This is not going to be your usual travel chronicle.
This is the record of someone who has survived.
Dear web voyagers,
I have always envied those lucky people gifted with patience, a beautiful feature which gives them the chance to engage themselves in special activities unknown to those who, like myself, are intolerant to any effort and endeavour.
One of the first activities among those I regret not accomplishing is the writing of a diary, aimed at keeping track of my experiences during both exciting and not-so-exciting days. To be frank, my mom has always pushed me to put onto paper my thoughts and daily events, as a way to keep a record of all those events which can easily elude the long-term memory. However, due to my stubborn nature and my obstinance of never listening wise pieces of advice given to me by those who love me, I carried on undeterred, continuing not to open the personal diary which now acts as a dust-gatherer in my room, and consequently, I regret my indifference to advice each time I realise the memory I cherish of a particular event is less than what I what I’d like to have. That’s a vicious cycle I will probably never escape.
Nevertheless, today I’d like to redeem myself from my sins and attempt to remedy my regretful mistakes: I finally want to pen down my memories and souvenirs of my past experience in Ha Long Bay, in order to make sure to keep nourishing my memory with even the tiniest details which contributed to make my supposed-to-be relaxing cruise the most tragicomic event in my entire traveller’s career.
However, my aim for today is to write a virtual journal page and dedicate it to you, because the awareness of a potential audience to address my records of this melodramatic adventure sounds more attractive than referring this story to a simple piece of paper destined to have me as its only reader.
Given this brief introduction, I think it’s the right moment to start the narration of my adventure.
I first heard of Ha Long Bay during a talk with a sweet Vietnamese girl whom I was lucky enough to meet during my exchange in South Korea.
For a variety of reasons, I had decided to embark on an adventure in Vietnam, and during that social occasion, I took the chance to discuss my travel plans with a friend of mine, to finalise my list of ‘things to do’.
The first thing she suggested was not to limit myself just to visiting Hanoi, the capital city, but to also literally embark on a cruise and venture in what is supposed to be one of the heavens on earth, Ha Long Bay.
From the way she talked about it, both through the excitement in her words and the light in her eyes, she had succeeded in convincing me without further efforts, leading to me rushing to a travel agency as soon as I arrived in Hanoi to book my cruise to the bay.
The woman who helped both me and my travel companion in the choosing of the cruise package was incredibly enthusiastic and convincing about the offer she was proposing: apparently, we were going to embark not on a simple boat, but on a ship directed to Heaven.
As she explained, after our arrival at the bay’s harbour, we would have boarded an incredible cruise where huge amounts of food, amusement and unforgettable memories were promised. An excursion to a cave, the chance to swim in Ha Long Bay’s waters, a free-flow beer party, a romantic cocktail at sunset, squid fishing at night, kayaking: these were the promising activities which were waiting for us, ready to make the trip memorable.
And it was memorable, indeed.
It all began on Sunday the 14th of July, at 9 in the morning.
The owner of the travel agency had assured us that at 8am, one member of the stuff of the cruise was coming to pick us up at the hall of the guesthouse where we had been staying at. This way, as agreed, at 5 minutes before 8:00 we were at the door, armed with our backpacks and high-hopes.
During that hour, we saw many people passing by, getting in and out the guesthouse, and we even watched two different groups being collected by the guys who had to accompany them to Ha Long Bay.
Minutes went by, and my companion and I were always more convinced we were victims of a scam and that our cruise guy would never come to pick us up.
Eventually, after one hour of anxious waiting, a tiny and smiling guy reached the door and called out for us: it finally was our turn to get on what everyone called a “limousine” (but in reality, more like a black van, equipped with the always-appreciated aircon) to kick off our new adventure.
Once all the guests got in the van, the cruise guy finally introduced himself: his name was HI – yes, exactly like the English greeting word- and was going to be our guide for the following 24 hours.
As soon as the man pronounced his name we should have caught the signal anticipating the detours we were going to be the protagonists of, but we were too naive to possibly fear our upcoming experience to Ha Long Bay.
The journey to the harbour lasted four hours, an exhausting ride which at least gave me the chance to enjoy the view of rice fields and get in touch, even if through a dirty window, with Vietnamese countryside.
The journey also included an exciting stop at a tourist store, a place which would have later been the set of a vibrant disagreement which endangered the internal balance of the couple on completion of our mishaps.
Back to the chronological narration of my story, at 1 in the afternoon, we finally succeeded in reaching the dock where the cruise was supposed to be ready to welcome us: but what stood still in front of our eyes, as soon as got off the van, was a herd of frantic tourists waiting to get on a ship. Soon after, Hi warned us that we had to wait roughly about one additional hour before embarking on our boat, inviting us to find a spot amidst the mayhem of the port.
Finding myself there, literally surrounded by items of luggage and bags of any size and kind, in the company of an incredible variety of humans, each of them with their own complaint, weird attitude and strong smell, I properly felt as if I was a refugee waiting for a vessel.
And indeed, a vessel is what we got after one hour in that infernal pickup point.
A vessel was what I was imagining, while mocking the situation I found myself in, and a vessel is what I got in the end. It sounds as if it was done on purpose to flout me and my irreverence, doesn’t it?
So my fellow cruise companions, Hi and I could finally board on the vessel: a dirty and tumbledown tiny ship that transmitted fungal infections just at the sight of it. Not to mention the greasy orange life jackets we had to wear, which perfectly fuelled my hypochondriac syndrome.
While sailing the emergency craft, I saw tens of luxurious boats which entirely fitted my idea of cruise passing me by, and deep inside of me I started praying our vessel was going to stop by one of those fancy ships. However, since the heavens couldn’t possibly turn the events at my favour and let me live a more laid-back experience, our ramshackle lifeboat went much further, losing sight of the sophisticated boats.
Not long after, our emergency craft finally cut the engine and I eventually got acquainted with my new home on water: the long-awaited cruise.
Believe me when I state that the boat looked as if it had just came straight out of the war of Vietnam: crumbling and rundown are the best adjectives to describe it.
Upon realisation of which our hosting cruise was, all I could do was to simply laugh in desperation and at the absurdity of the state it was in, whilst my partner kept staring off over the horizon, dreaming of Starlight – the fancy boat that conquered his heart when he first spotted it from our vessel.
But I must specify that my travelling companion is particularly picky and pretentious when it comes to travel options, and being myself a lover of low-budget trips, he has always had a hard time with my plannings. His reaction was not a not a surprise.
Once I proved to the rest of the crew my disability at any physical activity (at the time I was required to get off the vessel and jump on the cruise) , we finally headed to our rooms and got our stomach ready for the lunch session.
Expectations were high, fuelled by all the information we had received about the well-acclaimed buffet full of delicious food, but our hopes were destined to be buried under a thick layer of disappointment.
As a matter of fact, despite the long travel and the skipped breakfast due to what we considered a rather restrictive timing for the pickup, we ended up sharing eight platters in a table of five; five people including a big and famished American guy who unscrupulously grabbed enormous amounts of food without accounting to anyone. Not to mention the objectively low quality of the offered food and my hindering shy nature, which fiercely emerges whenever I need to share a meal with strangers, this had made me feel uncomfortable during the entire duration of the lunch.
The latter is the main cause for which I couldn’t take any photo of the food, causing me to miss the chance to collect evidence of the torture I was subjected to, but either way, I doubt that I would have been able to tackle the big guy’s enthusiasm and stop his fork from reaching the food before my camera could take a snap of it.
Dear web voyagers, that lunch was just the start of our misadventure with food: our dissatisfaction soon led us to an unfortunate event, which we will talk about later on, but let’s first focus on the first field trip.
THE EXCURSION TO THE CAVE
I must be frank to you and to myself: I wasn’t expecting much from this experience and not much I received indeed.
Having already the chance to dazzle at the sight of Postojnska Jama, the famous Slovenian caves, I knew that Hang Sửng Sốt couldn’t possibly rival its beauty. However, I was curious and hopeful, and still wanted to give a go to these Vietnamese caves.
As you can already imagine, the place was invaded by tourists in droves, who literally clogged the entrance and the entire pathway leading in and out of the cave. The stress derived from the human jam was accompanied with the pressure put on by the good old Hi, who threatened us to be back at our well-loved vessel within 30 minutes.
Basically, the time given to us was counted right down to the exact second, just enough for us to follow the human flow and arrive to the boardwalk where Hi was waiting for us holding the filthy life vests that continued to cause me the worst nightmares.
As already expected and anticipated, the caves revealed to be pretty average and incredibly small, with the only highlights of the tour being:
a few loud families lively fighting in the middle of the crowd, and a rock supposedly shaped like a turtle – an animal with its own story in Hanoian folklore, which I’ll tell in another dedicated article.
In any case, the tour to the caves finally drew to a quick end, giving us the chance to be back to normal walking and free movements.
We eventually reunited with Hi to depart towards our next exciting stop.
TI TOP ISLAND
Namely the supposed highlight of the entire experience at the bay. Even Hi had told us: “return the vessel very soon because cave not good like the beach“. (I kept the English mistakes to maintain the narration truthful to the depicted events).
You would agree with me that, even if the irreplaceable Hi had said something like that, I surely had to expect a paradise on earth, if the view from the cave already was that charming.
However, as anticipated by my bad luck, Ti Top Island was the set of a true tragedy.
Do you remember my mention of that specific event driven by the absolute dissatisfaction I caught after lunch time? Well, the time has come to eviscerate that event.
As I hadn’t eaten much for lunch, both due to my contrasting shyness and the presence of the American guy at the table, I started longing for an ice cream to stall my hunger. Before leaving our cruise and getting back onto the vessel to start our excursion, I had asked Hi if it was possible to buy an ice cream on the ship, but the sadly warned me of the lack of a fridge where gluttons like me could’ve provided themselves with a refreshing treat: only water and alcohol was available for an extra fee.
Disappointed, I sailed on the vessel with my rumbling stomach and I kept longing for an ice cream or any refreshing treat which could give me that longed food gratification.
However, beyond all expectations, I found an ice cream seller right at the entrance of Ti Top’s beach: my heart began to race and I couldn’t refrain my joy, so I dragged my travelling companion to the fridge.
Upon paying the price and additional surcharge due to my inconvenient yearning/impatience, I hastily unwrapped my ice cream cone and started devouring it with my partner.
Nevertheless, the heavens couldn’t gift me with a single joy: indeed, due to the malfunctioning freezers, the cone was already soggy when it first reached my hands and the ice cream being in a half-melted state: this is how I soon found myself covered in vanilla ice cream, 2 overly sticky hands that prevented me from doing anything.
On hindsight, I firmly believe it was a tricky move to lead anyone who dared to buy an ice cream to panic and have no other solution than to show up at the local toilets and pay the extra fee, amounting to 30.000 dong, just to wash off the ice cream.
Obviously, my partner and I tried any other possible ways to clean ourselves, however, after 10 horrible minutes, we could do nothing but give up and dirty our bags in the process of searching for the required banknotes to pay the shameful feel of the toilet. Why shameful? Because the toilets only had showers for the bathers to use, so I had to pay the same amount of money to simply wash away some ice cream for my hands.
This dirty inconvenience cost us both a waste of money and time, preventing us to fully enjoy the place and view: as a matter of fact, we again had a strict schedule and limited time to spend at the island, so once we were out of the local toilets, we only had 20 minutes of time to hike the hill and to arrive at the first panorama point.
As a matter of fact, there only are two options for Ti Top island’s visitors:
1. Either plunge in the muddy waters (that only God knows how dirty they are, with the tens of cruises and ships which daily pollute the beach) or
2. Go up the mountain an enjoy the beautiful of view from the top.
We had obviously opted for the second option, considering my pickiness and fears derived from my hypochondria.
So began our race against time, and despite this, we had succeeded not falling whilst running up the uneven stairs leading to the panoramic points. Due to the already mentioned limited time, we only stopped at the first panoramic point and enjoyed the view together with the majority of the exhausted people who climbed it up with us.
Not much to say about it, the photo speaks for itself.
THE END OF THE DAY
The clock ticked and after 45 minutes marked by the unfortunate event involving the ice cream cones and our adventurous climb to the mountain, we had to rejoin Hi and our cruise crew to head back on our ship. Regrettably, I must add that I hadn’t spent enough time to truly enjoy the island in all its glory.
After almost killing myself in the attempt to jump on the cruise from the vessel – an athletic movement hampered by flip-flops (amongst other things) I finally succeeded to take a shower and wash off the bacteria that was pullulating on my skin after spending the whole day putting on and taking off those filthy lifejackets.
It was only when I got into the shower, where I started paying full attention to the slight inconvenience of our room: the transparent door of the tiny toilet, which meant that any of the private and intimate activities I could possibly do in there were on display, for the hell (or displeasure) of my roommate.
In hopes of compensating for the inconvenience of our room, with high hopes, we headed to the main hall to eat our well-deserved dinner. Unknowingly, this was when our first true miracle had been blessed upon us: the American guy who had once swiped off our lunch, which gave me a legitimate reason to feel anxious about the upcoming dinner, had fortunately decided to switch dining tables, choosing to sit together with other guys of our crew. For me, this was truly a sigh of relief, because I knew I could finally eat a decent amount of food from now on. His choice also gave me the opportunity to bond with the French couple seated together with us, who didn’t have the slightest chance to partake in any conversation during lunch because of the egocentric, validation seeking, big American guy
Despite the good news and the enjoyable time spent with our new friends, the food continued to disappoint our already low (pretty much non-existent) expectations.
Next are two pictures swiftly taken by my travelling companion, both depicting the general sense of discomfort that took over me whilst waiting for dinner to be served.
If you are curious to know how I could possibly succeed peeling off my skin in that way, let me know: I would be more than happy to tell you this other entertaining story of my absolute incapacity to safely live my life whilst travelling.
The dinner was followed by the so-called “beer party“, which revealed to be a flop because the only drink offered was Hanoi Beer, also known as one of the worst beers ever made – and it’s not just me, even Vietnamese people agree with this statement. And during this tiny event, Hi invited us to gather around the quarterdeck, providing us with a total of three fishing rods (and might I remind you that we were a total of 15 guests on the boat) missing of one tiny but essential part: the baits.
Yes, we were supposed to fish squids without baits.
Need I specify that after less than 5 minutes we all said goodnight and went back to our room? And, to add insult to injury, we didn’t only have to overcome the disappointment of not drinking decent beer while fishing the elusive squids, but also had to deal with helplessly watching our phones die due to the absolute lack of any kind of socket in our exclusive cabin. And, as if we were the only lucky winners of this paradoxical lottery, we were the only ones to be subjected to this digital torture.
THE FOLLOWING MORNING
The bell rang at 6 in the morning because Hi had asked us to do so.
“Tomorrow very nice day we do beautiful thing and kayak, you wake up 6 and 6 thirty eat breakfast, no late“, this was his warning.
My companion and I obviously followed the instructions, because we didn’t want the smiling Hi to turn into an annoyed and furious Hi: we didn’t know what to expect, we had to ward off any further inconvenience. Thus, we lazily got up at dawn and got ready to meet our crew in the main hall for breakfast.
To be honest, we had no clue about what Hi meant with “beautiful thing” because, except the kayak, all the activities mentioned by our Vietnamese travel agent had already been ticked off the list. This way, the pain to wake up when even the sun wasn’t up on the sky was paid off by the excitement derived from the desire to discover this new, unexpected destination.
We then had breakfast, had a nice but weary talk with our French friends and the moment to finally take our stuff and leave for the vessel finally came.
Before this new departure, Hi had tried to explain what this new field trip was about, but unfortunately, neither me nor anyone at my table could encode what our not-so-unfailing guide had just said. However, we didn’t want to disappoint Hi nor make him feel uncomfortable with his not too perfect English skills, so we just stayed quiet and headed to the vessel and left for a “blind trip”.
Even though I knew that I couldn’t expect much, considering the previous experiences during this eventful adventure, in my heart, I still hoped something utterly beautiful or exciting could make me re-evaluate my experience in Ha Long Bay. While sailing on our cracky vessel, I genuinely hoped that the driver was leading us to a beautiful beach or hidden island on the way.
And this is how we ended up in a pearl farm village.
Yes. We had to wake up at 6 to visit A PEARL FARM VILLAGE.
Raise your hand those who knew that Ha Long Bay was famous for its pearls!
I bet that no one could have ever guessed it, am I right? Even til this day, 5 months after my cruise to the Vietnamese bay, I still doubt if it truly is something it is famous for or just a tourist trap for those who are easily influenced when travelling.
In any case, we found ourselves spending 30 minutes on this attraction, just to take a quick tour around the pearl farm, learn how the extraction of a pearl works, and be invited to buy anything from the store.
Basically, we had more time at our disposal to choose what pearl jewel produced in the pearl farm to buy, than to enjoy our time in the beaches or natural reservoirs Ha Long Bay has to offer.
Well played, tourism marketing!
In any case, the Perl Farm Village torture eventually found its disclosure when we were finally invited by the infallible Hi to jump on the vessel and go back to our cruise to proceed to the next, exciting activity: the kayak experience.
THE CLOSING PHASE
Fortunately, I have nothing to add on the kayak matter because my partner and I simply refused to further subject ourselves to the already harsh weather environment, coupled with our inability to manoeuvre any kind of floating vehicle. Plus we were truly exhausted, and wanted nothing else but to lay on our bed to recuperate from our mental and physical ordeal.
And our naive conclusion of being able to enjoy at least part of this hapless cruise adventure led us to a further and shocking discovery that almost led us to an heart-attack: after only half an hour from dozing off, we heard hard knocks at our door and window, which abruptly woke us in the worst possible way.
The masterminds of this horrible crime were none other than Hi and his henchmen, who were “kindly” inviting the guests of the boat to rapidly pack and leave the cabin, in order to make way for them to begin cleaning the space and make it ready for the new guests which would have soon replaced us.
This way, still shaken by our rough awakening, we had to quickly tackle in our bags any of our personal belongings and rush to the main hall, to join our final activity preceding the goodbye-lunch: the cooking class.
Obviously, not much could be expected from this last experience, considered the proven-standards: we simply had to watch Hi preparing the filling for the Vietnamese version of the spring roll and eventually roll it. The only contribution we could possibly provide was the folding of the remaining rolls with the ingredients that our personal MasterChef kindly provided us with.
As explained by the real protagonist of my adventure, the Vietnamese spring roll is the exact kind of food that any local girl or woman must know how to make if she plans to get married. Apparently, if this special skill is missing, the average Vietnamese lady is doomed to lead a spinster’s life.
But fortunately, the making of the spring roll doesn’t require much effort: you simply need to prepare the filling and gently fold the paper roll sheet. It doesn’t even matter if you rip it, because the spring roll is preferably fried and this cooking method awesomely hides any imperfection possibly made during the rolling step.
And, as expected, once everyone had finished preparing this tasty Vietnamese starter, all the spring rolls were sent to the kitchen to be dipped in an amazing pool of boiling frying oil. And, during lunch time, we finally had the chance to enjoy the first and only delicious food ever served on the cruise: one final joy for these wretched sailors, I must say.
THE WAY BACK TO HANOI AND THE FINAL TRAGICAL EVENT
And here we come to the final part of my Vietnamese epopea: the way back home and the disclosure of our tragicomic cruise experience.
Before I can finally explain that previously mentioned event that almost led to a physical collision between my travelling companion and I, I must specify that our ride back home was preceded by a waiting of more than one hour on the ship, attributed to the poor planning of Hi and staff.
So we were hopelessly asked to wait for an unspecified amount of time on the boat, doing nothing but looking at each others’ eyes and asking ourselves why they made us rush so much to leave our cabin if the departure was stipulated for a later time.
In any case, we passively faced our fate knowing that the adventure was soon going to be a simple memory.
But finally, at the moment when we all had lost our hopes, Hi eventually gave us the thumbs-up to get on our “limousine” and face the long ride back to Hanoi.
I can’t deny the temporary happiness I felt in the moment I could finally comfortably sit and relax after the both physical and mentally demanding experience; but still, I had a weird feeling that something bad was still going to happen.
And my sixth sense was absolutely right: my partner, not fully satisfied with the recent peripeties, decided to give one more reason to my anticipated final breakdown to burst, by testing my nerves at the usual pitstop where every traveller heading or coming back from Ha Long Bay must stop by.
In this occasion, I was stupid enough to rely my trust on my fellow traveller, by giving him permission to buy any snack he liked to better enjoy the long ride back to our guesthouse. He was hungry and worn out by the cruise experience, so I simply wanted to give him some more energy by treating him with some food.
So, in order to please him, I decided to break my solid rule to “never buy anything sold at a pit stop” – an important precept that helped me save my wallet from the tourist marketing endless times. I genuinely thought he was smart enough to stay alert during his walk through the store’s shelves, but I was so wrong.
After finding my special treat, an overpriced packet of Korean snacks worth 50.000 dong (about 1,90€), I reached my travelling companion to warn him I was ready to go to do the checkout. In that specific moment he showed me his choice, a bag of wasabi nuts he apparently was very proud of finding.
It definitely made my nose turn for the bizarre choice, but I simply hold the snack and brought it to the counter once I made sure he had checked the price of his selected travel treat.
But silly me I didn’t check the price myself, because he obviously didn’t even look for the sticker indicating the price. Otherwise, I would have never needed to pay 210.000 dong at the counter, for some chocolate and an illegally overpriced bag of nuts which definitely were not worth 6,00€.
But in any case the strings were pulled, so I just paid the bill and spent the rest of our travel in Vietnam loathing the terrible choice he had made.
DRAWING FINAL CONCLUSIONS
Despite the misfit events and every single detail that made me regret my choice to embark on Ha Long Bay’s cruise, I still consider the experience worth to be suggested to any other brave traveller willing to spend one day or even more sailing the risky Vietnamese waters.
As for any other experience, especially when it comes to travelling, the views and opinions are so subjective that it’s hard to give a review that can be considered as universally agreed. For this reason, I feel confident enough to suggest this cruise adventure to anyone willing to amaze at the beautiful landscapes that Ha Long Bay has to offer.
On hindsight, I would like to thank the woman of the travel agency, Hi and his crew for the unforgettable experience they gifted me with. It definitely wasn’t what I was expecting nor what I hoped to live when I indulged in buying a cruise ticket, but at least it gave me the chance to compose this hopefully entertaining blog post (or at least, it was fun for me to write).
But if there is one single person who doesn’t deserve any of my praise that is my travelling companion, because making me waste those 6€ on those disgusting wasabi nuts was too much to handle, even for me.