to canoe in the bay, a nice prospect in the sunset if not for it being horribly dangerous (more later). I bring you this last photo having survived unscathed from nearly being run over by huge junks at the jetty and single-handedly steering a two-man canoe all by my little self back from the sunset.

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Enjoy.