Suffering Through a Ha Long Bay Cruise
In stark contrast to Japan and Korea, Vietnam does not have what you might call a “service-oriented” culture. In fact, in some ways, it swings right past neutral and dips its toes into the “actively hostile” end of the spectrum. There seems to be a collaborative game in the Vietnamese tourism industry to see just how much they can rip you off and an immediately apparent lack of concern for maintaining any veneer of hospitality once your money has crossed their palms. This attitude was made explicitly clear on our recent overnight cruise to Ha Long Bay.
Our adventure began with the hotel pickup; we were promised that a shuttle bus would come pick us up between 8:00 and 8:30 in the morning. At 7:45 we had our butts parked in the lobby of the hostel, which was located literally right next door to the booking office. 8:00 came and went, then 8:15. By 8:30 we were wondering if there was a trip at all or if we had just been taken in by a charlatan who had just laughed his way to the bank at the thought of us sitting around waiting for a trip that would never come. (Side note: this is why you should always book tours and tickets and such with a credit card rather than cash. If this had turned out to be a scam we could have contested the charge and gotten our money back. If you pay in cash, that money is gone forever.)
Finally, at 8:45, someone from the booking office came in looking for us. Rather than being our ride, however, it turned out he was just coming in to double-check his driver’s report that we were nowhere to be found. Having found the unfindable, he made a call to his driver and had an extended, angry conversation before hanging up and telling us, “OK, stay right here, don’t move. We send someone.”
As if we hadn’t been doing exactly that for over an hour already.
Some time later a very angry-looking man stormed in, glared around the place without saying anything, and then stalked back outside to make a phone call, growing more irate by the second. Gesticulating wildly, pointing this way and that, he eventually snapped his phone shut forcefully (the one thing I miss about flip phones) and came back inside. Despite his outright refusal to call out any names, announce his company, or, indeed, interact with anyone in the hostel in any way, by this point we had more or less surmised that this was our gracious host (or at least our ride). We approached him, somewhat hesitantly, and asked who he was looking for.
“RECEIPT!” he proclaimed.
At this point we had narrowed down his desire to either an oddly out-of-place request to be given a new seat, a person with a very strange name, or the paper bill that the booking office had given us the prior day. We took a chance and proffered the latter.
A quick snatch and a brief period of sullen concentration followed as, brow furrowed, he studiously compared the name on the receipt to the name on his roster. Thrusting our paper back in our general direction, he gave us a stern glare, jabbing his finger haphazardly at his own.
“I look for you many times!” he raged.
We tried our best to explain that we had not moved from our position just inside the entrance of our hostel for well over an hour, so he clearly couldn’t have looked for us many times, at least not very hard, but our protests fell on deaf ears as he was already halfway out the door.
“Many times,” he muttered, shaking his head, “many times.”
The stress of not looking for us many times clearly had the man dangling over the precipice of insanity. Rather than giving him that final push, we decided to let the issue (and him) lie and followed him outside, whereupon we were greeted by two motorbikes, one of which piloted by our madman himself. It was less of a shuttle bus, we found out, than it was a shuttle bike that would take us to our long-distance bus a few kilometers away. For lack of any better options, we clambered on the back and held on tight.
Once we got over the initial, instinctive, totally justified fear of clinging to the back of a fast-moving rocket bike through the chaotic streets of Hanoi with no safety gear to speak of, riding on a scooter through the city was actually super fun. At first the traffic situation in Vietnam seems like unmitigated chaos, leaving you wondering how there are not constant accidents. After a while, though, patterns emerge as you start to learn some of the (mostly unwritten) laws of the road. Traffic in the US, and most of the West, is very geometric. You have lanes, left turns, right turns, you yield when it says yield and you stop when it says stop. In Vietnam, traffic is more like a constant, flowing river. The prevalence of motorbikes rather than cars means you can fit eight or ten bikes across on a two-lane road, and the bikes, like water, won’t hesitate to flow into any gaps they can find. The roads split into different branches and if you want to change directions, you just kind of flow towards wherever you’re going. Making a right turn onto a road? You certainly won’t wait for a break in traffic (it won’t come) or for someone to let you in (they won’t). Instead, you just… turn. Since everyone follows the same unwritten rules, you can more or less trust that as you turn in, the flow of traffic will just kind of move around you, until you’re a part of it yourself.
Eventually we came to a large bus parked on the side of the road. Our misanthropic host gestured vaguely to the bus and sped off without so much as a goodbye hug. We clambered on board the crowded bus with barely-functioning AC and made ourselves as comfortable as we could in preparation for our four-hour drive. Due to heavy traffic and poor road conditions, those four hours stretched into more than six, so we arrived quite late to the dock.
To catch us up to the boat, we took a speedboat ride through the bay, seven people at a time. Apart from everything else that might have gone terribly wrong on the tour, I just want to make it clear that Ha Long Bay itself is absolutely gorgeous. The towering verdant cliffs jutting from the water make it clear why the ancient legends of the place speak of dragons descending to Earth from Heaven and opting not to return after seeing the beauty of the bay. It could do with a little less trash and waste dumped in the water, but effecting cultural change on that level is a slow, laborious process.
Finally, the boat. Our home away from home. We had seen pictures from the carefully prepared presentation at the booking office promising a first-class stateroom, modern private bathroom with shower, fancy dining room, full bar area, and sundeck. What we got was… less than. The boat itself was a decrepit, decaying husk of what might have someday far in the distant past resembled the pictures we were shown. The dining room was jammed full of tables and chairs, so much so that you could barely squeeze into the seats. The bedrooms were fine, but much more simple than the photos. We did have a shower in the bathroom, but it wouldn’t turn on. I suppose technically we weren’t promised water for the shower, but we felt it was a safe assumption to make at the time. The whole place was grimy and dirty, and I shudder to imagine the state of the kitchen where they prepared our food.
Now, we’ve had our share of grimy, dirty, sub-par living and dining experiences over the last few months. Our standards are anything but high. Even this over-promised, under-maintained, greasy monument to decay would have been bearable if not for the callous, belligerent, just plain rude crew. Immediately after boarding, given no direction or instructions from our guide, we crammed ourselves in the dining room to wait.
“F*CKING TOURS!” a crew member shouted from the deck. One of the only English phrases known by the crew. This was our first inkling that they might not be the friendliest bunch.
We were eventually forced to ask for our rooms, since no effort had been made to sort out our room assignments, or interact with us in any way, for that matter. The bartender grunted and waved us off. Clearly the soccer match he was watching on his phone was of vital importance, and our paltry requests were getting in the way. That’s our bad, really, for booking our tour during his game time. We asked again and were rewarded with two keys tossed on the counter, his eyes never leaving the phone screen. Despite his helpful gesture, we still regrettably had to pull his attention away once more. There were two keys, we said, but three groups of people needing rooms. Were we supposed to fight over them, perhaps? Play musical chairs?
“How many?” he asked, the first words he had spoken.
“No, only two,” he rebutted.
“We all paid for a private room,” we said, pointing around the group.
“ONLY TWO,” he snapped, growing more and more impatient with our impertinence.
After a few more rounds of this, he stalked out of the room, returning a minute later with a third key, which he threw down onto the counter next to the hilariously placed tip box. We were left to wander the boat on our own to find the rooms that matched the key with which we had been graciously gifted. After a mild shock at seeing the comparatively clean beds, we checked out the bathroom. This is when we uncovered the regrettable, waterless state of our shower. We went back upstairs to report the issue with our room. Surely this would be rectified quickly and professionally. This is when we learned our guide’s favorite phrase.
“I don’t care.”
The sheer blunt rudeness of it was almost physically staggering. Normally I’d expect a superficial attempt at fixing it, or a halfhearted apology, or even just an apathetic acknowledgement that it had been broken and wasn’t going to be working any time soon. But those three words pretty much summed up the attitudes of the whole crew for the duration of our trip. Any time we brought an issue to the attention of the guide, that was his go-to phrase.
“Our shower doesn’t work”
“I don’t care”
“All the food is cold”
“I don’t care”
“We were scheduled to go cliff jumping today and instead we did literally nothing”
“I don’t care”
“Someone just fell overboard”
“I don’t care”
OK, maybe that last one didn’t happen, but I can easily imagine such a callous response to even a drastic event. At one point, one of the girls on our boat asked for sliced pineapple with our dinner, as we had had at lunch. There was a pineapple sitting on the counter, so it didn’t seem an egregious request. The bartender, surprisingly, grabbed the pineapple and started slicing. At least they would do one nice thing for us! Fully sliced, he brought the plate over.
“Sixty thousand dong,” he demanded, holding his hand out.
“You pay, sixty thousand,” pointing to the pineapple.
“Our food cost is included.”
“PAY, DON’T PAY, I DON’T CARE!” he shrieked, stomping away with the pineapple after using his favorite phrase yet again.
We heard another story from a girl on the other boat; there were two boats traveling more or less together, docking at night. Apparently the bartender on their side started raising prices as the night got on and people (he hoped) got tipsier and freer with their wallets. She ordered a mixed drink, which she had paid 60,000 dong for at the beginning of the night, which he went ahead and made. Before handing her the drink this time, he demanded payment — 120,000, double what it had cost before. She, already frustrated at the service, told him that she’d pay for the drink but she wouldn’t pay a cent over what it had cost before, as the prices were listed on the menu and had no reason to go up. Upon her refusal, the bartender threw the drink, plastic cup and all, overboard into the water and told her she could have NO drinks now. Wonder if he got a tip.
There was a huge variety amongst the passengers in terms of expectations, largely due to the fact that the booking offices will literally lie to your face to get you to book a tour with them. People on our boat paid anywhere from $79 per person all the way up to one poor guy who paid $150. We paid $85, so we were at least on the lower end of the spectrum. Each person had an entirely different idea of what we were supposed to be getting and doing as part of the cruise. Some people were told that their alcohol was totally included. Some were told that soft drinks and water were free (they weren’t). Some were told we’d be going cliff diving, or on speedboats, or kayaking. Everyone had a different story and price, all to end up on the same boat.
The evening was fun, they basically dropped a keg off on the roof and sent us up there, mostly just to get away from us I think. But there was a speaker supplied with music from someone’s phone, and beer, and all the other passengers were cool. Plus, nothing makes fast friends like a common enemy. We had a good night of drinking, dancing, and commiserating.
Like I said, the bay itself is beautiful, a truly wondrous, almost mythical place. We did end up having a good time, mostly due to our fellow prisoners — erm, passengers — on the boat. It’s a bit of a shame to see how poorly the tour companies handle these excursions, which are the main way tourists go to see the bay. In a lot of places, people who call an area home are excited to show it off to you, show you around, tell you about its history. Here, there was no sense of that. We were essentially cattle, an annoyance to be shuttled from one spot to the next, and the way they treated the bay itself was no better. Trash and other waste flows freely throughout the bay, and there is zero effort to make any sort of ecological strides. I can only hope that as the Vietnamese tourism industry evolves, more effort will be placed on creating a clean, enjoyable place to visit, and that we can foster a bit more of a dialogue between the tourists and tour providers to reduce the blatant hostility therein.