Stranded in the South China Sea: Travel Disasters Part 2

Back in February of 2010, at 22, I went on my first ‘holiday of a lifetime’ – two weeks exploring Vietnam. There was a group of about 12 of us, all working as teachers in the same school in Abu Dhabi at the time, determined to make the best of a mid-term break.

We covered serious ground over the two weeks, starting off in the colourful and chaotic city of Ho Chi Minh, crawling through the tunnels the Vietnam War was fought through in Cu Chi, and rowing along the meandering rivers of the Me Kong Delta. We delved into history at various museums, motor biked along the coast (me hiring a driver as well as the bike, the others riding their own), danced until dawn at beach parties in Nha Trang and had exquisite clothes tailored in Hoi An. All of these activities come highly recommended if you’re planning a trip to Vietnam.

Nha Trang (pic via Google Creative Commons)

As the holiday was drawing to a close, we took a final trip – a night in Halong Bay, a UNESCO world heritage site. Many of the sights we had seen were beautiful, but the bay was breathtaking. We organised to spend a night on a boat out there in the ocean, to be followed by a day of activities including kayaking, swimming and snorkelling. We were joined on the boat by a group of Australians, who mistakenly thought they could out-drink a group of Irish people. In a move we would later recognise as a major red flag, the tour company held on to our passports while we were on the trip.

As we set off kayaking in pairs the next day, I was delighted to be partnered up with one of my good friends, B. We listened patiently as the guide explained that we would row to some nearby caves. If we fell out, she warned us that we would be charged if we lost our oars. We were the last kayak to set off, and as we did, B gave me a huge grin and said: “I’m definitely going to topple us over.” As our friends followed the guide towards the caves, B, whom I have always blamed for what followed, said: “Why are we following them like sheep? Let’s go toward that beach over there instead”, pointing at an island a little further away. Foolishly, I agreed.


We rowed for a few minutes, and as our friends disappeared into the caves, we realised the island we were heading for was further away than we thought. The inevitable happened, and we toppled over (B blames my poor rowing skills for this, he might be right). Remembering our guide’s warning, we immediately swam for our oars, not wanting to be held liable for them. Around 20 seconds later, oar in hand, I turned back to the kayak, wondering how I would be able to clamber back into it from the water, when B and I realised that wouldn’t be a problem.

Our kayak was sinking at an incredibly fast rate, and we were out in the open water alone.

B made a valiant attempt to stop the thing from disappearing, but there was nothing that could be done. Since kayaks are definitely not meant to sink if they topple over, we can assume this one had some kind of hole in it. We looked at each other and burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation. We were too far from the shore to swim back in, we had ditched our friends and there was no one around. I screamed as something brushed against my leg, but it turned out to be a plastic bag.

A large boat went past shouting to us to find out if we needed help. Disappointingly, when we said “YES!” the boat continued on its way, abandoning us. A different group of kayakers came across us and couldn’t take us on to their’s as there was no space, but they rowed back to shore to call for help. Eventually, two small, round, shop boats, stocked with cigarettes and small bottles of whiskey were sent to rescue us. They were so tiny each could only hold one of us. I have no idea what the young Vietnamese women working on them made of us. I imagine them raising their eyebrows to each other saying: “White people!”.

This is a stunning shot of the caves in Halong Bay... Maybe we should have just done that!

This is a stunning shot of the caves in Halong Bay… Maybe we should have just done that!

As they rowed us in, B sat back on his boat, eyes closed, basking in the sun. “B!” I shouted over at him “I’ve never seen you look more relaxed.” He’s a good man in a crisis, he doesn’t panic easily. The next few hours are a blur; some rudimentary attempts were made to recover the kayak but those were unsuccessful. The rest of the day’s activities were cancelled. The tour company claimed we owed them hundreds of dollars for the kayak (in another part of the world we would have been threatening them with lawsuits for sending us out in a blatantly faulty kayak, but this was Vietnam, and these guys had our passports.) We realised we were being scammed, and there was almost nothing we could do about it – we had a flight to catch.

The men in the group negotiated with the tour company, I wasn’t allowed to be a part of the conversation. The guys claimed this was out of deference to Vietnamese culture, but I think they were just scared I’d flip out, which was reasonably likely. Nonetheless, I imagine I would have done a better job – their ‘negotiations’ cost us every penny we had (and a bit more.) I distinctly remember B and I pooling our change during our stopover in Singapore airport to see if we could afford a coffee each at Starbucks.

So, that’s that story told. Although it wasn’t the best way to finish our incredible holiday in Vietnam, it’s a story that gets told and retold every time B and I get together – his version might be slightly different than mine.

The lesson? Never give your passport to a tour company, it’s almost always a scam. Follow the damn guide, that’s what you paid them for. And never listen to your crazy friend B, no matter how much he’s grinning at you.

Have you had any travel disasters to share? If you enjoyed this one, read about the time I got deported from Bahrain for “security reasons”.

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17 thoughts on “Stranded in the South China Sea: Travel Disasters Part 2

  1. Sabrina Barbante says:

    wow, looks like you are a adventure (and trouble) appealer! 😀 Once I just found myself in the middle of an hurricane in NYC… but nothing comparable to you adventure. Amazing post and pics

  2. Amy Scott says:

    Oh my gosh that is quite an adventure! It certainly was a memorable trip! You’ll be telling this story forever! So glad you were safe. Stunning pictures regardless of your misfortune!

  3. Florence says:

    Oh my god! What an experience! I understand why you want to share this story with us today! Glad you’re safe 🙂 and thanks for sharing these amazing pictures! So colorful!

  4. Adina M says:

    Oh my goodness! I would have panicked to be stranded in the water like that for sure! Good thing you are okay and well now to be able to tell the story! Beautiful photos by the way!

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