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Adventures in northern Vietnam
I hired a car and driver for 1.2 million dong (US$80) for the day and a half trip from a local car hire firm (I avoided doing it through the hotel as that was three times the price). I'd asked for a English speaking driver, but they sent instead two people, one guy to drive and another guy to translate. They didn't ask for any more money so I didn't complain (the price of the car included food and overnight accommodation for the driver). As we set off, I asked if we could go via Haiphong (Vietnam's third largest city) as I hadn't visited there on the last trip to Halong Bay. They told me that I would have to pay an extra 2,070 dong for each extra kilometer, saying that would add 130 km to the trip. I said that according to my map it wouldn't add much at all. When we got to the Halong Bay turn-off, about two thirds of the way to Haiphong, they said there wouldn't be time to go to Haiphong as we would have to come back to that turn-off after visiting Haiphong. I told them we could take the old road north from Haiphong instead of coming back, and it turned out that they didn't know about this road (which I had read about in the Lonely Planet guidebook). They were reluctant to go onto Haiphong, but I insisted, and after reassuring them that I would pay for the extra mileage, they agreed to go.
Halong Bay is undoubtedly one of the most scenic places on earth, but when I went there on holiday in 2001, it rained all of the time, so I came away with almost no photographs. So when I was in Vietnam on business the following year, and had a weekend free in Hanoi, I decided to head out to Halong Bay again to take some more photographs.
There wasn't much to see in Haiphong - a fairly sleepy place considering it is home to 1.5 million people. It is mostly industrial, but there was some interesting French colonial architecture in the centre of the city. I had to guide them around the city using a very small map in the Lonely Planet guidebook. As I was directing them towards the ferry that we would have to travel on to take us over to the north shore of Haiphong, I realised that the guidebook didn't specify that it was a car ferry, and I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that when we got there we would find it was a passenger ferry only, and we would have to go a third of the way back to Hanoi to take the other road to Halong Bay. I didn't say anything to them because at that stage they were praising me about how clever I was directing them around Haiphong and telling me how strange it was that a foreigner seemed to be able to find his way around Vietnam better than they could. A few minutes later we found the ferry, and to my relief I saw that it took vehicles - about four at a time. So I bought a ticket for the vehicle (12,000 dong - 80 US cents) and for the three passengers (500 dong each - 3 cents) and we joined the queue for the ferry. It came quicker than I thought, and I was still in the men's room when the ferry attendant opened the gate to let the 150 or so motorbikes and cyclists swarm out of their holding area and down a concrete ramp to the ferry. Trouble was, the gate that the attendant opened to let them out, closed off the passageway to the restrooms and I was trapped behind it. The interpreter guy traveling with us saw my predicament and waved and shouted at the attendant, which proceeded to draw the attention of just about everyone on the ferry to me. I had not seen another foreigner on the trip from Hanoi or in Haiphong, and I was certainly the only one on this ferry, so after I got released from behind the gate, most of the passengers spent the trip crossing the river staring at me (I won't hazard a guess at what they might have been thinking).
The trip north from Haiphong was much more interesting than the other road to Halong Bay. It was narrower and bone-shaking in places, but went through some interesting villages and involved one more, longer river crossing on a smaller, slow, slow ferry that I doubt would ever be permitted to operate in a developed country (from a safety perspective).
When we got to Halong City, I walked around to look for a hotel. There were dozens of small hotels side-by-side offering rooms for US$20 a night. They looked clean but I wasn't too sure about how good their security was. That was a concern to me given the amount of camera equipment I was carrying in, so I ended up going for somewhere a bit more expensive. I ended up checking into the Halong Post & Telecommunications Hotel next to the post office on the Bai Chay side of the city, as it looked to have good security. Obviously a Government run enterprise - the lights and air-conditioning were turned off in the lobby. The desk clerk spoke only a little English and when I enquired about the room rate, he asked me if I was Vietnamese, Chinese or a foreigner. I would have thought the answer was fairly obvious, but the reason he asked was that the room rate depends on your nationality - as is the case with most hotels in Vietnam. Rate for Vietnamese was 440,000 dong per night, the rate for Chinese was 550,000 dong per night, and the rate for us poor foreigners (whom they assume are all rich) was US$55 a night.
After a shower in the dark (the electricity didn't get turned on until later) I headed down to the wharf to negotiate a price to hire a boat. The guidebook said the wharf is full of touts, employed by the mafia, who will hassle you the moment you set foot down there in order to earn a commission from one of the boat owners. The guidebook also said the price should be about US$6 an hour for chartering a small boat (which would take about 12 people) and US$15 an hour to charter a medium size boat (which would take about 20 people). I needed the boat for about three hours - an hour to get out to the islands, and hour cruising around for my photos, then an hour back. I decided to offer US$45 for a medium sized boat as I wasn't quite sure how rough the water was offshore, as it was a fairly windy day.
There were two touts there - a man and a woman - who immediately pounced on us when we pulled up in the car park. But before I could make much progress in bargaining with either of them, they started arguing. This went on for a while, and then the woman started hitting the man. Then more arguing. After about 10 minutes or so, they seemed to reach a compromise where she would sell me the National Park entrance tickets (only USD2 for foreigners, 15,000 dong for Vietnamese) on which I assumed she got a commission. The guy offered me a medium size boat for 260,000 dong (US$18) before I had even opened my mouth to tell him how much I was prepared to pay (just as well I didn't). Maybe it was the off-season and business was poor, but he seemed to be happy with the 260,000 dong.
The weather was pretty good for the trip out and I got some reasonably good photographs. Only hassle was that every time I asked the boatman to change course so I could take pictures, he would ignore me and I'd have to ask several times (through the interpreter) before he would do so (with a scowl). I think he was annoyed that I told him I didn't want to go to see some caves (he was probably going to get a commission on the entrance fee). On the way back the crew (three of them) tried to sell me pearls, postcards, and all sorts of other tourist junk. I bought a set of postcards for 13,000 dong (less than a dollar), so they wouldn't get completely annoyed with me and throw me overboard, but I didn't give them a tip when I got back as they were less than co-operative. If they'd been more helpful and friendly, I would have given them all at least a 20,000 dong tip. They have a lot to learn about the service business!
That evening, after leaving the driver and interpreter to go off and do their own thing, I wandered along the main road looking for a restaurant that looked reasonably clean. I recalled the last time I went to Halong Bay, when I stayed out on a Chinese junk overnight, the food I ate on board made me terribly sick. So Halong Bay has an association in my mind with food poisoning! The restaurant in the hotel was absolutely deserted (which is not a good sign for any restaurant) so did not choose to eat there. I decided in the circumstances to look for the most expensive and upmarket restaurant I could. That was hard as there didn't seem to be anything in either category in Halong City, but I found a small local restaurant that looked reasonably clean and had cloth tablecloths on wooden tables - I figured that was a good sign as most of the others had only plastic tables.
I ordered a Tiger beer (turned out to be a large bottle), some Vietnamese spring rolls, local steamed fish, Vietnamese spinach and white rice. At the end of the meal they also brought out a complimentary plate of dragon fruit. The whole meal was superb and I suffered no ill effects at all. The only problem was that the servings were so large - there was more than enough for two people - so I was only able to eat half of it. Total cost including the beer was 85,000 dong (US$5.65) - and that was probably expensive by Halong City standards.
Next morning I had breakfast at the hotel, which was included in the room rate. I was informed that breakfast comprised noodle soup, bread and butter, and coffee. What arrived was a fried egg, bread and butter, and coffee. I said to the waitress that I thought she had said noodle soup? She looked at me strangely, then pointed to the fried egg and said "That noodle soup". Obviously she has learnt the wrong phrase for fried egg - or some tourist volunteering to help her English has played a cruel joke on her!
When I checked out, I took a bottle of water from the mini-bar, because according to the price list in the room it was only 6,000 dong, compared to the 4,000 dong that you pay in the shops outside. But when I went to pay for it they said I would have to pay one US dollar because I was a foreigner. I said to them that I could walk down the street and buy it for 4,000 dong, and one dollar was much too expensive for a bottle of water. They insisted that was the rule, so to 'protest' the price discrimination, I took the bottle back up to the room and put it back in the mini-bar. After I got back downstairs they asked me to wait for a while (they were talking to someone on the phone). I think they were sending someone up to the room to check that I had put it back in the mini-bar and hadn't opened it. After we left the hotel, we stopped down the street and I bought a bottle for 4,000 dong.
The trip back to Hanoi was made without stopping and we did it in three and half hours. On the way back we saw the aftermath of a bad accident (bodies - not sure if they were dead or alive - and mangled motorbikes and/or bicycles). On the way to Haiphong the day before, we hit an old lady on a bicycle. She wasn't injured fortunately, but left a big scratch down the side of the car (good job I wasn't driving otherwise I am sure there would have been extra charges to pay). The road from Hanoi to Haiphong is the only 'freeway' in Vietnam at present, but it must also be the most dangerous road in Vietnam because every few kilometers the four lanes of the freeway go through the middle of a village with old people and children on bicycles, farmers with carts and buffalo, and pedestrians, all trying to find gaps in traffic that is flying through intersections with rural roads at up to 100 kph. The trucks and buses don't slow down as they approach these intersections - they just blow their horns, loud and long, and depend on everyone else getting out of the way. My interpreter explained that a lot of the old people in the villages that the ?freeway' went through just didn't understand the danger posed by speeding vehicles and wandered across the highway without looking expecting the vehicles to avoid them just they had done all their lives in their villages.
The trip back was a bit boring as this was the fourth time I had been over this road in the past year. So I tried passing the time counting the number of times that our driver blew his horn. It worked out to roughly 600 times in an hour - that is about 10 times a minute.
When I got back to the hotel I unpacked my backpack, and the first thing I realised was that I didn't have my passport. The hotel in Halong City had insisted that I leave it with them overnight (again, one of their 'rules'). I suppose that was so that I didn't leave without paying, as they didn't take credit cards. They said they would give it back to me in the morning when I checked out, but perhaps with my own mind being distracted by the price of the bottle of water (and likewise with them) we had all forgotten about it.
I telephoned the company from which I had hired the car to see if they had any drivers going out to Halong Bay in the next couple of days, who could pick it up for me. They said that they didn't, but they would send someone to pick it up for me for one million dong. I thought there must be a cheaper way to do that, so I spoke with the staff of the hotel where was staying in Hanoi, and they suggested the hotel send it by EMS, which is the Vietnam post office courier service. They said it should only take a day and cost about 20,000 dong. So the hotel staff phoned the Halong Bay hotel staff and asked them to do that. The next day my passport arrived in the afternoon. It only cost 13,700 dong (about 90 US cents) so that was real value for money. Certainly a lot cheaper than paying a million dong to send someone to pick it up!
Halong Bay is one of those 'must see' places when visiting Vietnam, but be prepared for a few hassles along the way, and don't let those spoil the enjoyment of a great destination.