We are back in Hanoi for the last couple days of our trip, having returned from our overnight cruise to Bai Tu Long Bay. What a beautiful place that was!
Choosing a Halong Bay cruise
While preparing for this trip, I knew that a visit to the Halong Bay area was mandatory. The bay has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and is on all kinds of travel bucket lists. The challenging part was deciding on exactly where to go and who to travel with, as there are literally hundreds of companies that arrange tours of Halong Bay.
I also learned that there are two alternatives to the heavily touristed and increasingly polluted Halong Bay: Lan Ha Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay. Lan Ha Bay is a little closer to Hanoi but is smaller and becoming more congested with tourists, while Bai Tu Long Bay is the furthest out and apparently the most untouched. All three options have similar scenery, but differ in terms of structured activities like cave and beach visits. The original Halong Bay has a few more famous sights, but the downside is that they are usually filled with tourists and perhaps a bit artificial.
After much research, I opted to sign us up for a cruise to Bai Tu Long Bay. It appealed to me simply for the fact that it sounded like it would be a more serene, less crowded experience and we would still see the same scenery, which is mainly what I was there for. Whereas Halong Bay receives something like 150 boats per day, Bai Tu Long Bay only gets approximately 50 boats coming through daily.
The selection: Dragon Legend Indochina Junk
Despite Bai Tu Long Bay being a little off the beaten path, there are still several cruise companies to choose from. I came across Indochina Junk as the best reputed company, with over 6000 reviews on TripAdvisor. They own a fleet of boats, ranging from tiny private options with as few as one cabin, to their largest Dragon Legend with 24 cabins (48 persons capacity).
Indochina Junk also appealed to me with their For a Greener Halong Bay initiative, developed with the Halong Bay Management Board, to encourage environmentally responsible and sustainable tourism within the bay. They currently run two projects through the initiative including collection and treatment of waste and mangrove reforestation in Bai Tu Long Bay, and the building of cultural houses and schools in local fishing villages.
We booked a 2 day/1 night cruise on the Dragon Legend. This selection would probably be considered an upper mid-range to luxury option, at a cost of $229 USD per person. There are some super budget options out there, but you get what you pay for! We wanted a more comfortable experience and felt it was worthwhile to invest the additional expense with a good company.
Dragon Legend and other cruises in the bay come in the form of junk boats, which are Chinese style sailing ships that were originally developed during the Song Dynasty and used by traders throughout Southeast Asia. Obviously, they are now redesigned to accommodate us spoiled tourists, featuring sun decks, spas, and bar restaurants.
All aboard and off we go
We were picked up from our Hanoi hotel in the morning via luxury van. From there we travelled on a new highway that took us to Halong City in about 3.5 hours, with a 30 minute pit stop on the way.
Upon arrival around noon, we checked in at a big building adjacent to the boarding dock. This part was a little hectic but everything was eventually settled. It was actually the first time that we have gone through formal screening for coronavirus throughout this trip; we were asked to fill out a lengthy form documenting our previous and onward travel, presumably so they can do contact tracing if any cases come up.
Once all the paperwork was done, we loaded into a tender boat that took us over to the main ship. We had a short orientation with the cruise manager, nicknamed “Milky Man”, and checked into our rooms, which were very well appointed with incredible views.
We were served our first meal on the deck, where we could watch the gorgeous view as we cruised into the bay. I should make special mention about the food we had on Dragon Legend – it was insanely elaborate. I’m talking about six course fixed menus for both our lunch and dinner.
Along with some very impressive food decorations.
Nobody could complain that we were not well fed throughout our stay.
The crew planned several activities for us over the two days. We started with kayaking, which took us right up to the massive karsts dotting the landscape.
Once we were thoroughly exhausted from paddling, we got back on the ship and were able to jump into the water from the back for a swim. Very cold but refreshing!
In the evening, we enjoyed happy hour cocktails on the sun deck and watched the sunset. We were really lucky with the weather, as it had been foggy and overcast the entire week prior, but we enjoyed perfectly clear skies and warm weather the entire time.
After a huge dinner, we tried our hand at squid fishing from the back of the boat, but didn’t have luck catching anything. We docked in the harbour overnight, where we were surrounded by only a couple other boats, and had a quiet sleep.
The next morning, we had the choice to get up early for Tai Chi, but we passed on this. Following breakfast, we joined the other guests to disembark and climbed up 100 steps to tour the nearby Thien Con Son Cave. Our guide told us that this large multi-chambered cave was actually previously inhabited by a community of local people.
Outside the cave was a beautiful beach area.
Next, we headed onto the boat to return to the dock, where we said our goodbyes to the hardworking crew and set off back to Hanoi. Along the way, we stopped at Yen Duc village in Dong Trieu province, where we watched a water puppet show performed by local artists. Water puppetry is a tradition dating as far back as the 11th century, originating in the northern Vietnam villages around the Red River Delta. It features wooden puppets supported by bamboo rods, and is performed in waist deep water. I found the show surprisingly entertaining.
Back in Hanoi
We returned to Hanoi in the late afternoon. For dinner, we decided to take a break from street food and continued our trend of fancy multi-course meals. A couple of the cruise guests had recommended to us a restaurant called La Badiane, located just outside the Old Quarter. It is a French restaurant serving fixed course and tasting menus. At about $40 USD per person, the meal was expensive by Vietnam standards (equivalent to 40 banh mi sandwiches!) but very reasonable compared to what we would get at home. We even received a 10% discount off our bill to make up for a freak incident where the glass dish holding Mr. Chuckles’ amuse bouche suddenly cracked and exploded. 😯 Other than that bizarre event, the meal was quite good!
We are now on the final stretch of our trip, with an upcoming day trip to Ninh Binh and one more night in Hanoi. Time flies when you’re having fun.