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

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April in The Philippines: Donsol

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We flew into Donsol and were surprised to see in the background Mt Mayon, most likely the most active volcano in The Philippines or the world(?). However, we were intent on our purposes and only stopped to take a picture of the symmetrical peak as we left the plane.

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It was the Donsol Tourism Office that was our first stop. We had to first register here and listen to a briefing, complete with cool video of whalesharks, before venturing out for whaleshark watching the next day.

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We were to get out in an outrigger early the next morning, fins and mask ready for snorkelling with the whalesharks. The hard work was mainly to be done by the shark spotters who would balance on the flimsy looking masts of the boat.

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Having nothing much else to do, we watched the sunset over the lovely bay…

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… observed the fishermen coming back with their dusk catch…

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… and enjoyed a barbecue dinner of fresh seafood. After which, we adjourned to a neighbouring bar for beers and the largest grilled prawns ever. Each was longer than my hand and were thick and juicy. What a way to start the whaleshark leg of the journey!

March in Laos: Along the Mekong in Huay Xai

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Unlike most travellers who were using Huay Xai as a transit point between Thailand and Laos, Siamesecat and I made our way to the border town for some monkey business. (More on that next time.) We spent a little time cooling our heels here at this tiny strip of huts along the Mekong. I wished “Visit Laos” year would come round more so they’d get a new sign. While the town appeared fairly nondescript, it was so laid back that it was almost worth the couple of days spent here.

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The streets were tidy and well-kept, lined by lots of pretty flowering shrubs.

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The main focus was of course the river. The slow boat from Luang Prabang ejected its passengers, grubby from the two-day journey, along Huay Xai’s banks. Everything in this town seemed to point to the river.

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Even the local temple, with its so-tacky-it’s-cool dragon balustrade, pointed to the river with the long flight of stairs up to the shrines themselves.

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The stairs undulated their way down to the river, reminding devotees returning from prayer exactly where the source of life was for this town.

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Strangely enough for a riverside town, this place was incredibly dusty. Even this cutie-pie of a dog had its fur messed up with brown. It lived at our guesthouse and at the end of our stay we still couldn’t figure out whether it was a white dog or a brown one.

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