Cruising in Ha Long Bay
We knew we were in for a treat after waking in our hotel and peeking out the window. Even from the rather dirty, industrial port of Ha Long City, the view of craggy limestone cliffs poking out from green sea was enough to evoke our excitement and admiration. I was with my mom and “twisted aunts,” and we had reached the finale of their 2+ week visit (and my vacation) throughout Vietnam. Our travels had taken us from the south, throughout the central parts of the country, and finally to the North (more on that, another time).
The real lack of English in Ha Long City along with poor communication from our Junk Boat company, made getting to the very nearby pier quite difficult. But still, we managed to arrive early and wait as our fellow passengers arrived by van from Hanoi. Luck would have it that we missed a typhoon by one day, leaving the cleaning crews a bit behind on their schedules but bringing with it unseasonably pleasant weather. We sipped sickly sweet iced milk coffees in the warm shade of a nearby cafe and waited for our cue to board the transport boats.
We are whisked away to our lovely “junk boat,” a term which is in no way comparable to actual junk, but refers to a type of ancient-style sailing boat developed by the Chinese. Our boat, The Treasure Junk, contains enough rooms to comfortably house around 30 passengers and a crew of guides, waitstaff and cooks. Upon reaching the boat we are greeted by men in, frankly creepy, old-school Indochina style masks, beating drums. A welcome cocktail in the dining hall commences our introduction to the boat and our itinerary for the next 2 nights/3 days.
After briefly dropping our bags in our cozy cabin, we hurry to the sun deck. The deck, with its comfy lounge chairs, pleasant breeze and truly spectacular views will become a favorite hang out spot while on board.
We lounge, as our Junk boat cruises farther from the coast and away from the busy harbor, until we are beckoned to the dining hall for lunch. What follows is a multi-course meal largely featuring the seafood of the bay–squid and giant prawns. After a bit of post-lunch relaxation we are lead to the transport boat, where we are loaded into double kayaks. The kayaks will serve not only as the ideal, eco-friendly mode of seeing the quiet and unspoiled parts of the bay but also as exercise. After a while we are given the option of joining one group who will take a longer route, or join another which will head to a secluded beach. Our kayaking skills a bit rusty, this is an easy choice for our group.
We arrive on a lovely little stretch of sand and hop into the warm water, deciding this is the perfect introduction to one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World.
We return to our boat, freshen up and meet on the sun deck for sunset cocktails. Our Junk boat lazily maneuvers between the mysterious formations as the sun sets. And though the clouds seemed to be stubbornly withholding their usual colorful displays, the scenery is nonetheless stunning. We sip overpriced, and ridiculously named cocktails and enjoy laughing spells heightened by our fatigue. After yet another satisfying, seafood-heavy meal, we get to try our hand a squid fishing. We hold lines which end in rubbery lures over a small patch of sea illuminated by a flood light. Though the creatures are said to be attracted to the light, it seems the local squid would be far luckier than us on this night. Bedtime comes early.
We wake shortly after sunrise, and enjoy the peace of the early morning, along with pastries, fresh juice and coffee, on the sun deck. Though some guests are participating in the complimentary Tai Chi classes, sitting and taking in the scenery will be enough for us. After a proper breakfast, once again we hop on the kayaks for a lovely, though long, morning paddle through a secluded part of the bay. Periodically our guide stops to share an anecdote regarding the people who call Ha Long Bay their home–many of whom will spend their entire lives on the water. After about an hour we pull up to our own private beach and spend another hour swimming and walking along the shoreline.
Though the scenery is spectacular, we can’t help but notice the abundance of trash washed up on sandy beach. Disturbingly, we see so many used syringes amidst the rubbish, we lose count.
After another 30 minute paddle, we board the day boat, a smaller junk. Here we spend an incredibly relaxing couple of hours swimming, napping, drinking beer, and feasting on seafood. Eventually we return to the Treasure Junk for more relaxing, which turns into an evening much like the previous–cocktails on the sun-deck, a large, delicious meal, the option of more squid fishing, and early to bed.
Once again we wake shortly after sunrise, and enjoy a similar routine–light pastries, fresh juice, and coffee, with even more spectacular scenery to admire. This time instead of going straight to breakfast, we board a smaller boat and are taken to the nearby fishing village. We board smaller man-powered boats, are given our vary own conical hats to shield us from the already hot morning sun, and are treated to a scenic ride through the fascinating floating village, getting a tiny glimpse into the unique lifestyle of the bay people.
Eventually we come to an inlet with rows of bobbing buoys, which we learn are apart of the pearl farm we will be visiting. Besides the buoys, the pearl farm consists of several floating buildings connected by wooden walkways, and naturally, a jewelry store. We are shown the time consuming process of cultivating and harvesting pearls. This involves agitating the inside of an oyster with a foreign substance, thus encouraging the oysters own natural reaction–to protect itself by covering up the irritant. Over time this forms a pretty little pearl.
Finally, we are taken back to the Treasure Boat for one last massive meal–this time a brunch buffet. And after a few more hours of relaxing, photo-taking and drinking in our last views of the bay, we, sadly, must pack our bags and head for dry land. We all agree, Ha Long Bay lives up to the hype.
Though our first choice was the high-demand Indochina Junk, we booked our cruise through Handspan Travel and for the most part, we were quite pleased. It was a well run operation, had great food, and took us to less crowded spots on the bay, all with a fair, mid-range price. We’d definitely recommend it to others looking for a good Ha Long Bay cruising option.