So…many of you know we are not big fans of group tours. Every once in a great while they work out at least half-way decently (see here), but most of the time they involve lots of hurry up and wait and uncomfortable travel and bad food. Query then why we decided to book a day trip to Bai Dinh and Trang An? In retrospect, I have no idea…. And let this little post be a Life Lessons 101 Mastercourse to all of you as to why group tours generally suck.
We booked through our Hanoi hotel. Always a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea, but we were booking remotely and knew we wouldn’t have time to book a tour when we arrived back in Hanoi after our amazing trip to Mai Chau. Our hotel promised us a “deluxe” tour and that by paying a little bit extra (yeah, if you consider $20 a little bit) we would get both better transportation and better food. Our hotel also promised we were paying $10 less than the general public. We take everything with a grain of salt in Vietnam, but in this case we needed an entire salt mine.
Things got off to a great start when the tour guide and bus showed up at our hotel 10 minutes early. We rushed downstairs, but the bus left without us. The hotel said “no worries, they will pick other people up and be back in 10 minutes.” So we waited, and waited, and waited. Oh, and while we waited we got to listen in on somebody’s video call with a Spanish toddler having a meltdown. Big fun! After some 40 minutes of sitting in the hotel lobby, the bus finally returned.
At first, I was pretty stoked that we didn’t have to sit on the bus for 40 minutes while other guests were picked up around the city. However, when we finally got on the bus, the only seats left were the two in front. Our initial thoughts were “great, Lisa won’t get car sick.” That lasted all of about 30 seconds. And, then we realized our seats were narrow. Very, very narrow. Why? Because our bus had a fold down seat in our row, that was folded up into our seats. Now we understood why these “prime” seats were still available after nearly everyone had been picked up. Lovely…..there were only 5 hours to go in those seats…..
Once everyone was on the bus, the “English speaking tour guide” gave a short little speech about our upcoming day. At which point we realized our guide’s English was seriously deficient. Oh happy, happy, joy, joy.
We also learned at this point that our tour was run by a company called Go Asia Travel. And, guess what? The advertised rate on their website was exactly what we paid. Not $10 less as promised. (I guess we should be glad we didn’t pay even more than the posted rate….although we no doubt paid more than some people on our trip who bargained in person with a travel agent.)
As I was researching the on-line rate of our tour, I noticed something curious. Our “professional” guide was studying about Buddhism so she could tell us about it later in the day. Hmm….one would think a “professional” guide in Vietnam taking tourists to a Buddhist temple would already know the key facts about Buddhism…. But, clearly not.
After an hour or so in our cramped seats, it was time for a 25 minute rest break. Because, apparently, grown-ass adults can’t hold it for the two hours it would have taken to drive to our first stop. Oh, wait, we can, but then there would be no excuse to stop at a tourist gift shop selling overpriced junk that nobody should even consider buying and disgustingly filthy bathrooms.
After the break, we got back into our cramped seats and the guide tried to tell us about Bai Dinh. But first she gave us a little lecture on Christianity, telling us who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. Um, why???? (She didn’t even describe it accurately). Then she told us how Buddhists believe in reincarnation. (I’m not sure she described that accurately either, but don’t know enough about Buddhism to say so definitively). Nobody really paid much attention to her because everyone was trying to sleep. So, a few minutes later, she came up to Robert and I and said she didn’t think her speech was interesting enough so she wanted to practice giving it to me. We didn’t really have a choice, so we sat and listened to the speech a second time. Then, she gave the same speech to the Vietnamese couple behind us (in Vietnamese). Then, she gave it again to the entire bus. I can vouch for the fact that it wasn’t interesting any of the four times we listened to it.
Finally, we arrived at Bai Dinh. The guide told us about three times that we had 1.5 hours at Bai Dinh. And, then she proceeded to run us around the complex and finish the tour in 45 minutes. No great disappointment though, as the temples at Bai Dinh are some of the most stark, boring, and empty temples we have seen.
The guide also told us repeatedly that the biggest Buddha in South East Asia is at Bai Dinh. Except, yeah, no. We have seen bigger Buddhas with our own eyes in Thailand. So, our guide pretty much had no idea what she was talking about. (Turns out, the complex is the largest complex of Buddhist temples in Vietnam. Just a teeny, tiny little distinction, right?)
Next stop was lunch. Our “deluxe” lunch was a buffet that had been sitting there too long so everything was cold. And bees swarmed us while we were trying to eat. Never fear though, the restaurant told people “the bees never bite.” Yeah, if I know one thing, it is that there is always a first time for everything….
Then it was time for a bike ride. This was the actual highlight of the entire day, even though it only lasted about 45 minutes. The bikes were in good shape and the scenery was stunning. And, our guide didn’t even try to talk to us about where we were or what we were seeing. She did, however, insist that my seat was high enough when it clearly was not. (Don’t worry, Robert fixed it for me when she wasn’t looking).
Then it was back on the bus for our boat ride. Trang An is a UNESCO site and it is quite beautiful. A river flows through various caves and mountains and rice fields. Stunning, really. Except for the 1000’s of boats full of tourists wearing life jackets. Seriously, we all had to wear life jackets even though though there were literally boats everywhere and anyone who can swim could have easily made it to shore. (I’m honestly not even sure if the water was over my head). And, for two hours we sat in a boat on a hard wooden seat without any cushions. Getting hit in the back with oars almost every time the boat driver paddled. And we had to share the boat with another couple. (Remember, “deluxe” transportation….) Who sat right in front of us so we couldn’t actually see the caves. Or take many photos without their heads popping into the photos. And then the boat driver, who hadn’t even acknowledged us once during the entire two hour boat ride, started begging us for a tip. A tip she likely would have gotten if she hadn’t begged but didn’t get because she did beg.
Our guide didn’t bother to tell us this, but the movie Kong Island was filmed in Trang An and the movie set is still there. Actually, I read it is a recreated set. We didn’t get to see it though, as for reasons completely unknown to us, our boat tour didn’t stop there….
Finally, the boat ordeal was over and we got back in the bus for the long drive back to Hanoi. Never fear, we had the obligatory rest stop at the same cheap tourist shop. Where, once again, nobody bought anything.
Back on the bus, the guide asked everyone to fill in a survey form. Which she then proceeded to read (to herself) in front of us. And then, just as we were pulling into Hanoi, she gave a little speech about how bad she felt that not everyone enjoyed the tour. And then called us out in front of the entire bus and told the entire bus that we didn’t have a good day. You know what, I’m pretty sure nobody had a good day and we were just more honest than others.
It will be a very long time before we take another group tour…. (Somebody, please remind me of that if you ever hear we are considering another one).
All that said, Trang An was stunning. We would highly recommend going there on your own, staying a couple of nights, renting a scooter, and exploring. We sure wish we had done that instead of a day trip. Next time, right?