After finding our seats aboard the roof of the small flat-bottomed fishing boat, we each took sips from our shot-sized glasses of steaming green tea. We passed on the pungent home-brewed rice wine offered by our hosts in an old 2L plastic soda bottle but Adam couldn’t resist the opportunity to try a lung-wrenching puff from his bamboo bong. We spoke no Vietnamese and they no English but through smiles and the help of our guide we celebrated the end of a wildly successful day of fishing.
We had just spent the better part of an afternoon shadowing our gracious hosts, a husband and wife fishermen couple, through the shallow coves of remote Bai Tu Long bay as they went about their daily routine dropping net and plucking out catch. All of this was after kayaking the morning away through wind-eroded grottoes to our own private beach at the base of a limestone karst as we learned about the dragon legends for which Vietnam’s Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long were named. Unlike other cultural tours we have been on, this experience was different – it was effortless, authentic and unforced. Our memorable day of kayaking and fishing Bai Tu Long bay was hands-down the highlight of our 3D/2N Halong Bay Explorer and Kayak Discovery Cruise with Handspan Travel Indochina. And the best part was, there wasn’t another tour group in sight!
Halong Bay, northern Vietnam’s fantasy-like archipelago, is known for its mesmerizing panorama of lush limestone karsts, emerald waters, wind-etched grottoes and quintessential sailboats (or “junks” as they are locally referred). This UNESCO World Heritage Site is dotted with more than 1,600 delicate limestone islets which have been shaped and molded over 20 million of years of tropical weather climates and erosion.
As a recently declared World of New 7 Wonders site, tourists have been visiting Halong Bay in droves and the unfortunate result has been mass tourism and overdevelopment. There are now an overwhelming 500 junks for visitors to choose from, more than half of which sail Halong Bay on multi-day, overnight trips. Many also plan excursions on Castaway Island and Cat Ba Island, Ti Top and Soi Sim beaches and Sung Sot cave. We were nervous after speaking with others about their disappointing experiences visiting Halong Bay that we would feel lost amongst a sea of other tourists.
Luckily, our research led us to a lesser frequented limestone outcrop still a part of the World Heritage Site to the northeast of Halong Bay. Bai Tu Long National Park in many ways is the Halong Bay of old. It is just as striking as its southern neighbor but far less touristed and polluted. With fewer junk boats traveling this thoroughfare Bai Tu Long is an ideal destination for those seeking a quieter and more peaceful cruise experience.
Once you’ve gotten your first glimpses of the mythical Halong Bay you’ll immediately know why people are seeking out this destination in droves. Regardless of time of year and weather, this limestone karst seascape is sure to impress even the most intrepid of travelers. However, the true highlight of our 3D/2N Halong Bay cruise aboard the Treasure Junk was not actually sailing through the limestone karsts but rather our day spent on kayaks and fishing boat getting a true flavor of local life in Bai Tu Long.
Our day started with an early morning tai chi session on the main sundeck of the Treasure Junk as the captain slowly and carefully maneuvered us through the foggy karst-dotted seascape.
After breakfast the four of us continuing our stay for a second night boarded a day boat where we found our kayaks and paddles awaiting us. The late-February sky was unusually drizzly but we didn’t let the overcast weather dampen our spirits. With towels and belongings secured in dry bags we set off on a three-hour kayak excursion around the bay.
This was Adam and I’s first time kayaking together so it took us some time to get our rowing in sink. Shoulders burning we had to dig deep at times to try to keep stride with Dzhung, our young and energetic cruise guide, as we moved against the currents and light breeze. We were happy to find peace for our arms among the grottoes of the limestone rocks, though the tide was often so low that we couldn’t penetrate deeply without getting our kayak stuck on rocks just beneath the surface.
Every now and again we would run into a local fisherman, rowing with his feet to power his small vessel while he used his hands to manage his fishing line. But mostly we explored Bai Tu Long in solitude. There were no cruise ships and no other kayakers – just us and the dragon spirits today.
Soon enough we would arrive at our own secluded beach, a small sandy patch connecting two limestone karsts. After a rather ungraceful exit from the kayak, Dzhung left us to explore on our own. The low tides afforded us a much farther walk out than usual without getting our feet wet, something I was grateful for given the chilly climate. Back ashore, Dzhung used his paddle to draw out a map of Halong Bay and tell us about the legend of the descending dragon for which it had been named.
Once story time was over we again mounted our kayaks and paddled our way back to the day boat for a much anticipated lunch and a break before our next excursion!
Another protein-filled five course lunch later and we were off to our next activity – fishing. Our gracious hosts were husband and wife locals Phước and Phúc, whose names ironically both translate to happiness in Vietnamese. And we were soon to learn that happiness could not have been more fitting a word to describe this pair.
The flat-bottomed boat we boarded was the real deal – simple, utilitarian and unaltered for tourists. The worn wood side panels showed stains of fish guts and oil leaks. A basket of rusted tools sat on the floor next to a growing pool of bubbling water where the boat had sprung a small leak. The smell of diesel fuel overpowered everything else as did the surprisingly loud puttering of the boat’s engine.
There was just enough room for us four passengers, our guides Tu and Dzhung from the Treasure Junk and hosts Phước and Phúc. Despite the crowdedness somehow Phước patiently and calmly maneuvered the boat around Bai Tu Long, first with the help of the motor then by rowing all of us himself with two thin wooden oars so as not to scare away the fish. We did our best to stay out of his way and duck his oar strokes as he carried our extra weight to the perfect spot in the cove where we would drop net.
When in position, his wife Phúc was the one to let out the net, marking the drop point with a homemade floating rod of wood and styrofoam. With each oar stroke Phúc let out little sections of the net until we reached the end of the line.
Now it was time to do our part by whacking away with sticks on the side of the boat. We continued even when our arms tired and our ears were muffled by the incessant thunking sounds, until Phước had rowed us back to the styrofoam marker at the start of the net. It was Phúc’s job to pull the net from the water and as soon as she started we would see that our efforts had paid off! Hundreds of small boxy silver fish were now trapped within the net’s web.
This, we would learn from Tu, was all in a normal day’s work. However, the real surprise and treat was seeing the larger fish we’d caught. With every larger fish Phúc pulled out of the net, we’d each cheer and clap until an even bigger one emerged. It seems that day we had hit the jackpot and everyone was in good spirits.
Then Phước noticed his “cousins” trying to clear their nets ashore some 40 feet away. He jumped into the water to join them only to come back five minutes later with a huge grin on his face. We didn’t need Dzhung or Tu to translate to recognize why he was so tickled. It seems they too had benefited tremendously from the low tides that day. They had already filled an entire boat the same size as the one we were sitting on with catch and there was plenty more awash ashore that they just couldn’t carry. Phước ran back to shore with his mesh back which he would fill with leftovers. It seems we’d all be eating well tonight!
In good spirits we left the cove and headed back to their larger houseboat where they slept each night. Here we would discover what a resourceful and enterprising couple these two fishermen are. Phước pulled a wriggling octopus out of a bamboo basket he kept dangling over the side of his skiff. Dinner for tonight, perhaps?
Our guide Dzhung later explained that they had caught the octopus using a small white tin tea pot which the unsuspecting critters like to take refuge in as they stalk their own prey. Several other similar baskets housed squid and other unidentifiable fish.
After tea was poured, the tobacco bong was passed around and rice wine offered. Phước continued to carry on rapid one-sided Vietnamese conversations with us as if we could understand even one world of what he was saying. His wife Phúc, still clearing the net from earlier, chuckled when she saw that we were completely clueless.
Meanwhile Dhzung and Tu explained to us life for the fishermen of Bai Tu Long. Phước and Phúc, we would learn, were both younger than us but already had two primary-school aged children living with their grandparents on the mainland. Fishing is a hard way of life and many of the people who used to live in the area have since moved away, either out of necessity or because of regulation due to overcrowding. Lucky for Phước and Phúc, they have secured a contract to farm fish for junk boats like our. The smaller silver fish we had caught today would in fact be used as feeder fish for more delectable sea bass.
All too soon it was time to leave our new friends and return to the Treasure Junk.
At dinner that night Dzhung brought up a special extra course – four familiar looking fish now lightly battered and deep fried for our enjoyment. We all shared a chuckle as we and reminisced about our memorable and eye-opening day with Phước and Phúc. It is one I am sure none of us will forget for a long time to come.
If You Go: Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise in Halong Bay
What: The lesser-touristed alternative to Halong Bay, a multi-day cruise through Bai Tu Long Bay promises the same majestic scenery with quieter thoroughfares and a chance to observe up-close and personal the everyday lifestyles of local fishermen communities.
Where: Vietnam’s Bai Tu Long Bay is located approximately 30 kilometers northeast of sister attraction Ha Long Bay. Both are accessed from the port city Ha Long City though most travel agencies organizing cruises organize and include transfers to and from Hanoi in their packages.
When: As Treasure Junk boat manager Tu explained to us, there is no bad time to visit Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay. This limestone karst landscape offers visitors a stunning backdrop for a cruise regardless of temperature and amount of sunshine. Having said that, the region is pretty cold and gray between December to February as we found out for ourselves. Temperatures and humidity spike during May, June and July when you will be glad for planned swimming excursions and air conditioning in your cabin. The best time to visit weather wise is from mid-October to November when temperatures are moderate, skies are blue and the sunsets are epic.
Cost: Cost of cruises vary significantly between junk boats and accommodate a wide array of budgets. However, be wary of cruises where the price sounds too good to be true. This is one of those activities where you really get what you pay for and it is often worth saving up for a nicer cruise to ensure you aren’t going to be disappointed with your experience. As a point of reference, a 3D2N Halong Bay cruise in a superior room aboard the Treasure Junk costs US$310 per person.
Our 3-day/2-night cruise on Bai Tu Long Bay aboard the Treasure Junk was provided by Handspan Travel Indochina (+84 4 3926 2828, [email protected], www.handspan.com). As you start planning for your own Halong Bay cruise check out the range of multi-day options offered by Handspan Travel. As with everything on Bold Travel, our opinions remain our own!