Woke up around 7:00 by means of Snow's sister, since for some reason I thought a 7:17 alarm would be appropriate for a 7:30 departure. (7:17 is probably when I ended up actually getting out of the bed, from which point it really does only take me ten minutes to get ready, but I have to factor in time to muster my motivation to move.)
Snow's dad dropped me off at the place where I bought my ticket (since they only do pick-up and drop-off in Old Quarter), called Ocean Star Tours, where I waited (but could use the internet) until about 8:30. The van seated about 25, and was packed. Since I was one of the last people picked up, I had to sit in a fold-out seat that fills in the empty space in the aisle, which was not comfortable.
There were very few white people on the bus, which I thought was a bit strange.
My ass started disliking the ride about an hour into it, and it takes about three hours to get to Halong Bay. We took a 20-minute break in the middle at a shop with a frightening lack of charm. Not that you need charm when your market is captive and your whole system is based on kickbacks to the tour companies.
Naturally, everything here was completely overpriced, so I just sat there with my bottle of water for what was actually 30 minutes until we were loaded back onto the van.
I met an Asian-American who now lives and works in Singapore (but evidently travels a lot for her job) and a brother and sister from England on a nine-month leave from work for travelling, so the four of us pretty much stuck together throughout the trip.
Upon arriving in Halong Bay, I was not met with the hordes of scissor- and knife-wielding pickpockets that I had been warned against (blades for use against purses and bags, not victims), and it wasn't as crowded as we had been told either. The guide purchased our junk tickets for us (as in the boat, not as in rubbish) and we headed on to the boat. At this point it was about 12:45.
We cruised for a while into Halong Bay, which was really good for picture-taking, and then we stopped at this random fishing place to have lunch (although sadly, we were not served any of the seafood we saw in the nets).
Lunch was an uninspiring array of dishes, including one small fish for six people (qualifying it as a "seafood lunch" in their advertising), although there was enough to go around (if only barely).
Not part of the lunch, but purchased and provided by the Asian-American
Because I had asked before I purchased my ticket last night, I knew that drinks were not included, so I had my previously mentioned big water bottle. Otherwise, cans of soda were 20,000 dong and lukewarm beer was 30,000.
Tip: You should also ask if the company will charge you for opening your own bottle of water on the boat, because apparently this happens with some of them.
There was a Czech woman who was extremely displeased with the lunch. She evidently saw that on the other boats, they had a substantial amount of actual seafood and felt that for $30, our lunch should have been much better. She said that she had been on several boat trips before, and that for the price, this was terrible value. I can't speak for other destinations, but the more reputable companies do Halong Bay for substantially higher prices, so $25 was on the cheap side, so I was going into this with very low expectations.
Tip: Know what you're getting into when you book a tour so you can manage your expectations so you won't be an angry Czech woman.
After lunch, we went to a dock where those who had paid for kayaking (an extra $5) embarked on their excursion and everyone else had the option to take either a bamboo boat or a motorboat into two "heaven swimming pool" caverns for an additional $5. The English siblings and I opted against this and stayed on the boat to chat.
After about an hour, we then left for the caves that were really the main activity of the tour (other than simply cruising around the bay).
The first was Dong Thien Cave, which is huge and lit in many colors, which actually makes it look a little fake.
I exited the cave a bit earlier than the other three, so after waiting for a while outside, I decided to go back in to see where they were. Unfortunately, in doing so, I slipped on something and fell down a few stairs, so now my ass and lower back are very bruised, my left arm has a few scratches and a sporadic shooting pain, and my right ring finger is a little jammed. (Typing is not fun.) So yeah, limestone steps don't offer the softest landing. I was also the only one in our little group wearing sneakers instead of flip-flops so go figure. God hates me because I don't believe.
For whatever medical reason I totally don't understand, I felt really dizzy and nauseated after, so I had to sit down for a while, and the English sister, who is a nurse, said I should drink some soda to get some sugar in my system. So alas, I was forced by the circumstances into buying a 20,000 dong can of soda anyway, although at least it was cold, and I did feel much better afterwards.
When you exit the cave, there is simply a sign that says "Exit to Boat" with no indication of a second cave so I thought perhaps the big one was really two connected caves. However, after you go down the steps, you see a sign across from the bathrooms that forks off into "Exit to Boat" and "Dao Go Cave" so I was mistaken. We were already late though, so we had to go back
to the boat. A google images search tells me it was more of the same.
We then took the boat back to the harbor and got back on the van for the ride back to Hanoi, which was doubly unpleasant due to the new and very large bruise on my ass.
The shop we stopped at had slight charm, but obviously nothing notable ever gets sold in these types of stores. The four of us had decided to go to dinner together, so after we were dropped off en masse in Old Quarter (except for two people staying in more upscale hotels that we passed on the way there), I walked over to their hostel with them. We arrived back in the city at about 8:50.
They went upstairs to freshen up, and I went to ask about the price for a one-day tour of Tam Coc. Apparently, the English siblings had only paid $17 for the Halong Bay tour instead of $25. I recalled that when we went to buy my ticket yesterday, I had asked how much a 2-day/1-night tour of Halong Bay was, and the guy told me $45. Then when he opened up the brochure to show me the itinerary, my host noticed that the price was different in the brochure and said, "Oh, it's more than $45" and for some inexplicable reason (in hindsight), we both went by the prices in the brochure rather than what he was saying. I think my thinking at the time was that he's telling me $45, but there are really hidden costs that will make it the same as the brochure price. This is not the case. The price in the brochure for a one-day tour is, in fact $25, but it's not what you should be paying.
I asked about the Tam Coc tour, which is $27 in the brochure, and was told by the agent that he could do $20. I could also book my bus to Laos, which would be a sleeper with proper bunks, for $35. So knowing this, what I think I'm going to do tomorrow is go back to the agency where I booked my ticket for Halong Bay and see if I can essentially get the Halong Bay cruise, the Tam Coc tour, and the bus ticket to Laos for a grand total of $67, $25 of which is already paid for. (So that works out to 17 + 20 + 30, because I think that's what the Laos bus really costs.) The agency I used also used an exchange rate of 1:21,000 when it's actually 1:20,595, which makes a difference when you are multiplying by 67. So more accurately, I'll see if I can get everything for 1.38 million dong, 525 thousand of which is already paid for. We shall see. I hate the feeling of having overpaid, even though I know this is a fundamental part of travelling, and it's usually not by very much when converted to dollars. I am my father's daughter though, and he's much worse than I am on this count.
Tip: Always ask for a discount. Always bargain. Lonely Planet seems to think that if a price is marked that means it's non-negotiable, but I have absolutely no idea where they get this notion. It is patently false. You should not, however, bargain in a store that is a national chain or at a proper shopping center/mall. If it's a street stall or small shop though, feel free. If they are really non-negotiable, they'll just tell you so. It's not going to offend them.
The English siblings do not eat street food for some reason, and even if they did, they wouldn't tonight, because it's the sister's birthday, so they went to a nearby restaurant to eat. Nearby means in the foreigner-dominant backpacker area. I looked at the prices and decided to pass, because I can normally eat for less than 30,000 dong, but the prices here were 80-120,000. So I called my host's sister who picked me up and took me home where I had some instant noodles, which at 10:30PM, were delicious.
I used some sort of Japanese version of Icy Hot (not that I've ever used Icy Hot, but it feels icy and hot, so I'm assuming that's the concept) and Salonpas on the places I fell on. Salonpas is some sort of stick-on thing; I don't know if it's a pain reliever or anti-inflammatory thing, but whatever.
I think something I had for lunch on the tour was bad, because my tummy is not happy. I have antacids though, as any traveller should.
Tip: Pack antacids and basic over-the-counter pain relievers, antibiotics, and, if you so desire, fever medication.
A selection of conversation topics throughout the day:
September 11 (about which the English sister knew far more than I did)
The Vietnam War
Drunk tubing in Vang Vieng and stupid people who die there because they are doing lots of other substances and then jump onto rocks in shallow water
The English siblings' harrowing 31-hour bus ride on a non-sleeping bunk bus from Vientiane, Laos to here and the terrible border crossing involved
The one-child policy (which I suppose for my generation is the two-child policy)
Law school debt
A failed attempt to talk about movies, but we haven't seen any of the same ones
Twins (the brother is one of a pair of identical twins)
Aborigines having just been classified as "humans" (as opposed to animals) in Australia by a vote within the last year (which totally blows my mind)
One random photo:
The stupid blinking/rotating lights to the right of the traffic light are surprisingly effective at passing the waiting time. You don't even notice you're staring at them and then the light is green.