Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Beautiful Ha Long Bay, but very shonky APTravel

MONDAY, 24th October

  The train trip was fine. We had paid in advance to be met at the station and taken to our hotel for a shower and breakfast before being picked up by the tour bus for Ha Long Bay. This was to be the extravagant finale to our trip, and we had been booked onto  a Deluxe Dragon Tour that included all kinds of beaut extras... but that was not to be, as we were with APTravel... a very shonky Tour company, as it turns out. They had already stuffed up our arrival pick up from Hue (who's Alex Nicholson??) and ripped us off on our day tour of Hanoi (no Hanoi Hilton and no 1 hour cyclo ride) but this time they outdid themselves.

  The driver met us OK at 4.45am when the train got in, but he didn’t take us to the hotel for a shower, rest and breakfast, as expected. He told us there was no booking at the hotel, so he took us to the APT office, unlocked the door, turned on the light, pointed to some wooden chairs behind a parked motorbike and told us the guy sleeping at the back should be awake at 6.30 and left us.
He didn't even shift the bike to give us some leg-room!
Not what we expected to be doing at 5am!!

Eventually some other people arrived and unlocked the door so I could go and find some street food for breakfast.
I found this lady not far away with fresh bread rolls and eggs and rice dumplings which did nicely.

  More people started to arrive, but we were ignored... maybe they are used to having tourists sitting around in their office at the crack of dawn???
Then at about 7.10am one of the APT guys asked us if we wanted to book a Ha Long Bay tour…?  HELLO!!!  They had no record of our booking at all. We showed him a copy of our itinerary and assumed that he phoned Giang…. He made several calls. Eventually, he nodded at us and said everything was OK, the bus would be here shortly. I asked him to confirm that we were booked on the Deluxe Dragon and he assured me that we were.
  By the time the tour bus came by to pick us up it was after 8.30am. We were the last on board, and obviously he'd had to come back for us because we weren't on his original list. To top off a grand morning, as we were being hustled to get on the minibus, the straps on my brand new gorgeous carpet bag I'd bought in Sapa broke and it ended up on the road!
  So we were on our way at last... This tour guide introduced himself and proceeded to explain all the wonderful treats that were in store for us... Kayaking and swimming off the junk, foot massages and cooking classes, Karaoke and dancing... surrounded by luxury and smiling attendants... Woo-oo!

  HOWEVER... when we got off the bus at Ha Long, that tour guide singled us out from the group and told us to follow another guide and we soon realized we were being shoved off onto a different boat. When I asked the new guide what boat we were heading for, he told me he would answer any questions after we were all on the boat. There were hundreds of people crowded on the wharf and it was hard enough just keeping him in sight, so all we could do was traipse along behind feeling more and more agitated.

We could see the rest of the people from our bus boarding the boat we should have been on as we motored past on the little boat that ferried us out to the Deluxe Dragon Cruise "No.2".

  As soon as we saw it, we knew we had been shafted.  But we were hustled along with the other dozen passengers upstairs for a welcome drink and cruise briefings. The disappointment when we were shown to our cabin was just too much. It was nothing like the cabins advertised for the cruise we'd paid for (which were spacious and had huge windows and air conditioning). Our cabin was stiflingly hot and the window wouldn't open, but Katie was desperately overtired, so she persevered and had a short nap. It could have been worse... there could have been bunk beds and other people sharing I suppose... but it was a far cry from what we were anticipating - a luxury cruise to cap off our trip. We had been looking forward to it for months.

  By now one of our fellow passengers had told us he had paid half what we had paid for the trip . That’s when we really started kicking up a stink. To give him his due, our new tour guide, Sun,  spoke to Giang on my phone made several calls to his head office, but there was nothing we could do but stay on this boat. He said APTravel would refund us the difference in price. They did not extend any apology and I have no doubt that they would have kept the extra money if we hadn’t made a fuss. So there was nothing more we could do, but suck it up and kick back and enjoy the scenery - which was spectacular.
I woke Katie for our Vietnamese lunch. This is the dining room. It was very pleasant watching the amazing scenery gliding by. But it’s the little things that make the difference. With our drinks we were not given glasses or even straws unless we managed to catch a waiter and ask… just drink out of the bottle/can. There were no serving utensils with the food – eg the rice, the soup, the whole fish… The towels (1 each for swimming and showering) were the smallest I’ve ever seen… This was definitely a budget cruise.


So, enough with the complaining already! Here we were on a boat in one of the seven natural wonders of the world, so it was time to suck it up and enjoy all that was on offer.


 After lunch, we got back on the shuttle boat and headed off to visit Sung Sot Cave (Cave of Surprises), the largest cave in Halong Bay. Located at the Bo Hon Island, the cave got its name (grotte des surprises) from a French admiral who was surprised at the size of the cave when he discovered it. 

  It was a steep climb up to the mouth of the cave, which was crowded with tourists. Hundreds must pass through each day. But everyone was orderly, trying to keep within earshot of their tour guides (we heard many different languages).

There are three caverns with fabulous rock formations.

This limestone cave is now heavily developed for tourism, with granite pavements and coloured-lighting "beautification"....

 ..though I must admit I found the coloured lights very gaudy...

How cool is this rock formation at the mouth of the cave... it looks like some one is sitting there dangling his legs over the edge.

The view from the mouth of the cave is amazing... but you can see just how many boats there are... each one disgorges tourists who climb the steps and go through the caves.
You can see a fishing village down there on the right...  Since our boat didn't have it's own kayaks we had to go to the kayak hire place down in that village and wait half an hour to have a go.

   Kayak hire

.. but because there were so many people you could only use the boats for 10 minutes which was only enough time to paddle a short distance from the pontoon. It was all very rushed so Katie and I decided we would leave the kayaking for next time.

  So while we waitid for others in our group to queue up and take their turn, we sat back and watched. This delightful little boy took a shine to Katie and drew her some 'pictures'

You can't really see them from my photos, but there are large fish traps built into the platform. This house doubles as a fish farm as well as a Kayak hire docking station. There was a hammock slung over the open fish pens and one young lad was having a siesta until his mates came over and tried to swing him out of the hammock and into the water.

They were having so much fun we all laughed with them.

When we loaded back onto the runabout the sky was turning pink as the sun went down. It was just beautiful.

 By the time we got back to the boat for a swim it was sunset... now that was extraordinary - swimming in the balmy water with the sky all gorgeous colours and the stillness of the moored boats reflecting the golden light of the last rays of sunlight. Sun, our tour guide, jumped off the top deck into the water so we wanted to do it too. He didn't think we could, so he took us up to the second deck and jumped from there. Katie went next, and I clambered over the rail to go last. It wasn't very conducive to jumping... you have to stand on the sloping roof of the deck below and there are no toe holds, so once you are committed there is no going back! Sun was very surprised when I jumped too - he thought i would back down. By then he realised Katie was serious about jumping from the top deck, but we were out of time.

This is what Ha Long Bay is all about... tranquil and spectacular... 

 This spectacular centrepiece of carved vegetables was the best thing about our dinner. The prawns were pretty sus, so no-one ate them though.
 A lesson on carving vegetables was one of the features of the cruise we should have been on.. would have been good...

 We were just one of many boats moored here for the night... it was like a floating city, with sounds of karaoke across the water. They were a pretty quiet bunch on our boat, but the young ones had a go at cuttle fishing off the back of the boat... unsucessfully (wrong season). We turned in fairly early.

 As you can see, our cabin wasn't very big, but we slept well.

TUESDAY, 25th October
 I went for a swim before breakfast ... couldn't resist with the water so inviting.

Only one other passenger joined me, yet it was just gorgeous in.

 The second morning passed gently cruising about the bay. This is the top deck.
 Comfortable seats for relaxing, chatting, watching the stunning scenery.

 This is Sun, our tour guide. He did all he could to make sure we enjoyed our cruise, even if it wasn't what we'd paid for.  On reflection, I reckon we may actually have ended up with the better end of the deal (after our refund). Judging by the slip-shod standard of everything else APTravel had a hand in it's highly likely we would have been let down by the standard of the cruise we missed out on and it probably wasn't all it was cracked up to be after all...

There are thousands of limestone karsts (islands).
 That rock directly in front of us is depicted on the 200,000 dong note

 The villagers here are fishermen first and foremost ... in trawlers
 and in little skiffs

 Of course, this is the only was you can get around from house to house here.

 Groceries are delivered by the ladies on these small boats laden with goods.

There was much evidence  of prosperity from booming tourism. Many houses were undergoing extensions and most of them looked well maintained and freshly painted.
 ... this one is getting a large new platform housing new fish pens, and probably another kayak-hire docking station.
This is a school... no playground here!

 A village is tucked away in the shelter of this little bay.

 Dog Rock

 A day tripper

  Our gentle cruise ended by about 11:00 and we waited on board for another hour for the shuttle boat... but like Sun said: It was more comfortable to wait on board than on the dock - and we weren't booked in for lunch till 12:30. The logistics of handling so many people on and off boats etc must be quite a challenge!

Some pickled seafood for sale in the mini-market at the docks. (I had a look around while we were waiting to be taken to lunch).
  We were taken by taxi to a hotel where again we had a set menu lunch. That was when Sun told us to take our time because there had been an accident on the road from Hanoi, and the bus coming to pick up our group was caught in the traffic... delayed by three hours at that point. Tough for the tourists on their way to Ha Long! But Katie and I weren't going back to Hanoi, so we got Sun to organise a taxi for us to take us to the bus going to Hai Phong.

  That turned out to be pretty crazy... As we drew near to the bus stop, which is out of the city ( just a lay-by on the side of the road ), there were four coaches just pulling out. Our taxi driver spotted the Hai Phong bus pulling out up in front of the others, so he floored it and drove past the other busses like something in the movies! By the time he caught up with the Hai Phong bus it was travelling at full speed (80Kph), but we went tearing up the wrong side of the road tooting the horn. As we came abreast of the driver, our taxi driver waved and shouted, then pulled in front of the bus and slammed on his brakes!!! We skidded to a halt and I just closed my eyes and asked Katie "Did he stop?" . Seemed to me the bus would have had to swerve to miss us! But no, they must do this often! Before we had grabbed our things, the bus conductor and the taxi driver had our bags out of the boot and into the luggage compartment. I barely had time to pay our driver before we were bundled onto the bus and we were on our way, laughing hysterically at all the excitement.

  Finally, we arrived in Hai Phong at 3pm, and jumped in a taxi and I brought Katie to my home for the last 7 months... 35/302 Van Cao.

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