We interrupt this blog for a newsflash!
Ladies and gentlemen, I have finally received… my first ever death-threat!
I know, I know. I’m surprised it took so long, too. But the amazing thing was, this didn’t come from some disgruntled reader or an enraged literary critic (though I’m sure a few of the latter are hunting me down for crimes against the English Language) – oh, no.
This threat – to “fuck me up” – came from one of the least-expected places; it was from the owner of a tour company, whose boat tour I was currently on. I wasn’t particularly happy with it, so I complained – and the result was a phone call from the boss, which was a torrent of abuse from start to finish. Oh, but the threat to fuck me up was apparently not a threat; it was “a guarantee”.
Presumably he didn’t know at the time that I was a travel writer.
What makes me laugh a little – now that I’m safely tucked away in my Hanoi hotel, and the immediate fear of enforced hospitalization has passed – is that, he’s probably threatened dozens of people, just like this, when they tried to complain to him. And I bet quite a few of them tried to convince him they were travel writers, or lawyers, just to assuage that horrible feeling of powerlessness you get when someone far higher up the food chain takes a dump on you.
But luckily for me, I am a travel writer. And luckier still, he didn’t believe me – or else he probably would have made good on his threat. Sorry, I mean his ‘guarantee’.
So! Mr Max Hart, of The ‘Real’ Kangaroo Café in Hanoi, Vietnam – stand up and be counted! You are now two things to me: 1): the first person ever to directly threaten to fuck me up (or, a little later in the same conversation, to have your friends wait at the docks to fuck me up); and 2) the best example of the worst customer service I have EVER experienced. Ever!
Oh, and am I allowed 3? An absolute, complete-and-utter wanker.
The thing is, I’m laughing about it now – or trying to. I don’t want to let one incident sour my experience of Vietnam, although my sister-in-law – who is new to traveling – is already starting to wish she’d never left Perth. Because, less than 24 hours ago, this situation was deadly-serious. There were nine of us on that boat; six young ladies and three fellas. I was the oldest person present (though admittedly not the most mature… :0) Now, I don’t know if any of you have formed an opinion of me after reading my books, but if you have I’m sure you’ll know that I’m a towering inferno of incandescent rage and violence… Or, um… not? Yeah, well. I think of nearly nine-billion people living on this planet at the moment, I am less intimidating than at least eight-and-a-half-billion of them. Hell, Mother Teresa could take me in a fight – and she’s dead! So to be threatened, verbally, very aggressively, and repeatedly, is not something I’m great at dealing with. But because my wife and her younger sister were amongst the passengers on the boat, I tried to laugh it off as the empty posturing of a man with a very small dick.
I was, however, a bit scared. Because we were totally at the mercy of this man. Floating in a quiet lagoon, at night, miles from anywhere. Outnumbered by the ship’s Vietnamese crew, our only neighbours a handful of other boats belonging to the same company… We had no allies, no language skills, and none of our mobile phones worked in the lagoon. Not that there was anyone we could have called. The guides, at their insistence, had kept all our ‘spare’ money, so that there was no chance the boat crew could steal it – which didn’t make us feel a whole lot better about the boat crew. Or the guides. It was slowly dawning on us just how precarious our position was, what with the mega-rich boss of the whole tour company personally threatening to have his associates attack us. ‘What if they came now?’ we thought. By tender (small transfer boat), from one of the other boats? What if he called a dodgy mate and asked him to send some guys to raid our boat? My traitorous mind kept imagining the conversation: “Yeah, only nine of ‘em. Six are chicks. No, the boat crew won’t stop you, I’ve told ‘em to let you in. Yeah, just fuck them over, take all their shit and give ‘em a bloody good kicking, then bugger off. I’ll get the crew to report a random robbery by no-one they recognised…”
When our own tender fired up its engine left our boat for no immediately apparent reason around 11pm, and was gone for an hour, some of us were close to tears. I *may* have been amongst them – but internally, of course. Had to be a man in front of the ladies…
When dawn came, and we were still un-fucked-up, I have to say I was over-joyed. Maybe it had been the empty posturing of a man with a very small dick. But the tension aboard was still so strong that only two people dared stay aboard for the remaining day and night of the cruise they’d booked. The rest of us demanded to be taken back to Hanoi as soon as we made landfall for lunch.
I was rather pleased to be back on dry land.
I hadn’t realised until then just how tense I’d been. Suddenly, back on land, where escape was as simple as walking across the road and jumping on a bus, I felt much safer. I felt lighter, looser, like I could relax. Our guides took us back in their bus, and for the first time I thought there might actually NOT be a gang of Vietnamese gangsters waiting for us when we got there…
But enough of such ranting! Let me dig out a few photos to illustrate the rather disappointing experience that was the (apparently famous) Kangaroo Café’s overnight boat trip to Ha Long Bay.
The boat! She’s a beauty, ain’t she? Pity it wasn’t the boat we paid to be on. All the Kangaroo Café’s brochures tout their amazing boat, and go to great lengths to explain that having their own boat guarantees top quality. Other tour operators offering the same trip for far less money have been known to dump tourists in whatever boat is available, often a far crappier one than was advertised. Not so this Café! They only ever use their own boat. Except for us, who they dumped in whatever boat was available. And it was crap.
The Amazing Cave! If ‘lacklustre’ was short of a dictionary definition, we could quite easily substitute this rather uninspiring cave.
I mean, I LOVE the natural world, and I adore adventure caving. I’ll be blogging about it next week, in fact. But the Amazing Cave was shit. I should have known, with a name like ‘Amazing’ that it would be an anticlimax, but I honestly think the bloke who named it was taking the piss. Unless he called it ‘Shit Cave’ until the PR boys put their spin on it.
I will admit though, that it was amazing how fast we got through the place. Up the steps to it, around the cave, back down and back on the boat in a little over 20 minutes. I don’t know how we’d have managed it without our guide shouting at us constantly to keep moving, and not to keep stopping for photographs. I wasn’t crushed though, as I’ve got plenty of photos of caves that weren’t shit, and I was in need of a good sprint. And anyway, this cave wasn’t the tour’s main selling point. The selling point was a different cave we were supposed to be kayaking around – and the fantastic beach we were going to be visiting afterwards…
Kayaking was set to be the highlight of the day, especially for my sister-in-law Vicky, who has never been in a kayak before. Luckily my wife has, and she was able to give her a bit of instruction, as our guide didn’t bother – he just pointed towards an area behind the tour boat and said, “go to the island with the temple on top.” What was funny, was he put me on my own in the front of a two-man canoe, and I spent the next ten minutes canoeing around and around in circles! Then Roo pointed out that kayaks are impossible to steer from the front, and held the thing steady while I climbed into the back. And then I could start going forwards at last!
Ten minutes after that, the kayaking was done. Our whole group had arrived at the island, and were waiting just off the beach, as instructed. The next ten minutes were spent being sworn at violently in Vietnamese by the drivers of dozens of tender boats that were criss-crossing that stretch of water, ferrying happy beach-goers back to their tour boats. I was nearly hit by a few of them, as they didn’t seem all that keen to avoid me. “Fuck off!” I yelled at the captain of yet another boat, as he screamed “MOVE, MOVE!” and ploughed his tender straight towards me.
Another twenty minutes passed. I was a bit pissed off now, as I’d paid extra for an hour’s kayaking. In a cave. So far it had consisted mostly of dragging myself out of the path of belligerent tender-boat pilots, whilst waiting to be picked up. By the time our guide arrived, the whole group was scared – a bit panicked even – and mightily pissed off.
“The rules change!” our guide told us. “Can’t get out here. Now you have to go back where you come from!”
“There’s too many boats,” I told him. “Too dangerous!”
“No, must go back!”
No-one seemed keen. In the least. And it was starting to get quite late. So, one by one we paddled up to the docks, helped each other out of our kayaks, and left them with our guide. I narrowly avoided leaving a few four-letter words with him, too, but I managed to remain civil. And then we headed towards the second-most important venue of the day: the beach!
The Beach! There was a bloody great big sign, which said that the beach shuts at 5:30pm. Can anyone guess what time we arrived?
“This must be a new rule!” our guide declared, when I told him we’d been refused entry. So I showed him the sign, which had been pointed out to me by the beach’s security guards. “Ah,” he said. “Sorry. My fault.”
Yes, quite. But never mind, it only cost us a hundred bucks each to come here.
Still, you’ve gotta have what fun you can, eh? Tim here is showing me the true meaning of power…
Although, the boat crew came up and gave us a bollocking for this afterwards. Something about not jumping any more because the deck was breaking…
And, finally… I know it’s a bit small-minded and petty, but it’s amazing how someone threatening to ‘fuck me up’ can put me in a petty mood. So here’s a link to the Kangaroo Café’s website. I invite you to visit it, and marvel – because it truly does look like it was designed as a school project. By an eight-year-old. With ADD. In 1987. What’s not to love? :0)
Oh, and if you’re ever in Hanoi – or anyone you’ve ever known is heading that way – PLEASE tell them not to go near the Kangaroo Cafe, their dubious tours, or their psychotically deranged manager. They’re listed in Lonely Planet – which is why we paid extra to book with them – but I’m getting in touch with the LP staff now, so that should be sorted out soon enough… :0)
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