Halong Bay – Cat Ba Island
18.04.2012 - 19.04.2012 34 °C
We woke up late in our posh hotel this morning, had a lay in and enjoyed the luxury. We opened the curtains and saw Halong Bay past the market stall, where the limestone rock protruded from the blue sea. We had to checkout of the hotel at 12pm, we arrived down at reception at 11.59am.
First thing to achieve was to find out about the ferry to Cat Ba Island, a small island within Halong bay. There is apparently quite the tourist scene a small strip of hotels and restaurants. So we navigated our way to the ferry port and tried to explain we wanted to go Cat Ba Island. The woman tried to explain that we would need to get a boat to Cat Hai and then the Ferry from Cat Hai to Cat Ba. So we booked in, paying double that of the Vietnamese as we have so often seen, inflated prices for tourists. Unfortunately the boat leaves at 12.30 and it was 12.27pm so there was no time for breakfast.
We hastily walked down to the pier ticket in hand and tried to figure out which boat as ours. It was a choice between rusty and fisherman looking or long and um… rusty. It turned out ours was the boat which resembled a small fishing vessel which had seen better days. But the crew were surprisingly pleasant as we got on and despite not speaking a bit of English, they smiled and tried to be welcoming, at one point even offered us both a sweet. After last night we were still suspicious of all north Vietnamese which is a shame because now we become the stand off tourists, but a necessary evil when travel here it seems.
The boat trip got started and we checked out the guidebook, only to find the direct boat to Cat Ba left from near where we stayed last night, and there were 3 ports of Cat Ba, one right on the hotel strip and one a few km away, and one 30km away, that latter being our port. However, it was great to be on the sea, and we were heading out to Halong Bay a world heritage site. It certainly deserves its status, as we approached the bay out of the mist the limestone rocks started to emerge, gently surfacing to reveal their splendour. The closer we got the more islands appeared in ethereal beauty, the mist adding to the mystery surrounding this beautiful place. Legend has it Halong Bay was created by a great dragon who crashed into the mountains with his tail, craving out the thousands of islands. With the great dragon out at sea the water rose and the area flooded leaving the tips of the mountains as islands in the bay.
We were actually very lucky getting the ‘wrong’ transport, the boat was quiet except for the friendly crew and a couple of older vietnemese transporting beer. We sat on the front of the boat, like a scene from titanic as wave after wave of amazing scenery unfolded before us. The boat ride was 2 hours long and a fraction of the price of a tourist boat through the islands. Most of the time we were completely alone, except the odd fishing vessel or commercial transport. We did however, go past the main tourist route only to find the m25 of boat traffic jam, heading in one direction on the bay. It is clear that the tourist boats all follow the same route and we could only imagine their frustration at instead of appreciating the beauty they were stuck looking at many other tourist boats. The only downside was the wooden boat was rather trying on our posteriors.
Having arrived at Cat Hai, we crossed the pier to the ferry port and grabbed some snacks, having missed breakfast and lunch. I also used the toilet only to find a Vietnamese attendant appeared from nowhere whilst I was inside and charged me 5000 VND to use the toilet. Unbelievable, I started to argue, but Sarah said he had charged other people the same, annoying but that was North Vietnam. I am awaiting the hefty bill at the airport, when we leave, for the air we have breathed whilst being here.
The ferry arrived at about 3.20pm we were on our way, the 45min ride was pretty uneventful, we sat on the top deck with our snacks, enjoying for once the cool breeze. It was when we arrived things got really interesting. Yet again a motorbike taxi driver made a beeline for us, and demanded 100,00VND to take us to the town, naturally we brushed him off at first, then said no, but there was no telling this guy, who had the dirtiest nails I have ever seen. He was a grim figure of man, and I wouldn’t ride a bike with him if I could help it, I certainly wouldn’t let sarah get on it. Really though, we had all our luggage and there was no way we could both get on, nor would we pay a large some for the privilege. Thankfully we were saved by the bus coming off the ferry. He noticed too, we told him no and signalled to the bus, and so he started walking towards it. It was clear that he was on route to stop the bus from allowing us to get on, so we sped up and managed to jump on the bus, whilst he was shouting at the driver, I assume not to let us on. phew problem solved, again an unnecessary annoyance and fairly vindictive of the motor taxi.
The bus starts on its way and its clear it’s a bus come commercial transport, there were industrial bags of rice, corn and wheat in the middle section of the bus where seat used to be. The roof was also loaded as we found out at one 15minute drop off where they unloaded an unbelievable number of steel supporting rods, which must added to our great weight. Our battles were not over, when the conductor came and asked us for the fair, I thought he said 15,000VND each which was reasonable, but probably cost the vietnemese around 5,000. I was apparently wrong and he demanded 50,000 each, that’s 100,000. Unbelievable, we had another long and heated discussion, where we refused to pay that amount, and asked how much to locals paid. He dropped to 80,000 and we said the most we would pay was 60,000, after more arguing and the possibility of us getting thrown off in the middle of nowhere, he accepted our offer, and probably still tripled his fair. It turned out annoyingly that we were on the slow bus as delivery after delivery ate away time. About half way round we picked up some American tourists and our gracious conductor charged them 50,000 (which they complained about because apparently they had paid 15,000 on the same journey out), but they still paid. We felt better about our charge and the fact we argued, but it isn’t half energy sapping.
A few more km on and there was a loud bang and a flapping noise, with the smell of rubber, the bus came to a slightly uncontrolled stop and everyone was ordered off whilst the tyre was changed. It was stuck at the side of the round surrounded by lush green hills and splendid scenery, that we realised there were far worse places to break down. The biggest jack ever was found and they (3 Vietnamese) proceeded to expertly change the tyre, so what seemed to us another disastrous delay was resolved in about 15minutes. It was here stood by the road we noticed the roof was full of live chickens, and we pondered how they fitted the steel support rods up there as well.
Finally at 7pm the engine chugged and spluttered us into town. After the previous night we wanted to stay somewhere budget, but with a reputation to keep and so headed for the lonely planet recommended pick. On arrival, we realised the tour company also recommended used the same building. With it being late the Vietnamese on reception thought she had hit the gold mine and quoted us $15 per night. We argued and only when we were about to leave did she say $10 (the correct and quoted price). We checked out the room and happy came downstairs. Insuring before we handed over our passports, we asked the price in VND and she said 220,000, that’s 20,000 more than we usually pay and based on an exchange rate skewed remarkably in their favour. We refused and said we would pay only 210,000 which after more discussion she agreed. But would not write it in the book, (and as you may recalled, we had problems in Nha Trang with exchange rate). We would agree the 210,000, but it would be forgotten when its time to leave. Until eventually she wrote it in and we thought our troubles over, the final check is air con, because hotels have a nasty habit of turning off your air con with a trip switch on reception. Confirming air con she said no air con at $10. We had had enough and went to get our bags to leave (which were locked upstairs in our room), when she changed her tune and said air con was included.
Its exhausting, the Northern Vietnamese are so unfriendly and everything they are trying to do is either to rip us off or squeeze more money out of us. It’s strange south Vietnam was one of our favourite places, but north Vietnam is one of the worst, and on a par with some areas of India. It’s hard work constantly battling and trying to keep hold of your money, so you are not victim to the unbelievable diverse and expansive ways of extracting ‘tourist tax’, and we are doing very well not to fall foul more often. But that is certainly hard work and constant battling, which is rather draining.
After sorting out the hotel we checked out the tours, as the natural park here had some great scenery and make excellent trekking. The trekking was so expensive, because you have to order a guide, so with larger groups it gets cheaper. Fortuitously another couple had booked into a four hour trek, meaning it was 30% cheaper for us and just affordable, so we booked on and had something to look forwards to tomorrow.
We went out for dinner and breathed a sigh of relief for arriving and having a roof over our heads and sorting out our plan for tomorrow. I ordered chilli and pepper chicken and sarah ordered sweet and sour. When the dishes arrived, about 2 minutes apart, they were exactly the same, there wasn’t any difference in taste or content. But the portions were large and it was not unpleasant, and mostly we were too weary to argue, so we ate it paid the bill and headed to bed.