I was really looking forward to Ha Long Bay. I had seen many beautiful pictures of the vast rock islands majestically towering out of the water and thought that seeing this in person would be a real highlight of this road trip. Instead it was a complete disappointment.
The glossy travel magazines that entice you to visit Vietnam call Ha Long Bay unmissable. The promise of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its nearly 2,000 limestone karsts and isles of various shapes and sizes, is a massive draw for tourists. Indeed, on a perfect day, on a private boat, with time to kill, this might in fact be a truly wonderful place to visit, but for the casual traveller Ha Long Bay has been transformed into something of a trashy tourist trap.
A few days ago I met a couple of English ‘lads’ riding two old bikes around Vietnam. We stopped and chatted for a while and when I told them I was heading for Ha Long Bay they both gave an expression that didn’t inspire confidence. One of them described the experience as “a massive anticlimax.” The other said that while he understands it is a ‘must see’ he wouldn’t be in any hurry to return there. After my experience I can only echo those sentiments.
At every turn there is someone who will try to over-charge you and rip you off. It seems everyone on the street has a tour or cruise to sell you, a “better hotel” than the one you’re in, or as the day becomes night you might be offered a “nice woman.”
I did book a cruise, a six-hour boat trip that would, I thought, give me a decent sense of the wonder of this bay. However, after just two hours we were back at the port and the so-called tour was over.
To be honest though, I wasn’t that disappointed. The weather was a total let down and the bay was rammed with overloaded cruise boats full of people all taking the same pictures.
Nevertheless, I don’t like being ripped off, so with a hefty dose of theatre I returned to agent I booked the tour from, and introduced the her to angry psycho Simon. At first she refused to refund any of the money, insisting that she too had been ripped off. She then called some man to the office who also refused to refund me.
I didn’t know the man so I asked him who he was. “I am your friend,” he told me, to which I crisply illustrated that I did not know who the heck he was or why he was involved. After getting very close to him he decided to leave and allow me to iron out this situation with the agent.
Ironing out the situation involved me picking up all the room keys to her hotel and telling her she could have them back once I had a refund. She attempted to grab the keys back from me but failed. Standing back at a distance for a few seconds she weighed up her options then decided that a refund was indeed in order. I thanked her politely and left the building.
The whole experience left me feeling pretty disappointed in Ha Long Bay, a place that on its own might indeed be a wonderful location were it not for the greedy people and scammers.
I returned to my hotel, checked out, loaded up the motorbike and hit the road out of town as quickly as I could.
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