copyright 1998, James Waldron Design, all rights reserved
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
Someone pounding on the hotel room door when you are midway through a gin-induced sleep is always a bad experience. When the person making the noisewears a military uniform, is accompanied by three grim-faced plain clothed gentlemen, and none of them speak your language, you can expect that something has gone wrong with your tourist experience. Welcome to Vietnam.
The day didn't start well either. I had booked a simple two-day tour from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, a scenic sea community several hours north of the country's capital. Our tour company was filled with helpful people, but even they were a little confused when the bus, scheduled for 6:15 am, showed up two hours late to begin the journey. The trip is long enough on the bus, nearly 6 hours, and we were off to a slow start.
The road along the way is abysmal. The bus was completely packed with mute tourists, leaving me unhappily sitting on a tiny jump seat in the middle of the aisle, and far away from my travelling pal Aldis, who was crushed into the last seat at the back next to a rather large German man. After three hours on the so-called highway, where the surface was mostly gravel and each bridge was under repair, the bus blew a tire and we pulled into a roadhouse to fix it.
Though this sounds annoying, the thirty-minute break was actually the highlight of the day. Tourist busses don't stop in this gritty village, and the sight of me, a six-foot-six, nearly blond giant unfolding from the bus made for an instant curiosity with the local children, especially after I hoisted one onto my shoulders and paraded around the service station to the glee of the others.
As the only giant to visit in some time, I was invited into a local shop owners house to meet the entire family, smoke a cigarette or two, and choke down bitter tea while smiling all the time. Considering only one youth understood any English, myself and the shop owner had a wonderful time perusing his mementos, including a photograph of him and his wife 35 years earlier. All the while the average-height tourists were outside standing in the sun, shunned by the giant-loving locals.
Deciding against staying the night at the tire-repair shop, myself and the rest of the gang crowded back onto the bus and continued our journey. The day's complications were only beginning.
When we arrived at Ha Long city we were about three hours late and the boat we were scheduled to ride had left, so we instead went to the hotel. The owners of the place had previously figured we weren't going to show up and had rented out the two rooms reserved for me, my friend, and the large German man who had slept on her shoulder on the trip up.
We were instead moved next door and shown to two rooms. Let's just say that they were unacceptable. No lock, no shower, and a hole in the floor for a toilet. Unamused but smiling, I informed our guide that these would simply not do. The German fellow growled, stomped, and sweated, which, unfortunately does not impress local hotel owners. They instead became exceptionally unhelpful and laughed at him. My friend Aldis didn't explode until the staff refused to let her call the tour company back in Hanoi to complain.
This seemed to impress our guide, and after two and a half hours of explaining that we were talkative tourists, and would write all the travel guides warning them about his organization, he seemed to understand a need to make us happy.
We went to the next hotel. Full, The next, full, and the next, full again. By this time it was 5:30 pm, but we had received a free motorcycle tour through the city, three of us on each bike. Finally we got to a hotel and were located in rooms marginally better than the ones we were first shown. Frustrated and exhausted we said, "what the hell." and dumped our bags on the beds. Brown water from the tap and mosquitoes buzzing through the glassless windows notwithstanding, we decided to stay.
After a day like this I can usually enjoy a drink or two, so off to the local restaurant we trotted and drank our fill. On the way home it poured, but after wringing out my clothes I hopped into my bed and passed out. Then came our wake up call.
Standing in a hallway in your underwear surrounded by short, disgruntled uniformed men, in a country where they used to shoot at guys like me in the name of Communism, is not a happy feeling. I didn't really know how to react. I certainly couldn't call the police, because I thought these guys might be the police. Then again, I'd never seen a policeman in Vietnam and wasn't sure what they were. I expected to be robbed, or perhaps worse. For the first time on my trip I really felt 9000 miles from home.
Aldis was wisely staying in the room, peering around the door. Our German friend was demanding an English explanation in his non-subtle, angry voice. This was not making the men very happy. After five tense minutes, sign language finally communicated that they wanted to see our passports, and I plodded slowly down the stairs to the lobby where four more uniformed men sat.
I didn't know exactly how frightened I was until I tried to light a cigarette one of them gave me and it took three matches to get it going in my shaking hand. The police were angrily discussing something with an elderly man who I decided must be the owner, and made him sign some papers while the others pored over my passport. No one smiled. The owner turned to me and said in broken English, "This hotel not safe for you, you go to new hotel. I pay." Gee, not safe with all these officers around? At least they were unarmed.
Accompanied by the police, our trio were led to two other hotels a short walk away, woke up the owners there, and, by 2 o'clock were shown to the best rooms we'd seen all day. I believe we had been staying at a place without a tourist license, but it had been where our esteemed tour guide had put us. We finally got to sleep through the night.
The rest of the trip seemed dreadfully uneventful. The boat was rained on, the bus got another flat tire, and we arrived back in Hanoi only two hours late. Overall, the professional tour guide proved to know nothing of Ha Long Bay.
But at least the local cops know where to find a good room, they apparently
have seen them all.