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The husband and I were booked on a 3D2N cruise with Alova Gold Nbr 1. Our guide was Johnny(hwee). Very smiley, loves to joke and crisp, clear communication from him. Charming lil guy, he definitely got us to co-operate with him well in keeping to scheduled program.
On food and rooms : great food and plenty to go around! Rooms were also clean and spacious, considering we are on a mid-size Vietnamese junk. Decent size toilets too!
Program : We knew prior to joining the cruise that the programs were fixed so we went along with it — kayaking, cooking class, cave visits etc. On Day2, those of us booked on the 3D2N schedule shifted to a smaller sized boat, while the rest of the folks (2D1N) headed back to Halong Harbor.
Now this is where Alova ‘lost’ a star. The ‘guide’ on the smaller boat was no where near Johnny in terms of hosting(where are we, what are the highlights of the area etc). He was, at best, keeping us to a scheduled list of activities. “now we kayak. 45 mins”. “Next, we have lunch, 45 mins.” At lunch, we offered drinks on a tray while being told by another staff to ‘please take one’. All of us at the table thought it was included in the program so we helped ourselves to beer and cola. To our surprise, we were billed just before we disembarked. In the scheme of things, it wasn’t a huge amount of $$, but there were no communications from the lady (nor price list) that the drinks were chargeable. (on the other boat, a price list was displayed so we know what we are in the know).
Bad Weather Management :
30 mins after lunch on Day 2 , we were told by the ‘guide’ that all boats were being called back to Halong Harbor in lieu of bad weather ahead. There would be slight changes in our scheduled activities, after which we will all head back to one of the bigger boats where we will be taken back to Halong harbor and bussed back to Hanoi for the night.(It seemed our current group is a moltey crew fm 3 different boats – 2 fm Alova, and another cruise company). Needless to say, we were all disappointed. But if it was truly bad weather and a Port master recall, we were all ready to comply. However we had many questions, to which ‘guide’ seemed neither trained nor equipped to answer us. 2 couples were told Alova staff will pack their belongings from their cruise junk and have it sent to the main cruise junk that would take us all back to Halong harbor – they were clearly unhappy with that arrangement! When we finally arrived back to our cruise junk, we were finally advised by the new tour guide, Sunny on the process. Essentially, we head back to Hanoi for the night(arrangements have been made to secure a room at our respective hotels where we spent the night before the cruise) and a tour representative from Alova will contact us regarding refunds. By 5 pm, we were joined by 2 groups of 2D1N travelers who had to make do with a ‘day tour’ program. We all arrived into Halong Bay by 6 pm(choppy waters!) and a very wet Hanoi by 10 pm. Seemed it rained all night.
There are 2 aspects here that I’d like to share and comment on : The people and the Process.
When we met Sunny at the main cruise junk, I could tell he’s had one flustered day. He assured us that all arrangements would be made, tour representatives will contact us as soon as we reach Hanoi for refunds etc etc.. He apologized profusely and explained that it was something beyond their control. No guides were smiling that day and I can certainly understand why. He has done his best given the circumstances, trying to placate almost 20 upset and disappointed travelers. As for the ‘guide’ on the smaller boat – i think Alova could do with some training and more hand holding there. We met with our tour representative the following day where we were fairly refunded on the portions of cruise that the company could not fulfill. At this point, I’d like to add that those 2 days happened to be public holidays – Vietnam”s 38th Reunification Day, followed by Labor Day (30th April – 1 May). It seems most of their staff have gone home to their respective provinces, yet all arrangements and meetings still took place as promised.
2 nights after this episode, the husband and I traveled down south to Danang on a sleeper train. We shared a cabin with a couple who was also caught in the ‘bad weather’ program. Their experience was somewhat different, in that :
a) They were given a choice to turn around and be driven back to Hanoi immediately OR convert to a day tour program which will take place ONLY if there were sufficient numbers to make the trip out. (vs Alova’s ‘auto conversion’ of day tours)
b) They had to take care of their own accommodation arrangements back in Hanoi that same evening(vs Alova’s arrangement for us while we were still out stranded in Halong Bay – the same arrangements also extended to the stranded 2D1N travelers as well)
This is where I can see the level of professionalism shining through for Alova Gold. Given that Halong Bay is out in the sea, we are susceptible to the weather. I’d rather be safe than sorry under such circumstances.. and I’m glad we had them take care of our needs in bad weather. I would advise travelers to ask your cruise companies what is their process for bad weather – it never occurred to us but after this episode, I would so be asking this question for future weather-dependent activities!