Halongmageddon

Monday was my last full day at work in Vietnam (more on finishing up at work in a later post – chronology isn’t a strong point with me at the moment). After that, there was my unsuccessful eye surgery and on Wednesday, I packed up my flat and left Saigon. 

I was disappointed not to get my deposit back on my flat, but I was breaking my lease seven months early so I couldn’t really complain.  At least the landlord never saw the bathroom door I broke with a wooden club when I locked myself out of it and desperately needed a poo. 

Having lived in Southern Vietnam, and spent a week in Central Vietnam (the rest of that story is coming soon as well. I promise! Damn chronology!) it was time to see Northern Vietnam, starting with the capital, Hanoi.

I arrived in Hanoi late on Wednesday night, pockets bulging with my eye surgery refund, and was taken to the hotel I had booked for the next three nights.

The hotel was a budget hotel. A very budget hotel. My room was on the eighth floor and there was no lift. The hotel seemed to be run by three families, who all also sleep there and all have toddlers who amuse themselves by climbing around the reception desk and the kitchen.

My bathroom was the kind of bathroom you take your glasses off to use. It’s just better if you don’t look. The shower worked sometimes, but the sink had good flow all the time. It had my least favourite thing in any bathroom – a sign asking you to put your dirty toilet paper in the basket next to the toilet and not to flush it. Of all the things I don’t like sharing a small space with, I think used toilet paper would be near the top of the list.

Still, I was happy to be in this hotel. It had excellent wifi. And the weather in the North of Vietnam is completely different from the South. I went from 30 degrees and very humid to 14 degrees and drizzly. It was glorious for my Irish soul.

I spent two days exploring the Old Town of Hanoi. It’s much more pleasant than Saigon, for a number of reasons. It’s less of a building site and there are lots of “pedestrianised” (ie motorbikes only) streets. It’s also very, very touristy, which is fine. I like that this means that there are restaurants with chairs of normal height because I can’t squat low enough for a typical Vietnamese restaurant. I also like that there are lots of convenience shops. One of the things that frustrated me most about life in my district of Saigon was how awkward shopping was.

Anyway, I had a lovely time, walking along the windy little old streets and around the lake at the edge of the old town and I booked my trips. I booked a trip for Saturday and Sunday in Halong Bay, Vietnam’s top “beauty destination” and Monday and Tuesday in Sapa, in the mountains, populated by Hill Tribes, with more scenery and some traditional way-of-life nosy tourism.

Except I wasn’t allowed to leave Hanoi to go to Sapa. My visa will run out on Sunday, so my passport is with a travel agency, getting the visa extended. I won’t get it back until Tuesday. This means that on Monday and Tuesday, until I get my passport back with the visa extension I will be an illegal in Vietnam. No trips for Connor. I’m restricted to Hanoi. (So long as my hotel doesn’t report me to the police and get me deported.) Instead of going to Sapa, I decided to use my eye surgery money to book a nicer hotel in Hanoi. The kind where you can flush your waste without shame.

But my visa doesn’t run out until midnight on Sunday, so I could still go on my weekend trip to Halong Bay, which I organised through my budget hotel. For $85, I booked a trip that included a bus to the bay (3 hours) lunch on the boat, a 2-day cruise around the bay, with a 3-star en-suite bedroom, panoramic views guaranteed, opportunities for swimming and kayaking, Saturday night entertainment and dinner onboard, breakfast and another cruise around the bay and then a bus back to Hanoi on Sunday evening. The photos of Halong Bay online are amazing and I was excited about going.

My bus was coming to pick me up at 8:00, so I crawled down to breakfast (without a shower because it had decided not to work that morning) at 7:30. I’m not joking when I say that the little boy who took my order and served my breakfast was no older than eight.

The bus arrived. It was a nice bus.  In bus terms.

The tour guide ran into the hotel – there were about 6 people waiting for buses for different tours. He called out the room number related to the booking. “302” My room number was 403. The receptionist assured me that I was the person he wanted. OK then. I went with him. There were about sixteen or seventeen people on the tour from a variety of hotels around Hanoi.

As we were on the road out of Hanoi, the tour guide introduced himself. He told us that his name was “Ken, like Heineken, but without the beer” and then LITERALLY paused for laughter. It was going to be a long day. (Not to mention that Ken is Heineken without the Heine, not Heineken without the beer).

He started with a jokey routine in the worst English I have yet heard from a Vietnamese tour guide.  We all strained to listen and understand. There were about 6 empty seats on the bus and he asked how many more people we wanted and whether we wanted them to be men or women. Ugh. Of course, this caused mass confusion among the listening crowd of Italian, Egyptian, German, Russians, Chinese, Peruvian, Malaysian and Dutch tourists. Were there going to be more people? He was clearly asking a question. Many people didn’t understand that this was a “joke”. The joke was re-expressed and re-asked a few times. One of the Italian boys behind me found it funny and engaged with him, telling him that of course we wanted more women on the bus.

The next half hour was possibly the worst “tourism” I have ever experienced, and I’ve been on the Dublin Ghost Bus Tour.

The tour guide delivered his spiel in broken English and the “jokes” didn’t stop. And the sexist, misogynist, heteronormative crap didn’t stop. It was AWFUL.

He continued from his first question, asking what kind of women we’d like on the bus – dark-haired or blonde? Tall or short? Ugh.

As it became clear that the only people who were responding to his awfulness were an Italian boy and a German guy (who was sitting with his girlfriend and his sister!) he began to address them solely, occasionally looking around to the other men for support, grinning and clearly expecting uproarious laughter. He completely ignored the seven or eight women on the bus.

His introduction to Vietnamese Buddhist culture: If you stand behind a woman and you ask the Buddha, you will marry her.

His description of a famous bridge we crossed: It allowed the two land masses to come together, like a man and a woman.

His description of the evening’s entertainment on the boat: And then we will have karaoke. This is popular in Vietnam. You sing a beautiful song, you get a beautiful woman. You sing an ugly song, you get an ugly woman.

His description of Vietnamese women: They make good wives for Western men, because they are good for looking and good at cooking.

Then he went on to say that we should get to know other people on the tour. We should ask the Dutch people where we could get tulips to seduce women. We should ask the Germans where we can buy expensive cars to impress women. We should ask the Malaysians what it’s like to be Muslim and have many wives.

I AM NOT EXAGGERATING. This is what he said.

Once this awfulness was over, he moved onto the administrative details. He asked if anyone was a vegetarian or was on a special diet. I suppose this was OK to do in front of everyone, but then he asked each couple who had booked a room for two whether they would prefer a double bed or two singles, with everyone else listening in, which was just hilarious and terrible.

Eventually he stopped talking and we enjoyed silence for the rest of the journey. No one turned around to ask the Dutch people where they could buy the best tulips for seducing women. And no one turned to the Malaysians to ask them what the whole deal was with Muslims having lots of wives.

We got off the bus in Halong Bay and were told to wait for five minutes while our guide made sure the boat was ready.

The tour guide returned and told us that the weather was going to be too windy that night to stay on the boat, so we weren’t going to get the tour we’d arranged. He said there were two options. Option 1 was to get on the bus again and go back to Hanoi. We would only have to pay $10 for this. Option 2 was to go on the boat for the afternoon and have lunch and do a tour of the bay and then get a bus back. This would cost $35. He asked how many people wanted to option 1 and seemed really surprised when no one said yes, and said “It’s only $10!” We didn’t come three hours on a bus in order to get a three-hour bus ride home. We all voted for the one-day tour, which meant returning to Hanoi that night.

We stood around for about half an hour while our guide, Ken, made lots of phone calls and went in and out of the harbour office. This experience united us as a group of tourists and we started talking about how awful it was. Then we started comparing the prices we had paid. Everyone had paid a different price, between $55 and $120, for the tour. At least this meant we would all end up paying the same.

Eventually we boarded the boat, where we were joined by another tour group. The dining room in the boat was decorated like a 1980s pub.  The food was nice, even though we had to endure Ken doing his introductory talk with the newly arrived tourists again (Heineken without the beer, Vietnamese women are good for looking and good at cooking and all the rest of his crap).

While we had lunch, the boat stayed moored close to the jetty. Eventually we set off and at the first island we reached, we were told we were getting out to see a cave. We obediently followed Ken onto a little motorboat that ferried us from our “cruise ship” to the island.

Finally we saw the phenomenal views that the bay is famous for, but we were quickly ushered into the cave. Caves are fine. And this is an impressive one. Though not as impressive as the one I saw last summer in Slovenia.

The caves were discovered in 1993. Ken led us around, pointing to various rocks, telling us that this one was called the “lady” or the “dragon” or the “turtle”, which was all well and good, but the mood in the group was not good, between the misogyny and the cancellation of most of the tour and the fact that a man none of us liked was pointing at a rock-shaped rock and telling us it was a chicken didn’t help the mood. And the thing was, we knew that the cave was only discovered in 1993, so these weren’t even local traditions about the rocks. This was just made-up tourist crap.

We emerged from the cave and got back on the little motorboat which was to bring us to our ship. When we got back to our ship, it looked different. There were ten or eleven men on the deck. Painting.

We boarded. Most of the boat was now roped off. About thirty of us had to huddle together on the one quarter of the deck that wasn’t barred to us, sharing six loungers.

By now, most of us were laughing. This was ridiculous. Another boat drew up along side us. The people who had joined our group at lunchtime were told to get on that other boat. A rumour started going around among the original 16 of us (there were now only 2 or 3 people on each lounger) that the other group were going to be able to stay the night on a boat after all. Some of our original group tried to make the jump to be with the others. Ken wouldn’t let them.

We went to order beer from the bar. There was a big sign next to the bar saying “Today’s special. Buy 2 beers, get one free!” When we asked for that, the barman said that the special didn’t apply today. There were angry words. What other day could “today” be? We got our 3 beers for the price of 2.

Ken emerged to our depressed group on deck. We asked what was going to happen next. He told us we were on our way back to land and to our bus.

There were more ructions. An Argentinian man told him that we had to see more of the bay, more islands, more photo ops. He had come half way around the world. He did not pay $35 to sit in a bus for six hours, have lunch, walk around a cave and then share a sun lounger with 2 other people while the smell of paint permeated the air and paint dripped on his luggage and then return to the harbour without actually seeing the bay. Ken protested that if we didn’t go back to the harbour now, we wouldn’t get back to Hanoi until after 9:00 pm. The Argentinian was fine with this.

The boat turned around and we got very drunk. The bay really is beautiful. And the islands are stunning. One of them is featured in a James Bond film. According to Ken: “This island is in Tomorrow Never Dies, a famous film by the great director James Bond.” LOL

The floating village was impressive to see. There’s a bamboo stage in the middle and all the fishing families row out during the day in little bamboo boats to work and at night they come back and erect a cover over the stage and all the boats, have dinner and go to sleep. They are all illiterate and very poor. The Vietnamese government has decided to get rid of the floating villages. They’re all getting relocated next year. According to Ken, it’s because they keep throwing rubbish in the bay and UNESCO wants the Vietnamese government to clean it up. I’m sure they’ll have a better standard of living on land, but it’s sad to see the death of a way of life, and you would have to presume that there’s a better way.

Anyway, we got quietly and grimly drunk while Ken told us which islands represented the love between a man and a woman and which one looked like a woman in the bath.

At one stage Ken got a phone call and said, “It’s changed!” Apparently the weather was going to be OK after all and we could stay on the boat. Or at least on the bits that weren’t covered in wet paint. (The only time during the tour I liked Ken was when he kicked off his flip flops, grabbed a roller and started helping the painters.)

Anyway, he turned to us and asked if we’d like to stay the night. There was an overwhelming cry of “no!” He was surprised. I think he thought that he would get us back on side with this news.

He turned to the woman standing beside him, a young Englishwoman. He asked, in a very surprised voice, “Do you want to go back to Hanoi today?” She answered “Of course I do. This is absolutely shit.” Everyone burst out laughing. Of course this was rude. But he’d worn us all down. We actually couldn’t stop laughing now.

The decision was made. We were going back to Hanoi.

At the jetty, the bus waiting for us wasn’t the luxury 22-seater that had brought us in the morning. It was a 16-seater, one seat for everyone. We were squeezed in very tight. When I boarded, there were three full bottles of water on the seat. There was nowhere to put them. Every square inch was taken up with luggage and with humans. I was being pushed from behind as more people got on. I sat on the bottles. For three hours. It actually wasn’t that bad. It was like a bum massage, for three hours.

We drove back to Hanoi. Ken asked us where we’d like to be dropped off. None of us knew. We didn’t have hotels booked. He left us in the centre and we split up. I found a hotel, swankier than my first one, but not as swanky as the place I was moving the following night.

Today I went to my old hotel to get my refund for the tour. No one had told the tour agent that we hadn’t stayed overnight and that we’d been offered a refund. I explained what I wanted. The tour agent was confused.

“You paid for a single room. Did you have to share?”

“No. There was no bedroom. We came back to Hanoi yesterday. The tour guide said the weather was bad.”

“How many people were in your room?”

“I didn’t have a bedroom. We didn’t stay in the boat. I came back to Hanoi yesterday.”

“Were there two people in your room?”

“No. There was no room. There was a restaurant with 30 people.”

“Not the restaurant. Sleep. Bedroom. How many people?”

(Nearly crying with frustration. She had understood me fine when she’d been selling the tour to me.) “I came back to Hanoi yesterday. The boat did not stay out last night. The weather was bad. The tour guide told us we would only have to pay $35. I paid $85. Please give me $50.”

“We only give refunds if the room is wrong. How many people were in your bedroom?”

(Turning into Basil Fawlty) “None. Zero. No one. Nobody. None. No bedroom.”

“Where did you sleep?”

“In a hotel in Hanoi.”

“No. Last night. Where did you sleep?”

“In a hotel in Hanoi.”

“But you paid for a night on the boat.”

“I know. The weather was bad. We had to come back to Hanoi.”

“You didn’t stay here.”

“I stayed in a different hotel.”

“In Hanoi?”

“In Hanoi.”

“Why didn’t you stay on the boat? You didn’t like it?”

“No. The weather was bad. We came back to Hanoi.”

“But you paid for a night on the boat. You should have stayed there.”

(Turning the colour of a raspberry) “Nobody stayed on the boat. It was terrible. And the weather was bad. The guide said we would get a refund.”

“But you paid for the boat. You should stay on the boat. What is the problem?”

“The weather.”

“Oh. You’re sick. No refund if you’re sick.”

“No. We couldn’t stay on the boat. The guide said we couldn’t stay on the boat. We were not allowed.” (Should I tell her that we had the option of staying eventually but it was all so terrible that we came back to Hanoi anyway? No. That would confuse a situation that’s already way more confusing than it should be.)

“No one stayed one the boat?”

“No one stayed on the boat.”

“You came back to Hanoi yesterday.”

(Relieved) “Yes”

“You didn’t stay here.”

“No.”

“But you stayed in Hanoi.”

“Yes.”

She rang the tour company and they confirmed my story. I got my refund. And my blood pressure returned to normal soon afterwards.

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