A quick post about Hanoi and package trips

Ho Chi Minh statueI love Vietnam – been there six times. I love the Hanoi Backpackers’ Hostel – stayed there on every single trip (and worked for them for 2 months on my last visit a few years ago). The guys that own / run it and all the staff are simply some of the most wonderful people you could ever meet – generous, hard-working, and above all honest.

So when they reach the point that they have to post the attached, I feel obliged to share it. Please – don’t get ripped off when you’re travelling as it sours a great experience. I’ve been on a load of HBH’s tours – all paid for out of my own pocket – and had nothing but the best memories to bring back. People who read my travel blog before it went into mothballs will know this.

Actually, I had one issue with my Fansipan trip (the scheduling of the ascent/descent wasn’t ideal) which I fed back upon my return. I was staggered when the hostel refunded about 50% of what I’d paid for it. I hadn’t asked for nor had I expected this.

So if you’re heading to Vietnam for tourist attractions, specifically Hanoi, avoid the places and people mentioned in the attached post. They’re scammers who will take your money and ruin your trip. I’m sure there are other places selling great trips (I’ve met people who’ve been on them), but I only ever used HBH and booked direct from their premises. A little more expensive than most (from what I heard), but worth every Dong/Dollar for peace of mind.

Flitting through Bangkok

Last night got messy. I made the mistake of volunteering to lead a group of people up to Finnigan’s where I then made the mistake of telling Pete the barkeep that it was my last night. I was then presented with a cocktail in a flower vase. No exaggeration.

As I came close to finishing it, I then got a panicked phone call from the hostel asking me to gather my stuff and shift to another room as there’d been a double booking and someone else was supposed to be in my bed. I tootled back and shifted, but had to bang on the door of my new dorm as the folk in there had decided to lock it. A bit pointless when they’re actually in the room, and annoying as I didn’t have a key. I explained this to them, and that I’d not be able to get in if they locked the door.

Back at Finnigan’s, I rescued my cocktail and was then given another about a pint in size. And another. Into which Pete kept dropping more shots. We then had more shots.

On a sad note, the shots were raised to a friend’s father who died earlier this week, so the case was reviewed by a wrongful death attorney New York to check the circumstances of this. I promised her I’d have his name honoured by people in Hanoi, and I was true to my word.

As the group started to split up around 2am, I headed back to the hostel and found that I was locked out of the room because the muppets inside had locked the door again. So I rattled the handle and then resorted to kicking it. Repeatedly. And loudly.

Hey, well. I had told them I didn’t have a key and it was obvious I wasn’t in the flipping room.

I was out like a light and woke what seemed like 3 minutes later to my 6am alarm. I gathered my stuff, packed what little remained (outside the room so as not to disturb everyone else) and made my way down to find that my taxi wasn’t waiting for me.

This worked out well, as two American girls had missed their taxi as they had opted to spend the night with a couple of the guys they met in Finnigan’s… The hostel had paid for my cab so I ushered them in when it turned up.

The flight was uneventful other than being a budget one with comfy seats (Ryanair could learn a few things from AirAsia – like how not to be crap and treat your customers like garbage) and we landed in Bangkok just before 11am. The border security was as slow and painful as it always seems to be at Suvarnabhumi airport, though it timed well with the luggage surfacing.

So here I sit with no wifi (come on, Bangkok! Get with the 21st century!) waiting for my bus to Pattaya. I intend to spend the afternoon and evening watching stuff at the nearest cinema to my guest house!

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Towards the end

I’ve only a couple of days left here and I’ve not posted in about a month which is poor form. In fairness I have been ridiculously busy and there’s been a lot of routine to the job. In addition, there’s the “what happens in the Bay, stays in the Bay” rule.

So I’ll only tell you a few things to whet your appetites and change the names to protect the guilty. And drunk.

The major story a couple of weeks ago made the local paper back home when I saved a young girl from certain death (PDF file – 386k). Which is not quite completely true. In fact, it was blown out of all proportion, but in the reporter’s defence it was the copywriter who reworded everything. Still, it makes me sound good.

I have, of course, been up to Blue Dragon a couple of times and will be back up over the next two days (weather permitting). The swimming course I was due to help with was, ironically, cancelled due to flooding a couple of weeks ago.

Sarah, one of my co-workers from the last school I was at, visited for a few days towards the end of her trip. I took her up to see the place and meet Mike and she was suitably impressed. I made good friends with a couple of boys, around the 7 year age bracket at a guess.

Mike told me that when one of them came in, they couldn’t tell what sex he was let along get any information from him. His hair hadn’t been cut in months (at least), or his clothes changed in a similar length of time. He would sit in the corner and avoid communication of any kind with anyone.

You would not believe this to see him now. Cheeky, funny and happy to clamber all over me with the biggest smile a small child can produce. He’s bright, and I spent a good while showing him a map of Hanoi which he pored over, recognising place names and asking what the symbols meant. Certainly not the scared child he had been not so long ago.

The tours have been great, but hard work as I’ve said before. Courtesy of a typhoon a week ago we had to evacuate Castaway Island and I’ve not been back since – a shame as I’ve not been able to say goodbye to the guys there. I did have a heck of a last night on the Jolly Roger.

The staff gave me a 50% discount on my bar bill, which is a good thing as no matter how much I drank I just couldn’t get squiffy. Being the new teachery-type I am, I can’t quote figures but trust me, I should have been on the floor. Face down. With marker pen all over me. Pretty much like Tom ended up after Jordan’s birthday on the island.

I can honestly say that despite the stress, irritation, lack of sleep and so forth that come with the job – every day was like working with your best friends. Tricky on the Jolly Roger in particular is a heck of a guy and I’m really going to miss hanging out with them.

Of course, the hostel staff deserve a great mention. Hard-working, fun and always smiling. I’ve had some awesome work colleagues in the past, but this bunch are something else. I’ve even learned some Vietnamese, but not really the kind of phrases you want to be using in polite company or around children.

There have been lots of little events and I might document them one at a time as they come to mind or this post will get to a stupid length. I’ve got two “Bar PM” shifts and a day off before I head for Bangkok / Pattaya and I’m going to make the most of the remaining time here.

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Footie and films

Quick catchup. After several tours of Halong Bay, I’ve had 2 days of to recuperate. And I needed them.

Yesterday I stayed up till 4:00am to watch England be crap, then rose at 8:30am as I can’t sleep for more then 4 hours at present. I collared James, a chap from the US, and we went to see The A-Team at Vincom Towers, which was more enjoyable than it should have been.

The afternoon was spent catching up with you lot, followed by an early night.

Up at 7am today to ensure I could make it to the footie at Long Bien where the Blue Dragon kids have their weekly kickabout. A small turnout of 40 or so didn’t mar proceedings (almost everyone here stays up to watch the World Cup) and the under 14s were presented with a trophy from a local competition.

I took another backpacker, Sean, who was hugely impressed with the turnout and the work being done by BDCF. He chatted to Michael and Tho while I embarrassed myself on the pitch. Hey, I was barefoot. And I suck.

After a drink with the guys, Sean and I headed down to Vincom to catch The Karate Kid which was – like The A Team – far better than it had any right to be. We got back to the hostel in time for free beer then happy hour, followed by me typing this up before I head for bed.

Off to Halong Bay again in the morning and back on Wednesday!

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Working hard in Vietnam

I’d expected to post more while I was out here, but I’ve been incredibly busy with work so simply haven’t had the chance. I’m working as a Tour Guide for the Hanoi Backpackers’ Hostel which is a 6-on-1-off working week. When I’m “on”, I’m away at Ha Long Bay with no internet and I don’t take my netbook with me.

I’ll explain the trip first, then tell you why it’s such hard work after!

The trips are hard work, very tiring, but also great fun. The trip involves 4 hours on a bus to Ha Long harbour where we jump onto the Jolly Roger, our private boat. There we chill for a bit until lunch, then have fun diving off the top of the boat into the water. Our kayaks then arrive and – tides allowing – we paddle off to an island nearby with a lagoon hidden inside. As far as I know it’s only our tour groups that go here.

Back on the boat, we chill out till dinner and then happy hour begins. This usually involves the start of the drinking games, dancing, loud music and partying in general.

Next day, some people head home (though we usually convince them to do the extra day as it’s definitely worth the extra) while the rest of us swap onto a smaller boat for the 90 minute trip to Castaway Island. Here, we do wakeboarding or banana boat and rock climbing. Kayaks are available so anyone can just take a boat out and explore the surrounding area.

Overall it’s really chilled out until after dinner when – again – it’s party time. Around midnight we usually try to get everyone into the water to enjoy the bioluminescent plankton. On a good night, of you reach the pontoon about 100m from the beach and stand there, it looks like millions of blue-green fireflies are swimming towards you!

Next morning, it’s a 7am rise for breakfast followed by 2 boats and a bus ride back to Hanoi for happy hour at the hostel.

The hard work is mainly in the hours. I’m up at 7am on day 1 to gather everyone up and make sure we’re not missing anyone. We then split into two buses if required and have a 40hour journey. Then it’s corralling everyone to make sure we all get tickets and onto the boat, often in groups if there are too many – the transfer boat seats 20 at most.

A lot of the work is just keeping people in line. Making sure they follow rules, hoping that nobody minds sharing a room with a stranger – sometimes with just a double bed! I shared with one of the guys on the last trip. Thankfully he didn’t snore.

Safety is an obvious concern, especially when people are jumping from heights and messing in water. We had a guy on the trip before last who couldn’t swim but who still wanted to join in. Fortunately I had a great group who were very supportive. We got him a life jacket and two girls taught him some basic swimming. He even did the wakeboarding on the Island. Ken, I salute you!

With the kayaking, it’s the sense of what the hell are you doing?! when I set off (at the back of the group) to see 18 kayaks all over the place instead of following the Vietnamese guide at the front. If anyone reading this is going to do the trip, please save us a lot of stress and don’t go paddling off randomly. It is possible to get lost in the Bay given the fact that it’s 1500km2 in size. The 2000 rock formations can look a little similar after a while.

Next up is judging the group. When you play drinking games you’re going to divide people – those who are game for anything and those with some level of reservations. Also, if you have a large group it’s often hard to hold interest if you have to circle 40 people.  One of the guests on an earlier cruise taught me Hacienda which is great as you can rattle through it with 40 people in 10-15 minutes, everyone gets drinking and nobody gets a chance to get bored. It also doesn’t involve forfeits so it’s a chance to loosen everyone up without pressuring anyone.

As the night goes on, it either gets wilder (usually) or the group divides which can make things better as you’re only overseeing the ones who have few inhibitions. Less embarrassment!

The partying can run on until 4 or 5 am on the boat. Most people forget that they have to be up at 7:30 for breakfast. I have to be up earlier than that to make sure they do indeed rise. Fine if it’s a smallish group who go to bed early. Hard work if it’s a large group and I have to sleep on the deck where they’re partying!

The island is relaxing for me during the day as the guests chill or go out on their watersports. We may organise a game of volleyball with the Vietnamese staff if anyone’s up for it, or take a small group out in the kayaks. Again, though, I have to get the party going after dinner. I do have the help of the resident wakeboard instructor, another of the hostel staff, which takes some of the burden off me and does give me someone else to “play off”.

Again, this can go on until 3am or so when the staff turn off the generator so they can get some sleep! And again, people forget there’s an early rise. I’m up before 7 to bang the breakfast gong. We have a long trip back to Ha Long and then to Hanoi, where I usually catch up on some sleep.

If that sounds like a lot of partying with little sleep, remember that I take out two trips back to back. I get back from one and straight out on another the next morning. The night I’m back I may also end up taking a group up to Snake Village, which means drinking shots and snake wine with the group.

At least there are gaps in the day when I can catch up with a snooze but it’s really tiring! It’s also incredibly rewarding though. We had two birthdays on the last trip and one girl told me it’s the best party she’s ever had. That made my trip for me.

Tonight’s the England v USA game and I’m in two minds about watching it as it’ll mean bed at 4am or thereabouts. I don’t want to be a mess in the morning!

When I get home I have my year’s probation to go through to qualify as a teacher. Right now it’s seeming as if that will be my holiday!

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