When it comes to taking package tours to Halong Bay Caitlin Worsham notices a pattern: no matter how much the price changes everything stays the same
The merits of Halong Bay are endless and have been enumerated elsewhere, but amid the praise, regular visitors may notice a trend: every junk tour, be it $35 to $250 a head, is nearly exactly the same. Here is a recap of what you can expect: You are invited to gape at and photograph residents of fishing villages.
Purchases are foisted upon you by small children in rowing boats. You will marvel at such aggressive salesmanship and feel rather uncomfortable. You will walk to the top of an island or swim on its little beach. You may go kayaking (worth it). You may go squid fishing (sometimes worth it). On the cheaper boats you get karaoke, on the pricier ones, a movie.
You will inevitably trek up and down the stairs through Surprise Cave where, no matter who the guide is, no matter how much you hoped you might learn something, you will be instead regaled with how one rock looks exceptionally phallic (and indeed it does), how another resembles a man, and on and on, until you wish you could explore in cool, simple silence.
Aboard nicer boats, there are added extras, cooking classes or spa treatments (for a steep fee), but the actual tour is the same and there are already enough activities to occupy you – especially when the highlight of the bay is just lounging, taking in the view and diving in. You could argue that you’re paying for the room. Certainly the rooms aboard the more posh junks are excellent – better appointed, with soft beds, shiny floors and large windows. There is a shower with a door and enough room to bend over, should you drop the soap.
There are toothbrushes as well as shampoo and a safe for your valuables. But considering the nine-in-the-morning-check out times and packed itineraries, you spend so little time in the room, this argument holds little water. Recently aboard The Jasmine, I aimed to sidestep this by booking two nights.
But on the day we had planned to kick back and relax, we found ourselves outsourced to a little boat from nine in the morning till four in the afternoon with no aircon, a table that couldn’t comfortably accommodate our party and only two places to stretch out for over 10 guests. It was fun but we were aboard a $30-boat, which we could have easily rented ourselves for the day. I felt like a chump.
Then, the last day, when I tried to sleep in, I was awoken at eight (I was on vacation) to blaring music, presumably making sure everyone would check out on time. This was made somewhat less irritating as I had been sweating all night under the comforter that was deliciously downy but a poor match for the sputtering aircon. Another issue is the beds. To get more bang for their buck, many boats devote basic cabins (still referred to as doubles) to single beds.
Instead of making this transparent (the fault of travel agents, boat websites/brochures and room distributing management alike), guests who have requested “doubles” often get make-shift doubles, i.e. twins pushed haphazardly together – or if lucky, made up so that a sheet will partially prevent an irretrievable descent into the crack. So make sure you and your agent read the fine print.
Ah, but you weren’t specific, they continued, and we never said you’d get an actual double bed. It’s true, I sadly discovered. They hadn’t. But at over $150 a head a night, this offered no consolation. The Jasmine was infinitely more professional when the same thing happened and they rapidly addressed the issue.
However, to ensure a bed for two, you must pay more (for a deluxe cabin or suite). Yet if you’re a single traveller, you are also penalised, smacked with a hefty surcharge. Oh and there is still the occasional rodent in the rooms on board. I’ve seen ‘em. These may seem like nitpicky concerns. But when you claim to be the best new thing on the water, you better live up to it at triple the price (or more).
Guides should be well trained and have in depth information and better English skills. The services should be top quality and the expectations clear. Maybe in a few years, it’ll be better. Until then, what most people want from the bay is nothing more than to unwind alongside the descending dragon’s rolling form, and the best package still runs at around $70 a night.
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