A reputation for bad service and niggling cons left Truong Thi Huong Giang vigilant during her family vacation to Ha Long Bay in the northern province of Quang Ninh.
After choosing from one of many tourist concession boats, they settled in for a nice dinner on the water.
“We carefully checked the prices on the menu and agreed with a waiter on the prices when ordering food at a restaurant aboard the ship,” she said. “The bill ended up being much more expensive and when we mentioned our previous negotiation, the restaurant owner said the waiter we met had taken the menu and left the ship."
After returning to Hanoi, Giang lodged a complaint to relevant tourism agencies prompting the owner of the restaurant to offer to return her money. “I don't want my money back. I just wanted the relevant authorities to be aware of the problem and fix it,” she said.
Twenty years after being recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site, some hope that Ha Long Bay's slow slide into a polluted and unpleasant tourist trap may end as two of Vietnam's largest private companies bid for "the rights to exploit, collect tourism fees and supply tourism services."
It's still unclear what this will mean for the morass of small-time operators who currently crowd the bay and the government will, of course, maintain administrative rights over the body of water.
Still, many are encouraged that the Quang Ninh People's Committee, the provincial administration, has invited outsiders to propose plans for future development.
Located in northwestern Vietnam, the bay features thousands of limestone karsts and islets of various sizes and shapes along with myriad caves and grottos.
Two major private business groups, Bitexco and Tuan Chau, began bidding early this month for concession rights in Ha Long and nearby Bai Tu Long Bay, according to Nguyen Van Doc, Quang Ninh's mayor.
“We are considering the companies’ plans and have yet to reach a decision,” he said.
The province expects to see more than VND6 trillion (US$283 million) in revenue generated from tourism fees this year. More than 7.5 million tourists visited Quang Ninh in 2013--a number that's only expected to rise in the coming years.
Despite the huge number of tourists who visit Ha Long Bay, few stay longer than a single day due to poor services and unfriendly staff.
"I did not expect to reclaim the money. I just want that relevant authorities to be aware of the problem and fix it.” -- Truong Thi Huong Giang, a tourist in Ha Long
Nguyen Thi Phuong, a Ho Chi Minh City tourist, felt frustrated while visiting a theme park on the bay's Tuan Chau island on July 18.
“The musical fountains show was scheduled to begin at 8:30 but there was no show at that time. After I asked around, a janitor called someone who turned on the fountains, which featured two or three simple machines and no music.”
“I asked the janitor again and a man wandered out to turn on a short piece of music that included a recording of a man saying that the show was over. They don't respect visitors at all,” she said.
Nguyen Van Thuyet, a Quang Ninh official, admitted that Ha Long tourism hasn't been developed well.
“I have traveled to many countries and found out that nowhere place has as bad a service as Ha Long Bay. Tourism products have to be diversified. Moreover, the attitude of the people supplying services should be improved and absolutely averse to the notion of extorting their customers,” he said.
Lan, a tourist from Hanoi, recalled recently visiting a floating fish farm in the bay where she bought a fish for a price several times higher than she might find at an inland restaurant.
“I asked the seller about the price and was intending to bargain when he suddenly hit the fish over the head with a club and tossed it onto a scale.”
“I agreed to buy it because I didn't want a quarrel on my vacation,” she said.
Nguyen Van My, chairman of the HCMC-based Lua Viet Tours, said all tourism services in Ha Long are “below average”.
“The management model is tantamount to farm subsidies," he said. "It's grossly outdated."
Although Ha Long isn't very large, he said visitors must buy numerous tickets to traverse it at prices that constantly rise.
“The Angkor complex in Cambodia is 420 square kilometers but requires one ticket that costs US$20--a price that's been maintained for a long time,” he said.
The government management board in Ha Long currently sells tickets, runs (some) services and licenses tourism contractors in the bay.
Huy Ty, a local journalist, said the agency’s poor management has caused many problems, including a large number of poorly-managed boats that bribe their way into wharves.
“The government opens the door and turns on the green light for [illegal] brokers and rip-off artists. Each boat pays the managers of the wharves some [bribe] money every day to operate there. And this system allows any boat to supply tourism services at the bay.”
“These boats figure out all kinds of ways to make money on tourists. This has a bad impact on tourists who later tell others not to come here which just brings down the whole industry.”
According to Ty, bad service and unfriendly staff are the main reason many tourists don't spend more than a day in Ha Long.
He said a private firm operating tourism services in the bay could increase fees and tourists would be happy to pay more for better service.
“Surely the service will get better if a private firm takes over tourism in the bay,” he said.
Given that the company would almost certainly make large profits from getting the tourism services concession, how much of this money would be reinvested in infrastructure? How much would benefit the lives of local people in Ha Long?" --Tim Russell, a Briton tourism expert
Recently, Bitexco submitted a proposal to Quang Ninh authorities, analyzing current situation of tourism in the bay and offering a plan to improve it.
“The plan aims to make Ha Long one of the best tourism attractions in Southeast Asia with international-level and professional services,” the company’s chairman Vu Quang Hoi told the media.
Hoi said his company would invest in improving tourist safety and the sustainable development of the bay.
Tim Russell, a Briton who lived and worked in Vietnam for 10 years and is now the director of sales and marketing of a travel agency in Thailand, said the plan could be good news so long as it means an “efficient and forward-thinking” private firm will begin supplying tourism services in the bay.
“Over the years the authorities have shown themselves to be completely incapable of providing adequate tourism services in Ha Long Bay - whether you're talking about environmental, safety or commercial issues.”
But Russell said some concerns remain.
“Given that the company would almost certainly make large profits from getting the tourism services concession, how much of this money would be reinvested in infrastructure? How much would benefit the lives of local people in Ha Long?”