An Amazing 3-Day/2-Night Cruise around Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
The thing that excited me the most about our Vietnam trip (besides the food, obviously!) was our 3-day/2-night cruise around Ha Long Bay (meaning “descending dragon” bay). This bay (bordering Vietnam and China) is famous for its beautiful and unique limestone formations. Each and every of the over 1,500 formations is different. Some are tiny, while others are gigantic, and the shapes are all very distinct (it was fun assigning each island with a name of what it resembled: “Rhinoceros!” “Whale!” “That one looks like a high-heeled shoe!”). Some of the islands have caves (either at sea level or even higher up). It’s been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as such, it has become very popular amongst tourists and even large cruise ships. I had heard stories about how the beautiful bay has been transformed into a nightmare of dirty, heavily-littered water, and a “parking lot” for cruise ships, large and small. Because of that, I booked our cruise with Indochina Junk, which is one of the few companies that can go beyond the crowded central Ha Long Bay area, into the quieter Bai Tu Long Bay.
We were picked up from our hotel in Hanoi by a luxury van (we had opted for the wifi-enabled upgrade, for only $6 per person) and arrived in Ha Long Bay city three and a half hours later. When all of the guests for our boat had arrived (the Prince III has only 4 cabins, with a maximum of 8 passengers, and 6 crew), we took a small motorboat to the our Prince III junk. Our enthusiastic tour guide, Duc (spoken with a rising “U”, because otherwise his name, we were told, could also mean “ass”), briefed us on our itinerary while we sipped welcome drinks on the deck. Our rooms were nice but small (what we expected), but it came equipped with A/C and a nice bathroom (with marble walls!). Our junk towed the small motorboat the entire time we were on the junk, since it was used as a “taxi” as well as a lifeboat.
All of our meals (that were served on the junk) were served in the “open air,” but shielded from direct sun. We were very lucky that the weather cooperated for our entire trip! Our friends, who had gone to Ha Long Bay a few weeks before we did, said that they had spent one stormy night on the water before all boats were called back to harbor, due to a typhoon! Our first meal was a five-course authentic Vietnamese meal. It was DELICIOUS! (In fact, all of our meals were amazing! I had also read that some of the chefs on board these junks were poached from 4 or 5-star hotels/restaurants in Hanoi!) We had a chance to rest before going kayaking. I REALLY enjoyed kayaking around the islands! The water was unbelievably calm, almost like a huge lake. I wished we could have snorkeled, but as Alex pointed out, the water was murky (which gave it its emerald color and eerie quality). I took some pictures with my phone (through a plastic bag), so the pictures aren’t that clear, but the views were unreal!
After our kayak tour, we came back to the boat and were allowed to swim around the boat (and the guys jumped into the water from the top of the boat). The water was so warm, but Duc said that the Vietnamese are so used to the warm climate that the water was actually too cold for Vietnamese! After we showered, we relaxed on the deck before we were served a delicious dinner. The food was included in the price of cruise, but drinks (other than water, tea, and coffee) had to be purchased. The prices were reasonable for a cruise, but high compared to the prices of food and drinks in Vietnam (on land!).
That night, while enjoying some coffee, we all tried our hand at squid fishing (Duc joked that if we didn’t catch anything- and we didn’t- that we wouldn’t get breakfast the next morning- but we did): a bright light was shined into the water, and we were supposed to pull the fishing line horizontally, like how shrimp would move. Alex actually caught a squid (twice) but it escaped (twice) before he was able to pull it out of the water. The squid (length of my hand) was putting up a good fight, squirting water as it tried to escape off the hook!
The next morning, Alex and I woke up at 5 AM to catch the sunrise… which was hidden behind a large limestone island. It was still nice to sit on the lounge chairs and watch the day begin. We saw that we were amongst a handful of Indochina junks (we learned later that all boats have to anchor in approximately the same area at night, per regulation). After breakfast, we boarded small bamboo boats, taking us to Vung Vieng, one of the largest floating fishing villages in the area. We learned about the history and how these families operate (sometimes trade and sometimes sell fish for other goods). We also saw a real fishing boat (that our junk was modeled after) and it was TINY! It supposedly holds a family of six (two adults, four children) but I can’t imagine having that be a home for so many! Next, we saw a pearl farm (I really didn’t know it was so difficult to cultivate jewelry-grade pearls), before heading back to our boat.
Indochina Junk owns a small island, Hon Co, in Bai Tu Long Bay, so we swam from our boat to the island, where we were served a delicious BBQ lunch (prawn, chicken, fish, pork, beef). Duc took us “on a hike” to see a large cave halfway up the island. The cave was very dark and damp. Apparently if we had booked an extra night, we would have had dinner in the cave… The rest of the afternoon, we relaxed on the beach, swam, kayaked (Alex and I saw a school of flying fish right next to our kayak!), and (my favorite part) played with puppies! The island has one male dog and two female ones (each just had a litter of pups). The puppies were ADORABLE. And so soft. I really wanted to adopt/smuggle one (Alex checked my day bag to make sure I didn’t).
Our second dinner came with many decorations that the chef had carved out of fruits and vegetables. Some of them were very impressive, including the replica of our junk (which the chef had spent two hours carving), made from watermelon, pumpkin and carrot! We once again tried squid fishing, but quickly gave up…
Our second morning on the boat, Alex and I once again woke up at 5 to catch the elusive sunrise… and again it was blocked by yet another large limestone island. We had a leisurely breakfast at 8 AM, “checked out” of our rooms by 10, and ate an early lunch at 10:45 AM! It was sad saying goodbye to the other travelers and our tiny home of two nights. Our cruise around Ha Long Bay was a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
p.s. We had a mandatory stop at a small village, Yen Duc, on the way back to Hanoi, to watch a water puppet show… the puppets are operated in the water, by people behind a screen. Speakers blared traditional Vietnamese songs while we were forced to enjoy the show. I’m not sure any of us enjoyed the show, but the bathrooms were clean.
p.p.s. Here’s a link to the map of our tour from Indochina Junk: http://www.indochina-junk.com/index.php/halong-bay-and-bai-tu-long-bay-cruise-3-days-2-nights-princess-prince-red-dragon/