The modern day pirates of Ha Long Bay

Terry rang from Hanoi late last night and told me that his trip to Ha Long Bay with his son was not entirely the success that he had hoped it would be. This was due in no small part to the brigand like attitude of the tour operators and the fact that, because Terry has been living in Viet Nam for over ten years now and can remember when Ha Long Bay was a peaceful idyllic sort of place, it annoyed him that his son was witnessing him being clipped for money at every opportunity. You see Terry is not a tourist, he knows what things should cost, but the operators at Ha Long Bay have so many customers to choose from nowadays that its “pay what we ask or sit twiddling your thumbs on the dock”.

imageI empathised with Terry and told him that we had experiences that were not so good when we visited Ha Long Bay last February with our son and daughter in law. I said that I had been meaning to write about our trip but had not had the time so Big T, here is my Ha Long Bay story mate and hopefully when you read it you won?t feel as if you were singled out for especially bad treatment.

Ha Long Bay is without a doubt one of the natural wonders of this planet, make no mistake about that. I want to make it clear from the outset that, despite the trials and tribulations that I am about to describe brought about by over zealous and under trained tour operators, Ha Long Bay should be on the list of places to visit for every person who travels to this country. Simply put, Ha Long Bay presents vistas that are at the same time both mystical and breathtaking and I am fortunate to have been able to visit the area.

The problem with Ha Long Bay however, is that the footprint of tourism is leaving a huge and ugly imprint on these once pristine waters. I should have realised when we arrived by car from Hanoi that the chaos evident at the dock where the Chinese style Junks tie up was an indication of things to come, but of course hindsight is a marvellous thing.

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We had flown into Hanoi from Hue and were met by our driver with a comfortable car for the three plus hour trip to the coastal town of Bai Chay where, with our large pile of luggage (four persons travelling for three weeks in different climatic zones) we were unceremoniously dumped into the middle of a large throng of people coming and going in all directions and speaking in a multitude of tongues.

We were all pretty tired about now and it would have been great to have been greeted by a representative of the Ha Long Bay Junk Company with a smile and a bit of friendly re-assurance that we were at the right place and would be taken care of shortly. Instead we were subjected to a greeting by a group of unsmiling people in white uniforms who, without properly identifying themselves, demanded that we hand over our passports and who became churlish when I had the temerity to inquire what they were going to do with them (the passports) and when would they be returned.

Instead of a pleasant and warm, ?Welcome to the Ha Long Bay Junk Company. We hope that you will enjoy your stay with us and if you would kindly wait just one moment we will attend to your baggage and show you where you can board your vessel?. We were barked at and bullied and told, ?You go now?, with gestures indicating that we should follow one white jacketed individual who had indiscriminately grabbed two of our bags, one of which he dragged down the rough concrete path while we struggled to keep up while carrying the rest of our luggage. We discovered later that, in his haste he failed to use the wheels, and had dragged Amber?s bag the entire two hundred metres or so upside down and almost totally ruined it .

We had paid an extra US$50 for a small boat to take us out to our Junk, given that our arrival time was well after the normal boat departure time. However, the Junk had waited for over two hours for us to arrive, which did not make our fellow passengers, who had been cooling their heels the whole time, very happy with us. But as I pointed out several times, that was not our doing and we were out of pocket US$50 as well.

The dock at which the junks tie up was built to accommodate a certain number of boats at one time, but the rule of thumb here is to try and fit two or possibly three times that number into the same space. The method of tying up is bow (that?s the pointy bit) end in and first boats back get the prime spots at the wharf. Those who come after all the front row positions are taken simply crash their way in and make space by wedging the other boats apart until they cannot move them any further. I?m not kidding, every parking exercise here is accompanied by the sounds of the heavy timber gunwales screeching and groaning while splinters of wood fly into the air and the dragon ornaments on the prows are knocked every which way.

Each Junk is different in size and ours was tied up about 3.5 boats away from the dock which meant that we had to negotiate a maze of different deck heights, rails, planks, ropes and other stuff, all the time hoping that our luggage would not fall into the murky depths below. But finally, we were on board, flustered, exhausted but glad that we could now relax in our luxury cabins, take a shower and have a cold beer. But could we?

As it turns out, no we couldn?t. Our accommodation was certainly a lot less comfortable than what we had been led to believe it would be. We had been promised (and paid for) luxury suites with double bed and large ensuite bathroom. What we got was two very small timber cabins with tiny narrow bunks that were not long enough to sleep in without our feet hanging over the end.

The ensuites were so small that it was impossible to realistically imagine taking a shower and as it turns out, that was fortuitous because there was no water. We discovered this when we first flushed the toilet and a thickish brown sludge appeared accompanied by a thickish brown smell after which, nothing. The crew couldn?t help because, as we discovered to our dismay, none of them could speak English, nor could they understand our crummy Vietnamese and they didn?t seem to know how to get the water working.

It was only later that night when one of the crew from another boat who could speak English came on board, that we discovered that our crew had never worked on this particular boat before and did not know how anything worked. It seems that, because of Tet the normal crew had all gone home on leave and the company had thrown this bunch together to take us out.

But not a problem, if we wanted to use the water, the cabins that our fellow travellers had below decks had it in abundance so we could share with them, (not a happy arrangement for any of us), but it was because of this that we were able to see their cabins and the truth dawned on us.

Our fellow passengers (the ones who had been waiting on us) were a Canadian man travelling alone and a young Japanese couple and during discussions with them they had revealed that they had paid far less than us. Strange then that they had very large and very luxurious cabins and we had very small ones, one of which was set up for only one person. The penny dropped, it was clear that, given the time they had on board a bit of exploration had taken place and our expensive cabins had been taken over. Because we were already offshore and none of the crew could understand a word we said we were well and truly stuffed.

We decided that we should just make the best of things and opted to order a cold beer, but when it was served the can was hot. I asked for some cold ones but, using sign language was told there were none. So I asked for some ice but there was none of that on board either. I suggested that maybe we could slip some cans in the freezer but discovered there was no refrigeration at all. How about a glass of white wine then? You guessed it, all hot!

The only possible choice was a bottle of red wine with lunch as there was nothing else that we could comfortably drink unless we wanted an alcohol free trip (although even the soft drinks and fruit juices were hot). All wine is expensive in Viet Nam (prohibitively so) because of the huge tariffs and the prices on board (captive audience) were even more so. Spirits were out of the question as they were expensive also and we would have warm mixers and no ice. Some luxury!

I must say at this point that, except for breakfast, the meals on board were very good, as long as you liked seafood that is. As it happens we all do enjoy seafood and it was the one saving grace of the entire trip, but if you don’t happen to enjoy seafood you could easily starve for the entire trip.

After lunch I went back to our cabin which was situated right on top of the engine room and generator and I noticed the diesel fumes were very strong. Not only were they seeping up through the floor but they were coming in through the open window from the exhaust. The noise level was enormous also so the idea of having a quiet nap was not possible.

At night, the noise and fume levels made it impossible to sleep, but fortunately the crew decided to turn off the generator. Instantly peace and quiet descended and along with it the pitch black darkness. It was so dark that you couldn?t see your hand in front of your face and getting up to go to the toilet (which by now was becoming quite rank through lack of flushing), was a complete nightmare. Stubbing of toes and smashing into bulkheads (walls for you landlubbers), tripping over our luggage in that tiny space was not a great experience and trying to get comfortable in those tiny narrow bunks was not what I would call romantic. And then of course there were the rats!

Ah yes, the rats. Rats scurrying through the spaces between the decks, running backwards and forwards across the decks their little feet making scratching noises, little squeaking noises emanating from their tiny ratty throats. Rats fighting, rats copulating, I?m sure a rat pack-rape (not rat-pack) took place not half a metre directly in front of my upturned face if the loud and continuous screaming is any indication, and no amount of thumping with my fist could dissuade them from their endeavour. Was that a rat I heard scurrying over our luggage? For Cliff?s sake (apologies to all Cliff Richards fans) the bloody rats did not stop moving and running and squealing and fornicating all night.

?The Chinese style Halong Junk boat could bring to you a wonderful night on the bay with luxury and antique accommodations with perfect services provided by the friendly crew. Spending time on the junk, you?ll savor a unique feeling in a world of wonder?
Quote from the Ha Long Bay Junk Web site.

During the evening Brendan became very ill with chronic diarrhoea and vomiting. The vomiting part was easily dispensed out the cabin window directly into the ocean, however, given the lack of water and lighting the diarrhoea part became a huge problem in the closely confined quarters of Brendan and Amber?s small cabin, especially as he ran out of toilet paper at some stage and there was no way he was going to be able to get any more until morning (if then).

To add insult to injury, when we heading back into port the next morning the crew requested (told us) they wanted us out of our cabins two hours before we docked so that they could clean them for the next passengers. It took a huge argument to convince them not to disturb Brendan who was fast asleep and just as great an argument to assure them that Lisa and I were not moving from our cabin until we were good and damned ready to. After what we had been through I was not going to sit up in the lounge on top of our luggage for two hours and it was far too cold to go out on deck. The cabin was our only refuge, albeit a noisy and smelly (from several sources now) one.

Every place that we were taken to visit during our trip was crawling with hundreds of tourists from dozens of other junks and the combined diesel fumes were enough to turn our stomachs. At night when we were at anchor it looked as though we were in the middle of a floating city rather than in a marine wilderness, such were the numbers of Junks anchored in the same place. At each stop we were inundated by children and locals in small wicker and timber boats either selling shells or other small items or simply begging for money. We quickly realised that it was not a good idea to leave our cabin window open while we were not in our cabin as it would have been an easy matter to climb through.

Lisa and I decided not to face the crowds of people and stayed on board when we visited the large grotto and we were glad because Brendan & Amber told us when they got back that it was wall to wall people, very push and shove to get through the trails and up the stairs. Instead we thought we would take the time to have a quiet moment and read a book but the staff, who were obviously puzzled and disappointed that we had stayed aboard had other ideas and they turned the television on with a VCD of Vietnamese disco music. This was blaring at full blast and was annoying as hell so, when they were all out of the lounge, I turned it off. Several minutes later it was turned on again and so I turned it off again. The crew got the message and sat around in the lounge sulking, passing the nail cutters around and clipping their toe nails all over the floor. I’m not sure which noise was more annoying, the loud music or the sound of the nail clippers and pieces of toe nail hitting the deck.

The footprint that the amount of traffic is leaving on this beautiful waterway is huge and the potential ecological damage which will result is incalculable. Everything is emptied or thrown into the water and there is no evidence of any attempt to restrict any type of material being left behind. Plastic bags, the scourge of this country, abound everywhere, floating in the water and washed up on every shore. In every anchorage diesel oil could be seen floating as a slick on top of the water.

Apart from the potential ecological disaster just waiting to happen, the tour operators need to get real. They need to cater for the needs of the overseas tourist and not be so blatantly intent on simply turning over as many persons (read dollars) in as short a time as possible. They are in danger of killing the goose that is laying the golden eggs.

Don?t be turned off visiting Ha Long Bay, after all that happened it was worth the effort, but remember, pirates don?t necessarily have to be wearing an eye patch and a cutlass to be pirates.