Four hours sitting in a mini-bus, on a bumpy road, while the driver played chicken with the on-coming buses and trucks is not my idea of fun. I was really hoping this eye-brow-raising drive would be forgotten once we were settled on our boat enjoying Halong Bay.
Sure enough, it was totally worth it!
Our home for the next two nights was Dragon’s Pearl, a well-maintained wooden junk with capacity for 20 people. Run by IndoChina Junk, the Dragon’s Pearl actually sails through the very busy Halong Bay and takes you to the equally beautiful, but much quieter Bai Tu Long Bay. Definitely choose this option if you prefer to see more scenery and less boats.
The smaller boat, pictured below, took us out to the big junk. IndoChina Junk pride themselves on guest safety, so every time we used this little boat (several times during the trip,) we were instructed to wear safety vests.
Once on board and while meeting the captain and crew we were served a hot glass of pineapple juice with a hot towel. It was a cool day so this was a nice touch. Our room was clean and more spacious than I had anticipated. The large window meant you could lay in bed in the morning and soak up the magic of the bay.
You won’t go hungry on the Dragon’s Pearl. Our first lunch consisted of eight different dishes shared among four people. Red bean and lotus seed soup (delicious), clams in pineapple sauce, deep-fried whole prawns, deep-fried minced oyster with herbs, steamed fish, stir-fried veggies with garlic, veggie salad with carrot sauce and fresh fruit. The dining room has communal tables which was a really nice way to meet the other passengers.
After breakfast the following morning, we braved the cool weather and took the option of kayaking to experience the real majesty of the limestone cliffs and caves up close.
The highlight of the trip was evening dinner in Thien Canh Son cave. It’s a fairly steep walk up-hill (approx 10 minutes). By single-file you carefully climb the steps until you reach the cave entrance. What greeted us was a cavernous space, with a path softly lit by tea-lights and the crew of the boat welcoming us with smiles and hand-claps. It was magical, memorable and very romantic. An evening of six courses of beautifully prepared food, intricate fruit and vegetable carvings, ending with the crew singing us traditional folk songs.
The following morning, after breakfast, we visited Vung Vieng fishing village where we boarded a small rustic row-boat for a tour of the floating village, passing through the floating school, fish and oyster farms. The village community seem to have embraced tourism, incorporating it into their daily lives on the water.
Before arriving back at port in Halong Bay, we enjoyed another lazy lunch, cocktail in hand, on the sunny top-deck, taking in views of the cliffs and jade green water. Finally, we were transported by luxury van (seating six) to Yen Duc village in Dong Trieu province to enjoy a traditional water puppet show before being dropped off at our hotel in Hanoi.
Halong Bay is crowded with tourist companies and boat operators, from budget to luxury cruises, so it really pays to do your research to ensure you get value for money. IndoChina Junk is at the top-end budget-wise, but I think, extremely good value for money. It’s obvious this company cares about guest comfort and safety.
All of the crew were friendly and fun, but special mention must go to the youngest crew member, Harry, who entertained us nightly with his magic tricks.
China has The Great Wall, Cambodia has Angkor Watt and Vietnam has Halong Bay. If you travel to Hanoi, make the effort, it’s a ‘must do’ destination. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed. Photos just don’t fully capture the magic of this natural wonder.