Ha Long Bay. Amazing scenery, astounding scams and amazingly drunk captains.
Where do I start!? I guess it will have to be at the beginning and that way I can save the best for last. This may take a while.Our minibus journey to the dock where we were to meet our boat would have been completely eventless if it wasn't for the 7 Englishmen (and women) who held the bus up while they fought with their hotel owner about the rate of their room. Whenever we're planning an early bus trip, Paul and I endeavour to check out extra early in case of a dispute over the balance. The Englishmen were arguing that their room should be cheaper than the agreed price because of a broken shower, and the hotel guy was saying had they reported the problem he could have put them in another room. This went on for half an hour. Half of the English crew had already boarded the bus, and were verbally abusing the driver every time he tried to move the bus, who despite being unable to speak English, fully understood their tone. We were parked illegally and the police were making their way towards us and the driver was understandably panicking. This small detail escaped the English and they were convinced that the driver was trying to leave without their friends.
So, an hour late we are finally on our way. Three hours later we are at the dock and a few extra people join our group and we get a new guide. More seemingly needless waiting and we finally board an ok-looking boat. Lunch is served. Paul, my hero, politely demands to know where the vegetarian food is (we booked this in advance) and our guide points to the dish of plain rice, some french fries, some slices of cucumber and a plate of spring rolls. "Vegetarian, Vegetarian, Vegetarian, Vegetarian." Great, I say.
Of the four or five scheduled activities, we end up doing only two of them. The first is a visit to a pretty massive cave, that has disco lighting, suspiciously unnatural pathways and water fountains, and some bins that look like penguins.
Back on the boat we cruise past some floating houses, complete with cats and dogs and hammocks. We are shown a hole in an island and are told that this is the second cave we are meant to visit, but as it needs to be visited by boat, it is not included in the price of our ticket. At this point I'd like to explain our tour cost. Paul and I paid $33 per person, the Englishmen paid $36 and some nice boys from Boston paid $45. We all understood that our tour included two caves and all entrance fees were covered. On principle Paul and I stayed on the boat. Luckily so, as the cave was unremarkable and the boat that got everyone there was a bit of a hazard. While we wait for them to return we got a great view from the roof of some fruit sellers floating by on their boats. We were careful to keep out of sight, less we be harassed into buying.
At 4.30 we drop anchor at the back entrance to Cat Ba Don't Get Me Started Island. We're told dinner will be at 6.30 and to entertain ourselves until then. The disappointment is we're next to about 5 other boats and some floating houses and a dock full of boats and minibusses. As you might imagine, our view of the bay is a bit interrupted. Also a let down was the massive generator that was for some reason on the roof of the boat, right next to the relaxing deckchairs. How's the serenity.
Dinner looked a lot like lunch and I'm beginning to be thankful that I smuggle Pringles aboard.
Our rooms are nothing like the picture but aren't all that bad so we figure day one has gone as ok as one can expect a tour to go. The drama really starts on day two.
For some reason the kayaking part of our tour (that's the only other scheduled activity we got to do) has to happen at 7am and before breakfast. This is what Ha Long Bay looks like at 7am.
Of course there aren't enough kayaks and the life jackets are all broken and I wouldn't be surprised if they actually sank in the water. The kayak 'tour' consists of our guide pointing to the kayak and then pointing to the bay and saying 'Forty minute'. Paul and I take off, determined to make it all the way around at least one island. Aside from the small detail of our kayak being full of water, we had an ok time. When we get back, however, we find an arguement has boken out over a missing oar paddle. One of the English guys lost the end of his oar as soon as it touched the water and it sank straight to the bottom of the bay (no idea how deep). Our guide is trying to explain to Dan that because he stole the oar, the local that hires out the kiyaks wants him to pay 500,000 dong to replace. The 6 tourists on the trip all agree that the kiyak guy can get bent and that Dan shouldn't have to pay for equipment that was already broken when it was handed to him. The price is also so absurd that we smell a scam. The kayak guy is pissed and won't 'permit' the captain to leave. By now it's 9am and we're meant to be heading off for our next crappy sight to see.
As breakfast was meant to be at 8, we start to think that maybe starvation is a part of their tactic. But eventually cold eggs and jam and some slightly stale bread make it to the table. The captain goes around to all 16 of us and takes orders for tea and coffee. He somehow thinks he can remember it all in his head and when three people miss out, they enquire about their coffee and the captain cracks the shits. We figure he's under pressure about the kayaks or something.
Still we are expected to pay 500,000 dong for a flakey oar. No one feels the need to go anywhere so we all grab our ipods and books and head up to the roof to sunbake. Here is a picture of the stand off.
FYI, bring sunscreen to Ha Long - Paul no longer has a nose and I look like I'm wearing a bright red ski mask.
Things get heated downstairs and everybody joins the fight. After a couple of hours (I wasn't joking when I said stand off) the price gets lowered to 200,000 dong and still we tell them to get bent. I decide that I should get some of this on camera, in case this is a scam. The captain looks really pissed that I'm filming and I make a point of getting the rego of the boat on the camera too.
Four hours later we still haven't gone anywhere and we begin to refer to the situation as a kidnapping and to the boat as the scam boat. I consider grabbing a bed sheet and painting HELP on it with soy sauce, but it seems a bit early in the day for that.
At this point our captain abandons ship. He and two other crew members get picked up by a speed boat, and get taken to a floating house about 200 metres that way. We are told that they have gone to get drunk. I realise now that the house he went to was the house of the kayak scam guy. Either the captain was in on it, or he was seriously trying to get some peace keeping talks going. Whichever it was, the English give in and decide to pay 100,000 dong. Our guide attempts to call the captain. No answer. The remaining crew hang their heads out the window and scream. No answer. After about half an hour, two of the Englishmen get sick of waiting and decide to swim over. Here is a picture of them climbing aboard the floating house.
I fully expected them to find a boat full of half ended oars over at the floating house, but they didn't. About half an hour later they all come back and the captain is visibly drunk.
The Englishmen pay the kayak guy his money, but he has something to say about it. I think he was asking for more. The captain seriously gets angry here, which makes me think that if it is a scam he's not in on it. Here is a picture of another crew member, whose identity has been obscured by a mobile phone. Photo was taken by Paul, who accidentally broke a toothpick, and offered to pay the girl 10,000 dong for it.
As half the day is gone, we head straight back to port, forgetting about the rest of the tour that we all shelled out for. I say straight back, but after only a few minutes it is apparant that we are zigzagging. I'm not kidding when I say we nearly ran into two mountains a tanker, and actually did collide with the tail end of a touris ship a lot bigger and better than ours. It was bloody lucky we didn't sink. There was a very slow boat chase after the collision, when our drunk captain still had hopes of getting away with it. But the better tourist boat had a little faster boat attached to it, and thankfully it wasn't so smashed up that it couldn't catch up to us.
We all started waving our arms and screaming help to the guys that pulled up along side us and boarded. They nodded sympathetically and supervised our return to port. I don't kno why but they let the drunk guy continue driving. Ahead of us were hundreds of boats all docked or waiting to dock. I had no hopes of getting to the pier dry. We did in fact manage to miss all the boats on the way in, but when it came to approaching the pier, it was a twenty minute back and forth adventure that ended with us colliding into another boat. I could smell the alcohol on the captain from 4 feet away.
Did I forget to mention the meat cleaver? As we were pulling in, one of the drunk crew members emerged from the kitchen with a giant silver meat cleaver hidden behind his back. We all flipped out, as you might expect, and our guide also looked pretty scared. Meat cleaver guy hid it in a pot plant just behind the cabin, and as soon as we hit the peir we all scrambled off as quickly as we could. No one wanted to stick around and be part of the dispute resolution that was going to take place between the two crews. May I also add, that the crew that boarded us were all in uniform and had probably radioed the police like any good professional.
And did I mention the irony!? They scam us for a pre-broken oar and then smash drunkenly into a snazzy boat and try to brush off responsibility. I couldn't have written it better.
The only shame of the day was that Paul and I were the only ones with an obligation to get back to Hanoi by 9pm, as we had a train to catch. I would have loved to sit it out all night just to piss off the captain. But then I suppose he wouldn't have gotten his comeuppance by crashing into a boat whose captain could afford lawyers.
A post scam boat update: I think we have the scam confirmed as we met a nice New-Yorker who lives in Melbourne who caught our train to Sapa - their boat had a broken oar worth 500,000 dong too. The poor guy who was holding it actually coughed up the whole lot without much arguement. Poor sucker. I just wish we'd heard of a flakey oar scam prior to our incident. Shame shame.