Monthly Archives: May 2013

Halong Bay Review

In short…ask what operator is doing your tour…do NOT go with JOY Travel…I am on a strict budget and even I say now that I would have rather paid double to not go with them again.

I managed to get my tour for $50 for 3 days and 2 nights, all inclusive except for beverages. Other people on the exact same tour paid 60 to 100 dollars! Also everyone thought they were on different trips. So I, knowing I took the bottom of the line tour was expecting the penny pinching circumstances. But what I didn’t ‘pay’ for was hair in my bed (uncleaned sheets) at Sunflower Hotel Two where they have you stay on Cat Ba Island, used condoms in my bathroom on the boat, 39 mystery bites in my room on the boat, and a guide that yelled at me while rumbling his fist at my face because I commented that he was doing a clay face mask while our bus back to the boat was 2.5 hours late making us miss sunset in the bay. They also re arranged our tour to do the hotel first night, boat second which meant after a 2 hour hike we had no where to shower. Then they proceeded to make everyone pay to go to Monkey Island claiming there were no beaches on Cat Ba (there are 3)…and half the people had already paid for it.

In addition to this, my friend paid 18 dollars to get bus-boat-bus to Cat ba island. The guide gave him an admission ticket and lunch then proceeded to tell him after the fact that he owed money. When my friend expressed confusion his bags were taken from him and the boat was pulled into the middle of the harbour. There he was threatened with physical violence, and the price he ‘owed’ tripled. They lied and said he was stranded to swim to shore because there would be no more bus to the other half of the island.

They don’t let you bring any of your own drinks on board and threaten to charge you their price as a corkage fee if you do, even for water which is triple the average price. We were yelled at for passports even though half of us had ours at embassies in Hanoi and were told we didn’t need them. Also I was told by our guide not to bring my runners for the hike which was a severe safety hazard.

We were to have ‘English Speaking Guides’ for the whole tour including the caves and trek…that didn’t happen. They just yelled at us to be on time then were hours late themselves. We also had kayaking and swimming included…which really meant you can swim between 6 and 7 am but we wont wake you up and you can kayak for 20 minutes on one side of the bay, if you cross a line you pay 100,000vnd.

The food was actually fine for what I paid. 4 slices of white bread and half an egg on the last breakfast was a bit off putting but what can you do.

Anyway, everyone I know that did the BUNGALOW tour had a great time…you shouldn’t pay more than 95 for that. All tour offices book through the same actual operators at Halong Bay. It is NOT cheaper to go from Halong City than Hanoi, if you want to go on your own it is pretty reasonable as well. You can also do 2d/1n tours open ended and spend longer on Cat Ba. Keep in mind its a 4 hour drive from Hanoi, so unless your pressed for time I’d do at least 3 days. Also, lots of people hear about ‘Castaway’ through Hanoi Backpackers. A couple girls I know went rock climbing on Castaway beach and said for the price (200) it was NOT worth it. You will meet equally as rocking people on other boats/in Cat ba…and as it is the liquor isn’t included and it is a much heavier drinking environment.

There is a bar on Cat Ba ….I want to say Rose bar? free drinks for ladies and chose your own music…Fusball…it was definitely a decent time.

Otherwise Halong bay was…pretty…Beach 2 (the only free one) was pretty nice…but in comparisson to Thai beaches and the Milford Sounds I was pretty underwhelmed…the joys of longterm travel.

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Vietnam in a Blink

Vietnam is definitely distinctly its own country, and fighting Thailand for number 2 in asia…Bali will win it for Indo any time. All in all I’ll be here for about 3 weeks which is crazy quick…I almost considered staying the full month because the visa was so expensive (60 bucks!) but the show must go on to Laos next week.

So far I’ve been to Ho Chi Minh City….which everyone just calls Saigon still…Mui Ne, the king of fresh seafood; Nha Trang, the party; and now I am in Hoi An, the ancient village and tailor experts. The food so far has been good. Not phenomenal, but good. That being said, I keep forgetting how spoiled we are as Canadians in our multi-cultural land. My European friends are marvelling over the food while I still seem to think that Essence of Saigon in Calgary has better vermicelli than anything I’ve had here. However the street creme brule topped with vietnamese ice coffee for 50 cents reallllly wasn’t too shabby.

Anyway…I figure a brief blow by blow of lately is necessary.

HCMC: great place…ngu lao is where it’s all at. There are the BEST food places down the alleys that look like they’re straight out of a horror movie. Tip: when shopping prices for shakes always ask for the size of the cup! The war museum was impressive and definitely a much different perspective on the war, but perhaps necessary to totally understand figments of the culture in Vietnam. I didn’t bother with the Cuchi tunnels because most other people said they were overrated, and as a fact they aren’t even the real ones if you go on a tour. I also didn’t bother with a mekong home stay… still loved it and met a few random people that were pretty lovely friends for a a deuce of days.

Mui Ne: also Prat thani? or something like that…check out Samsara, it has a free gorgeous pool with an ocean view and ping pong! Drinks are pricey but its a great hang out spot (bonus! Free wifi!). They have like half a kilometer of fresh seafood restaurants. The lobster is still cheaper in Halifax, but the jumbo prawns are reasonable and to die for. Oh also….between Mui ne and nha trang I might as well have gone to Russia…literally more russian menus than English. Mui Ne also has red and white sand dunes…the ones in Peru are more impressive…Met up with a friend, Malou, from Singapore and headed to Nha Trang a couple days later.

Nha Trang: Why not bar…whattttta time. Also booze cruize (the bar) will play any sport you want ….including the Canucks getting crushed in the NHL playoffs. Found some groups of guys travelling in threes…boys always travel in threes…got some freebies…played some pool….Hap Ly greek food…GO!!! she hand makes the pitas every morning. Also go to the market farther from the back packer center…by yersin street! it is heaps better.

Hoi An: What a beauty. The river gets all lit up by lanterns at night and the UNESCO protected old town doesn’t allow motorized traffic. People have fake testimonials from past ‘clients’ about tailoring and restaurants…use your own judgement. The tailoring is sweet and all but i found most of it to be tacky…or the things i did like were too loose to invest in tailoring. Lots of people here speak English and will use it to con you. Also the beach is stunnnnnnna both of them. in between the two you will see tons of cheap but GREAt coffee shops with super friendly locals. I highly recommend getting a bike and pedalling around…its like 20 km if you do both islands and both beaches, but you feel like you’re seeing so much more of the area!

ta daaaaa, off to Hue tomorrow then Hanoi and Halong Bay. I’ve been struggling trying to finish my Indian visa to submit in Hanoi for days–fingers crossed!

Geography

I had a great chat (over 10 cent beers) tonight with a Vietnam war vet, a super friendly man from Washington state, and an old guy from just south of home; One of those chats that turned into a conversation much more stimulating than the usual backpacker small talk (the fact that they weren’t backpacking probably helped).

They asked me about my trip and marvelled at its length (the usual reaction), but then asked if I was ever homesick. Not a new question…just a new answer. For the first time, I answered ‘No’ without a caveat to follow. The dictionary definition of homesick: longing for home and family while absent from them.

In fact, being away has allowed me to eliminate geography as an excuse for losing contact with people I care about and investing in people I don’t. My ever-changing whereabouts has given me the freedom to escape people I don’t care to have in my life…people that if I had met at home I may have felt guilty avoiding simply due to convenience of location.
This gives me time to keep touch with friends I do care about…Friends that could be in the same city back home, so I feel less pressure to stay in contact because its there when I want it…Important friends that live far but contact hinders as we get so busy with our every day grind and the people that are simply there. The fact that I’m so far has allowed me to assess my relationships without the fog of environmental context.

The fog, or ‘avidya’ as per my yoga books, created by contextual convenience that was guiding my relationships has been lifted. In other words I’m seeing clearly. Obviously when I head home I will still have people I’m only friends with because they live close or work with me….but that’s part of socialization. Realizing now how important certain friends and my family are to me makes me excited to go home because I know that appreciating those people and what they mean to me will be easier, but being in contact with them and as connected to them as I am considering our geographical gap makes me feel less ‘homesick’. I don’t long for them because a)social media has made it easy-as to keep tabs and b)those who matter make an effort.

I could have said this to you a couple months ago…the bit about knowing who my real friends are…in fact I probably did. What I’ve come to realize through talking to the trio tonight was that I was more homesick living in Edmonton a 3 hour drive from Calgary than I am now…a 15 hour flight away. When I was in Edmonton (at times) if I got homesick I longed for who people used to be, or maybe who I used to be, or what I used to have. The shift is that I have accepted that it will never be the same; I will never be the same. Who we are as people determines our view, our perspective and perception of the world–our world…our life. I’m not longing for anything because the only optimistic perspective is that if I continue to evolve, things will only be better.

Being in control of my actions, and thus my life gives me the power to create each day better than the last. So no, I don’t long for the way things were or what I used to have. It`s not worth getting emotional about what used to be. If it was so great then make it happen again, but chances are things a different for the better. My friends are all different than when I met them, so are our friendships, that is what makes them stronger.

I`ve hit a turning point in my journey. I am officially in the last half of it, and it has (unlike birthdays after elementary school) actually made me feel much different. I have an urgency again, a sense of holy shit this is going to be that year I look back on and think about/refer to for years to come, and an awareness more than ever that this trip is going to be a pillar in who I am as a person in 20 years…more than anything I’ve done in the past 2 decades. The fact that I am in this moment…this moment being a year in this case…is completely empowering. Perhaps that’s why I’m not ‘homesick’. Not because I’m running away or afraid to go back…but because I can’t wait to create a new ‘home’ when I return, because for the first time I am confident that it will be better than the way I left it. I have no reason to long for what was, only to be thrilled about what is to come.