The boats coming in, I am looking at the eerily serene world-famous karst from a deserted part of the Tuan Chua Island. It was a Saturday, our second day in Vietnam, and our first weekend in the country. How many people can say they spent their Saturday afternoon looking at the spectacular Ha Long Bay? Today’s cancellation horror turned out to be one of our best, if not THE best, memory of Vietnam.
The DIY vs. Packaged Tour Dilemma
The first thing in our Vietnam “bucket list” is the UNESCO World Heritage Site Ha Long Bay. We ditched over planning and decided not to book any tours in advance of our trips. The day we arrived in Hanoi, we asked our AirBnB host to recommend us a good and reasonable Ha Long Bay tour. He booked two slots for us for that Saturday and all we did is give our host the payment (2,150.000VND per person) for a one-night, 2-day “tour.” That Saturday, we were hyped, so we went out early and walked to the travel agency’s office and waited for our bus.
Promptly, at 7:30 in the morning, we boarded the bus. But we spent an hour circling the Old Quarter and the French Quarter to fetch most of the guests who also signed up for the 2D1N Ha Long Bay tour. Good thing I was not high on caffeine that morning because the combination of narrow streets plus seemingly chaotic Hanoi traffic gave me mini heart attacks. It did not help that I was seated just behind the driver where I can see clearly the whole traffic spectacle. Thankfully, at 8:30, we have fetched the last set of guests and we were on the highway out of Hanoi.
As customary in Ha Long Bay packaged tours, and in most Vietnam packaged tours, there are restroom stops. Both to and from Ha Long, we stopped at a facility that had restrooms (clean, dry, and spacious), a restaurant, a convenience store, a souvenir shop, and a work shop. Some people may call this a tourist trap, but I actually welcomed the restroom stops because the drive is four hours and the ca phe and food at the restaurant tasted decent. Although, be warned, the prices at the convenience store were exorbitant (at least in comparison to the mom-and-pop convenience stores outside of the Hanoi Old Quarters). What I enjoyed most was looking around at the souvenir shop. The prices were high, as well, but once you see the work shop, where many ladies were bent over their stitched masterpieces, you would understand why the souvenir products were not just souvenir products but were works of art.
We arrived at Ha Long Bay at around 12:30. That was a total of five hours from Hanoi. If you decide to go the DIY way, which is more adventurous, I believe you can save just very few dollars but you will be spending more time than the packaged tour. BUT, trust me, whatever route you take, DIY or packaged tour, Ha Long Bay is worth all the effort. Christina’s has a good blog post on the DIY route to Ha Long Bay.
Now, Why the Horror?
Sadly, after waiting for an hour at the ferry terminal near where our supposed boat is docked, the tour guide, aptly named Mr. Vietnam informed us that the boat’s generator was busted and we could not proceed with our overnight tour. We were hungry and excited and most of us were disappointed. The only consolation for the tour guide, who was the one person who took all the blaming, half of the group were Vietnamese and they were very understanding. They probably expected this, or this is how it works in their country.
I was disappointed, of course. The tour guide took us to lunch at Ha Long City, which is about 15 minutes from Tuan Chau Island. One thing I noticed about Vietnam packaged tour meals is the similarity in the menu. For all our three meals in Ha Long (and our other meals in all the other packaged tours we bought in Vietnam), we had rice (usually served second to last), appetizers (usually spring rolls or french fries), a soup, a fish dish, a seafood dish (usually shrimps), a vegetable dish, and fruits. The meal will be a set meal and will be shared by six to eight people. Joel and I situated ourselves in the midst of one of the two Vietnamese families in our group. They were expats, coming from the United States and coming home to visit Vietnam for the first time in 23 years.
Finally, after the meal, our tour guide informed us that we have two options: 1. He will refund our money in full and that will be the end of their obligation to us; or 2. We will stay at a hotel in Tuan Chau Island and will have a half day tour of the Ha Long Bay tomorrow in lieu of the overnight tour, all expense paid. I felt cheated having paid 2,150.000 for the whole trip and getting only a half day tour of the world-famous karst (which would only cost me 240,000). But having received no receipt from our AirBnB host of our tour, Joel and I decided to wing it and just spend the night in the island. Besides, Hanoi seemed so far away.
A Taste of Ha Long Bay
The following day, we were fetched by travel agency’s bus from the hotel and brought to the pier, which was actually just across where we were staying. We met with another tour guide and group for the half day tour. The tour started at 1PM, with lunch on the boat. I hurriedly finished my lunch because I was eager to see the karst. Soon, the looming karst became larger than life.
The word “karst” refers to “surface limestone formation whose development results from chemical dissolution processes.”  The Ha Long Bay karsts date back 300 million years ago. So, yes, the karst have been there since time immemorial. The karsts are not just spectacular but each karst is unique and has a history of its own. Up close, you can see the how the forces of mother nature has shaped the karst. The karst is like humanity — beautiful, unique, and scarred.
All my disappointments of yesterday’s cancellation were gone. The karsts just took my breath away — and to think we only covered probably 1% of the whole 1,500+ square kilometer. Aside from karsts, the Ha Long Bay area is also home to almost 2,000 islets, mostly unspoilt beaches, fishing villages, caves, wildlife, and marine life. We were able to visit one of the biggest caves, the Sung Sot cave, and went boating with a local boatman. But it’s the karst that matter. I was speechless the whole time I could not even listen to the tour guide’s explanation of the dragon descending, hence the name Ha (descending) Long (dragon), because I was awestruck. I thought we started our Vietnam trip off on the wrong foot, but I was wrong. Ha Long Bay is worth it.
Best of Vietnam
At the Tuan Chau Island, Joel and I were billeted at a VIP room at the Seaside Tuan Chau Hotel. While Ha Long Bay was spectacular, our experience with the Vietnamese people, especially at a not-so-good time like this, proved to be one of our best experiences in Vietnam.
The cancellation showed us how generous the Vietnamese people are. The family we were together with most of the time always offered to us the food first before they dig in. They explain to us what the ingredients are and how they are cooked. The tour guide was apologizing to us all the time and called us to make sure we are okay, despite him being busy taking care of the other people in our group. Our AirBnB host, when he learned we were not able to have the overnight cruise, got back 500.000 of our payment because “one night stay in hotel is different with one night stay in Ha Long Bay.” Ha Long was spectacular, but the Vietnamese people, they are one of a kind.
Photos by Joel Lopez
 Harald, Mark, 2009, Karst landscapes in the Bay of Ha Long, Vietnam, Geographische Rundschau International Edition.