After going on a holiday, especially with family, it’s expected that you’ll feel and look refreshed, isn’t it? Well… during my family’s SG-HAN-SG holiday this year, it was more of a negative experience than what’s not. Unless until Ha Long Bay 3-day cruise. It was really the highlight of the 6-day trip to Vietnam. No wonder many websites state that should you go to Vietnam, don’t miss out Ha Long. Or ‘worse’, some even stated that going to Ha Long alone is enough – no need to explore the other parts of Vietnam. LOL.
My sis’ G-day is on Oct 21, and as bro’s available to attend the ceremony, we decided to extend it into a mini holiday instead of merely coming for graduation for a few days. After weeks of discussing, weighing, and trying to find the best destination, choice was decided upon Vietnam. We initially wanted to explore Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, Ha Long, and few others, but as budget and bro’s annual leave were limited, we settled this time’s hols to go to Hanoi-Halong only. Eventually, our trip lasted for 6 days, covering Hanoi, Hua Lu-Tam Coc, and Halong Bay. We went on a rather budget vacation, albeit opted to sail on good-quality cruise (instead of on ‘junk’ boats).
It was a luxurious family trip as we don’t go on holidays every year or every other year. Besides, this time it’s my brother who covered for all the expenses. Furthermore, it served as a graduation holiday for my sis as well as for me. I who have been longing and dreaming to go on a graduation holiday… finally get one. Although it’s one and a half year late, I’ve looked forward to telling the whole world, “I am (having fun) on my graduation holiday~!!”
Nevertheless, aforementioned, i wasn’t feeling entirely happy during the trip – due to both the service received
as well as some occurring internal conflicts.
Hanoi is located in North of Vietnam and has four seasons. Yet, when we reached there in late October when it’s supposedly the end of autumn, the weather was still warm throughout the day. Our flight was delayed so we had our lunch at KOTO around 3:30pm Hanoi time. We thus had no spare time to visit Temple of Literature and headed straight to the Water Puppet Theatre opposite of Hoan Kiem Lake to watch the famous Water Puppet Show. Unfortunately, we were almost halfway late too. Mr. Son, the guide, then took us to the temple (Ngoc Son?) in the middle of the lake, built to honor Kuan Kung (Deity) if i didn’t mishear.
Yet when it was time to tour the city via cyclo (it’s ‘becak’), grandma was unwilling to take it and preferred to go straight to the hotel to rest instead. The guide looked surprised that we turned down one of the highlights of Hanoi city (we’d paid for it as well) but could do nothing since we declined it. He offered nothing in exchange either.
I don’t know if we could revisit Temple of Lit at such hour, but since we missed one of the itineraries, i guess it’s natural for him to suggest us something ELSE to do for the day. He’s a TOUR GUIDE after all. He should’ve been conversant with alternatives should the tourists opt to see/go something/where else. Besides, the service would end there at the lake – i mean, he could show us popular spots or eateries to try; seriously, ANYTHING would be fine! But, yeah, he didn’t. (I was particularly pissed by this as i remembered LATER ON that there are several recommended restaurants in the area that tourists should try, as well as renowned ice cream stall(s) that should never be missed when visiting the area.)
We were escorted to the hotel, where chain of disaster awaited us. First of all, upon seeing how the entrance of Hanoi Boutique Hotel 1 looked like, my mom made a notorious remark. I who had browsed and looked through some pictures of hotels in the area found it to be acceptable and fairly good. It isn’t a four-five-star hotel, so i guess expectations have to be toned down, no?
Next, TV wasn’t working and the kettle was dirty. The one in my room was used and not cleaned, but i didn’t know whether it’s ‘dirty’. Next, the triple room was equipped with bathtub instead of standing shower – and it’s pretty difficult and slippery to shower in it – so mom requested a room change. Furthermore, despite clearly having three people in a room, the hotel prepared only one bottle of shower gel (which wasn’t full either – sign that it’s reused.)
The major disaster occurred in my very room though: the extra bed appallingly collapsed before me upon one magic touch of my brother o.O. Could you imagine what would’ve happened if my brother had thrown his body first onto it – or executed his usual ‘fire spin’ movement?
Having a late lunch, mom and grandma were still full for dinner. Conversely, the other four were hungry wolves who simply couldn’t go to bed without proper dinner. So we wandered around our hotel’s area in search for decent food. Travel websites and books advise tourists to try local food served on the pavement, but we just couldn’t decide where or what to eat since everything’s written in Vietnamese.
In the end, we ended up eating some ‘beef steak’ – as written on the menu – and did what humans do best: copy/imitating. Knew neither what to order nor how to eat using the grill pan, we copied what the girls sitting on the table next to us – which was actually just a few cm away – were doing. When they poured oil onto the pan, we followed them. When they mix what looked like salt-pepper-and-lime, we did the same. And so on. Overall, the portion wasn’t big enough to fill my tank full, but it was a quaintly pleasant experience: we used gestures and primitive hand signs to order and ‘survive’ as verbal words failed us big time. (My sis’ even commented that it was the best food she’s eaten in Vietnam :D)
Day 2 brought us to Ninh Binh Province to visit Hua Lu (the old citadel) and Tam Coc. The journey to reach there took approx. 2.5 hours, but i believe our ride was longer. I didn’t know why, there wasn’t much to see either, but the driver drove kinda slowly. The guide told us that the speed limit inside town area is 40km/h, while in highway is only 80km/h; drivers dare not to cross that limit. Result: the vehicle time was longer than expected. As you would note, the time to/fro would be at least 5 hours, which means one-day tour to neighboring cities would be wasted mostly inside the car.
The guide who had been prattling whenever we hit the road stopped talking upon realizing that most of us were dozing off – and really ceased to ‘entertain’ us thenceforth. He had been telling boring stuff and throwing dry jokes, so his momentary moment of silence was highly appreciated. Nevertheless, when he stopped talking – which was his sole purpose of being there with us in the first place – the long drive seemed much longer it was displeasing.
Upon reaching Hua Lu, the scenery became scenic with countless rocky (karst?) mountains stood majestically on the background. We alighted and toured the area where the ancient palace used to be. Visited two temples built to honor the so-and-so king and queen. There was nothing special there – and some Indonesian websites compared them to those in Petak Sembilan. We had lunch in Tam Coc (didn’t take note of the name) where we got to roll our own spring roll after filling the shiny rice paper with mountain goat’s meat, mint leaves, and dried banana and starfruit.
We then proceeded to ride the sampan, two a boat, touring the river for two hours. After reading many websites, i found out that Tam Coc’s called ‘Halong on land’ as it offers similar view to that in Halong. The ride was quiet, scenic, and enjoyable. The weather was nice too – not too hot though it was around 2pm. The bad thing of reading about a place we’re going to visit is definitely spoiling the fun; the good thing is we are prepared of what’s coming. So, when our oarsman exchanged place with a woman from another boat carrying a big aluminum box, i wasn’t surprised as i’d known what it’d be for. She introduced herself and tried to strike a conversation with me in broken English, but stopped shortly after i said i was from indo.
Chit-chatted with my sis’ and snapped pictures here and there, we passed through the third cave which brought us to the end of the river where many boats readily force-sold us with fruits and drinks. When we declined politely, the seller suggested us to buy one for our rower for being thirsty and tired. Such shenanigan was discomforting. They talked in their own language for a while before our rower turned the boat and started rowing back.
I’d known there was more to come, and yes she halted the boat shortly post-cave to sell us the stuff inside the aluminum box. I declined and honestly told her that we had no money with us when she persisted. It took her a while to do her thing before she continued our journey back. The moment was really awkward as we solely depended on her to row forward. We had used the small oar to try rowing, but i believed we didn’t have enough energy to make the boat move by that.
Nearing the ‘pier’, she seemingly called out to somebody in language i didn’t understand. She’d been talking to other boatpersons we’d crossed path with, so i thought she was shout-talking to one of them. But in the end she poked me and said one simple magic word, “Tip! Tip!” I’d anticipated this too, but since we really carried no money, i told her that it’d be given later. She muttered something, but i couldn’t care less; I was just hoping she didn’t get mad at us and flip us over.
The gap between our boat and my fam’s other two boats was pretty far, so i was so relieved upon spotting them. The guide had informed my bro to give 80K for each boat in tips as there’d be two people rowing the boat. Yet, as our boats were only rowed by one person each – discounting the rower exchange in between – we assumed it’s enough to give 150K for three boats. Our guide looked displeased with the amount and stated that he’d told my bro to give 80K each or 240K in total.
I totally see no point in arguing over the amount of tips we’re willing to give as there’s nothing like the standard amount of tips tourists should give. I’ve also never known that tipping is a must in SE Asia, though definitely is appreciated. In the US, yes, but (as far as i know) not in Asia. Anyway, tip is fundamentally the amount of gratitude given to service provider for the service rendered. In the very least, we’ve given decent amount of tips to them, so what gave the guide the right to be mad at us? Yes, he’d told us to give a certain amount of tips, but his suggestion wasn’t the law that we should blindly follow. In the end, my grandma thrust another piece of banknote. I believed it was 100K, but my sis said it was 50K. Regardless, the guide remained silent throughout the journey back. If it was due to that tipping thingy… how rude of him.
Oh! I almost forgot to mention that we could spot some figures after leaving the cave, but I forgot which cave. Nevertheless, I let my eyes wander to spot something I wished to see during the journey back and my sis managed to spot a man-smoking figure upon re-entering the second cave. It must be seen from a certain angle, but it really looked like one.
[start of incessant rambling] Seolah gesekan2 kecil di hari itu kurang cukup, hal tak mengenakkan menunggu di hotel. Sesampainya di sana, aku cek dengan Front Desk untuk menanyakan apakah pergantian kamar seperti yg telah diberitahukan pagi harinya sudah siap. Dia bertanya kamar nomor berapa dan meminta kunci kamar untuk ditukar dengan yg baru. Aku lupa bagaimana urutan persisnya, namun aku diberitahu – sepertinya oleh guide yg berkomunikasi dengan pihak hotel dalam bahasa ibunya – kalau koper telah dipindahkan ke kamar yg baru. Saat ke kamar A untuk mengambil kunci, koper belum dipindahkan. Aku turun kembali untuk menyerahkan kunci dan memberitahukan kalau koper ternyata masih berada di tempatnya.
Kembali ke atas untuk masuk ke kamar baru C, yg letaknya hanya bersebelahan dengan kamar para orangtua yg hendak ditukar. Klik, ketika lampu menyala, terlihat sudah ada koper di sana – koper kami yg muda. Kami semua sontak kaget karena barang kami dengan ajaib bisa pindah ke kamar yg baru. (pihak hotel melakukan kesalahan karena bukan kamar B yg pindah – dan tak seharusnya mereka memindahkan barang tanpa persetujuan kita.) Parahnya lagi, kamar kami tinggalkan dalam keadaan barang berceceran di mana2. Kembali turun ke FO untuk protes. Namun berulang kali menjelaskan duduk permasalahannya, FO mengulang jawaban yg sama bahwa semua barang telah dipindahkan ke kamar yg baru, dan housekeeping sudah mengecek bahwa tidak ada barang yg tertinggal. Kamar lama sudah bersih-sih!
Emosiku sudah sampe ke ubun2 dan dengan nada tinggi berkata, “But you pack our things for us–!” yg dengan cepat dipotong bro supaya dia saja yg bicara (dengan emosi yg lebih terkontrol). Dia menjelaskan ke guide kalau hal yg sudah lewat biarkan saja lewat, “They moved our things, it’s been done, but that’s not the point. We don’t accuse the hotel stealing our stuff, we don’t know yet, but we don’t appreaciate them touching our things.” The guide then explained the situation to the FO staff in Vietnamese, then told us that the hotel had a misunderstanding. They assumed that they could move our stuff to the new room since we’d be back from the day trip in the evening. Well, they’re trying to be nice, but exceeded the boundary of what’s allowed and what’s not. Hotel staff has totally no right to touch in-house guests’ stuff (eg while making the room up), so i’d never understand how THAT hotel could allow its staff to pack and move the things in the room WITHOUT the guest’s consent. Our privacy was clearly breached.
Si FO staff kemudian meminta maaf atas kesalahpahaman dan miskomunikasi yg terjadi sembari kembali menegaskan kalau setiap barang yg ada di kamar B telah dipindahkan ke kamar B. Poor service recovery imo. Tour Guide lalu mempersilakan kita memastikan kalau tidak ada yg hilang. Ada satu hal yg menggelitik pikiranku – kalau kita ada menyimpan barang di safety box, apakah mereka akan membuka dan memindahkannya juga? Seharusnya aku menanyakan hal ini – pura2nya ada barang di SDB gitu, sekadar untuk mengetahui jawaban mereka atas hal ini… [end of incessant rambling]
One upside of the hotel was that bubbly, swift-footed bellman who spoke minimal English and was trying his best to be helpful – yet there’s only so much he could do with language barrier…
Day 3 took us to Halong City where we boarded Bhaya Cruise for the next three days. The ride was supposedly three-hour long, but ours was nearly four and a half hours long. The distance was only 190km; we could’ve reached it in two hours should he’d speeded like 90km/h. It was the real holiday, that three-day cruise. It was relaxing and pleasurable as the view was breathtaking. We got to lounge around on the sundeck, felt like a millionaire upon embarking the private cruise on day 2, experienced biking around Cat Ba Island (until my legs went numb) and kayaking through 200m long dark cave into a lagoon, and explored the colossal Sung Sot Cave. I successfully got myself cut and skinned along the way, but it was worth it. It wouldn’t be memorable otherwise =p.
It’d be a lie should I say nothing went wrong then, but all I can say is that the positives outshone the negatives. We’re there to have a relaxing holiday, so I tried not to be nitpicked. The day activities were tiring but fun. I totally enjoyed myself that I was able to momentarily forget about the things weighing my mind.
Kalaupun ada hal yg mengganjal, itu lebih kepada mami yg ngotot bawa2 tas tangannya dan satu lagi tas tangan berukuran jumbo — yg isinya air minum dan biskuit and other things i’d rather not know. Saat pelancong yg lain hanya membawa tas sling kecil atau kamera saja di tangan, mami ribet dengan bawaannya yg gede2. Padahal kita cuma keluar mengunjungi suatu tempat selama sejam-an. Padahal lagi cruise manager udah wanti2 berkali-kali, “Ga perlu bawa apa2. Uang, barang berharga dititipkan saja di deposit box. Karena air minum dan handuk akan disediakan. Kalaupun mau bawa uang, sedikit saja.” Udah gitu, tas itu jelas menjadi penghambat karena aktivitas lebih ke arah outbound — naik perahu, naik sampan, jalan2, sepedaan, kayak, naik turun tangga, dsb. Satu pelajaran yg kupetik dari peristiwa ini: mami ga bakalan bisa diajak travel light. IMPOSSIBLE! u_u
A little ‘incident’ happened at the end of the cruise, which scathed my overall outstanding impression of Bhaya Cruise (the thoroughly hospitable manager named William was on top of the list) and Halong Bay, yet we left the bay and the city with a happy heart.
All in all (discounting the horrible experience at the hotel, some unexpected demeanor of our guide, and the irritating force-tipping routine that was a serious turn-off), the trip was fun, pleasant, and memorable. I’d highly recommend everyone to cruise the picturesque Halong Bay. For you thirsty photographers, i don’t think you’ll have enough – 3000 jutting stones to choose from!
If you’re going to spend several days in Vietnam, don’t miss Halong Bay out. The 3-day cruise is totally worth it. Skip Hua Lu-Tam Coc though. You won’t get much from it – everything’s provided in Halong (as you’ll get to ride the sampan too, when visiting the floating village, with more tranquil atmosphere and more grandeur view, minus the force-selling and –tipping). The real Halong is definitely more attractive than the “on land” version.