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)
Wow! I don’t even know what to say. Except…didn’t all the complaining about review sites give you a littler heads up? I have never seen a tour company advertise by saying the reviews are false ones made by competitors. Anyway, thanks for the heads up. Not sure when (or if) I will make it to Viet Nam, but will be sure not to use the REAL Kangaroo tours…I’ll look for the fake ones. And I’m glad no one fucked you up. I would hate it if you weren’t able to write about these adventures.
Yeah… we did think he was a bit paranoid based on their website, but then we saw the fake shops here! Another (much better) tour operator we used, the Sinh Tourist, had a fake version of themselves directly opposite them! And at least six more on the same street… SUCH a weird country for that. But I’m also pleased not to have ended up in hospital. Wouldn’t do well on my week-long Mongolian horse-trek if my ass had already been kicked!!
Personally I think the worst thing was that even though the website goes on and on about customer service and “call us if your beer is too hot or your coffee too cold”, when our two faced guides finally let us call the boss he went on a verbal rampage and threatened us and accused us if “bullying” the guides, well we have many photos of the guides sprawled on the deck chairs having a good time with us so that was a lie too!
All in all, never use this company, I think the good reviews were from people who were put on the good boats and didnt have two itineraries squashed into one.
Also… When we asked Max about how many stars the boat we were on had first he went on about how none of the boats have star ratings, yet the one next to us owned by the same tourist compantnhad 3 gold stars prominintly displayed! Then he went off on a tangent about how ” no hotel or boat in the world cant get more than 2 stars if they dont have a lift!”
A very rude man who talks over you constantly and personally insulted my friend for having “a nervous laugh” during his tirade, well of course we were nervous, he had a video camera in our faces and was ranting at us after threatening us! What a Douch Canoe!
Oh yeah – and you forgot that as one of the girls from our trip went to use the bathroom in the Kangaroo Cafe, Max muttered “Fucking women!” behind her. As though the other 5 women weren’t stood right there?!
I wouldn’t have touched them with a barge pole after checking Trip Advisor…….I recently did a trip through Cat Ba Island which was fine……avoided Hanoi scams and idiots like this Max geezer. Thought it was common knowledge about these risks – various travel publications write about it. I’d tell anyone to go Lan Ha via Cat Ba on a one or two day tour and leave it at that. Nice scenery but rubbish everywhere and general experience over-hyped. Other parts of Vietnam definitely beat the northern karsts for tourist experiences.
Yeah, I feel like a proper idiot for not doing enough research! We actually booked this trip months ago, from Perth, and only went with this company based on the strength of the Lonely Planet recommendation (we got the ‘Vietnam Guide from the library!). Now, having seen first-hand how bad it can be in Hanoi, I’m starting to think there are more scams than legitimate operators – and that it’s best not to do much of anything there! Apart from maybe catch a train further south…
The whole trip sounds like a nightmare! I’m glad you made it through. And remember, the more adversities you go through, the more interesting chapters you will have. If your entire trip went smoothly you’d have a boring book!
That’s just what I’ve been telling the girls! It stops them crying at times, but I don’t think it makes them super-eager to keep on traveling with me… for some reason… :0)
Wow, what a horrible experience! Naming & shaming is definitely the way to go, hopefully it’ll save others from having to go through something like that. I read this article & it did make me wonder whether Vietnam would be somewhere I would like to go……..somewhere in the gazillion comments it is mentioned that a group of travellers were killed during a boat trip to Ha Long bay because of being taken out in stormy weather. Of course it was all kept on the low low. Take a peep http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-blogs/why-ill-never-return-to-vietnam/ Thank god you guys are all ok……sending you our love xxx
Yeah, we’re all good! Apparently boats have been known to sink there – that’s why they’re all painted white now, so they are less likely to collide at night! But the best thing to do is to avoid using a dodgy company, that can put you on a unsafe boat. Which is what we thought we’d done… D’OH! In fairness though, this boat wasn’t unsafe – it was just the mental state of the owner than made us feel endangered!
Luckily, I didn’t have any issues using boats in Thailand but I dreaded taking the night boat to Surat and never felt safe using the Haad Rin Queen. The quality of the boats, overloading, whether the Capt or crew members had a little too much whiskey last night or for breakfast!! Strangely enough, I felt pretty safe on the long tails crossing to Burma…..I think in SE Asia in general it can be difficult using transportation of any kind if safety issues are forefront at your mind…..but you don’t want to be worrying about that when you’ve booked a tour and want to enjoy the trip! For sure, whenever we get to go back to that part of the world I’m bringing Sushi her own life jacket for any boat rides!! And a kid sized motorbike helmet!!
Funnily enough, this headline popped up in my inbox from a subscription. In fairness the Capt saved the day and luckily no-one was hurt. As far as I know, this is not a good time of year over by the west coast for travelling on the seas as the monsoon is kicking in. Thought I’d share it with you seeing as we’re discussing same!
I can’t imagine any reason I would ever travel to Vietnam… but good advice for my more adventurous friends.
I’m a little amazed they actually gave you life-vests for the canoes.. thought maybe you have those little blow-up arm floaties with ducks on them..
Glad you protected the woman-folk by whimpering and wetting yourself (I can read between the lines, my friend…) 🙂
Good luck on horseback! We all know how well THAT goes!!
::mwah:: to you both !!
Wimped out???! Why, I’ll have you know, I… I… was, um, entirely useful in a moral support role throughout most of the process! Except for the REALLY nasty parts… so there! To even suggest that I may have wimped out, is to force me to address certain aspects of my character which I’m far too scared to look at right now…
And as for the horses, I can say only two words: Wooden. Saddles. Oh, and I’d like to make an involuntary noise, too: aaaaaaaahhhhhkkkkk…
Not wimped out… more like self-preservation! Who among us wouldn’t do the same! :0)
And oh, the horses… now those two words intrigue me… hmmm.
Nothin’ but love, Tony!!
I can certainly understand your outrage, normally you are the only physical risk to yourself. You aren’t used to danger from outside yourself. 🙂
I was in a similar situation in Uganda at the Impenetrable Forest. It was our 2nd night in Africa and found ourselves in the middle of no where, in the dark, faced with being put in this bunker of a hostel that I hadn’t booked. Thankfully our driver was sympathetic and allowed me to call his boss, who had taken our money, and yell at him for about 30 minutes until he arranged for us to stay at a much better place but we had to pay extra! Any way, at some point when the adrenaline had subsided I had a moment of lucidity of how vulnerable we really were. But we all survived and it does make a good travel story.
Scary, eh! It’s funny – everyone has their horror stories about their travels, and whenever I think I’m hard-done by, I find someone who had a worse experience… I was going on (and on!) about this incident to the bloke in the bunk next to me in my hostel in Mongolia, sharing my disbelief with him at how out of proportion it had all gotten. He replied with a story of his own… that in Guatamala he was kidnapped by an armed gang, and made to kneel at gunpoint for a whole day – while the ‘soldiers’ raped all the women in his group. Eventually they were all let go, but it took him a long time to get over the anger he felt towards his abductors…
Holy SHIT!!! So then I was like, “Oh. Yeah. Kind of makes my experience look a little less threatening…” :0)
Shit, forgot why I came here to give you a link to a cool site you might like – http://jumpforjoyphotoproject.wordpress.com where you can post your pictures of leaping people. I got so involved in your story of extreme danger.
Awesome, cheers for that! I’ll go check it out – if the Great Firewall of China will let me…
Bwahaha! This story cracked me up. Tales of revenge fantasies about pissed off store owners tickle me I guess. It’s a guilty pleasure, but I’d like to (assuming someday I have a blog as successful as yours) encounter such a douchebag and flame his business on my site. Ah, the simple joys of a rant. Thanks for the funny tale.
Cheers Kevin! It’s probably not very professional of me, to use my blog to give shit to someone who’s already full of it – but then, I’m rarely accused of being professional! I don’t think it’s too hard to have a blog this succesful – because I only have about 8 readers! But cheers for the nice words, anyhow! As an interesting development in the story, I wrote to Lonely Planet, who have now removed the Kangaroo Cafe from the latest edition of the Vietnam guidebook, and after he published all our passport details on his website (??!!) – God only knows why – I reported him to about half a dozen consumer complaints commissions, the Aussie Embassy, Trading Standards et al. Doubt much will ever come of it, but for a while if anyone Google’s ‘Kangaroo Cafe Scam’ – they’ll come straight here… :0)
In fairness, I did warn him – that I was a travel writer – only after I’d tried to nresolve our issues diplomatically… He replied by telling me that he was too. “Where are you published?” I asked. “Oh, you’ll find out!” he warned. Well, you know what? I’ve had a look around, and I never did find what or where he got published…
I checked out the website, and I think this guy must be related to the people who run Amy’s Baking Company! The very first thing on the page is a reference to your post, and the link takes you to a huge rant where he lists all the online criticism he has ever received. Uh, don’t you realize you’re just making it obvious how terrible your business is?? It’s littered with insults. I don’t understand why these sort of people would ever go into a “customer service” industry.
I know!! That is what I find to be the strangest thing about this whole situation. If you’re in the customer service industry, how better to recruit more willing customers than to plaster your official company website with insults to the last customer that complained! But they do it all over the site – there’s a rather sarcastic bit about how people have complained “though not many!” about their site being hard to use, so he’s put in a sarcastic message and some buttons which say ‘click here with your mouse…’ Jeez! Talk about trying to piss people off before they even get in the door!
In their collection of pictures supposedly taken in the last 17 years are what look to be photos from a movie, or taken on a movie set?? At very least, the people are definitely in costume. Does this not look like a movie still of some sort? http://www.kangaroocafe.com/Stone_Pagoda.jpg
And that is just weird. Must have been a mistaken upload… but I guess I should be thankful it isn’t my face with a cock in my mouth… that does seem to be a theme of his…