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Tam Coc/Hoa Lu day tour from Hanoi?

Old May 15th, 2009, 09:09 PM
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Tam Coc/Hoa Lu day tour from Hanoi?

I'm considering doing a day tour to Tam Coc/Hoa Lu from Hanoi when we are there.

I've been quoted $50 per person for a private tour from Tonkin (Transfer by private car, English speaking guide, entrance fee, boat trip, lunch in local restaurant, taxes and service charge). From my research this seems on the lower end in terms of cost for a private tour.

The tour includes the following:
"8.30AM: Transfer through the countryside to Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam during the 10th century. On arrival visit Dinh Tien Hoang and Le Dai Hanh dynastic temple and then continue to Van Lam village for lunch in a local restaurant. In the afternoon board a small sampan for a spectacular 2-hour cruise through numerous waterways and beautiful rural landscape of limestone cliffs and rice paddies to the stunning Tam Coc caves. Discover Bich Dong Pagoda before returning to Ha Noi in the late afternoon."

My questions are:
1. Does this look like a good tour? Are there any questions I should ask or things to change?
2. Should I even be considering this given we only have 3 full days in Hanoi? I had started looking into it when I (mistakenly) thought we had 4 days, but now I realize we only have 3. Still, it looks really interesting and we won't be going to Halong Bay.

The only other thing we have planned is a 1/2 day tour with Hanoi Kids on our first day there.

Thanks!
Kristina is offline  
Old May 16th, 2009, 04:07 AM
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Kristina: With only 3 days in Hanoi I think I would skip it. I think you have seen that karst scenery before, right? If you do go, the key is to get out on the water when the other tourists are doing something else. Ask questions about this. Early morning might be good but there is a chance of fog. Be sure to leave Hanoi very early in the morning. I liked Hoa Lu a lot, but it is quite a long drive to get there from Hanoi....

How else are you planning to spend the days in Hanoi?
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Old May 16th, 2009, 07:27 AM
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I'm not sure yet what we are going to do with our days. I have a long list of sights to see, of course, but don't know yet how to organize them.
Any recommendations as to a 3 day itinerary in Hanoi with or without the trip to Tam Coc?
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Old May 16th, 2009, 07:40 AM
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My children and I did such a tour arranged by Exotissimo in 2006. Because we were only going to Hanoi on that trip, I set up two (oh-so predictable) excursions -- an overnight to Halong Bay and a daytrip to Tam Coc/Hoa Lu -- as a way of seeing something outside Hanoi. I give you that background because your needs are different since you will be traveling more widely in the country.

While the Halong Bay experience was sensational, I did not much enjoy the day-trip to Hoa lu/Tam Coc, Kristina, because the 'hard sell' from local entrepreneurs was as bad as any we have ever experienced. At Tam Coc, there wasn't a moment's peace. Yes, the landscape and grottoes were lovely but the effect was massively undercut by non-stop hawking.

Here is the model. A team, often husband and wife, row your boat. You are approached a number of times by little merchant boats selling soft drinks. Your "hosts" mime how thirsty they are and, of course, you are delighted to treat everyone to refreshments. But it happens again and again so you have to stop buying all these drinks that are only being recycled for the next set of passengers anyway. (A can of soda lives quite a long productive life out by Tam Coc.)

Cue the next round of exploitation. Next a storage panel is lifted up out of the bottom of the boat and piles upon piles of table linens are removed and pitched to you for an hour. You are in very close quarters with someone who is (seemingly, any way) urgently pleading with you to buy. It isn't like being in a market from which you can walk away.

Thus trapped, oh sophisticated world traveler that I am, I decided that I was going to put an end to this nonsense. I was going to take control of the situation by telling them that I didn't want to buy any things, I appreciated how hard the work of rowing the boat was, and I was giving them a lovely tip early -- right now -- with the proviso that there would be no more selling. I gave them a great big tip and -- you saw it coming from the beginning of this sentence -- exacerbated the problem. The wife, who had been mercenarily working the mother/child angle in her earlier pleadings, seemed mollified and backed off but the husband then went into high begging and harrassing mode in a way that would have been great theater if I hadn't been so miserable.

As a westerner with the luxury of taking such a trip with my children, I fully expect to be targeted for sales of goods and services but this was something -- pick a word -- predatory, abusive, heartless. Their 'right' to make money from me, as much money as possible, was the only right recognized in that boat. I had none at all and they certainly were not worried about my by-then wide-eyed children. I have no idea how the presence of an adult male would have changed the dynamic.

The rest of the day had drawbacks as well. Hoa Lu, which we visited briefly, was charming and surprisingly deserted. Some local people would attach themselves to you and take your hand over steps and otherwise "guide" you. It was a little pestering but nothing like Tam Coc. The local restaurant for lunch was of very poor quality, a big surprise for Exotissimo which is usually quite reliable. The food was unappetizing and there were lots and lots and lots of flies.

So, now that you have read of the Tam-Coc-from-Hell visit, two things to say. First, what would your other choices for that day be? Second, if you decide to go, can you use my story in dealing with Tonkin to secure any advantages such as a softer-sell boat team and a better restaurant?

Thee seeds of concern are contained in your opening paragraph. You wonder whether the fee isn't a bit low for this trip. You might additionally wonder if the fee is low because a) the locals expect to make much of their income from sales, and b) the quality of restaurant is low. It is worth looking into.

Foot-note: This was the only truly horrid meal that we had in Vietnam. I love Vietnamese food but this was something else.
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Old May 16th, 2009, 10:23 AM
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Marya-thanks so much for the detailed reply. I've read similar stories, as well as ekscrunchy's report and they all seem to vary which is why I asked.

In fact, I emailed Tonkin with questions about the meal and the hard sell issue even before I posted my question here. I haven't heard back, but they are closed Sat afternoon and Sunday.

I'm shocked at your experience given that you went with Exotissimo (which is the same as ekscrunchy, right?) since they have such a good rep as being a high-end agency.
Did you complain at all to them when you returned?

I guess I assumed that if we did a "private" tour we might be spared some of the hard sell. That's really not how I want to spend my day, as much as I'd like to see the area.
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Old May 16th, 2009, 10:42 AM
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Wow, marya, sounds like things have gotten much worse. I did Tam Coc on a group tour in late 2004 (don't remember the price, but nowhere close to $50!), and the hard sell wasn't anything like that bad, although still annoying. Having just done Halong Bay, I didn't think the scenery was that special (the karst was quite impressive, but I'd been expecting paddy fields as well). If you can't manage the time for Halong Bay I suppose it would be a good substitute - but with only three full days in Hanoi, I wouldn't think of leaving town.
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Old May 16th, 2009, 11:10 AM
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Our other experiences with Exotissimo in Hanoi, Hue, and HCMC have been very good. This was unusual in how poorly done it was. Yes, I wrote up my criticism and submitted it to the company rep on the Exotissimo desk at the Hanoi Hilton Opera where we were staying. At the very least, they could select a satisfactory restaurant and ensure that the boat personnel tone down the sales pitches. I did not hear back from them and we left town shortly thereafter.

As for the variation in how people experience this trip, I wonder if there is a seasonal effect. One report that I read referred to sellers 'jumping ship' when it became apparent that the poster was not interesting in shopping. We were there in July when there are fewer visitors and thus fewer opportunities to jump ship.

I am not exaggerating this experience for story-telling effect -- it was a low point. By contrast, the Exotissimo guide whom we engaged in HCMC last summer started out our visit to the Reunification Palace with a side-stop at a wretched little painting shop. When we told him that we were not interested in shopping, he immediately altered course and delivered exactly what we wanted in the form of guided visits to the Palace and to Cholon. We also altered the set program to stop in on a calligraphy class and we visited a Hindu temple. Likewise we found the Exotissimo service in Hue very good.

Now that I have been so emphatic about how disappointing this was, I hope that someone can come forward with a completely different story about a delightful trip there. I don't like to pan anything or anyone so thoroughly, but let's just say that our trip on that day was quite dismal. Buyer beware.
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Old May 16th, 2009, 06:58 PM
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I think the boats in Tam Coc wait their turn and pick up passengers in a regulated fashion, so I don't think the tour company can select a non-pressurized tour. I did enjoy the tour of Tam Coc, but like the others the hard sell at the end left a bad taste in my mouth.
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Old May 17th, 2009, 08:17 AM
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At this point, I think we are going to skip this tour. Three days is really not enough time to waste one on a potentially bad experience.
Thanks to everyone for their input here.
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Old May 17th, 2009, 09:55 AM
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I don't know what is on your list for Hanoi activities but you really can easily fill three days with interesting things to do and see and then leave with a list for 'next time.'

If, once you are there, you are not enjoying Hanoi and decide that you do want to do a day-trip away from the city, you can change your mind. We have done outings booked (after in-country arrival) through Handspan, Buffalo Tours, and Exotissimo -- only Hoa Lu/Tam Coc was a dud. There are loads of fly-by-night tour operators in the old quarter that are to be avoided, but these three companies seem generally reliable.
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Old May 17th, 2009, 11:50 AM
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Kristina, I think you will find plenty to keep you interested and occupied in Hanoi for three days.
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