Virtual meanderings

Organized or freestyle? Organized be it this time…

I can only handle about half an hour of sign language a day (on a good day, that is).

In Thailand, Cambodia and Laos I was seldom in a situation where no-one knew any English –it only happened once or twice. But enter in Vietnam and it is a different story altogether.  It is easy to circumvent the language barrier when you want something to eat, or when buying stuff. Street sellers, a practical folk, will stick a calculator in your face and pinch the price they hope to extort from you for the object you pointed your finger at. You will laugh back at their humorous suggestion (politely, of course), and then pinch your own counter-suggestion. Repeat three times. Deal.

Vendors near Halong Bay. Vietnam

               But try finding out a particular location, or when a bus to a particular place leaves, or asking for directions to get from A to B, etc. The GPS won’t save you. The Internet won’t save you. Nothing but proficiency in Vietnamese will.

And you know why? Because in Vietnam people leave their own life, rather than catering for tourists, that’s why. Tourism is growing fast, but no one is betting the future of the country on it. Say, back in Vang Vieng in Laos, I could not help but notice that 100% of business in town revolved around tourists. Same thing in Siem Reap in Cambodia (home to Angkor Wat). Not much different in Thailand.

Getting off the beaten track or traveling to remote places on your own may not be the best idea in Vietnam just yet (this is also true for the other countries I mentioned but here you really feel it well). You must be a person of great patience who does not mind waiting for a bus that doesn’t come and when it does, it takes you to the wrong destination where you have to find a place to spend the night before going back and there just isn’t any. Or so I imagine, since I never tried things that way.

Truth is, if you really want to see yourself free as a bird in Vietnam, that bird better buy a motorcycle for itself. Being able to move from A to B with your own transport is a game changer.

Biking in Asia

Kinda like this

Turns out I am not the first person to have figured the ‘motorcycle option’ out. I found out that quite a few people seem to be doing it. They supposedly buy a scooter or a motorcycle in Hanoi (North Vietnam), travel around, eventually reach Ho Chi Minh City in the South and sell the bike there for close to what they bought it. Or the other way round.

Hanoi to Saigon, Vietnam Hanoi to Saigon via Laos and Cambodia

You can’t help noticing that instead of staying within VIetnam’s borders, it is just as easy to stray into Laos, cross over to Cambodia, and still end your trip down at HCMC. And you know what? I heard that people have been doing that, too. Now that I’d seen some of Laos and Cambodia myself, I got really hooked on the idea. Without any doubt, a trip like that would be a great adventure (with the risk of getting more that you bargained for, too). I am looking forward to it in the future.

But now was now, and I had succumbed to the idea that I should pay a visit to Ha Long Bay (A UNESCO World Natural Heritage site), the perl of the Vietnamese coastline.

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

         Courtesy: diverhank @

             One way to do so was to take care of it myself – arrange some transport to take me 130 km from Hanoi to the ocean, find me a guide, get me a place on a junk boat, figure out a list of what to do and what to see, etc. Or would I? Among our hostel’s multitude of offerings for the traveller with disposable cash were, of course, trekking tours to Ha Long Bay. This is why I happily signed up went to a couple of travel agencies to look at their offerings and prices.

Indeed, I soon realized that if I’d been travelling with friends, I’d be able to strike a better deal. The bargaining power of a lone tourist at a Vietnamese tour agency is zero. Another minus for the lone traveller – the most interesting offerings were only available to groups of at least four people.

So I sighed and went back to the hostel to get fleeced. Perhaps half of what I paid was collected by the hostel itself, rather than passed on to the tour organizing company. If one was able to cut out the middle man – the hostel in my case – and deal directly with the tour provider, one’d be able to get a much better price. In theory. But the truth is that you can’t get around the middle man. The tourist agencies are middle men too. The only entry point through the system is through them. You will soon find out why. The system is much more elaborate than you think…

After visiting the tourist agencies, I tried to delude myself that booking at the hostel may actually be an advantage. Since it generated customers for the trekking companies every day, its prices could be a bit lower. In theory, of course. In reality it was impossible to compare offerings. And I don’t mean making cross-comparisons of the different tourist agencies. I mean comparing the offers available at a single location. Even that was impossible. The offers in the booklet at the hostel looked the same – kayaking in the Bay, visiting a cave, sleeping on a junk boat, visiting this, visiting that – and still offering A would cost double offering B and triple offering C. It felt like comparing laptops at an electronics store. You stare at all those machines with similar characteristics and wide-differing prices and you have no clue why.

I asked at the hostel reception why. And I was told why – in one case the junk boat would be more luxurious and better looking – hence the price difference. I thought the idea was to see the Ha Long Bay, and not so much the junk boat… but in the end decided to play it safe and signed up for the golden middle. Not the most expensive offering, and not of the cheap ones either. After all, if you went for the cheapest option and you had to spend it on the worst possible boat, well – they’d warned you, hadn’t they?

Next morning, a small bus arrived and picked me and several other hostel guests for Ha Long Bay. The bus was already full – our hostel was its last stop before heading for the bay. Like it’d been in Thailand, I assumed that all of us were a group, going for the same trekking tour.

At some point out of town we stopped at the unavoidable souvenir area – for “toilet”. We were all chatting in the bus, the casual talk among fellow travellers. In about two hours we got to Ha Long Bay and disembarked from the bus. It was time to get on a junk boat. Tens, if not hundreds of junk boats were there at the harbor.

Halong Bay

         Courtesy: @

            Then – surprise, surprise – our bus group suddenly had to split in three. We had been riding the same bus, but some people were actually going for a one-day trip, others were going for a two-day trip, etc. Instead of going on the same junk boat – like I’d assumed – everyone was going to different ones. So, one moment you were happily chatting to some newly found acquaintances. Next moment you were waving them goodbye. Wait! Stop! I just met the love of my life on this bus and now they are splitting us?! Somebody help!

Halong Bay, Vietnam

OK, I did not. But imagine someone did. Meeting the love of your life a mere hour ago, expecting to bask in their company for at least another day and suddenly a moment later they’re gone. That would really stink, wouldn’t it?

As the only person going for a three-day trekking, I was told to join a completely new group of people who had clearly been through the “acquaintance on the bus” phase. Everyone was already chatting with someone. Talk about suddenly feeling like the ugly duckling…

But wait, we’ve only just begun…


One response to “Organized or freestyle? Organized be it this time…

  1. Pingback: @Halong Bay – Part I « mastercopycat

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