The Best of the Best
Whew … what a few days it’s been! I’m completely exhausted and have a very early morning of a 2-day boat trip on Halong Bay, so I can’t write for long, but I need to process some of what’s happened – I’ve got a few things to say, so here goes!
Yesterday was one of the very best days of my whole trip – it was a gloriously sunny and warm day when I awoke and after some friendly chatting with the people running the hotel, I got back on the motorbike and headed to two places – Kenh Ga and Van Long Nature Preserve – I had a boat ride in both places and they were pristine, quiet (finally!), with not another tourist in sight! Finally I had discovered the off-the-beaten-path, peaceful Vietnam that I was longing for! And, some of the most stunning landscape of the entire trip.
Cruising around on the motorbike first through the crazy traffic and then through the quiet nature areas of limestone cliffs and rice paddies as far as my eyes could see was exhilarating and breathtaking. I had a blast shooting photos and just soaking up the scenery and meditating in the quiet. It was truly a balm for my soul that has been struggling with being in all the noise and busy-ness of this country.
To the Worst of the Worst
Today I left Ninh Binh as planned, headed to Haiphong, a port city where I would catch a ferry to Cat Ba Island. Cat Ba is in Halong Bay, which is filled with literally thousands of limestone cliffs and islands – it’s on everyone’s itinerary in visiting Northern Vietnam and because of that, is of course a busy tourist place.
I was encouraged, though, to head to Cat Ba where, while it’s still touristy, is a bit quieter. I was warned, though, that there are intense scams going on at the ticket places to get to Cat Ba – some have even described it as a ‘cartel’ of scammers, making it very difficult for tourists not to be drastically over-charged and even harassed. But I had been hearing this about the whole of Vietnam long before I even came to the country (not the cartel story, but general scamming), and had experienced nothing even remotely untoward, so I took the information in stride.
I had also been in touch with a hotel on Cat Ba, with the friendly owner who also warned me of the scams and gave me some tips on what I should be charged and how to avoid the dangers. I tucked his information in my back pocket and I was off on a very early morning bus (6:30 am!).
Again, only Westerner on a crammed-filled bus and this time, the man next to me kept pointing at the traffic in amazement and horror – there was something very satisfying in knowing that even the local people can be astounded and freaked out by it.
Three hours later we arrived at the bus station and I hopped on a moto-taxi to the harbour. No over-charge problem so far – he gave me the exact price that Mr. Tuan Anh told me it should be. So far so good.
I arrived at the port just a few minutes before 10:00 am. There was a boat departing shortly, but Mr. Tuan Anh encouraged me to take the ‘slow boat’ at 12:20 pm rather than the hydrofoil in which you have to sit inside and don’t get much of a view. I was fine to sit and wait for the later boat, knowing I would be able to enjoy the views of the bay and I trusted his suggestion.
As soon as I arrived at the harbour, three different people approached me to buy a boat ticket. I asked them to slow down, I wanted to just sit and relax for a few minutes and then I would figure out what to do. The price, Mr. Tuan Anh told me, should be 100,000 VND (Vietnamese Dong) – about $5. He told me strongly in his email, “don’t pay any more than 100,000.” Fine with me, I was glad to know the ‘right price’ and was ready to start haggling as need be.
The first offer came in at 300,000. I laughed and walked on. Then it went down to 200,000; but I told them I knew the price should be 100,000 and that’s all I would pay. I walked around to other ticket sellers to see what they were charging. Some of them wouldn’t talk to me, and the ones that would said 200,000. I had plenty of time, so I then just sat and waited. Still, they kept approaching me, telling me I had to buy a ticket now and okay, they would sell it to me for 100,000. A quick change of tune, but still I waited. Now I wasn’t so sure their ‘ticket’ would even be a real one, so I lingered.
A few other tourists showed up and I warned them about the price gouging. The ticket sellers tried to get to them first, but I said, “be careful, their prices are way over-inflated!” The ticket sellers were not happy with me, but then acted like they had been talking about 100,000 all along and there was merely a mix up in thinking I wanted the fast boat. I didn’t believe them. Still, they kept pressuring me to buy a ticket, warned me that the boat was full and I wouldn’t get a seat if I didn’t buy a ticket right now. There was not another soul in sight (besides the two young women who had just shown up), so I ignored their threats.
After about an hour, local people with gargantuan boxes and packages (picture big computer boxes and refrigerator-sized containers!) headed towards the dock. The ticket sellers’ warnings became more frantic. Still I waited. Then they told me that the slow boat had been cancelled, they had engine trouble and now I would have to take the fast boat and that cost 200,000! I saw that all the people with their boxes were headed for the big, slow boat and I questioned them about this – “no, no, they’re just putting their stuff over there, but you have to take the fast boat, slow boat broken.” They added in to the story that the fast boat was the last one of the day and I would have to stay in Haiphong overnight if I didn’t pay the 200,000. The story was getting fishy-er and fishy-er.
Now they tried to pressure the other women, who were only going to the island for two days and they were worried they would be stuck in Haiphong. They didn’t want to take the chance, so they decided to pay the money. They had their tickets and approached the big boat, even though that supposedly wasn’t the one that was going. Still I waited. And the ticket sellers (there were 3 of them, by the way, 2 women and 1 man) were getting more and more impatient with me and started yelling at me, “you must buy your ticket right now, pay us the money!” I asked them why they were yelling and yes, I would buy the ticket, but only for 100,000. They laughed at me and said no way, no way.
Then I tried to approach the boat where the other women had headed. At that point, things started getting ugly. The women blocked my way and screamed at me that I couldn’t go near the boat without a ticket. Again, I didn’t believe them, told them that I just wanted to go and look at the boat. They screamed again that I couldn’t and pushed me, hard, out of the way. Or they tried to. And maybe that’s the point at which I made my mistake. I pushed back. Or rather, I stood my ground. They got on the other side of a gate and locked it shut, still screaming at me that I couldn’t come in. I tried to push on the gate and behind me many local people, some on motorbikes piled high with stuff, were getting impatient to get through. I tried to stand my ground, but then I relented and moved aside. Still, there was plenty of time, so I wasn’t worried about getting on the boat, but I was even more determined now not to pay their exorbitant overcharge. (As a side note, let me say that I really don’t mind paying more than the local people do <for whom the boat is 70,000 VND> – I figure they should pay less <I think of it in the Hawaiian kama’aina style and besides, these people have a lot less money>, so I generally gladly pay the slightly inflated tourist rate and go on my way. But this time, their aggression and nasty-ness got the better of me.)
At about that point, 4 other tourists showed up and again I warned them of the over-pricing. The ticket sellers got more angry at me, the tourists didn’t want to get involved in the scene, although they also didn’t want to get ripped off. As the sellers were busy arguing with them, I found my opening and ran through the gate toward the boat.
A man was standing there (who ended up being the boat captain) and with a warm and friendly smile, said, “Cat Ba?” – and directed me onto the boat. I snickered to myself and was glad to have run the gauntlet – I figured I could just buy my ticket on the boat and be done with the whole matter. The man walked me on the boat, started to direct me inside where I could put my backpack and no sooner did I turn around that the two women ticket sellers were on the deck, pushing at me, grabbing at my bags and screaming that I couldn’t get on the boat, that I had no right to be there and I had to get off right now. The man tried to speak to them, they ignored him and kept on screaming. Then he left, seemingly not interested in getting any more involved.
I told them I had a ticket – they screamed that they wanted to see it, still pushing and pulling at me – “okay, okay, let me sit down and I’ll show you the ticket.” I figured I would get inside and then they would leave me alone. No such luck. I sat down next to a local woman, tucked my bags tight all around me (I have 3 right now, my backpack, a large day bag (that will be condensed soon, but now it has my heavy jacket, sweater, rain poncho, computer, important papers, money, passport) and my small shoulder purse that I carry with me for the day), and told them I would buy my ticket from the boat man.
Then they really got enraged. One of them pulled my glasses off my face, still screaming as the other one pulled at my bags. (Sure, I was protecting my body, but I also kept thinking, ‘my computer, my computer, I can’t let them damage my bloody computer!’) I held firmly as local people started gathering all around, seemingly telling the women to stop what they were doing. They didn’t listen. Then the man ticket seller showed up and calmly told me to just pay them the money and everything would be fine. I said I would only pay 100,000 – he wouldn’t accept that and still the women grabbed at me. The other tourists were nearby, but just sat there and said nothing. What could they say, anyway?
Suddenly the women moved away and the man still stood there and again calmly asked me to just pay the money. I decided to try to diffuse the situation and I carefully pulled my wallet out of my purse and handed him 100,000. He counted out the money, decided, I guess to relent, handed me the ticket and left.
Then I saw the women arguing with one of the other tourists. It seems they had walked away from me because they saw that he had been photographing the entire scene and they were irate that they had been caught on film attacking me! But finally, they were gone.
I sat back in my seat, in shock of course and shaking in recovery from what had just happened. No sooner did one of the tourists (dare I mention he was German?!) say, “so, was it worth it to argue like that for $5?” Just what I needed. “Don’t judge me so quickly, you didn’t see them accost me outside, did you?” Once he heard the whole story, he backed off, but the sting of his judgment cut me in my vulnerable state.
Once the boat turned on its motor and I knew I was safe from the sellers, I decided to sit outside in the fresh air and talked with some other tourists who were also over-charged. They were much more sympathetic and their company helped me to calm down.
It took most of the 3-hour trip for me to relax, though; and then I began to worry about what it would be like when we arrived at the island. Was there more trouble coming? It was unclear where we would dock and perhaps I would need to get a bus to the town where my hotel was. I had also heard that the motobike taxis often threatened tourists and even the bus drivers from getting on the bus in their attempts to monopolize their over-charging of getting the tourists to Cat Ba town.
But as we pulled into port, I saw that we had indeed landed in Cat Ba town and I could even see the hotel along the waterfront just a few meters away. What a relief! And then as I began walking, a man approached with a sign with my name on it – Mr. Tuan Anh had come to pick me up! I almost kissed him! He asked how things went and I unraveled the story, much to his shock and dismay. He directed me to the hotel, to my wonderful room overlooking the harbor and I breathed a deep sigh of relief after this awful ordeal.
And then I wandered – I needed to walk, to calm and center myself and figure out how to get over this nightmare. And I took care of myself in two big ways – first I bought an ice cream cone! Excellent idea! Then I had a real meal. And then I treated myself to a 1-hour foot massage, the first I’ve had since being in Vietnam and probably the best foot massage I’ve ever had. I melted into that as I felt my body relax and unwind.
Tomorrow, I thought, I’d just take it easy and recover, still so deeply shaken. After talking to Mr. Tuan Anh, though, I decided to take the 2-day boat tour – the weather looks really good for the next two days, after which it looks like some rain is coming. And there were several people already signed up for the tour tomorrow, which insures that it will go – they wouldn’t offer the tour for only one person. It was decided, rather than over-process the experience any further, I would do what I had come here to do – enjoy the beauty and splendor of the place and let nature do its healing.
So I’ve come back to my room, packed my bag for the trip and have been writing ever since. I hope it’s not too harrowing to read this as I’ve needed to write just to help me get to the other side of it. And the truth is that now, I’m fine. I’m safe. And I’m tired!
I really don’t want this to cloud the greater truth of being here in Vietnam … and it won’t. Everyone else I’ve met here, and I mean everyone, has been friendly, warm, helpful and kind. And once I’ve worked through this, it’s them I will remember most of all.
I’m sure there’s plenty for me to learn about this experience, too. I had my part in it, no doubt – I need to reflect on what triggered me to be so stubborn which provoked them even further. Maybe I should have just backed down and paid the money they wanted. But I didn’t and now I have to live with that decision and know it helped to make a bad situation worse. But I’ll be gentle with myself with the teachings and even try (probably not quite yet tonight!) to send those ticket sellers some healing energy – they certainly could use it too, I’m sure!
So, the light and shadow – the bliss and the darkness – all in just a few days of traveling out here in the wild and wonderful world!