Thursday, 26 September 2013

Ha Long Bay = A Long Day

Floating fishing village in the Bay
It was another 6.30am morning – hold on, aren’t we meant to be on a year-long holiday?? However, it looked like our early start might have been for naught because when we arrived all packed and ready to go at the travel agent he informed us that the four other confirmed people for the tour had all cancelled as they had fevers… He tried to instead sell us tickets for just a ferry ride back to Ha Long City which we weren’t interested in as we really wanted to see the around the famous Bay. At least he was decent about giving us a refund for our tour without too much hassle, but it did leave us stranded. He told us that we would have no luck booking another tour as there weren’t enough tourists. By this, we assumed that he meant non-Vietnamese tourists as the place was packed with local tourists. We found it a bit annoying that he just assumed that we wouldn’t want to go on a tour with Vietnamese people.
The cancellation left us with a dilemma – whether to go and check back into our hotel and try to book a tour for the following day, try and find another tour although we didn’t have much time to do so, do an expensive kayak tour of the bay or just take the ferry as we’d been recommended to do.

We decided that we should at least check one more tour place to see if the old man had been correct about ‘no’ tourists in town. We went to the large Post Office tour place as it was in the middle of town and seemed like an obvious place for other tourists to go. The lady said that of course we could do a tour and she made a phone call. We were relieved that our day would go as planned, that was at least until she hung up the phone and informed us that there were no tours running as there weren’t enough tourists… She did however offer us a private tour for $100 which was totally out of our budget so we politely declined and prepared ourselves to check back into our hotel. 

View from the top of the island
down to our junk
Just at the moment a young guy walked in and asked the lady for the exact tour we wanted, apparently his tour had also been cancelled due to this crisis in tourist numbers. Sarah quickly approached him and proposed that we team up as with him and his girlfriend there was now four of us which made the private tour affordable and he happily agreed to book a private tour with us and raced off to get his girl.

Quite relieved to again have our plans back on track we boarded the van to take us to the harbour. Our tour companions were Swiss-Germans, although the girl had been born in Hồ Chí Minh but grew up in Zurich and this was her first trip back to experience her home country, she did speak Vietnamese which came in handy. The tour started on a small junk - a good enough size for four people and we cruised through the bay until we arrived at a floating fishing ‘village’ where we had 40 minutes to canoe around the islands. The scenery was beautiful, but the amount of rubbish in the water did spoil it a bit.

Inside the massive lit-up cave
We then cruised around the scenic crag islands and onto the first cave we were to visit which we climbed up and through, and then we hiked to the top of the island to enjoy the view out over the bay. Lunch had been laid out on the junk while we were exploring the cave and island and it was surprisingly tasty, especially considering the tiny kitchen it was prepared in. 

With full bellies we motored onto the second cave and quickly discovered where all the other tourists were – the place was packed, but luckily the cave was massive. It took about 40 minutes to explore the well-lit interior which had some very impressive stalagmites. After this cave our time on the junk was over and from there we were to board a family run ‘ferry’ that would take us onto Ha Long City. Strangely, as we boarded we were ushered straight into the family bedroom. Even with Tatna’s Vietnamese we couldn’t work out why we had been put there. 

Fresh seafood anyone?
After the ferry pulled out we were allowed to move outside to some seats on the roof, but still told not to move downstairs to the main part of the boat. We finally figured out that another Vietnamese family of tourists had hired the ferry to take them to Ha Long Bay and we weren’t meant to be on the boat – we were a bit of extra income on the side and needed to be kept out of sight of the main paying customers!

The problem was that all our bags were downstairs and we were a bit worried about what was happening to them for the hour or so we were kept on the roof, and sure enough when we went to collect them Tatna’s zipper had been forced open. The crew claimed it fell off the baggage rack and had split open, although there was no way this would’ve happened. Fortunately, everyone had their valuables on their person so it wasn’t worth making a scene, instead we tied up Tatna’s suitcase with duct tape and went directly to the bus station. 

We had the name of a reputable bus company for the trip, but the ticket guy insisted that the bus we wanted didn’t stop at this particular station and that we should board their bus as it was leaving right away. We were pretty sure it was a scam just to get us onto his bus but the problem was that the Swiss-Germans needed to be in Hanoi by 7.45pm to catch train to Sapa so we needed to get moving as it was already 3.30pm. We weren’t too happy about boarding the local bus, especially for the cost, but we weren’t in a position to hang around and wait for the other company’s bus in case they were telling the truth and it really didn’t stop. 

Our snail-passed bus, not a spare seat in the house!
We weren’t sure if our bus had mechanical difficulties or what, but it didn’t make it above 40km/hr and at each bus stop the ticket boys spent a long time trying to convince waiting people to board the bus. The going was so painfully slow that the Swiss were beginning to worry they wouldn’t make their train. Tatna asked one of the ticket boys if we’d be in Hanoi in the 3.5 hours he promised us it would take as part of convincing us to board the bus in the first place. He instead now said it would be 4.5 hours, meaning we’d arrive at 8pm and the Swiss would miss their train. 

They weren’t happy about this and asked for a refund and to get off the bus. After a long back and forth conversation, which at each stage Tatna had to translate and tell us what was happening, the ticket boy offered us to rent out the whole bus for only 2.1 million VND ($110) and then he’d stop picking up any further passengers so we could get there on time – crazy! In the end the Swiss rang their tour agency and found out that their train didn’t depart until 9.10pm, it was just the meeting time that was at 7.45pm, so we all relaxed as much as we could on the backseat of the hot crowded bus, bouncing into each other’s laps whenever a pothole was hit, which was frequently, and endured the rest of the trip.

In the end we actually arrived at 7.30pm – totally busting to pee as there had been no toilet stops for the entire 4 hour journey. We farewelled the Swiss, wishing them a good rest of their trip, and hurriedly flagged a taxi and went to our hotel, only to discover that our reservation had not gone through (thanks Agoda) so we had to re-negotiate as we crossed our legs trying to hold it in! 

After finally checking in, and feeling much relieved, we excitedly headed out to explore the streets of Hanoi - a place we’d been really excited to visit. We found a local place for a phở and fluked finding an excellent chè place, although not quite Ninh Binh standard – it was still a refreshing chè… 

Exhausted after such a long day on the water and in transit we only wandered for an hour or so before the thought of a shower and bed became too tempting, we had a few days in Hanoi so we knew we had time to really enjoy it later.

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