Saturday, 25 February 2012

Lost on Halong Bay 23rd February 2012

Halong bay...Lost

9am and finally get going after a roundup of passengers from nearby hotels. The guide rambles on as the mini bus trundles over the red river towards Halong, somewhere South of Hanoi. Something about going up a mountain, and a mountain descending into the bay. I think he was trying to explain the origins of the name, Halong. Anyway, a quick history lesson, and time for a nap  - looks like most are already taking a nap. Over the Vietnamese version of Spaghetti junction and traffic heading for Hanoi is tailing back someway.

The scene is of industrial zones and giant factory complexes with housing blocks attached. Plenty of electronics, garments, instant noodles and steel factories. Weather is misty, quite poor visibility at times, dampness in the air, but at least it's not freezing cold. Pit stop is at a giant warehouse of expensive crafts. They offer free shipping to any country. Have to smile, imagining scenes of frantically trying track down missing goods.

Total journey time should be 3 1/2 hours according to the guide, so another 2 hours from here. It's a rural scene, rice fields below hills and mountains on the left that are just shadows in the gloom.

Halong city is situated compactly at the base of some hills. About Half a dozen expensive looking hotels are on the road approaching the tourist quay in an area that is obviously a tourist development. Tourist boats are queueing up to load and unload passengers from the quayside, with about a hundred or so anchored in the harbour. Halong 17 is our boat for the next few hours, sailing In between the thousands of islands and rock formations that draw millions of tourists here each year.  Weather is still over cast, and misty as the boat sets sail along with all the others.

10 minutes of sailing and thick fog has descended. Hailong 17 continues sailing gradually loosing sight of the other vessels. The boat slows, eventually stops, engines off, all is quiet. An eery silence for a few moments then, "We are lost"', announces the tour guide. The idea is to stay here and have lunch hoping the fog might clear later. An hour later and its obvious the boat isn't going anywhere, and the fog is even thicker. A mutiny erupts among the passengers as it transpires the boat has no navigation aids, radar or Gps, not on these boats. Add to this a rather mediocre lunch with drinks costing extra and there are a few unhappy passengers. Consensus of opinion right now is that the boat operators are stringing out the tour to justify a no refund policy - deal with that issue later!

Boats can heard close by, as the Hailong 17 flounders in still waters, not a breath of wind. A boat is spotted, another tourist boat. Engine bursts into life and follows it, only problem is the boat ahead is to fast. Eventually we all loose sight of our only hope of getting back, engines off, an eery silence once again and dismay from the passengers. A light hearted moment as British chap produces a compass, purchased in Poundland as suggests this should be given to the captain.

45 minutes and another boat passes, rather close to the stern actually, but they seem more sympathetic to our plight and slow enough to remain in sight back to the quayside. Fog clears as the boat approaches land, can put the life jackets away now. Another 3 1/2 hours back to Hanoi via the pit stop.

Given that the Vietnamese attitude towards tourists is somewhat less than the standards experienced elsewhere in the world, no one holds much hope of any refund, but going to try anyway. At least the tour guide returned our receipts, after considerable pressure from everyone, I hasten to add. Discussing the situation, transpires others paid considerably more for the same trip. Two Aussie ladies were charged 39 us$ each, whilst others averaged 20-25 us $. So, for my 16 $ I saw plenty of countryside, a few hundred tourist boats and went for a little ride on the ocean!

Back in Hanoi and straight to the ticket desk. After much heated discussion, ending with a threat to contact the ministry of tourism, a small refund was given - $3 take it or leave it, so I took it. At least I lived to tell the tale and have another go later - after all, that's really the main reason why people come to Hanoi, Halong bay is an awesome sight supposedly.

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