On the top of our list for Vietnam was Ha Long Bay. I had seen the beautiful photographs of those tall limestone karsts and knew I had to see them for myself.
But what if I told you the best way to do Ha Long Bay was not to do 'Ha Long Bay' at all?
When we began compiling a list of places we wanted to visit on our trip to Vietnam, Ha Long Bay was at the top, then I started doing my research. This trip was initially going to be super budget and we were going to do Ha Long super budget as well until we saw the ‘real’ pictures. Overcrowded with boats and numerous bad experiences from those who had taken the route we had thought to take ourselves.
It was our intention that we would only do Vietnam once, at least for the moment, and in making that decision we knew we wanted to experience HaLong in a relaxing way that would also allow us to take some phenomenal photographs unspoilt by other boats. In fact when we were on the bay during the day we saw very few other boats, it was only at nighttime when the other junks gathered in the safety of a sheltered bay area that we saw 4-8 junks in one area at any one time.
We began to read about Bai Tu Long Bay, still part of the same waterway, to the north east of Ha Long. What differentiated it from Ha Long was that only 1000 cabins were allowed on the bay at any one time. Meaning that the number of boats and people are restricted to keep the sanctity of Bai Tu Long Bay. Our boat had 10 cabins on it, but the average is somewhere between 20-30 cabins per boat. So for Bai Tu Long bay the amount of boats on the bay would be around 40, contrasted with the 553 that currently cruise Ha Long Bay.
Another point of contrast between the two, is their geological composition Ha Long, with its limestone karsts about 90% limestone with very little soil to support vegetation, Bai Tu Long Bay was somewhere around 70-75% with most of the karsts topped with a lush green covering. This made for more dynamic photographs.
Once we knew where we wanted to go we needed to know who we would be going with. We noticed one name coming up again and again- IndoChina Junk. Upon enquiring into their fleet we decided on the 3 day 2 night experience on the Dragon's Pearl. This itinerary took in the sights while including; snorkelling, swimming, hanging out on a private beach, relaxing, and dinner in a cave. It also included pick up and drop off in Hanoi, lunch before the cruise, a water puppet show and a tour of Vung Vieng floating fishing village.
Our cruise director, Tom, was fantastic. He very knowledgeable about Bai Tu Long and Vietnamese culture more generally and took the time to explain important geological information about the bay.
On the cruise everything was perfect. I don’t mean that everything was just nice it was literally perfect. Everything we ate and everything we did was so brilliantly planned that I did not have to worry about a single thing all I had to do was show up. As someone who worries a lot I found this the perfect start to our trip as it allowed me to relax and spend time admiring the beautiful scenery.
The accommodations were quality and presented beautifully. I have spent some time on ships previously and know that space is always at a premium when on the water so I knew the rooms would not be as big as regular hotel rooms. Our room was appointed with a bathroom with shower, a large bed and a small wardrobe, all finished in wood giving it a very solid feel. We were at the aft of the boat on the second level, slightly elevated over the rear deck giving us views out the back of the boat being able to watch the bay go by out of our window.
The communal areas were spacious and even though we were onboard with 14 other people we all had space to relax. The sunbeds were comfortable and plentiful and the dining areas were stunning. All our meals were eaten on the front deck where the crew set up tables and chairs. We were fortunate that the weather was perfect for the duration of our cruise, there is also an internal dining area for when the weather is not so perfect.
The highlight of the trip had to be the cave dining experience. I felt like royalty being escorted to an island in a speed boat, walking up candle lined stairs into the cave where it was lit by candlelight. The crew had brought in tables and chairs. The food was again amazing, a combination of seafood, chicken, vegetables and rice all in their most refined incarnations. The chef had painstakingly carved dragons and birds into some root vegetables and set them down on a central table as decoration. In short, it is a night I will never forget.
With all this luxury you expect a price tag to match but this is Vietnam after all. At the time of writing this trip with all inclusions, no alcohol included, was $270 USD per person. Although there are cheaper cruises on the market I doubt any would be as good as this one. We have spoken to other people who chose to do Ha Long Bay, and some who even chose a more luxury option for Ha Long Bay, and the common theme is that they express some disappointment at the reality of Ha Long.
Those who chose a cheaper option have reported they wished they hadn’t bothered and that, in their opinion, Ha Long Bay was overrated. This was not our experience and I still maintain it was worth every cent.
If you would like to know more or book with IndoChina Junk, click here.
*please note: there are many companies which imitate reputable companies to piggyback off of their established reputation, please be wary. We booked directly through the IndoChina Junk website that we have linked above*