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.

 

The Dragon Pearl III

The Dragon Pearl III

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.

 

 

Our lovely cabin

Our lovely cabin

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!

 

Dinner is served

Dinner is served

The sun deck on the Dragon Pearl III

The sun deck on the Dragon Pearl III

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.

 

Kayaking as the sun goes down

Kayaking as the sun goes down

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.

 

Cong Dam floating village

Cong Dam floating village

Our traditional basket boats

Our traditional basket boats

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.

Fishing at sunset

Fishing at sunset

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.

 

Dinner - in a cave!!!

Dinner – in a cave!!!

Paul's delectable birthday cake

Paul’s delectable birthday cake

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.

 

Yummy fresh crab

Yummy fresh crab

One of the incredible fruit and vegetable carvings crafted by our chef - this is a model of the Dragon Pearl III

One of the incredible fruit and vegetable carvings crafted by our chef – this is a model of the Dragon Pearl III

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.

 

Paul doing what he does best, - jumping into a body of water from a great heightPaul doing what he does best, - jumping into a body of water from a great height

Paul doing what he does best, – jumping into a body of water from a great height

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!

 

Cruising around Cong Dam village

Cruising around Cong Dam village

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.

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18 Responses

    • Maddie

      Yeah I don’t think my usual rainy bbq in the back garden is going to cut it next year!

      Reply
    • Maddie

      It was a wonderful treat and Paul loved every minute of it. It’s not often we’ve splurged when travelling but it makes you appreciate it so much more when you’re used to being a scruffy backpacker!

      Reply
  1. Sarah Somewhere

    Wow, stunning post guys, you painted a vivid picture of beauty and luxury. Happy belated birthday Paul! That cave! What an experience, truly magical, and again, awesome photos!!!
    Sarah Somewhere recently posted..This DressMy Profile

    Reply
    • Maddie

      Thanks Sarah 🙂 It really was something else, I’ve never seen anything like the cave all dressed up in twinkling lights. One of the best experiences of our trip so far!

      Reply
  2. Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)

    Looks like you had an excellent experience and made exactly the right choice. There are certain activities where you definitely get what you pay for and it’s absolutely worth it to splash out and spend a bit more because the resultant experience is vastly superior to the one you would have gotten otherwise. One of the reasons we ultimately decided to skip Halong Bay is because we just found it so difficult to find information on a reliable mid-range cruise operator, and we didn’t have it in our budget to go for broke and do one of these luxury cruises. I knew to steer clear of the really cheapo cruises as they only seem to disappoint, which I have no regrets about. We know we’ll be heading back to Vietnam one day, and we’ll probably make Halong Bay a priority then… perhaps we’ll be able to treat ourselves to this company when we do!

    (P.S. I am so glad the food did not disappoint! It looks so gorgeous and delicious!)
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..Chewing the Fat with Rika at Cubicle Throwdown!My Profile

    Reply
    • Maddie

      We haven’t done it much but there have been a few activities where we’ve pushed the boat out to make sure we have the experience we have dreamed of. I think the problem with picking a company in Halong Bay is the vast scale of options in the mid-range bracket, we know people who have had amazing experiences and others who have been really let down. I know for a fact you two will end up in Vietnam again so hopefully you’ll be able to treat yourselves on round two.

      Steph you would have swooned at the food, it was so incredible and every time we thought dinner was over they brought out another dish. That crab was superb!! 🙂

      Reply
    • Maddie

      Thanks Kellie, it was amazing! Crisp sheets, an actual shower cubicle, A/C – we were living the dream!

      Reply
    • Maddie

      It is a really recent thing, they’ve only had to do it since May and they are already looking like they need a repaint! Hopefully the government will soon realise the error of their ways! Aside from that it was great fun 🙂

      Reply
  3. Annika Ziehen

    I have been back and forth trying to pick a cruise. Finally I have two left, one of them Dragon’s Pearl and I think thanks to your post, it just got the final vote!
    Annika Ziehen recently posted..growing pains.My Profile

    Reply
    • Maddie

      Yay, great news!! Have a great time Annika, Halong Bay is stunning 🙂

      Reply
  4. Constance

    I traveled Vietnam before and plan on returning again! This cruise sounds amazing. I did one of the cheaper cruises before and it was nice but nothing compared to this one. I mean…Dinner in a cave, how cool is that!!! Thanks for sharing!! 🙂
    Constance recently posted..Typhoons: Then Vs. Now!!My Profile

    Reply
    • Maddie

      It was truly fantastic, the dinner in the cave was like nothing I’ve ever seen! Glad you’re firmly in the wanting to return camp, it’s such a stunning country.

      Reply
  5. Rebecca

    Lovely article. We are heading to Vietnam in the next month and I have had the same issue. Travelling on a budget, but not wanting to miss out on the best experience of Halong Bay. Do you know what the price would be for this experience (travelling as a couple)? I cannot seem to find the prices on the website.
    Rebecca recently posted..Great fun in the rain at the Great North RunMy Profile

    Reply
    • Maddie

      Hi Rebecca and thanks 🙂 We struggled to find prices from any of the Halong Cruise companies too for some reason but if I remember rightly it’s $500 per couple for the 3 day cruise. Have fun in Vietnam, it’s a phenomenal country.

      Reply

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