Ha Long Bay (descending dragon bay) is a world renowned tourist destination, Unesco world heritage sight and I was hoping that it would be a highlight of my trip. I booked a mini tour with APT Travel.
The next morning a bus picked me up in the Old Quarter of Hanoi and shuttled me and a group of about 20 to Ha Long Bay City. At the port we were joined by a second group.
Our tour guide Peter Zoom tried to organize the large group because we needed to fill in a registration form that was on one sheet. His instructions were not real clear so some people filled in the form incorrectly. As a result, we ended up spending about 1 1/2 hours trying to complete the form and waiting at the port. We were the last boat to leave the dock. Not a great start.
The bay consists of a dense cluster of these monolithic islands each topped with thick jungle vegetation, rising spectacularly from the ocean. Birds and animals including bantams, antelopes, monkeys, and lizard also live on some of the islands.
Such names include Ga Choi Islet (fighting cock), Voi Islet (elephant), Khi Islet (monkey), and Mai Nha Islet (roof). 989 of the islands have been given names. We passed by Ga Choi Island, it is the smallest island on the very left side in the picture above. Unfortunately we did not pass by close enough to actually see the shape of the island or to take a decent photo.
Several of the islands are hollow, with enormous caves. Hang Đầu Gỗ (Wooden stakes cave) is the largest grotto in the Hạ Long area. We visited a cave and had a short tour by our guide Peter. I started to get a bad feeling about our guide. Because we were running late he said that we would only have about 30 minutes to walk through the cave. As we were walking and he was talking, he was more preoccupied with keeping the group together than sharing information about the cave. And he seemed to be ordering us around instead of guiding us around. Well we did end up finishing the tour within 30 minutes, then we were pushed back onto the boat.
All of the prices of the items were overpriced. However they were still cheaper than similar items that could be purchased on the large boat. It seems that there's kind of the scam among many of the tour boats. The meals are included as part of the tour package, but any drink items are extra. And if you bring your own drink items you're charged a corking fee that could be equal to the price of the beverage. But people were still interested in buying drinks and grocery items from the small merchant boats. The scam is that the crew of our boat actually sold the items to the lady first, then she resold them to the tourists. So you could buy items on the large boat that were marked up three times. Or you could buy items from the small boat which were only marked up two times. Fishing for profits.
We left the fishing village and traveled to another part of the bay. When we arrived at the new area we pulled up to a second boat. Half of the passengers were allocated to the second boat and half of the passengers were allocated to the original boat. It was only at this time that we were allowed to check into our cabins, it was about 4:30pm in the afternoon.
By this time the tide had already gone out and many of the boats could not dock at an equal level to the pier. You will notice from the picture above that the dock is about 8 feet higher than the level of the boat.
So Peter asked us to wait at the back of the boat. We waited and waited while he tried to figure out a solution. His solution was to hop from one boat to the next to try to reach a boat from which we could unload. This was not working out. So we waited at the back of the boat for about 30 minutes. I noticed that there was a string of tires hanging from the dock that was used to protect boats as they were mooring. I decided to climb up the tires to reach the dock. After I successfully climbed up the tires and set foot on solid ground the other travelers thought that it was a good idea and eventually everyone climbed up the tires on to the dock.
I was beginning to think that it might be worthwhile for me to jump into one of these small boats to independently tour around Ha Long Bay on my own.
After waiting 30 minutes on the boat, and 1 1/2 hours on the dock at the bus stop, our scheduled bus finally arrived.
The bus took us to the entrance of a park.
After the hike, the bus took us for a 20 minute ride into the town of Cat Ba City where we were able to check into a hotel.
I must say that I was glad that I finally got to see Ha Long Bay. The bay itself is quite unique with the island structures and the geography. However the tour that I traveled with was a big disappointment. I would warn anyone against traveling with APT Travel or my guide Peter Zoom. The tour was unorganize, always behind schedule, subpar, food was below average and our guide was outright mean.
Check out Ha Long Bay, but be very careful when booking your tour. Try to view the complete schedule so that you know what to expect, bring all your own beverages and snacks, avoid tours that combine groups, try to join a tour with a small boat and avoid APT Travel.
I think that I learned my lesson. I'm not cut out for tour group travel.