• Joanna

Jona Birda

I spent a large portion of last evening haggling with the hotel 'tour concierge' over the tour I wanted to take today.

The tour was a Full Day Hoa Lu & Tam Coc. In a nutshell;


Hoa Lu is an ancient capital and Tam Coc (meaning '3 caves') features karst formations and caves that guests explore by boat.


Sounded very similar to every other tour I've done thus far, but the pictures of Tam Coc were so alluring... and the lush green valley looked pretty... it was difficult to talk myself out of doing it. So I figured it would be one more day of enriching my historical knowledge and my last day of appreciating the Vietnamese countryside. And it would also fill my day with culture, as opposed to wandering aimlessly, shopping, eating and wine. When I first sat down with the concierge, I showed him the online tour that I had been comtemplating booking. It was easy enough for me to press 'BOOK,' pay via credit card (in my own currency) and be done with it.  But I was trying to do the hotel a solid and give them the booking opportunity.


I'm really nice...

He immediately lunged in to this huge spiel about how he had the opportunity to book this unbelievable tour that I would absolutely love... exactly the same one as I'd shown him.  The only difference was that he had slightly more photos in his 'tour book,' providing the wow factor and giving the false impression that it was more than what it actually was. Same tour... OK... I'll bite.


How much?


He offered me a steal of a deal at $60 US. I don't know if I choked more on my own disgust or my astonishment! My tour on line was $46 Canadian. $60 US does not equal $46 Canadian... nor is it a deal, any way you look at it. $60 US equals $79.42.

Beat it. So here I find myself, tired... cranky... needing food (not rice)... siting in a muggy hotel lobby, arguing, in broken English, over the vast difference between the American and Canadian dollar.

His next big move was to try and sell me on a slightly upgraded tour, almost identical but including one more stop on the excursion... for the low, low price of....


...$80US...


Gettin' real mad here...


Three times I attempted to get up and walk out, stating that I was perfectly capable of booking my own tour online, in my own currency. Three times, he called me back to work a deal. His next move (and he definitely deserves points for trying) was conceding to finally sell me my tour of choice at my requested $46. OK.

Perfect. He then proceeded to take out his handy little calculator... did all his magic little conversions to Vietnamese dong... and showed me the total of 1,078,305 dong that I owed him for the tour now! But my sneaky little concierge friend was not sneaky enough to fool me! He was doing conversion from American currency- NOT Canadian. It was beyond frustrating, sitting directly across from him, watching the wheels of deceit turning like a hamster wheel in his head, Canadian currency would equal 811,180 dong and I wasn't paying ONE dong more. Actually I did pay a done more... because I took pity on this scheming little cad and I let him round it up to 900,000.

Because I'm nice...


I should not have reconsidered my generosity though, as he charged my credit card an extra 3% on top of the 900,000 dong that I had already rounded up. Not impressed. In regards to my artificial lawn hotel, as much as I've already complained... I did manage to leave the key in my door for the entire night. No one broke in to my room to steal my stuff. Maybe they did? I don't know, I was sleeping if they did. Maybe they saw my stuff, decided it was crap, and left. Set my alarm for early to get ready and have the complimentary hotel breakfast...


At around 8:30AM, while I was waiting patiently in the lobby for my $51 tour to show up, this little man ran in, started frantically yelling some random name. Wasn't my name... so I didn't really care and I hardly paid any attention to him.  Everyone else ignored him too... but he kept yelling it.


"Jona Birda!"

"Jona Birda!" "Jona Birda!"

Suddenly I started to recognize the parallels and I made a small gesture, signifying that he might be talking about me... He thrust his clipboard of papers towards me, and I saw my name right there at the top of the tour sheet. Joanna McBride... That's me.


"Is you? Jona Birda?"


Yes... yes, it is.


Close enough... I guess...


I shouldn't grumble. His name was Zoom.

Sounds a bit made up to me... but definitely fitting for the tour guide names I've encountered so far. The tour was confusing.


There were two separate tours on our bus... and two tour guides, to boot. They would stand up in intervals and talk about what we were about to be doing... and then when the questions would start rolling in from different passengers, they would just tell us it didn't matter because we weren't going to be doing that activity... and that would be the end of the discussion. It proved to be very complicated and most of us just decided to shut up and go with the flow.  We would remain happy, curious and surprised...

Our first break was at the ever-typical large warehouse located just outside of town - no great difference from any of the others ones we've come across prior to today. The usual - showcasing handicapped people painting, embroidering and sewing diligently. Everything inside was over priced and staff members were in abundance... following us everywhere, pressuring for a sale. When Zoom got up and announced to all of us that we would be stopping at a nice place for lunch with nice fried rice... I almost plummeted from the bus to my death. BUT I was pleasantly surprised by lunch. It was an enormous buffet, catering to about 30 other groups. In addition to rice and my other new-not-favourites, there was also shrimp & pork salad rolls, satay sauce, French fries, various noodle dishes, fresh fruit, baguettes...


Such a refreshing change!


Everyone in the group was very nice and I ended up being paired off with Stella, a young girl, from Indonesia. Her English was perfect and she had just completed her Masters in Cambridge University, England.  As we were the two singles on the tour, we ended up sitting together on the bus, boating together, biking together...

Now, I kid you not, Stella was Brook Soso from Orange is the New Black. Identical. For all I knew, she could have been that actress. She talked incessantly, fired questions at me all afternoon and I got the impression that she just really wanted to be best friends with everyone. She wore bright red lipstick on and a fair percentage of it stuck to her two front teeth.

The stories behind the temples of Hoa Lu were fascinating. Tales of how the first King rose to power and loved his second son more than the first son... so as legend has it, the first son killed the second son out of jealousy... BUT... in a twist of events, the trusted Captain of the King's army ended up poisoning the King and his first son, so the third son assended the throne at the age of 6... with the help of his mother. Most of the art at Hoa Lu depicted some part of the history in it's carvings and art... like a lady's hand wrapped around the dragon represented the mother of the new King, helping to control all of his moves until he was of age. There were different rooms in the pagodas and temples dedicated to the worship of each King... and surrounding the centre of worship were items such as Dare Butter Cookies, canned kernel corn, beer, fruit juice, rice wine... The collection of sacrifices seemed odd to me. I asked Zoom what the significance behind the corn and cookies was and all I really got out of him was "it's food." Fair enough,

Someone else piped up and mentioned to me that the people like to leave what the Kings enjoyed. I was completely unaware that in the 7th century, Dare Cookies and canned kernel corn existed, but I'm quite proud of this learning journey I'm presently on. There was a room dedicated solely to the worship of Confucius.  I went in there to look around, pay my respects and I was surprised to see that his room was filled with offerings of dragon fruit and grapefruit...


Guess he wasn't a fan of cookies and corn....


Can you blame him?


The boat ride came after lunch... down the winding river through Tam Coc.  Giving credit where credit is due, the ladies and gentlemen that row these boats with their FEET, they're incredible. I thought I had strong legs after this summer, but I had nothing on them.  This is their livelihood!  Rowing us fat, lazy North Americans around each & every day... their muscle mass must be off the charts. I think had it been a 15 minute ride... I would have raved about it... but considering that it was over an hour long, I got bored. I stopped taking pictures because after a while, everything looked the same.  The landscape was very similar to that near Ba Be and Ban Gioc.

At about the half way mark on our journey, we encountered some locals selling the usual supplies - beer, water, pineapple, Oreos, red bull, pop... Adamant to never miss a sale, one of the ladies rowed right up to our boat, offerings in hand , begging us to BUY! BUY! BUY!


No, thank you.


Then she pulled a very sneaky move. She put together a Red bull, some Oreos and a bag of sliced pineapple, then proceeded to hand it to our rower, and said to us "You buy for! He tired! You buy." Without our consent or reprise, the rower took the supplies with a smile on his face and then we were roped in.


"How much?"

"100,000 dong." "No! TOO MUCH."

BIG rip off. HUGE.

So what we tried to do was give the rower the 100,000 dong.. and try to explain to him that he could decide what to do with the money. We knew that there wasn't a chance in hell he would spend 100k on those three items. More than likely, he was probably embarrassed at the position we put him in and went in to self defence mode, pretending he didn't know what we were talking about. Finally we allowed him to keep his goods and handed the 100k dong over- and that was it.  That was his tip and he blew it. I wonder if he lies in bed thinking of all the fun things he could have used that money on.  I do when I'm ripped off. Back to the boat... my ass got sore and my legs started to cramp up. I just can't sit anymore... this coming from someone who is about to embark on a 21.5 hour plane ride home. Did I mention that I've run out of my Restless Leg pills?


Sorry... almost run out...


I have 3 left and I have to save them for the flight or I will literally drop dead.


It's crippling...

Due to our boat excursion being so long and drawn out, we missed our window of opportunity to go biking at our leisure. Instead, we had to follow Zoom along the riverbank at a snails pace, enduring his endless, incomprehensible rambling commentary on pretty much everything and nothing... nothing at all.' He kept stopping us all in EXACTLY the same places that we had previously been in the boat... it was infuriating. "Stop here for to take nice photo"... and he would insist we all adhere to his request / demand. Then I got annoyed and stopped following suit...


Already got a photo here. Thanks, I'm good.


"Take group photo!"


This was another Zoom favourite. Four times I got off my bike, put the kick stand down and stood there smiling like an idiot, getting my photo taken with a group of strangers - none of which I knew and none of which I would ever see again... then I thought "fuck it" and continued biking along the path, with Stella close behind. She wouldn't leave her new bestie, after all...

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