When you go to Vietnam, you will be startled at how many people try to take advantage of you. One of my favorite travel bloggers attested to this as well. He said that Vietnam was his least favorite country because he was hassled the whole time he was there. It’s stressful and exhausting. There is not enough English for travelers to rely on signs, but every scam-artist speaks it! I’ve said this before: My Scooby Doo ears of alarm go up when someone says, “Hello, my frand!” I am trained in scamming… to an extent. When I say this, I’m not saying that I’m smart enough not to be scammed. I’m saying that I’m aware of when I’m getting scammed. The most I felt it was out of my control was in Vietnam. They’re like Pirates. I learned first-hand why so many people pay big bucks to book all-inclusive tours.
My biggest objective for Vietnam was to see Halong Bay. It’s a Unesco world heritage site that consists of several thousands of limestone karst peaks, jutting out of the ocean water. Hanoi is 4 hours from Halong Bay, but serves as a starting point for all-inclusive tours to Halong Bay. Being ignorant of Vietnam’s lack of face value, I decided to take local transportation to Cat Ba Island, just south of Halong Bay, and take a day trip into the bay from there. I tend to opt out of guided tours because they are often overpriced and not satisfactory. But the bus to Cat Ba was priced more than I was told. The ferry was priced more than I was told. The hostel was priced more than I was told. No matter how much I haggled, I couldn’t get the vendors to agree on what I knew to be the actual price. Everything seemed to be ran by Joe Shmoe’s mischievous cousin, and nothing was clearly marked. But I somehow came out financially on top by going independently, instead of a tour. The only thing I sacrificed was my pride. I got scammed on everything. But let’s be honest, I don’t have a lot of pride to sacrifice.
When in Cat Ba, I booked a one day tour of the Bay by Junk Boat. These pirate ship like boats take tourists out on the bay for the day. I booked with my hostel in hopes of avoiding any further scamming. The tour includes whichever activities you book… or so I thought. I wanted to go kayaking, so I booked the boat that took us kayaking. The next morning, over breakfast, I met a girl who booked a snorkeling boat through our hostel. I told her how I was hoping to go snorkeling the next day, because my tour didn’t have it.
The manager told us it was time to go at 8 A.M. He handed the girl a snorkel. We got our stuff and he lead us to the same fucking boat, at the nearest pier…. wow… subtle. We got on the boat, cruised into the bay, and met another boat that had kayaks. There were 6 tourists on our boat. On the way into the bay from Cat Ba, the six of us travelers on top deck discussed what tours we booked. One girl booked a secluded beach tour. Another couple booked a tour to see an island cave. One guy booked a tour of a floating village. HA. What could we do about it now? We really were on a fucking pirate ship. I was just happy to see the kayaks.
We spent the morning hours kayaking through a secluded part of the bay. It was everything I wanted: kayaks, karsts, and caves. It was so beautiful that I didn’t care about the rest of the tour. We started in one bay and paddled through a shallow cave and into a completely empty cove. We banded our kayaks together and swam around as new found friends. I finally made use of the underwater camera my mom surprised me with. We hooted and howled to no response. The salt was enough to hold our bodies afloat in the warm tropical seclusion of a hidden paradise. I laid on my back, on top of the water, looking up at the ring of steep, foliage covered, mounds that surrounded me on all sides. I felt like Charlie Brown who had fallen after trying to kick a football and had about 20 Lucy’s standing over me. The rest of the world was beyond that little cave I drifted through, like a time warp into another place. In this private cove, I could imagine up some kind of sea creature lurking, or pirates’ treasures hidden nearby, and maybe even a rock with a mermaid on it. The Vietnamese scamming pirates couldn’t touch me in here.
We had lunch on the boat and floated around the bay. We could only speculate what we were in for next, since none of us had any expectations at this point. The pirates butted the boat up to a karst with a hole in it… I guess this was the island cave. I hoped they were going to show us some pirate’s hidden treasure. We walked the plank off the back of the pirate ship and stepped one foot down, onto the cave entrance. From here, our captain led us through huge caverns, making us crawl at one point. We were starting to hate him a little, but then we came to an opening that looked out on a crystal-clear lagoon. I felt like I was the first person to ever lay eyes on this unbelievably beautiful and untouched place. I felt like Ponce De Leon.
When we returned to the boat, we drifted through the bay, alongside mountains of stone and green. We floated past houses resting on floating blocks. There were so many little houses with front porches and raft-like decks all banded together. This was our floating village. I thought about the people out on their front decks. What must their lives be like? Out here, hidden from the world. Could I sleep at night knowing that if my home malfunctions, I’ll die? Would I have to take dramamine like a daily multi-vitamin? It raised a lot of unanswered questions to see these little tribes of bay dwellers.
We got back to Cat Ba that evening, just before sunset. I think we were all satisfied with our exhausting day of laying on the top deck in the sun. I got to do my leisure activity. The boat tour was a little haphazard, but it was all I wanted at the same time. We didn’t go snorkeling, but I don’t think the water was the best for it anyways. By the time I got back to Hanoi, after an additional two days of laying on the beach, I told my mom how stressful Vietnam was. “I never know what I’m getting myself into.” I told her how I got overcharged on the transport back to Hanoi again. I was the only one on the bus and when I handed him the money. He didn’t give me any change and walked off giggling. What was I supposed to do? I could have followed him to the front and argued the $1.25 out of him, but I was tired and I needed him to tell me where my stop was. She responded with, “Well, how much did the whole trip cost you?” I immediately realized my own stupidity, “$12 there, $13 back, $24 for three nights total, and my tour was $22.” “And how much was the organized tour from Hanoi that you decided not to take?” she added. “$109 for two days.” Damn, she had a point. My pride was gone completely.
Dealing with the pirate ship was just one instance of getting scammed that I dealt with in Vietnam. There were countless more small moments that I felt that I was being taken advantage of. I haggled a woman down to $3 for a wrapped up lonely planet book. It was a fake. The pages were copies of an original, and it was wrapped so that I couldn’t thumb through it and make this discovery. At least the pages were all there and the information was up-to-date. It’s just draining to think that you can’t trust anyone. I never feared for my safety, just my ignorance. And it really is a shame, because Vietnam is a beautiful place. I want to go back some day, but honestly I have my doubts. It’s hard to relax when everyone is constantly saying to you, “Hello, my frand!” when you walk down the street. I think it was a lesson well learned, and I think the blogger’s warnings have some validity. But I am also very happy that I went to Vietnam. It was a beautiful country. And I got to meet some modern pirates!