I woke up anxious. I had a big day of work ahead of me. But today, work didn’t take place in an organized office, but in the unrestrained chaos of the Old Quarter in Hanoi. Today, work wasn’t a deadline or a class to teach, but a few trips around Northern Vietnam to plan. Today, this type of task should have been exciting, but within the traffic congested alleys of Hanoi with absolutely no idea where to start, it did feel like work. There were a few reasons for this.
First, Simon and I had been traveling without using any guided tours or travel agencies for 4 months by that time. In fact, we’d both only used organized trips a handful of times in the last few years. You could say we had become pretty self-sufficient. We were also becoming a bit lazy and spoiled, too. It was a combination of these three characteristics that made anything requiring more than one week of forethought a major decision. Today, this is what we needed to do.
In northern Vietnam, trips like a cruise in Ha Long Bay, (a 3-4 hour drive from Hanoi) or trekking in Sapa, (near the border with China) require an organized journey, so this pre-planning is necessary. Though you could get to each of the destinations independently, once there, both expeditions require a guide, which are usually arranged in Hanoi. Things get complicated when you factor in all the different ways to book these tours, 100 different tour operators to choose from and hundreds of dollars in price differences. Next, add in the constant reminders of rampant scams across the country, especially within tour operators, and you could say the task was daunting. In Hanoi, booking an organized tour actually felt like a tricky labyrinth to navigate through, or a battleground which required a game-plan to conquer.
“Why am I so stressed about this? What do you mean why am I so stressed about this? Because these trips are so important ,of course!” I snapped.
Simon didn’t feel the same anxiety as I did over entering The Battle of Tour Operators. He might not of understood why all of the sudden these specific trips were so much more important than all the others we had been doing for the last few months.
For one, the prior week in Cambodia I hit a traveling rock-bottom. I was tired, cranky, emotional and Simon and I were not always getting along. I didn’t want to keep moving around, or leave behind clothes in hostel rooms, or feel dirty and sweaty anymore. I didn’t want to purchase anymore bus tickets which gave empty promises (a 5 hour VIP bus turning into a 10 hour local bus). I was ready to throw in the sarong, and I considered cutting the trip short and putting my dreams of visiting Vietnam on hold. Yet regardless of how exhausted I felt, Simon and I talked through it. We decided to make a pack to have a fresh start in Vietnam and have the best three weeks possible. We knew it was only a matter of time before we would be on our way to my hometown with comfort and ease in the palm of our hands. So, I arrived in Hanoi motivated and ready to conquer anything that came our way, including scams and organized tours.
There was no way I was letting some sleezy tour operator be in control of my plans. No one was going to sell me a high priced cruise for a trip on a floating shack. No way, not this time. Especially, not when Ha Long Bay was supposed to be one of the most beautiful places in Vietnam, let alone South East Asia. When I left the hostel, I had my game face on.
“1. Ha Long Bay Cruise, 2. Trekking trip to Sapa, 3. Our bus ticket from the top of Vietnam to the bottom. That’s what we need to achieve today.” I was more muttering to myself than talking to Simon. I held out three fingers as if I didn’t wan’t to forget the checklist.
Though the hostel we were staying at was top-notch and one I recommend, the May De Ville, the man at the tour desk seemed way too eager to sell his tours and we just didn’t have a good feeling about him. We decided to skip that and check out the recommended operators from Lonely Planet. When all of those ended up being overpriced, shut down or lacking in offerings, we stumbled into a random tour operator hoping to just ask some questions and be pointed in the right direction. We had already perused 20 different tours and were getting confused and tired.
An hour later we were still there, chatting with the witty, charismatic pregnant Ms. Ling, as she told us about all of the different options we could do, and all the different price ranges they could be at. These tours sound great! She seems like such a nice lady! She even picked fun at Vietnamese tourists! Hey, the prices weren’t bad either!
“Okay, let’s just do it. We have been looking long enough.” I confidently belted as I closed the cruise brochure.
“Cool, but are you sure?” Simon hesitantly questioned. If I wasn’t confident with it, he knew I would be freaking out later.
“Well….we SHOULD go look at the reviews for this place. But I really like this lady, she has been so helpful, I don’t think she is scamming us…”
We paid a deposit, said our goodbyes and happily strutted back to our hotel. I was so glad the search was over! I couldn’t wait to get to Ha Long Bay, and also trek the mountains of Sapa. Also, once we were done with both trips we already had our bus tickets to get all the way to Ho Chi Minh City. Wow, it’s actually nice to have a scheduled itinerary for a change!
Hmm…let me just check out the tour agency’s website….
Can you guess what happened next? Well, the email she had given us didn’t match the email listed on the website. The address on the website wasn’t the same as the address we had just visited. The phone numbers weren’t even the same. We had indeed chosen a fake tour operator.
Though I knew there were a lot of scams going on within the tours, I never read about fake tour agencies. It turns out, these are shop fronts selling tours, which do happen to be real tours, but are doing so by using the website and name of a more prestigious, recommended and successful operator. In this case, ours was a fake “Sinh Cafe.” There seems to be about 20 fake Sinh Cafes scattered around the Old Quarter in Hanoi, and this made it impossible to find reviews online for any specific one. Trip Advisor listed tons of reviews for Sinh Cafe, but all from different locations. From these reviews, some people had a great time (maybe on a tour from the original agency, who knows) but others had unfortunate experiences which included things from rats on deck to an accidental cockroach in the tofu.
I was instantly infuriated. How could I have been so dumb? This is that LAST thing I wanted to happen! I put my shoes back on and told Simon he can come with me or not, but I was going to demand our money back!
Do you think I got my money back? Nope. She didn’t let that happen so easily. Instead, we spent another hour with her
talking about our concerns as I threatened how serious I was about the quality of this tour. I also threatened that I would expose her over the internet if things didn’t go as promised. (Who was I?!) After four months in South East Asia, you could say I had my fill of being ripped off, and it wasn’t going to happen again. Yes, I was acting like a complete lunatic, but going to Ha Long Bay and trekking in Sapa were things I had been looking forward to the whole trip! I was going to do all in my power to make sure Simon and I had the best time.
After being such a nuisance to her, probably the most annoying customers she had all day (possibly week) she ended up letting us pay for half then, and half when we came back, just to make us more comfortable. She promised that if things didn’t go as promised, or the quality wasn’t as promised, we didn’t have to pay at all.
At that point we were in fact more comfortable, and somehow were even convinced to upgrade to take the train to Sapa instead of a bus. It was more expensive, but she promised we would be much happier with the train than the overnight bus. Damn, she was good. Maybe she was being honest? I mean, she was pregnant, and how can you not trust a pregnant lady??
We left the office and decided it was now up to the travel gods, and out of our hands.
So what happened next? This….
This fake tour operator, which used another company’s website and name, hooked us up with a great trip to Sapa, a fantastic car on the train and the most amazing 3 day cruise we could have asked for. We got the best room on the cruise and the best room when we docked on a private island. For the full three days we were served fantastic food. We had a sweet tour guide who tended to our needs (of course due to the fact we owed her the rest of our payment). We even had fantastic weather on the first and second day, which the operator had nothing to do with, but it didn’t hurt. Within a few days, we had gone from paranoid penny-pinchers to luxury travelers.
We came back after our tours and raved about how amazing they were. We thanked Ms. Ling over and over. That night, it was time to leave Northern Vietnam, and catch our first overnight bus south bound. In Vietnam, you buy one bus ticket which stretches the whole length of Vietnam, but can get off and on wherever you please. We would be heading to Hue first, and as we waited to be taken to the bus, Ms. Ling helped us buy some lychee fruit on the street so we could have snacks for it.
“Thanks again! Good luck with the baby! Bye!” and we walked off towards a white van making its rounds with other backpackers.
We went to pick up person after person, all of whom barely fit in the van. While this was typical of South East Asia, we found out something a little out of the ordinary. Everyone in the van had been told different times the main bus would depart. We were then taken to a small shop on a random busy road to wait. It took almost two hours from the time we were initially picked up to the time the bus turned up.
We stepped on, ready for the overnight 12 hour journey, but as we tried to squeeze through the aisles I felt confused. Everyone was pushing and rushing to get a good seat. Wait, why were these “sleeper” seats so shorts and narrow? Why did it look so old? Hey, this isn’t like the other luxurious buses I’ve seen… Surely the fabulous Ms. Ling put us on the best one….
As I scrunched my way into the sleeper seat and tried to make myself comfortable for the big journey ahead, I spoke to one of the other backpackers on the bus. “How much did you guys pay for this ticket?” I mentioned.
“$35. But I hear we got ripped off, you can get them for as little as $20. This is the worst company too.”
I clenched my fist and scrunched my face. We had paid $55 each. All that concern about the Ha Long Bay cruise and the charming Ms. Ling snuck in and ripped us off with the bus ticket. How was it that I was so paranoid and she STILL managed to pull a fast one on us? Man, she was gooood.
When it comes to avoiding being ripped off in South East Asia, you win some, you lose some. Luckily, we won with the Ha Long Bay cruise and the trip to Sapa, which were the most important. Sadly, we lost in the fact we still had 1,070 miles (1,726 km) to travel on the oldest, worst quality sleeper buses around Vietnam.
Need more information on booking tours to Sapa and Ha Long Bay in Hanoi? My next post will include tips and what to look for, so check back!
Or if you want more information on this fake vs. real Sinh Cafe business? Read this blog post by No Place to Be, here.