August 29, 2009

Halong Bay, Vietnam - Rock the boat

When it comes to taking package tours to Halong Bay Caitlin Worsham notices a pattern: no matter how much the price changes everything stays the same

The merits of Halong Bay are endless and have been enumerated elsewhere, but amid the praise, regular visitors may notice a trend: every junk tour, be it $35 to $250 a head, is nearly exactly the same. Here is a recap of what you can expect: You are invited to gape at and photograph residents of fishing villages.

Purchases are foisted upon you by small children in rowing boats. You will marvel at such aggressive salesmanship and feel rather uncomfortable. You will walk to the top of an island or swim on its little beach. You may go kayaking (worth it). You may go squid fishing (sometimes worth it). On the cheaper boats you get karaoke, on the pricier ones, a movie.

You will inevitably trek up and down the stairs through Surprise Cave where, no matter who the guide is, no matter how much you hoped you might learn something, you will be instead regaled with how one rock looks exceptionally phallic (and indeed it does), how another resembles a man, and on and on, until you wish you could explore in cool, simple silence.

Aboard nicer boats, there are added extras, cooking classes or spa treatments (for a steep fee), but the actual tour is the same and there are already enough activities to occupy you – especially when the highlight of the bay is just lounging, taking in the view and diving in. You could argue that you’re paying for the room. Certainly the rooms aboard the more posh junks are excellent – better appointed, with soft beds, shiny floors and large windows. There is a shower with a door and enough room to bend over, should you drop the soap.

There are toothbrushes as well as shampoo and a safe for your valuables. But considering the nine-in-the-morning-check out times and packed itineraries, you spend so little time in the room, this argument holds little water. Recently aboard The Jasmine, I aimed to sidestep this by booking two nights.

But on the day we had planned to kick back and relax, we found ourselves outsourced to a little boat from nine in the morning till four in the afternoon with no aircon, a table that couldn’t comfortably accommodate our party and only two places to stretch out for over 10 guests. It was fun but we were aboard a $30-boat, which we could have easily rented ourselves for the day. I felt like a chump.

Then, the last day, when I tried to sleep in, I was awoken at eight (I was on vacation) to blaring music, presumably making sure everyone would check out on time. This was made somewhat less irritating as I had been sweating all night under the comforter that was deliciously downy but a poor match for the sputtering aircon. Another issue is the beds. To get more bang for their buck, many boats devote basic cabins (still referred to as doubles) to single beds.

Instead of making this transparent (the fault of travel agents, boat websites/brochures and room distributing management alike), guests who have requested “doubles” often get make-shift doubles, i.e. twins pushed haphazardly together – or if lucky, made up so that a sheet will partially prevent an irretrievable descent into the crack. So make sure you and your agent read the fine print.

This has happened to me twice now despite explicitly booking a bed that would sleep two. Aboard another boat, The Bhaya, I was promised remediation several times aboard by the staff and management. It never came, so I emailed the company. They refused even partial compensation for the room because nowhere had they written that I was guaranteed a double. But I booked a room for a couple, I said.

Ah, but you weren’t specific, they continued, and we never said you’d get an actual double bed. It’s true, I sadly discovered. They hadn’t. But at over $150 a head a night, this offered no consolation. The Jasmine was infinitely more professional when the same thing happened and they rapidly addressed the issue.

However, to ensure a bed for two, you must pay more (for a deluxe cabin or suite). Yet if you’re a single traveller, you are also penalised, smacked with a hefty surcharge. Oh and there is still the occasional rodent in the rooms on board. I’ve seen ‘em. These may seem like nitpicky concerns. But when you claim to be the best new thing on the water, you better live up to it at triple the price (or more).

Guides should be well trained and have in depth information and better English skills. The services should be top quality and the expectations clear. Maybe in a few years, it’ll be better. Until then, what most people want from the bay is nothing more than to unwind alongside the descending dragon’s rolling form, and the best package still runs at around $70 a night.

Source: Timeout

Recommended Halong Bay travel information:

- Halong Bay kayaking travel guide
- Halong Bay kayaking tours
- Halong Bay cruises & excursions

August 20, 2009

Grant Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

The first thing that I wanted to do when I got to Hanoi was leave. I ran into my man Stewart, who I had met previously in Hoi An. He had just booked a trip to Halong Bay with Active Travel Vietnam company. I ran and grabbed Oskar so we could book the trip to go along.

Halong bay is a UNESCO protected area in the East China Sea. It’s famous for the rock outcroppings that poke out of the sea and for the one hundred or so tourist junks (ours is in the middle somewhere) that float around the area.

We booked a two-day, one night tour that included meals on the boat (which were excellent), and a nice shared double room on the boat with soft beds, a hot shower and a sea view. The trip promised a hike to the top of one of the rocks, a tour of the local caves and some sea kayaking. We got all of that for $32 per person, not including drinks, but Tiger beer was only $1. I’m generally pessimistic about organized tours, but this one delivered.


Indochina Sails on Halong Bay

I sat on a lounge chair with my book as the boat left the shore. After ten minutes in the water, the auxiliary engine turned off. For the first time in a week, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. It was quiet. Nobody tried to sell me anything, there was no annoying music blaring in my ears and there were definitely no motorbike horns. It felt amazing.

We ate lunch on the boat and then arrived at the caves. They were huge and well-lit (thanks UNESCO). As we came around one corner, a red light shined on one of the rocks. “If you want, you can close your eyes, but if you look at it, you will see a penis and testicles,” said our guide, Han. He had a shy sense of humor about him that I really enjoyed.

Han was such a great guy. He seemed genuinely interested in our enjoyment but also in us as people. After dinner on the boat, the professionalism went down the drain. I had a long talk with him that night, which resulted in him inviting me to go spent a night with his family about 120km west of Hanoi. I had to turn it down simply because of timing issues. As I type this, I’m regretting that decision.

After the caves, we all took some stairs to the top of one of the largest rock formations. I’d post some pictures, but then it wouldn’t be as nice for you when you go, right?

At night, the eleven of us on the boat ate, drank and told jokes while enjoying whatever scenery we could see. Stewart asked Han if he had whiskey to drink, but he didn’t have any on the boat. Han got on his phone and had a quick Vietnamese conversation. “It’ll be here in 5 minutes,” he said. A row boat arrived later with a large bottle of Vietnamese whiskey and a twenty four pack of Coca-Cola. What happened after that, Nathan? I’ll tell you later.


Seafood flavour on Indochina Sails

I woke in the morning to Han knocking on the door, yelling, “Nathan, Oskar, time to get on your kayak!” Everybody else had already awoken and gotten in the boats. We quickly changed into some water clothes and jumped in the our shared boat, still a bit groggy. I was having a great time, as was Oskar as we paddled through water caves and into an untouched bay. Up on the cliffs, we could see monkeys jumping between the branches. Oskar got a kick out of trying to go as fast as possible, even with all kinds of other boats drifting slowly near us. I played along and occasionally ruddered from the back, knowing that he would have killed some old couple had he been alone. It was one of those manic mornings that I just love. When we got back to our junk, Han said it was time for breakfast. On the second floor of the boat, I saw pancakes with fruit and chocolate sauce. Yum. But I’m still feeling manic. Can’t I do something crazy? As I sat on the bottom level of the boat, I looked at Han with a mischaevious look in my eye.

“How deep is this water?” I asked.
“Very, very deep,” he responded.
“So if I, uh, fell off the top of the boat, I wouldn’t hit a rock?”
“No, no, if you can swim, no problem.”
I smiled and ran away.

Are you tired of seeing me jump off things yet? I just love doing that! After a few more jumps, I took a quick shower and ate breakfast as we returned back to the dock.
It amazes me how much a couple days away from loud cities can bring inspiration back so quickly. My manic mindset remained on the bus ride back. My mind and body were relaxed, but I was having all kinds of crazy ideas. This is what ended up in my journal, word for word.

April, that is…

There’s no word for it. It’s when the cogs that turn the gears in your brain are fully lubricated with synovial fluid. No quantity of pills, food, water, sex, beer or dong can bring it to you. It’s like somebody rang your doorbell and replaced the flaming bag of shit with a silver platter of shiny keys that open the locks on the doors you know you always had but were unable to open. Out of the doors come new thoughts that belong on paper, the pen serving as an immortal doorstop.

I just woke from a nap that I didn’t know I was taking. I wasn’t reading and I wasn’t looking out the window and I couldn’t have been doing anything else. This is a bus. I opened my eyes and came to that realization and congratulated myself. Sleep to me represents a game of 8 pin bowling. Having knocked down 7 pins last night, the past hour earned me a spare. A strike or a spare is a promise of a full day’s energy, both of body and mind while too many frames with pins left standing brings lethargy and failing health.

After I wrote the word, “health”, our driver honked incessantly at another rice paddy and I looked up. I began to focus on who taught these people to use their horns to grab the attention of nothing and nobody. I didn’t come to a conclusion. We had returned to the outer parts of Hanoi and I capped my pen. It had disappeared into the motorbikes, smog and smoke. It’ll be back and when it arrives, you’ll know.

Nathan – bootsnAll Travelogues


Please come and experience with Indochina sails

To more information about tours in Vietnam: Indochina Sails in Halong Bay