“Hey, my friend. You should have come with me yesterday. You could have been here last night. But you don’t trust me. You should trust Vietnamese people. We don’t cheat you.”
Those were the words of welcome from the cruise director, John, as I boarded The Tung Trang. It was the morning of Saturday #80 and my sister Karen, brother-in-law Al, and myself were being transferred from the aging Silver Seas Legend to the decidedly more upscale Tung Trang for the second day of our Ha Long Bay cruise.
I met John the day before when I was sitting in the lobby of our Hanoi hotel. Karen, Al and myself had booked a cruise through the hotel’s tour desk and we were told that a shuttle bus would pick us up at 9:00 a.m. Around 8:45 a.m. John bounded through the door and breathlessly announced: “You come with me now. I make sure you get upgrade to nicer ship. Better cabin. Better food. Much better for you. But come now. We must go right now. Come.”
My experience in India taught me that any stranger addressing you as “my friend” is likely trying to sell your something, and anyone offering a “free upgrade” is probably trying to pull the pashmina over your eyes. When I asked John why we were being upgraded, he slung one arm over my shoulder and told me that it was because we were good friends. Best friends, in fact. That sent the needle on my internal scam-o-meter into Red Alert territory.
I put two and two together and concluded that John made his living by snatching customers from one cruise company and delivering them to a competitor. I put my foot down and told him that I wanted no part of a free upgrade.
“Suit yourself, my friend,” were his last words as he dashed out the door in search of another mark. Twenty-four hours later, by some twist of fate that I don’t fully understand, we were indeed upgraded and transferred to John’s ship! The reason for the upgrade was never explained but it did appear to be legitimate. The first ship was an old wooden clunker with tiny, dark, and dated cabins. We were the only passengers who were not part of a seniors tour run out of Jakarta. The Tung Trang on the other hand was a new steel-hulled vessel with luxurious staterooms, spa-like bathrooms, king sized beds, 5-star dining and a young and international clientele. And John, of course!
We took a few minutes to check out our staterooms before reporting to the dining room where John was going over the itinerary for what he called “the best day of your life” and which I will refer to as simply Saturday #80.
We were given a choice of two itineraries: Spend the day at the cruise line’s private Bungalow on the east side of Cat Ba Island or make your way to the north end of the island and rejoin the ship before it sailed for the mainland.
I took one look at the facilities on offer at The Bungalow and decided to get out of Dodge as quickly as possible. The “spa” was a square, sterile looking room with an old hairdresser’s chair and a white doctor’s examination bench. The only thing remotely spa-like about it was a single stick of incense that had been placed in a small vase by the door. “Five star,” it was not.
What had been advertised as a “beach-view fitness club” was even more pathetic. It did have a beach view – I’ll give it that – but only because it didn’t have any walls. The StairMaster was a wooden box, about 8 inches high, the Nautilus equipment was better suited for use as an anchor, and the free-weights were straight out of The Flintstones!
I decided to hire a tender to take me to the other side of Cat Ba Island where I’d be free to wander the quaint streets of the island’s only town, which ironically was known as Cat Ba Town. I asked my sister and her husband if they’d like to join me and they quickly agreed. In hindsight I may have set expectations a bit too high when I hinted at a breezy cafe by the beach, fresh seafood, chilled Chardonnay and $3 pitchers of local beer. Not even the prospect of spending an hour on the open seas in a leaky tender could drive the image of chilled Chardonnay from my sister’s head.
It didn’t take long for the cracks to appear in my plan. To get to the tender we had to walk down a 200 meter long dock. The length of the dock wasn’t the issue; it was more the fact that said dock didn’t actually have any decking. I’m generally okay with heights but even I had to admit that balancing on an 8-inch wide concrete beam that was suspended about 30 feet above a rocky beach was likely to be a challenge for anyone not named Wallenda. To put it mildly, my sister was not impressed.
Ten minutes later we stood at the end of the Dock of Death, wiping the sweat from our brows and staring at a very rickety ladder. At the bottom of the ladder was a small flat-bottomed boat. The captain heaved three large boxes of frozen chicken onto the dock and motioned for us to take a seat. Actually, that’s a bit of a stretch – this boat didn’t have any seats. Instead we sat on the floor and leaned against a horizontal piece of lead pipe that had been lashed to several vertical poles.
Another couple from Victoria, BC was already onboard. As we made the two foot leap from dock to boat the captain bellowed “All aboard” and the engine sputtered to life. Actually I’m not sure what the captain said as he only spoke Vietnamese. For all I know he might have said: “Prepare to swim with the sharks, fat boy.”
A few minutes into the one-hour excursion it was obvious the captain loved his gadgets. When he wasn’t playing with his own Galaxy S5 he was grabbing my iPhone and taking videos of the passengers and the passing scenery. I wouldn’t normally have a problem with that, except in this case every minute he devoted to videography was another minute we veered wildly off course. I’m sure the trip was at least 20 minutes longer than required thanks to our zig-zag course.
When we reached the port of Cat Ba Town there was only one taxi in sight so we shared it with the couple from Victoria who were headed to a luxury resort just outside of town. We dropped them off and asked the cabbie to take us to a bar near the beach. Ten minutes later we pulled up at the cabbie’s brother’s bar. I’m all for supporting local businesses and keeping it “in the family” but this place just didn’t have what I was looking for. Perhaps I’m a bit too demanding but I prefer bars that actually stock beer and alcohol.
When we threatened to leave, the owner came up with a plan: he’d send his son down the street to a store that had cold beer. We could drink it from the table and chairs at his shady bar. A few minutes later we popped the tops on three frosty bottles of Ha Long Light and all was right again.
It had been raining when we arrived on the island but an hour later the sun poked through the clouds and the pavement dried quickly. Time to go for a stroll, I thought. I had read a Trip Advisor report of a store on the main drag that reportedly had three or four bottles of Vietnamese wine. It took a while to find the place but much to my surprise the Quickie Mart did stock Vietnamese “Chadonay.” (For eight bucks you don’t expect perfect spelling, do you?)
On the way back to the bar I passed two businesses that caught my eye. The Hung Manh Hotel had a nice view of the beach and looked like the kind of place I could settle into for a few days. They didn’t explicitly state their requirements of admission, but if a visual inspection was required I figured I could always get a room next door at a more modest hotel that advertised dorm beds for $4 per night including breakfast!
Back at the bar I found my brother-in-law using Slingbox to watch the Leafs on his smartphone. My sister was staring into space with a traumatized look on her face. I knew something was very wrong and it was likely more serious than the 7-0 drubbing the Leafs were taking at the hands of the San Jose Sharks.
After a few minutes Karen composed herself enough to explain that she had asked the owner if there was a washroom. She was told that it was at the back of the building, on the other side of a courtyard. What the owner neglected to say was that a pair of Rotweilers were asleep in the 30-foot wide courtyard. Thankfully they were on 28 foot chains, so there was just enough room to pass them without losing a limb if you kept your back to the wall and walked sideways.
Around 4:00 p.m. we informed our waiting driver that we were ready to head to the ship. He felt there was time for one more beer so we split the difference and agreed on a 4:30 departure. This proved to be a miscalculation on his part. Perhaps he thought we were returning to the public wharf in town, I don’t know, but when we told him for a third time that we had to be at the north end of the island to meet our ship before it sailed for the mainland he reacted with one simple gesture: he floored it.
We probably averaged over 80 kph on the narrow, twisting road that clung to the rocky coastline of Cat Ba Island. If this road was in Canada the speed limit would be 40 kph and there would be guardrails and warning signs at every turn. Here you round a turn – on two wheels, in our case – and you could be face-to-face with a broken down truck, an old man with a donkey cart, kids walking home from school or an elephant hauling logs from the bush. Our driver, who I will henceforth refer to as Michael Schumacher-Truong, gripped the wheel with one hand, shifted with the other, and all the while he kept his eyes glued to Vietnam’s Got Talent which played on an iPad that was taped to the dashboard.
The cab ride to the ship went much faster than expected – largely because it went much faster than expected, but also because some of us closed our eyes for the last 10 km.
Later that evening, when the waiter was serving the last of our six course dinner, I spotted John at the far end of the room. He had been watching our table. I nodded in his direction and he returned the acknowledgment with a smile and a wink. Yes, John, perhaps I should have trusted you when we first met back at the hotel on Friday morning. Had I taken a leap of faith, we could have enjoyed an extra day on the ultra-swanky Tung Trang.
What I could not have handled was a second night of post dinner karaoke on the older ship. Nobody, and I mean nobody, should have to witness a trio of 75-year-old Malaysian men unbuttoning their shirts to the waist and singing Justin Bieber’s Baby to their giggling wives.