Wow!! Where to begin...it's a bit of a saga so we'll do our best to summarize:
Halong Bay is beautiful!
Our cabin on the boat was OK.
We met some super cool people on the trip.
We had a sweet sing along session with 2 guitars, a couple Aussies, a Kiwi, 4 Swedes and a Peruvian dude.
We did a pretty cool hike to a view point in Cat Ba National Park.
One of the be-friended was the Peruvian dude; Marco. We wrapped a bit in Spanish, which was fun.
The weather was rotten; so foggy on the first day you couldn't see much at all and forget swimming!
The tour sucked! (more on this to follow)
We spent hours and hours just sitting around; first at the dock waiting for the boat, then on the boat but still at the dock.
When we finally got going everything was rushed. Funny: plenty of time to sit and do nothing but as soon as the good stuff comes there's no time.
We paid extra to have the second night on the boat and do some extra hiking; after the first night we changed to a hotel just so we wouldn't be stuck with the boat guys for another night.
Our tourguide was evil. She wouldn't tell us her name so we dubbed her "No-Name".
The guys who worked the boat were awful. They were totally unwelcoming and cold. Everything we asked for was an inconvenience. Check that: our presence was an inconvenience.
When we finally got to kayak, we had only 20 minutes. But in reality they started yelling at us to come back much quicker.
After the first night on the boat, we were pawned off from "No-Name" to another guide "Banana". He wasn't quite so evil, but still was less then friendly.
Everything was supposed to be included, but of course it wasn't and there were constant plays to fleece us for more money.
And finally the UGLY:
When we returned from our kayak session, the local dude who owned the kayaks we were using was extremely agitated and aggressive. He started yelling at us as soon as we were within ear shot. When we were climbing out of the boat he got even more aggressive; Gina raised the camera to take a photo of me by the kayaks and the guy slapped the camera out of her hands and yelled at her. I immediately put my hand on his arm and said; surprisingly calmly: "Hey man. Don't touch my girlfriend."
No kidding; the guy took a full on swing at me! I deftly alluded his punch and then grabbed his arms to keep him from trying to swing again. We wrestled about a bit until I noticed his friend picking up a kayak paddle and making as if he was going to hit me in the head with the damn thing. At this point I started to back away, but still holding the first guys arms as I could feel him still trying to punch at me.
About this time Matt, an Aussie buddy we'd met on the trip, stepped in to break it up as had one of the guys from our boat. The guy whose arms I had then tried to kick me, he missed of course (he's got tiny little Vietnamese legs) but his flip flop went flying and hit Matt in the face.
Eventually, some level of coolness prevailed and I was quickly ushered back to the boat and away from the angry little man and his kayak paddle wielding, maniac side-kick. It was quite a scene and by the time I was back on the boat everyone was out watching.
Needless to say, I was pretty heated and G had started to well up with tears due to the sheer aggressiveness of the encounter. "No-Name" came over and checked if we were alright and then immediately told us to forget about it. Right.
The second instance of ugliness occurred 2 days later when we were on our way back to the boat on Cat Ba that was to return us to Haiphong to catch the bus back into Hanoi. There were 2 Spanish girls on another tour who had been totally screwed by their tour company and were trying to get onto the boat with all of us. There was some arguing and then before I knew it the boat people literally began to physically grab and push the girls back demanding that they must pay. Meanwhile, "Banana" our trusty guide yelled at us to get on the boat and to ignore the ugly scene as it unfolded right in front of us; basically telling us to mind our own business. There were at least a dozen of us who stood there helpless as the girls were physically kept off the boat and while the boat quickly pulled away. What an unbelievable and disgusting scene.
The old adage is true; it only takes a few rotten apples to spoil the bunch. It's unfortunate, but in spite of being at Halong Bay, one of the most beautiful places you'll ever see, the ugliness of some of the people we encountered definitely ruined the experience and left a bad taste in our mouths. For an allegedly communist society, many of the people associated with the Halong tour racket are greedier and more money hungry then any other tourism related people I've EVER encountered in any country of the many I've traveled to (most of them Capitalist!). Worse then the greed was the resentment they seemed to harbor towards us; I don't understand it.
I gave ol' Banana a bit of an ear bashing (to borrow a nice Aussie colloquialism) and told him what a bad time we'd had and how disgusted we were with the aggressiveness of some of the people we encountered. He defended the situation, by saying that he looks after people on HIS tour and that the Spanish girls were not on his tour, so it wasn't his problem. I tried to explain to him that regardless of whose tour they were on; it is unacceptable for tourists to be treated that way and that if tourists stop coming that they'd all be out of a job. He said he understood; but I fear my rant fell on deaf ears. "Banana" is a low man on the totem pole anyway...and the whole thing seems mired in shadiness and secrecy. No official paperwork, guides who won't give their names, being passed from one guide to another...it's all a HUGE racket. And, the thing is that it appears to be systemic because most of the people we chatted to reported some level of dissatisfaction or shady treatment on their trip.
I'm not telling you not to go to Halong Bay if you go to Vietnam, but I am telling you to be careful when you choose your tour company...although I have no idea which one to recommend.
At the time, I was all fired up to go in and cause hell at the travel agency where we'd booked the trip, but I know how it would have ended: stonewalling and denial from them and frustration and an elevated blood pressure for me so in the end I just let it go. At home there would be some sort of recourse for us, but things dont necessarily work that way in this part of the world.
And so it was, all part of the experience I guess. It could have been worse; the kayak paddle weilding maniac could have actually taken a swing and could have ended our trip right then and there. I'm glad he didn't.
We escaped unscathed and live on to travel another day.