Ha Long Bay Tour Arrangements

I was recommended to visit Ha Long Bay while in the northern parts of Vietnam so I booked a three days – two nights tour through the hotel. In this piece I’ll just write about the tour itself and I’ll write another piece with pictures about what I saw. Also, will not have the energy to translate this one to Swedish.

Ha Long Bay is listed on the Unesco World Heritage list and definitely worth a visit. However the arrangements around it is far from perfect. But probably what should be expected.

I had first booked a 4 star tour through the hotel. The day before the girl who I’d been talking to called me and asked to meet and discuss the tour. I thought she wanted to go through the itinerary and hand over information but it turned out she wanted to convince me to go for a 3 star tour “that would be much better for me”. Why it would be better, I never understood and the arguments she gave just did not make any sense. However, after 30 minutes of discussions, me non the wiser, I caved and agreed to the 3 star tour, knowing very well that she had not told me the truth as to why I should change tours, and with a gut feeling that there would most likely be problems. She firmly assured me there would not and if anything was not according to agreement I would get a full refund. I asked for a written confirmation of everything we talked about, she said there is no need. I insisted she issued a receipt and on that receipt write the main points agreed and stating that a full refund would be given if anything was not according to agreement, and she did so.

“No worries, everything will be OK. I promise you “

Very well, pick up at the hotel the day after and off we were. Bus ride was as comfortable as a bus ride gets on bumpy roads (sports-bra, just saying). Air-conditioning was working and most of us had two seats to ourselves. So far so good. 

The English speaking guide we were promised, did indeed speak English but an English that was really hard to understand. We, the English speaking tour mates, just kept looking at each other in the hope that someone else had picked up something and could fill the rest of us in but no one really was able to. The guiding part was a joke. He kept looking at his phone as to check Google and he actually referred us to check Google ourselves for more information as he was not able you give us that much information. 

After a three and a half to four hour drive with a 30 minutes break we were at Ha Long Bay. 

We boarded our boat and were told we had to wait for an hour. Why we had to wait, I don’t know. And as it turned out giving us information was not really the focus on this trip. On occasion we did receive information only to a minute later realize it was the wrong information or that we had been told different things. Pre-warning of activities or when we had to get moving did not exist the first day. The guide all the sudden came and declared we should be here or there, or you felt someone tapping you on the shoulder, followed by “OK, let’s go” and always with a grumpy face and behaving as we had kept him waiting. To be fair day two and three we had two other guides that at least were friendly and smiling and did give us a heads up to be able to prepare. 

We visited some caves, did kayaking, swam in the ocean, visited a pearl farm, cruised around some islands, walked up to a watch tower on one of the island. We were told we would visit a floating village to see how people lived there. That did not happen. Oh yes, we had a “cooking class” in the evening before dinner. I’ll get back to you on that a bit later.

After one night me and my new friend Greg, who were on the exact same tour, were told we should pack all our things as we might change boats. By the way, that was not the deal. I asked why we had to change boats but we were never really told the reason. The guide just said it was because we would get the experience of different boats and that the standard of the other boat would be exactly the same. Well, that was just a lot of BS. We never really knew if we would change boats until we were actually physically put on a new boat. Cabin was much smaller, bathroom not nearly as nice as the first boat, no air-conditioning, bad smell, and water pressure in the shower was just ridiculous.

The cruise around Ha Long Bay was minimum effort, on the other hand so was everything else. Instead of taking the boat to see the width of Ha Long Bay they made a short circle around the closest islands. The speed was very slow though so we did stay out for some hours. 

We followed the same path as every other boat, we were moored next to each other, hearing the karaoke and parties going on at night. Not saying that’s a bad thing. It has its charm but it’s very touristy. If you want something more unique you might want to stay away from these boats all together. It’s the exact same product packaged on different boats.

The last day me and Greg were to visit a beach and do hiking. The guide had forgot about this so had I not pointed it out we had been stuck on the main boat doing nothing. When we got to the island they did not let us in. Why? Again we do not know as no one informed us. We asked but were not given any information. After waiting for 20 minutes or so, all the sudden we could enter to do the hiking. What they call hiking I call walking up some stairs to see the view from a watch tower. It took us probably 5-6 minutes to climb the stairs. That’s not hiking! 

And now for the so called “cooking class”. We gathered around for the class to make spring rolls. The spring roll filling was already prepared so what we ended up doing was folding one spring roll each. I mean seriously? Rice paper, put some filling in it and wrap, wrap. Done! That’s not a cooking class! That’s a folding or wrapping class! To be fair, day two they did also get to mix the filling. In general the food was rather bad on the boats. You were fed but not much more than that.

When I got back to the hotel, the girl who had helped me book the trip asked me how it was.  I told her and she said she would call the tour operator. I later discussed with her and they refunded me 20 USD. I said it was totally unacceptable as I had been promised a full refund by her if the trip was not according to agreement. It ended with me having a meeting with the manager for the hotel and a representative for the tour operator yesterday morning for two hours. Let me say it did not end well. They refused to honor the agreement and only agree to refund an additional 30 USD. I said, as I was entitled to the full refund according to the written agreement and I did not think 50 USD in total was a reasonable refund. I suggested we meet somewhere in the middle and they refund 100 USD, about 40% of what I had paid. The tour operator stated laughing at me, I got really angry, he said I was being rude and it ended with him walking out, never to return and me not getting any money. The hotel manager had walked away and pretended not to notice. I asked her if this is really how they treat guests. She could not answer. I checked out.

Conclusions. It’s not like I expected this to be anything close to the same standard as we are used to at home and therefore assumed that my expectations were more or less on the right level. Especially since there was problems with the booking even before I left for Ha Long Bay. I never thought I would actually get the full refund but I did expect them to at least refund me 50% and that they did not. What they offered was just insulting as was the way they treated me. Oh I almost forgot. They did bring me some Vietnamese coffee as a compensation.

I think the right mindset to have is probably that nothing will be as agreed and maybe, just maybe you’ll end up positively surprised. 

After a while we just laughed at everything that happened as it was just one thing after the other. Looking on the bright side, if I had not done this specific tour I would not have met the people I met and that would have been a real shame as we had a great time together. When it all comes down to it, the only thing you really need when things don’t go as they should is great people around you and wine and luckily I had both.

So thank you Ella, Pierre, Australian couple and especially Greg my tour partner in crime. Without you my Ha Long Bay experience would not have been nearly as much fun as it was.

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