Ha Long Bay is one of the big draws to Vietnam, for all types of tourist, from the cheapo backpackers through to rich Russians on private boats.
There are an unbelievable amount of options to choose from, and a thousand different places to book them all. Each shop works with different boats, and trip suppliers. What confused me from the start was that the agent would show you a boat, tell you that you’ll be on that boat, and then tell you it leaves everyday – for a 2 day trip. It’s all just awful, and the corruption and bullshit is worse than anywhere, even Bangkok.
So after wandering around trying different agents for a while we picked a guy we kinda liked, and booked as a group – there were about 7 of us in total – to get a big discount. Although I have come to suspect that a big discount is not a discount at all, they’re simply selling you a cheaper package, possibly at a higher than usual price. There’s no way to know where this money is going, or that you’re getting what you paid for.
So we get picked up, along with a whole load more backpackers for the bus down to Ha Long town, and meet some cool guys on the trip (which would have been so much worse without them) and assume we must be on the same boat – we’ve paid about the same and are doing the same length trip. We arrive at the Port, and are left standing in the bus park for at least an hour, after a little while our new friends are called away and put on one boat, and a bit longer after that we are taken to our new home. It’s not amazing, to say the least. The rooms are all doubles, so I’m sharing with Nico again, and the facilities are pretty standard cheap Asian. However, we weren’t expecting luxury (even if the pictures were a lot nicer!) Upstairs is the dining room, and on the roof a sun deck with some broken loungers and umbrellas.
The weather wasn’t great, so the sights were a little spoilt, but the caves were very cool, although that was an extra charge we hadn’t been told about. Not as spectacular as some of the caves I’d visited previously, but still worth a look. I also enjoyed the Kayaking, although a guide around the village would have been appreciated, we were just pointed in the direction of some cool rocky bits, and left to it.
There was also a lot of travel time, sitting on a slow boat heading out to the part of the bay that is so nice. Surprisingly we didn’t see any of the nice sail boats that are always used in the adverts for Ha Long Bay. I can only assume they start closer and spend the nights in the nicer parts of the National Park.
The best part was playing drinking games in the cabin in the evening, and then after a sneaky bribe to their captain the boys from the bus joined us for a bit of a party. More drinking games and some drum n bass kept us going pretty late until their captain insisted on returning to their anchorage. Speaking to the boys it seemed as though they’d done the same as us that day, and their boat was pretty much the same as far as standards.
Our troubles really began on the second day when we realised that quite a few things had been stolen. A pair of real Nike trainers and several amounts of cash had been taken from bags on deck. There were only a few crew members and the travel company rep on board during the thefts, so we tried to insist that the crew compartments were searched, but with no luck. The crew mostly hid away and the captain was belligerent in his refusal. On speaking with the rep, he explained that the crew and boat are hired, basically on a first come first serve basis, using whichever boat is ready at the time, so they have no responsibility for the actions of the crew, or if the boat is horrible.
It makes me think that the whole area is run as a total scam, overcharging for ‘upgrades’ that mean nothing and treating guests like cash machines. The customer service was terrible, the food was disappointing and overall the trip was a waste.
However on route back we bumped into some people that had gone out for the three day trip, who told us they had had no troubles at all, and that the food and service was excellent. They had paid a lot more than us, but in hindsight it may have been worth it just to get a meal that didn’t leave me hungry.
Booking Ha Long Bay is a minefield, I’d suggest booking through an agent at home, but you’d likely end up spending four or five times as much money and potentially ending up with the same thing. At least that way you can complain and get a refund. With the local agents you have no chance of that happening.