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Heads Up from the Road -- Tonkin is AWFUL

Heads Up from the Road -- Tonkin is AWFUL

Dec 30th, 2009, 08:57 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Mar 2006
Posts: 187
Heads Up from the Road -- Tonkin is AWFUL

Writing to you from Laos. Just wanted to give anyone who still has time the heads up that Tonkin has provided us with the worst guides you can imagine. I will write more when I return home but in Saigon, I got a guide who barely spoke English and also was completely incompetent. I spoke to Tonkin in the evening and they had another guide call me who was also incomprehensible. They finally scheduled a guide that is used very often by Buffalo Tours and he was fantastic. He took us for one day in Saigon and two days in the Mekong. Tonkin then promised to book only great guides for us for the rest of the trip. We called them several times to reinforce this and we also had our guide tell them.

In Phnom Penh, our Tonkin guide was this adorable young girl but she had only been a guide for 3 months and her pronunciation was very difficult and she didn't even know what times the museums closed. We ended up cancelling all of our services with Tonkin in Phnom Penh thereafter. We heard a guide leading a tour and he spoke great English. He was busy but hooked us up with a friend of his who was amazing! This new guide then hooked us up with someone in Angkor, as Tonkin had their guide call me and again, I couldn't understand a single word. We arrived in Luang Prabang and once again, Tonkin failed miserably. We had someone the first day who was very sweet, but he agreed his English "was lousy" (in his own words) and told us he was hired by the local agency that morning at 7:30. They actually woke him and told him they have a job for him that day.

I just called Tonkin and told them to cancel all future services. I never spend time on my trips posting on this board, but again, I wanted to give all of you heads up who are still planning a trip here as it is busy season and poor guides can ruin the entire experience -- particularly if you are interested in the history of the place and the local culture. I really don't understand how anyone could have recommended them. I can't believe mine is an isolated incident as it has happened in every city we've visited.

Good luck everyone. Other fast snippets:

The Caravelle Hotel in Saigon is great. Incredible service and directly across the street from the Park Hyatt, and at $135 per night, about half of the Park Hyatt.

In Angkor, we visited the Hotel de la Paix (we didn't stay there) and it was magnificent with a Japenese trendy feel. The hotel was just gorgeous and we wish that we had stayed there. All of the other hotels appear quite sterile even though the grounds are lush and the hotels beautiful. It reminded us of Las Vegas as there are a million new hotels.

The Grand Hotel in Luang Prabang is very poorly run. We are staying here because the entire town is totally booked. Many of the staff speak no English and they are about 10 minutes outside of town.

That's all for now. Happy New Year!
sueblue is offline  
Dec 30th, 2009, 10:25 PM
Join Date: Nov 2006
Posts: 4,121
What is so great about Sueblue is that she makes decisions, doesn't fart around, cancels fast when things are hopeless, blows her dough and finds something better on the spot. It's perfect travel strategy.

Sometimes you just have to get out of the situation you've unwittingly put yourself in, no matter who is right or who is wrong. Instead of falling in a heap and being 'polite' she's pro-active. That'll help with the healing. An experience like this can have you hating the travel company for years.

Of course, ultimately, the only thing you'll be able to say is 'I made a mistake'. Tough, but true. You'll never get your $$ back, so best to move on. What is really great is that she's working to make sure nobody else makes the same mistake. True-blue Sue.

Now jump back into Luang Prabang and try to forget about yesterday - at least until you get back, then tell us ALL the dirt. Enjoy your festivities tonight - whatever they may be.
dogster is offline  
Dec 30th, 2009, 11:46 PM
Join Date: Apr 2005
Posts: 4,466
Am sorry you had such a lousy experience with Tonkin, mine was great BUT i did not organise any guides with them (i did this myself) and pretty much knew what hotels i wanted they did get me really GREAT rates. I do know others on here have used them and thought their services excellent but as always it good to see things from both sides.
Smeagol is offline  
Dec 31st, 2009, 03:08 AM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 6,892
We had a great experience with Tonkin also. Guides can be hit or miss but the key as Sue said and Dogster reinforced is to cut your losses when you get into a bad situation.
Craig is offline  
Dec 31st, 2009, 06:53 AM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 32,781
I always recommend to people that they not book guides through an agency in advance beacuse they are so expensive. But here's another reason. When you book guides on the ground once you get there, you can talk with them, tell how good their English is, and whether you have a good vibe with them.

Thanks for the feedback, SueBlue! (Though I suppose the title should read that the guides hired by Tonkin are awful... others have had good things to say about the travel arrangements made through Tonkin and I don't hear anything bad about the travel arrangements they made for you.)
Kathie is offline  
Dec 31st, 2009, 07:04 AM
Join Date: Mar 2003
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Thanks for the tip. A guide with bad English is very frustrating. Lack of knowledge is unforgivable. Glad you cut your losses and moved on. Quick action!
Gpanda is offline  
Dec 31st, 2009, 07:15 AM
Join Date: May 2005
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Thanks for the helpful in-progress report and best wishes for onward travels.
marya_ is offline  
Dec 31st, 2009, 11:38 PM
Join Date: Jan 2005
Posts: 16
Just got back from Vietnam yesterday and used Tonkin to book my transfers, guides, Halong Bay cruise and some of the hotels. I guess we lucked out with our guides in Ho Chi Minh, Hue/Hoi An as well as Hanoi. While not all of them were terrific, two of the three were. Although I have worked with agencies in other parts of the world that were probably more organized than Tonkin, they were otherwise very reliable in their arrangements for me which were complicated by the fact that we were a party of five. For others out there looking for agencies, I think that Tonkin is fairly competitive on price, very responsive by e-mail and reliable in terms of arrangements.
G2T is offline  
Jan 1st, 2010, 04:37 PM
Join Date: Apr 2007
Posts: 1,147
It'll be interesting to hear about Sueblue's experience with them beyond the guides.
It's taken me years to get beyond the polite thing and be proactive, and I STILL have trouble admitting I've made a mistake. It may be partly out of fear of being an offending foreigner and making a bad impression--call it American guilt.
Adn when you get home, there's the rose-colored glasses syndrome. There's something about spending wads of cash and precious time on your vacation that makes it tough to tell your pals--and yourself--it was anything but heaven.
Good advice about hiring guides when your feet are on the ground.
LAleslie is offline  
Jan 6th, 2010, 07:36 AM
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Posts: 187
Hi everyone. Writing again from HoiAn 3 days before I return to the states. Thanks for all of your comments but I must admit, we really didn't have to cut our losses because we had only asked Tonkin to arrange 10 days of touring for us on our 21 day trip. They only asked for a 20% deposit, so my friend and I each paid only $100 before our departure. Therefore, our cancellation did not really result in a loss for us. Vietnamstay booked all of our hotels for us, so our accommodations were not impacted.

As far as guides go, it appears that many of the good guides are freelancers and the really good ones get booked first, or work for agencies that pay them a higher daily rate and Tonkin doesn't really measure up in this regard. I was very skeptical of their prices beforehand, because they were so incredibly cheap, it seemed almost too good to be true . . . particularly when compared with some of the well known, highly regarded companies . . . i.e. Ann Tours, Travel Indochina, Buffalo Tours (all of which I consulted during my planning). After this experience, I've discovered that you really get what you pay for. Given the aggravation of having to arrange our own guides, spending precious time on our trip talking to this one who knows that one and so on, it just isn't worth it. Once again, I will write more when I get home. We did find 2 INCREDIBLE guides . . . one in Phnom Penh and the other in Hanoi (he is moving to Saigon in a few days) but their email addresses are back in the room. Once again, I will post when I get home.

One last thing -- for anyone who goes to the night market in Hanoi, be extremely careful. I come from a very large city and am very street smart. However, in the nightmarket, I was captivated by these hand cut greeting cards, and someone slashed my Longchamp pocketbook down the entire length of the side with a razor blade. (They were so skilled I didn't even realize it until breakfast the next morning.) Luckily I had my money and passport elsewhere and all they got were my sunglasses and makeup bag. I would skip the night market in retrospect as you can find anything sold there anywhere else in the daytime.

Despite all of our challenges, we are still having an amazing trip, and I'm sure many of our experiences will provide us with endless amounts of laughter in years to come.

Good luck with everyone's planning!
sueblue is offline  
Jan 6th, 2010, 07:57 AM
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Keep on Truckin' Good to hear a real time report.
Gpanda is offline  
Jan 6th, 2010, 09:05 AM
Join Date: Aug 2006
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This is why I prefer a tour to doing my own thing in a country where a good guide is one of my priorities, and if the tour's itinerary is more or less what I would do if I were travelling independently. The tour companies usually get good to excellent guides, who speak English well, know where they are going and what they are doing, as they do it week in and week out. On every tour I have gone on, the guides have been either very good or excellent and have added a lot to my knowlege of the country. If they are not good, they don't work for the company again. So as I've said before on Fodors, there are pros and cons to travel, whether it is independent travel or with a group.

Sueblue-Sorry to hear about your bad experience with Tonkin. I actually was thinking about using them for a 3 week trip to VN. I still might use them for booking the hotels, but I will not use their guides. Thanks for the heads up.
shelleyk is offline  
Feb 5th, 2010, 04:16 PM
Join Date: Dec 2009
Posts: 30
Thanks Sue for sharing with us all what you've just experienced. One thing I can't totally understand: Many of the staff members at the Grand Hotel in Luang Prabang speak no English. I thought those working in the travel sector are fluent in, or at least speak some English. Just have no realistic idea of the situation until I read your report.

Thanks again
happy_life is offline  
Feb 5th, 2010, 07:31 PM
Join Date: Apr 2009
Posts: 443
Sueblue, I am just curious as to how much Lao you speak? Did you make any effort to learn a few words before you left? You claim that the Grand Hotel in LP is badly run because the staff speak little English. Are you aware that Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world and that the tourism industry is a fledgeling one? I doubt if any of the staff would have done a hospitality course and very few would have undertaken a course in English.
Vientianeboy is offline  
Feb 6th, 2010, 06:36 AM
Join Date: Aug 2009
Posts: 2,056
I arrived in LP feeling remiss because I had learned no Lao at all, and felt grateful for the efforts of local people with English even if they were not fluent. And many Lao people do speak French, after all. Communication was never a real problem.

What you would do with a guide in LP that you couldn't do better on your own?
tarquin is offline  
Feb 6th, 2010, 09:26 AM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 28,930
just to follow up on my experiences with tonkin... i have received all my VN hotel vouchers and my two flight tickets via e mail and every things seems in order... i will further judge with my on ground experience... thus far i give them an A++
rhkkmk is offline  
Feb 6th, 2010, 12:42 PM
Join Date: Apr 2009
Posts: 3,614
sue blue, look into getting a PacSafe anti-theft purse. They have steel cords in the straps, and a wire mesh that runs throughout the entire body of the bag, so it can not be slashed off your body or slashed into like yours was. I love mine (I have the city safe 200 and the smaller sling safe 200 models. I love them, they give me a great amt. of security and one of them thwarted a thief in Mexico who tried to slash off the strap in a crowd. He took off pretty quickly once he hit the steel cord!
The have a website but the products are sold online at REI, Travelsmith, MAgellans, Zappos, etc. They have camera cases and other types of cases also.
emd3 is offline  

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