Full disclosure. I like to travel off the beaten path and find the group experience of a cruise to be intimidating. But I warmed up to the idea as I began researching a trip to Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site north of Hanoi in Vietnam. Although it’s possible to book a one-day tour or a single overnight, the three-day, two-night cruise option was highly recommended by Vietnamese friends. After reading dozens of reviews, it became clear that Halong Bay was crowded with hundreds of boats. Neighboring Bai Tu Long Bay offered a more peaceful option within this amazing world heritage wonder.
Indochina Junk operates virtually all of the tour boats in Bai Tu Long Bay. After sifting through a lot of offers from competing booking agencies, I put down a deposit with My Way Travel. Their representative, Steven, assured me via email that we’d have quiet cabins on a small boat, that we’d have food meeting our dietary preferences and that we’d be picked up at our hotel in Hanoi (other agencies required you to travel to a meeting point). He delivered. We made the four hour journey in a comfortable van equipped with speedy wifi, a bonus that enabled me to work out an airline problem with another leg of our Vietnam trip.
The journey through scenic farm fields and small towns went quickly, with two stops. The first was a “disability” workshop, filled with workers bent over their handicrafts. A salesman encouraged tourists to buy the finished products, which seemed overpriced by Vietnamese standards. Most visitors simply took advantage of the tidy restrooms. The second stop was in a rice-growing village with a small restaurant and water puppet theater, apparently owned by the tour company. The multi-course meal was tasty and the show was charming, although nowhere near as elaborate as the famous water puppet venue in Hanoi. There was an extra charge for water, soft drinks or beer.
Arriving a short while later at the embarkation point, we met Steven and paid the remainder of our fare in cash. After a brief walk, we took a shuttle boat to the Dragon Pearl Junk. Our guide, nicknamed Mr. Smiley, immediately took over. The crew efficiently delivered our luggage to the two cabins needed for our family of three.
The boat is an old-style Chinese junk, a bit shabby in spots, but overall kept spotless by the hardworking crew. Book now to experience this type of vessel. We were told they’re being phased out for safety reasons and future boats will be modern metal cruise ships. The bed was comfy, bathroom was amazingly functional and the AC provided a respite from the muggy June weather. But we didn’t spend much time indoors. The place to be was on the decks above, enjoying the breeze and amazing scenery. Although the boat has an indoor dining room, we used it only once when it rained on our last day. All other meals on board were served in a shaded open-air dining area. We saw an endless array of rock formations called “karsts” and tiny live-aboard boats for local people trying to eke out a living. We only saw one other cruise ship at the scenic spot where we moored for the night.
Waking up to morning coffee and a splendid view, the days were devoted to cruising and kayaking. Smiley provided detailed information on the route, and expertly led our group of kayakers safely through a low cave, mindful of the tides. The chef put on a demonstration of how to wrap spring rolls — a hint of the culinary wonders ahead. There was plenty of deck space with towels and comfy lounge chairs for taking it easy. Dragon Pearl II has a capacity of 20, but with only 13 passengers it felt spacious. The friendly Aussie, Kiwi and British couples, Malaysian honeymooners and an American mother/daughter quickly became our mates. Let the “Gilligan’s Island” jokes begin! Lots of clambering up and down stairs between decks is required, so this trip is not recommended for those with mobility issues.
Fresh, cold water is plentiful on the boat, as well as coffee or tea. All other beverages are extra. Most reviews include some grousing about the extra charge, but we found the prices to be reasonable for everything except wine, which is expensive everywhere in Vietnam. Our bar bill was spot-on, but nowhere near the tab the Aussies rang up!
Indochina Junk has a policy of sustainable tourism, and we were encouraged to pick up trash from the bay while kayaking. The company also leases an island where we had dinner in a cave on Day Two — a highlight of the trip.
The crew worked their tails off carrying kitchen equipment and food on and off the island, which has live-in guards and guard dogs. There’s a real effort to keep it spotlessly clean.
The chef was the star of the show for the entire cruise, his tiny kitchen somehow managing to turn out dishes for every dietary preference from vegetarian, no-fish, and gluten free. The servers managed to get the right dish to the right person every time. The cave dinner table was decorated with elaborate sculptures of dragons, birds and even the ship, hand-fashioned by the chef out of produce.
Mr. Smiley made sure everyone got in the pictures as he explained how the people who used to live in these island caves have been relocated to the mainland.
He also didn’t sugarcoat the “floating village” we visited on the last day. The one-room school, decorated with the words of Ho Chi Minh, no longer has any students. Again, the villagers have been relocated but return to the water to row tourists through their former home. A few local trinkets are for sale, as well as a jewelry store featuring pearls from the oyster farm here.
Overall, Indochina Junk and Dragon Pearl II offered the mix of authenticity and relaxed comfort that I look for on my trips, at a reasonable price. I am no longer intimidated by the idea of a cruise — I wanted to stay on this ship even longer. I’m glad I put this memorable journey on my bucket list. You should too.
Want more travel secrets in Asia? Check out my posts on Touring Hanoi Like a Local and visiting Vietnam War sites. Like my Facebook page, @strangersinthelivingroom and sign up for the occasional email when there is a new post here on the blog.