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open mind, empty stomach

travel, food, and fun

Halong Bay is one of the “must see” places in Vietnam, and for good reason. The place is truly majestic. It is a series of islands varying in size with towering limestone cliffs. I spent considerable time researching ways to do the bay. It seemed that a travel agency was the best route and that ODC Travel was the clear winner. In addition to receiving excellent reviews on all of the major travel sites, the company name is one letter off from the name of my favorite Wu Tang member. I paid $159 for a 3 day/2 night trip to Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay with transportation and meals included. The budget places offer comparable trips from around $50. ODC gives you two payment options. You can pay with credit card and a 3% service charge that is from “your bank” but is included in the charge, or you can pay in dong at an exchange rate of 21000 dong/$1. The actual exchange rate is 20500/1. I should have called shenanigans and gone elsewhere, but I did not. The ATM machine near the agency was not working and I had to walk a couple minutes to find one that was functional. When I returned, the exchange rate was 20500/1. I’m not sure if it was because I’m devilishly handsome, or to compensate me for the trouble, but I’ll go with the former. Between the price and the reviews, I had high expectations. I have not gone on any of the budget trips, so I can’t say what they are like, but I’m trying to imagine getting an experience comparatively bad enough to justify paying 3x as much. The actual tour excluded several things from the itinerary that is posted both online and at the agency. The “cooking demonstration to learn how to prepare some Vietnamese dishes with our professional chefs” turned out to be the tour guide making a sloppy spring roll. The “free drink” that was given on the conclusion of the first day was cheap vodka with a squeeze of lemon and no ice. Not a single person finished it. The complimentary fruit that came with the beverage was apple that was cut with a knife that had been used to cut garlic. Water on the boat was 7.5x the price on the mainland. “Paddle from Luon Cave toward islets in shape of Man’s head island” ended up being a trip on the small boat to Pearl Tourist (trap) Center. In a country where people don’t tip, we were strongly pressured to tip on both the main boat we slept on and the smaller boat that took some of us to Lan Ha Bay. When I asked for my change back after paying for overly priced drinks on the small boat, the crew asked if I had a nice time today and tried to walk away. It took some serious negotiation just to get my change back. The third day was spent entirely on the boat, and for the last 2 hours we were anchored 30 meters from the dock. Instead of letting us deboat, we were trapped on board in the heat and repeatedly offered grossly overpriced drinks. Now that my rant is over, Halong Bay itself is amazing. It is absolutely gorgeous there, and despite ODC, it was still worthwhile just to visit these amazing places. The bay is in the running for being one of the 7 natural wonders of the world and deserves to make the final cut. There are a LOT of tourists and 700 tourist boats there, but that is not enough to detract from the natural beauty. My suggestion would be to go through a budget/budgetish place and roll the dice. I would definitely not recommend going through ODC.

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