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Published: December 6th 2009
Our room at the Metropole
Before anyone gets concerned or calls Hillary at the State Department, be assured that we're fine. No pirates involved in our detainment (although that would have certainly made the day more exciting) - just a sadly incompetent tour company.
The day started off so well. At precisely 9am, our chariot arrived and two Men-in-Black (black suits with black shirts) from Columbus Travel welcomed us to the tour. Their names are Sang (the more senior one) and Sanh (the more junior one). Both were extremely friendly and professional. We felt that we were in good hands.
Over the next 30 minutes, we picked up more people in our snazzy minivan. Before leaving town, we dropped off Sang at the Columbus Adventure Travel office. Sanh's job is much better (or so he thought at 10am this morning) - he was slated to be our official tour guide for the next three days. Kind of a Julie McCoy, dressed in black but without the clipboard. And so we set off for a leisurely 3.5 hour drive to the Halong Bay via small towns and picturesque rice farms.
Our fun group of 17 (including us) are all English-speaking:
- Two older couples, one from the U.S. the other from Canada
- Jessica and Sarah, a great couple also from San Francisco. We later discovered that Sarah works at Genentech (in regulatory compliance, for any GenenReaders out there). We bonded with them later in the day.
- Two super nice Australian couples around our age
- Five party people (Australians who boarded the bus at 9:30am with open cans of beer)
At around 1pm, we arrived at the Halong Bay dock and exited the bus. Sanh said we'd board the Pinta Gold in 10 minutes and then went to buy us all tickets (the government monitors the bay since it is a UNESCO world heritage site and keeps detailed records regarding the number of people on the bay each day). We huddled in little groups near the administration building, getting to know each other better. The weather at Halong Bay was a bit gloomy - cloudy, 60 degrees and very windy.
At some point during those first ten minutes we must have crossed into the Twilight Zone because two hours later we were still huddled in little groups near the administration building. We are not really sure what was going on - were we all part of an interesting study in group dynamics or was our detention part of a strange psychology experiment (think the 1970s when scientists in white lab coats behind one way mirrors would put a group strangers together under stressful situations)?
For the first two hours, we all waited more or less patiently. Sanh kept a good distance from us and answered all inquiries about when we'd be boarding with a standard "in 10 minutes". Yeah right!
At around 3:30p, we collectively stopped believing anything Sahn told us. We were cold and hungry and a new group dynamic began to take shape. Rosemary (from Florida) served as our representative and leader and began to interrogate Sanh more thoroughly. But Sahn wasn't giving any answers. So the Canadian woman swept in and demanded that Sahn call the main office and let her speak to someone. Sahn refused. Needless to say she freaked out and instantly grabbed a cell phone from someone nearby. She managed to get through to the Columbus Adventure Travel offices but apparently no one there could or would provide any information either. This enraged her (and the entire group) and it was clear that we needed to take matters into our own hands.
We later found out what was going on during this tense time. A few weeks ago, one of the larger boats sunk and two people died (these are risks the guidebooks don't mention). Since the accident, the government has been conducting surprise safety checks on random boats. Why it needs to be a surprise, we can't pretend to understand. This isn't a kitchen inspection for cleanliness, it's a structural inspection of a large ship. By the end of the day, when we were all getting loopy, rumors of Columbus Adventure Travel not having paid their monthly bribe money to the government began to circulate. But we digress.
In the continuing absence of any information, Rosemary led the charge and laid out several options for the group to consider. Our options ranged from waiting for a boat to heading back to Hanoi. By 5pm, it became evident (to Sanh & co, at least) that the Pinta Gold, our lovely - and brand new - luxury junk, would not be sailing anytime soon. We were packed off to a nearby restaurant to contemplate two options offered by Sanh:
- Stay in Halong Bay at a (supposedly) "four star" hotel that night and (probably) take a 3-hour tour on a smaller ship the next day. There would be some (yet undetermined) refund.
- Return to Hanoi tonight and receive a full refund.
Well, we all know where the 3-hour tour got Gilligan and his friends.
Seriously, though, after a day of standing around in the cold and not getting any answers, wondering if we had any legal recourse in this country, then finally get some half-information (that later turned out to be wrong), we had lost trust in poor little Sanh (who had a complete meltdown around 5:15pm). We had no compelling reason to believe in the 4 star hotel or the next day's tour anymore than we would in the tooth fairy. We opted to return to Hanoi tonight. However, Sanh clearly had marching orders to ensure that everyone stayed in Halong and we had to practically mutiny (along with Jessica, Sarah and one of the Aussie couples). Finally it was all worked out and we boarded our van at 6:30pm for the long, three-hour trip back to Hanoi.
Although we'd spent over four hours standing right at the edge of the bay, because of the clouds we were not able to see what is generally agreed to be one of the most stunning sights in Southeast Asia. Check it out by going to Google's image search and entering "Halong Bay" (and while you're there, you might as well type in "ho chi minh body" to check him out).
At the peak of the stress, probably around the time Sanh's head exploded, we borrowed a cell phone and called the Sofitel Metropole, hands-down the nicest hotel in Hanoi, and booked a room for the next three nights.
When we arrived back in Hanoi at 9:30pm, we knew as soon as we walked into the Metropole's lobby that we'd made the right decision.
We just got back from the very elegant hotel bar where we drank martinis, ate pizza, listened to a jazz singer from California and talked with the hotel manager's German parents (in Spanish). We're sleepy and will have to tell you more about the Metropole tomorrow but suffice it to say that it's heaven.
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