Halong Bay, a place that conjures images of towering limestone giants, remote floating fishing villages and traditional Vietnamese junk boats sailing elegantly amongst it all. It was somewhere that inspired us to visit Vietnam and right at the start of our RTW trip I announced to Paul that when it came to experiencing Halong Bay we were going to do it in style.
I’d heard a ridiculous amount of horror stories from tourists on bay cruises that ended up in crowded areas on dirty, rat infested boats. It didn’t paint a pretty picture and I was worried it would spoil the experience altogether if we didn’t find the right cruise. During the trip, if we met anyone who had been to Vietnam we’d always ask “which company did you use for Halong Bay?” The same name kept cropping up again and again and once we’d seen photos we were sold immediately, Indochina Junk would be the company for us.
What most people don’t realise is that the area we know of as Halong Bay is actually a 1500m² giant landscape made up of a number of different bays. Only a small portion of this is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the rest is pretty much fair game. The vast majority of junk cruises head to Halong Bay proper and from what we’ve heard it can be massively overcrowded and sadly swamped by rubbish brought in by the tide. Where our cruise was unique is that they head to an area used by no other companies so the only other junks you see are their own. Bai Tu Long Bay is incredibly quiet and turned out to be just the experience we’d hoped for.
We were picked up from our Hanoi old quarter guesthouse bright and early to begin the 4 hour drive to Halong City where we would board our home for the next 3 days. The Dragon Pearl III is a traditional Vietnamese junk that could accommodate 18 guests plus 12 staff. A we stepped into our cabin I was literally bouncing around with joy! After spending nearly a year backpacking and staying in budget accommodation you really appreciate it when you find yourself surrounded by a bit of luxury. Anyone who has travelled in South East Asia will understand the happiness I felt when I saw that we had an actual shower cubicle!
We cruised out into Bai Tu Long Bay and were given a briefing on the history of the bay and our 3 day itinerary. After lunch we all jumped into kayaks to begin a tour around the bay. We’d read a lot about the rubbish that can be found floating in the area and our guide explained that most of it is washed up in the high tide from the China Sea. In Bai Tu Long Bay they have people collecting rubbish and we did our bit by picking up anything we saw. There were still areas where quite a lot of rubbish had gathered and it made us wonder just how bad the problem must be in Halong Bay proper.
Our second day on board was Paul’s 36th birthday and what a day he had! We started our morning visiting a floating village. The people that live in Cong Dam will most likely spend their entire lives on the water and making a living from fishing. Their village was absolutely stunning with small floating houses nestled amongst the karsts. We visited the village schoolhouse and a museum detailing the history of the area, it was like another world. The village is also committed to preserving this unique environment by having a large number of people collect rubbish brought in by the tide, this gave the area a much more pristine feel.
We spent the afternoon kayaking to our own tiny little slice of beach paradise and swam in Tu Long Bay as the sun set whilst chatting away with the rest of our crew. The absolute highlight of the trip was dinner that evening. When planning for the trip I’d heard that on one evening dinner would be served in a cave, I had hoped it would be day 2 so we could celebrate Paul’s birthday in style.
When we had heard the word ‘cave’ I’d imagined a small opening just off the beach. Oh no, we climbed 100 steps circling the side of one karst and entered an enormous cavern filled with fairy lights. My jaw was actually hanging open. Somehow the crew managed to serve our best meal yet whilst using a cave as their preparation area, it was unbelievable. To top the night off the birthday boy was presented with a beautiful cake to celebrate the occasion which is probably the best birthday cake he’s every had.
The meals on board were something we were really looking forward to and they didn’t let us down. Every sitting consisted of around 5 courses of delicious goodies! We opted to try anything and everything but for anyone with allergies or dislikes the chef always managed to produce mouthwatering options. We sampled a vast amount of seafood which was outstanding and our stomachs were full for the duration of the cruise.
I think a huge amount of the enjoyment from these sort of trips comes from the people you are randomly thrown together with and we were so lucky with the group we had. There were 18 of us on board and every single person made the effort to get to know one another. We all switched seats at every meal so you were constantly talking to new people and it made the whole experience something to remember.
The only negative thing I have to say about the cruise is actually the fault of the government. The local government have decreed that all commercial junks in Halong Bay must paint their hulls white, a deviation from the traditional beauty of a dark wood finish. Every company in the bay has had to adhere to this rule and even though the boats were only painted in May they are already in need of a touch up, clearly the government doesn’t realise that traditional wood sailing vessels in white won’t fare quite as well as fibreglass!
From the minute we stepped on board the whole experience was outstanding. The staff are exceptional, everything seems to happen seamlessly without you even noticing. Our guide, Phouc, was incredibly organised and informative and she really made the experience. As the rains fell on the morning of our last day and we headed back to port it made us realise how lucky we’d been to have such glorious weather. We left the Dragon Pearl III with huge grins on our faces, it would be hard to get back to our scruffy backpacker ways after an experience like this!
We received a discount from Indochina Junk in exchange for sharing our experience – all opinions, as always, are our own.
If you liked this post please click on the heart below or perhaps leave a comment
Never Miss a Post!
Subscribe to our mailing list to get updates straight to your inbox.