07 May 2016

Ha Long Bay: Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay

Vietnam is a country filled with a rich and varied tapestry of must-dos but one that comes near the top of most people’s lists is a visit to Ha Long Bay. Located in the seas of northeastern Vietnam, the bay, whose name means ‘descending dragon bay’, is home to hundreds of small limestone islands that rise out of the emerald green water. Our guide told us that there are, in fact, 1,969 islands — 1969 is also the year of Ho Chi Minh’s death; an unlikely coincidence, perhaps.

The only way to visit Ha Long Bay is to join one of the plethora of organised boat trips that leave from Hon Gai harbour each day. There are cruises at prices that suit any budget, but I had read that you really get what you pay for on Ha Long Bay, so I decided to splash out by booking with one of the more expensive operators — Indochina Junk. I booked a three-day, two-night cruise on the Dragon’s Pearl, which took us out to Bai Tu Long Bay (‘little dragon bay’), an area just beyond Ha Long Bay, which has the same scenery as the latter but which allows only a small number of tourist boats to visit.

I was picked up from my hotel in the Hanoi Old Quarter just before 8 am and joined four other cruisers in our luxury van. There was the inevitable 30-minute stop at a workshop/shop/cafe and then we stopped for about an hour at Yen Duc village to watch a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show. It wasn’t really my thing but it wasn't an entirely uninteresting experience either. After a multi-course lunch, we were back in the van to complete the four-hour journey to Ha Long.

About 40 of us gathered at the Indochina Junk offices and we were divided into the two separate Dragon’s Pearl boats. There were 18 of us on my boat — mainly Aussies and Europeans, and a couple of Americans; most people were in the 30–65 age bracket. There are plenty of ‘party’ cruises on Ha Long Bay but Indochina Junk’s cruises are not them. There is no downing of bottomless beers and jumping from the top deck; safety is a priority, in fact, and we even had to wear life jackets on the short trip on a small boat that took us to our junk. After a welcome drink, we checked into our cabins. My cabin was small but attractively decorated, with lacquered dark wood panels and a large, comfortable bed. and thoughtfully designed. There was good air conditioning and a hot shower that had a window looking out into the sea.

I decided to do a three-day, two-night cruise to give myself time to relax and enjoy it properly. The activity programme on the Dragon's Pearl was not extensive but it was definitely sufficient and we had plenty of time to relax on the boat, enjoying the stunning scenery. The magic of watching the layers of island appear and then recede into the horizon has to be seen to be believed.

We went on two kayak rides, one of which took us to the gorgeous Cong Dam geological park, where we visited a ‘hidden’ lagoon and a sheltered cave. Kayaking was a really good way to explore the area and to see some of the rock formations in closer detail. The kayaks were for two people but I joined forces with one of the girls from an Australian family of seven. I had been a bit worried about being the odd person out amid the couples and families, but I soon got to know my friendly fellow cruisers, and there was always someone to talk to and someone to sit next to at dinner. 18 was the perfect group size to facilitate this kind of mixing too; any larger and mingling would have been harder, and we might have had to fight over sun beds (there was one each on the Dragon's Pearl).

Speaking of dinner, the food on board was excellent. Each of the lunches and dinners we had on board had multiple courses that included salads, gorgeously fresh seafood, grilled meat and veggies. There was so much food that it was a good thing we had done so much kayaking and swimming to build up an appetite!

The grand finale was the dinner on our last night, which was held in Thien Canh Son cave, a UNESCO-listed cave on Hon Co Island, in Bai Tu Long Bay. We spent the afternoon relaxing on the island’s small beach: sunbathing, swimming and kayaking. 

Then we headed back to the junk to change for dinner before climbing the 100 steps to the mouth of the cave. The crew had done a fantastic job decorating the cave, which was lit with dozens of candles and strewn with flower petals. What followed was an epic, eight-course barbecue feast, where dish after beautifully prepared dish came out to the table. My favourite was probably the giant prawns, but there was some very nice grilled fish and chicken too. The crew also created some wonderful artworks out of various fruits and vegetables, the coup de grâce being the Dragon’s Pearl junk fashioned from a watermelon.

It was a really special evening and not an experience that I had seen offered on any of the other cruises (barbecues on the beach are more common). We made our way back to the junk for some more drinks and conversation on the top deck, enjoying the feel of the cool sea breeze. We saw quite a few boats with extremely bright lights, which are supposed to attract the squid, apparently. Maybe they are afraid of the dark.

In the morning, we had a final breakfast and packed up our cabins, before journeying to a fishing village called Vung Viêng, where we were rowed in a sampan past the tiny, colourful fishermen’s houses. The villages are much smaller than they used to be: the call of the mainland and its hospitals, schools and wifi outweighs the peaceful simplicity — and hardships — of the fishing lifestyle.

There was just time for one last lunch (another six or so courses) on board before we pulled into Hon Gai harbour and made our slow journey back to Hanoi. The van took a much bumpier route on the way back and we still had to have the 30-minute retail opportunity, which was annoying when we all wanted to get back to Hanoi and make the most of our remaining time in the capital.

I really enjoyed the cruise and would strongly recommend Indochina Junk and the two-night Dragon’s Pearl cruise that includes the cave barbecue. Our guide, Chung, was helpful and entertaining, and the crew were very professional. There were only really a couple of minor negative points. First, the drinks on board were not great if you don’t drink beer or wine (I had a whiskey sour that cost twice what you would pay in Hanoi and seemed to be lacking in both whiskey and sour). Second, there wasn't a huge amount of historical and geographical information about the area from our guide. We got a 15-minute overview at the start of the cruise, but while we were kayaking, for example, there weren't any stops to hear about the geological structures and processes, which would have added a bit more context to the beauty of the scenery.

Finally, I should mention the weather. We were lucky to have only a few spots of rain on one morning, but although it was always hot and sometimes sunny, we saw hardly any blue sky. Instead, there was usually a thick layer of cloud and/or haze. Whenever the sun did come out, you could immediately see how much brighter the sea and the rocks became. There was a suggestion of a beautiful sunset on our last night, although the clouds came in before the sun could fully dip into the horizon. One morning, I woke up at 5 am just in case there was a nice sunrise, but alas, the clouds were still there. However, it was even calmer and more peaceful then, so I sat for a few minutes enjoying the stillness. 

I suspect this experience is fairly common and, in any case, if you come in June–September, there is a greater risk of storms, and in winter (November–March), it can get pretty cold out on the bay. As such, there isn’t an ideal time to visit, but I was grateful for the lack of rain. Besides, the sea was fairly cool, which you can only really appreciate when the weather is hot enough to merit a cold swim. Whatever time of year you come to Vietnam, though, you should definitely make the trip to Ha Long Bay.

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