To celebrate being done my OSCE (Observed Supervised Clinical Exam), here’s a travel story that has nothing at all to do with medical school.
The setting was Northern Vietnam, in the last days of July 2014. I had been on a long trip as part of a sabbatical, a trip that had taken me from Hong Kong to Myanmar/Burma, through Vietnam from south to north and eventually to Taiwan for a meeting of medical students. Taiwan can be a story for another time.
I was running out of time in Vietnam. I had spent a lot of extra time in Sai Gon due to falling in love with that city, so I had only days to explore the North. There is a lot to see in Northern Vietnam. Out of everything though, I knew that the thing I had to see was Ha Long Bay.
Ha Long Bay is often considered a world wonder. Green and white marble formations rising from the water, towering over everything around them. As touristy as it is, I was excited to go on a boat, to look at this amazing nature, and to sleep among them.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Unfortunately, this is not a story about a success. This is a story about a failure.
Let me explain. I love Vietnam. It is most likely my favorite country that I have spent time in. The vibrant culture, the excitement in the air, the food (oh my god the food), the people… there are very few bad things I could say about my experience in Vietnam. However, when it comes to money and experiences, I will say that you must always be on your guard. Although this is true wherever you travel (and hell, even at home), I found it especially true in Ha Noi. Everybody is looking for a way to get your dollar, and people are getting better and better at it.
I am not one of those travelers who will fight tooth and nail to get local prices for goods and services. I have a few reasons for this. #1 I don’t think it’s worth the time investment most times. #2 I am lucky and privileged to be in their country. I am incredibly lucky and privileged that I was born in a country and in a position where I generally don’t need to worry about going hungry, where I can get a job that pays decently, and where I can go traveling. I feel it might be a little disrespectful to go to another country and ignore the social situation and context just because I’m paying an extra dollar or two. Although this has limits, and it also comes down to a respect thing. If a person is disrespectfully trying to take advantage of you, that is a whole different beast than if they are playfully bartering with you.
I’ve gotten a little bit off topic. But to display some circumstantial thinking, let’s circle back. The situation I had with Ha Long Bay did not feel like playful bantering. In fact, it felt very serious, very quickly.
Now, the Internet did advise me about this. When checking it, it said don’t go for the cheap options as most of them are scams. The price difference between the cheap ones and the expensive ones though was about $300, so I thought maybe it was a risk worth taking.
So I pay my $30-$40, and receive the promise of getting to sleep on a boat in Ha Long Bay overnight. I board the bus the next day, and find it filled with young people all excited to see this world wonder. 1 hour away from our destination, the first hiccup occurs. Our tour guide all of a sudden looks sad (but not really sad), and tells us that apparently there is a problem with the boat. But not to worry, he assures us, they have another boat lined up. 30 minutes later, and he has more bad news. This new boat, he tells us, isn’t as big as the other, and so we won’t be able to sleep on it. Instead, they’ll get us hotel rooms. A perceptive girl asks how many people per room for the hotel, as she had read horror stories of them getting 10 people into a 2 person bedroom. The tour guide has no answer.
Unhappy but without other options, we got off at the bus at the town near Ha Long Bay. Ahhh, my first site of the amazing world wonder! It was everything I thought it would be. For a moment, I forgot about the loss of not being able to sleep out on a boat. And then the tour guide spoke again.
Now, he said, all the hotels were booked (despite having said that they had already booked hotel rooms earlier). So instead of staying here, we would go and spend 30 minutes on the boat, and then go back to Ha Noi.
I think that they had misjudged the reaction that this could cause. They had also misjudged their clients. I remember the look upon one young Chilean man’s face upon hearing this. I saw his eyes go hard, his cheeks go red, and a snarl emerge on his face. As soon as the tour guide was done speaking, the Chilean man looked him in the eye and quietly said “I’m going to kill you.”
The other passengers managed to grab his arms before he lunged at the tour guide. The tour guide started yelling about how he was going to call the cops. The Chilean man was spitting at him, and snarling, while his friends told him to calm down or else he was going to get into trouble.
Needless to say, the tour guide was not excited about going out onto a boat with us anymore. All of a sudden, the new boat was broken. The tour guide pointed toward an old Vietnamese man nearby, and said he was the captain of the boat and he had told us that the boat was broken. Another one of the customers, who spoke Vietnamese, spoke to the old man and he said that he had no idea what the tour guide was saying.
Another 30 minutes passed with the customers arguing with the tour guide telling him to get them a boat. Another smaller group of the customers had formed, in which we were saying that there wasn’t a boat, and that arguing wasn’t doing any good. To be honest, we said, there had likely never been a boat.
And so we had a long, grumpy bus ride home after a long day full of conflict. I had managed to snap a few pictures of Ha Long Bay, so I wasn’t completely bummed. Of course, we all fully expected that despite assurances of refunds, no one would be getting any money back.
But here’s the odd thing. I did get my full refund. So maybe this wasn’t a scam. Maybe this really was a terribly organized and unlucky expedition. Or maybe it was a scam and the Chilean man scared the tour guide to the point that he thought it best just to bail. I guess I’ll never know.
And that is how I almost saw a world wonder,
The Wandering Scott