…the five of us were lucky enough to witness the Captain drive the boat into a really nice yacht adjacent to ours.
We needed to get out of Hanoi and into Halong, there was simply not enough going on in the city to appease us.
How to Pick a Halong Bay Boat Tour (Don’t)
A multitude of travel agencies and tour organizers are eager for tourist dollars and competition is fierce. There are endless brochures and posters depicting amazing Halong cruises, and while many higher end tours may be accurately represented in such literature, I’ve read a lot about terrible experiences on the budget trips. Simply put, I got the impression that you get what you pay for. We dropped by Hanoi Backpackers to investigate their tour (at the very least we should be in the company of sun and beer thirsty, like minded young adults). However, we were quoted $200 USD for a two night, three day (bungalow type camping) trip to ‘Castaway Island.’ This sounded a lot like our experience in Koh Rong and we certainly spent much less than that for the same amount of time. At this point we decided that we would do Halong independently. I.e. we would not be booking a multi-day, overnight boat tour. We settled on Cat Ba Island as our destination, the largest island in the bay. From here we could do day excursions.
I’ll admit, we made a couple of mistakes en route to Cat Ba. Number one was travelling via Halong City (HLC). We overpaid for the mini bus from Hanoi to HLC ($6) and the ‘VIP’ bus was definitely an overcrowded mini bus. Yours truly silently suffered in the cramped seat over the rear wheel. Folks, I am 5’10” (and a half!) and I just don’t fold up too small. Our mini bus dropped us off at the tourist wharf, which is pretty much operated by a Scam Mafia. Mistake number two was not realizing there were multiple wharfs and we could have taken an alternate ferry directly to Cat Ba. The tourist wharf is a complete gong show. “Oh! A tourist information office. Perfect!” The office is actually a storehouse for a couple of fire extinguishers. Okay. “Hey, there’s a building that says Boat Tickets.” I approach the woman in uniform at the desk. We converse for a total of 37 seconds before a tout descends and exchanges words with the employee. He then turns his attention to me, aggressively pitching a boat trip to Cat Ba Island. At this point I have noticed that when I consult the employee, she essentially ignores me. I can’t help but wonder what the Bully has said to her during their exchange. The tout is loud, aggressive and I can’t understand the ticketing process. I end up purchasing a document (I still don’t know what it is, but I was assured that I needed it?) for 200,000VND and a 80,000 VND ‘excursion ticket.’ Despite purchasing this from the office, we were then directed to stand in a group which said tout was among the group. G says, “I really hope that fucking GUY isn’t on our boat.” Turns out he’s the captain. Well FML. We wait around in the sun…for something.
Greg (to Captain): “You said this is a direct boat? It will take four hours?”
Captain: “Stop at two islands. Cave stop then floating market kayak stop.”
G: “Man, you said it was direct?!”
Captain: “You have to sit upstairs when tour tourists eat.”
We are shuttled to the boat via a smaller boat and we take up residency on the roof top. We met two other independent Halongers (Dutch and delightful) and immediately peeled off the layers to drink up the sun. As we’d been exiled to the roof top we were thankful that it was an absolutely gorgeous day. The boat departed and arrived at the first island… just ten minutes later. Ugh, we are going no where quickly. The boat ushered the tourists off the ship and onto the island. One of the tour operators yelled at the five of us to leave the boat. “No thank-you!” we chimed. He leaves and another insists we leave. “NO THANK YOU!” At this point during our travels we were pretty exhausted of being deceived or blatantly lied to, and traveling Halong independently meant that we didn’t have to be shuttled around like cattle. So no, we will stay on the roof top. Eventually they abandoned the cause. The cavers were deposited on the island and the boat retreated into Halong Bay. While the group was on the island, the five of us were lucky enough to witness the Captain drive the boat into a really nice yacht adjacent to ours. This was pretty inexcusable given the abundance of open water.
So the tourists were collected and we cruised another twenty minutes to a floating village. The limestone islands were just stunning. It was quintessential Halong Bay under a bright blue sky and we’re in good company.
Approaching the wharf our boat slammed into another boat. Crash number two. Awesome. Is it the captain’s first day? I am so glad I haven’t paid to be a part of this boat tour (the nasty bathroom compounds this sentiment). Independent travel for the win!
G, GTO and de Dutch decide to participate in the kayaking activity while I abstain. Because I was not privy, I must depend on Greg’s account of the incident but apparently there was a heated exchange on the wharf when they were denied the kayaking activity. It turned out that this wasn’t included in the ‘excursion ticket’ but you could pay another $5 to do so. Wait, did you not say during your original schpeel that this was included? Pretty sure you did Mr. ‘Captain.’ At this point our Dutch mate quite honestly called him out for being a Bleeping Liar, etc, etc and things got hairy. Hairy enough that when they returned to the top deck, they had brought all of their luggage with them. I thought this was an overreaction but I was about to discover how wrong I was.
About five minutes later the Captain ascended the top deck and got in the face of the Dutch guy (DG), who was seated on a lawn chair. He stood over him with his index finger about an inch from his nose and was spitting fire. DG calmly responded with unbroken eye contact. “Don’t yell at me. Why are you yelling?” The Captain went OFF. He said he could do whatever he goddam wanted on his boat and in his country blah blah blah (in rudimentary English of course). I thought Asians valued ‘face?’ This of course was attracting all of the attention of the passengers on the top deck of the aforementioned boat we crashed into. The confrontation lasted a good three minutes and left everyone aghast. It was absolutely unbelievable and it took about an hour for us to collect our jaws from the deck. If I had video recorded it, I’m convinced it would have gone viral. Our luggage was promptly collected from the main deck. This incident further exasperated everyone’s sentiment about constantly being swindled in Vietnam. Furthermore, we knew that this boat would be dropping us off at the north end of Cat Ba Island, where taxis are infamous for charging stranded backpackers exorbitant amounts of money to be driven into town.
The boat left the fishing village and cruised for another hour or so. During this time the tourists were invited to the main deck for a small party, leaving us up top to feel like the bad step children of the family. Retaliating, GTO set up his laptop and speakers to host our own party. The sun fell from the sky and we were jubilant to leave the boat. The Captain said something to us as we left, along the lines of, “Would you like this motorcycle taxi?”
Me: “I hate you!” without looking back. This had little effect. In fact, at some point a man from the boat ran ahead to the mini bus we were approaching and I’m pretty sure he brokered some sort of commission with the guy. We ended up paying $6.50 each into town which is a lot less than some of the horror stories I have read online.
What an absolute [expletive]ing experience.
So, would we do it again?
Cons: Berserk captain, paying way too much to get to Cat Ba Island (from Hanoi to Cat Ba Town totaled $26/pax), not a direct ride, but 5-6 hours total.
Pros: Toured through Halong, opportunity to explore the cave on island stop one, tanned, met Dutch friends, two boat crashes, acquiring a greater appreciation for independent travel (vs. tours), great pictures*
*The trip to Cat Ba via Hai Phong is not at all scenic.
If you are seeking direct transit to Cat Ba Island, go via Hai Phong, in fact I think it is best to book the bus-boat-bus right from Hanoi. Huang Long is the reputable operator and there are four departures daily and cost a paltry 220,000VND ($11 USD). The one way trip takes about five hours from Cat Ba Town to central Hanoi.