I’ll admit I was a bit nervous returning to Halong Bay with Adam. My first experience exploring this gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage Site was so good I was afraid it wasn’t going to live up to the expectations I had set for both him and myself. We had recently run into a handful of other travelers who were rather put off by their Halong Bay cruise, describing it as an underwhelming tourist trap, crowded and full of boozing partygoers. Could it be that the majestic Halong Bay I visited five years ago had lost its luster? So we took to the interwebs and researched cruise options ad nauseum until we stumbled upon something a little different. Immediately we were drawn to the longer three-day cruise option around Bai Tu Long bay, Halong Bay’s lesser touristed neighbor, which promised to take us off-the-beaten-path and offer a unique glimpse into the local’s way of life. Indeed a cruise aboard the Treasure Junk turned out to be exactly what we were looking for – offering plenty of adventure while taking us away from the crowds, letting us explore the stunning seascapes by kayak and experience a day in the life of a fisherman and woman.
It is the striking contrast of the brown junk boat sails against a backdrop of opaque emerald waters and jagged limestone islets covered in thick vegetation that sticks in my mind the most when I think of Halong Bay. Thousands of (mostly) unspoiled karsts and caves of all shapes and sizes dot its 43,000 hectares of seaside territory along the coast of northeastern Vietnam. As the legend goes, dragons descended upon this land thousands of years ago to protect the Vietnamese people from foreign enemies. They expelled their invaders using a shield of divine fire and scattering giant emeralds across the sea to build a defensive wall of protection. These emeralds overtime turned into the islands and islets of what we today know as Halong Bay.
For a significant majority of travelers to northern Vietnam, a multi-day trip to the Halong Bay region is a requisite. However we would learn that not all trips to Halong Bay are the same. In fact this region, collectively called the Gulf of Tonkin, is actually made up of three bays: Halong Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay. And it makes a difference which one you visit.
Our cruise took us to the remote Bai Tu Long Bay which is located to the northeast of Halong Bay and is far less touristed than it’s famous neighbor while still offering the same naturally beautiful backdrop. While you can’t expect to be the only boat in the bay (most boats anchor within eyesight of one another at night for safety reasons anyway), Bai Tu Long Bay, as well as Lan Ha Bay, offer the opportunity to escape from the crowds and enjoy kayaking, snorkeling, swimming and beach exploring in near solitude. If a peaceful connection with nature is what you are seeking from your Halong Bay experience, Bai Tu Long Bay is probably a good option for you.
When it comes to Halong Bay, you have options – 500 to be exact. Which can make choosing a travel agency and/or boat operator more than a little overwhelming.
It is best to start with a general idea of what kind of experience you are looking for, whether it be a raging party from day to night, plenty of hikes, caves and kayaks to keep you occupied, or low-key sun bathing time on the boat deck. Research reviews before you go and ask lots of questions. At a minimum, find out exactly what is covered in the quoted cruise price (i.e. park fees, meals, activities, gear) and what additional fees you will need to pay for (i.e. drinks, optional activities, cave entrance fees, kayak rentals). If you are staying overnight, look into whether the boat also carries single day-trippers which is a good indication the boat will be crowded and you aren’t going to stray far from the main pier.
Halong Bay cruise costs vary significantly from US$60 per night on a super-budget party tour to several hundred per night (or beyond) on a luxury boat offering all the comforts and amenities you could want for. Budget tours and single day cruises typically stay within Halong Bay while mid-range and luxury cruises often offer cruise exploration further afield from Halong City to Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay.
What To See & Do in Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay
Once your boat has set sail and you are immersed in Halong’s iconic limestone karst landscape you’ll have plenty of opportunities to connect with nature and local culture. Many cruises offer at a minimum a visit to a local fishing community, often via boats being paddled by hardworking fishermen (or more likely fisherwomen). Ours was followed by a visit to a community pearl farm. Others offer kayaking, hiking or cave exploration activities to Cat Ba Island, Sung Sot Cave or Ti Top beach.
And the fun doesn’t end once you’ve returned to your boat from the daily excursions. Should you be interested, many offer extra diversions to pass the time, like night squid fishing, miniature cooking classes, and early morning tai chi.
We were eager for something a little more authentic so were thrilled with our day of kayaking and fishing in Bai Tu Long bay with a husband and wife fishermen couple. It was truly the highlight of our cruise.
So now a bit about our experience sailing the emerald seas of Halong Bay aboard a junk. We narrowed down our choice of boat operators based on a few key factors: getting away from the crowds, itinerary and outdoorsy activities offered, commitment to socially responsible travel, fewer number of passengers, cost, and high quality food. A cruise aboard the Treasure Junk organized by Handspan Travel Indochina fit the bill.
The morning of our cruise we left Hanoi’s Old Quarter around 8am by private shuttle and by 11:30am were at the pier in Halong City being whisked away to our floating home for the next three days. An oddly masked crew member welcomed us aboard (we never did ask the story about the strange mask) and showed us to our comfortable cabin after a welcome drink in the dining hall.
After experiencing our first five course lunch – a feast of mango salad, hot and sour seafood soup, sautéed squid with Chinese celery, and, my personal favorite, bun cha with spring rolls – we were hooked. I couldn’t wait for the next meal. An added bonus was the mini cooking lesson held before dinner each night where the resident master chef would teach us how to assemble our own northern Vietnamese nibbling. We never turn down an extra opportunity to eat something.
When we weren’t eating, there was usually an activity scheduled to partake in. On our first afternoon, most of us newcomers embarked on a two hour kayak adventure to explore a sandy beach and grotto. The weather was a bit chilly and grim so no one swam but we enjoyed the time exploring our private cove.
It was the activities on our second day that more than justified an extra night stay aboard the Treasure Junk. The morning started with a peaceful tai chi session on the boat deck as the captain navigated us deeper into a mist-covered limestone pillars of Bai Tu Long bay. Then, while most of the other one-night cruise passengers were packing their bags and getting ready for their own morning activity before returning to Halong City, we boarded a second day boat where our trusty kayaks awaited us. For several hours we paddled around Bai Tu Long enjoying the craggy karsts up close in near solitude, only running into a lone fisherman from time to time. But the best part of the day was spending time with a fisherman couple, Phước and Phúc, who taught us how to bait and catch fish the old fashioned way.
We were so impressed with this delightful couple and the hospitality they showed us in their home it was a little sad to have to say goodbye. For dinner that night we had a fresh reminder of the fun we had earlier in the day when two of our fried fish catch showed up on our table.
We were much lazier on our last morning, opting to sleep in rather than join the tai chi sensei on the deck for a morning stretch. After a light breakfast we made our way to local fishing village where we were rowed around the floating houses of Vung Vieng before a stop at the community pearl farm. Learning how they farm pearls was interesting but way more of a tourist attraction than our experiences the day before. All too soon it was time for the Treasure Junk to return us back to Halong City for our transfer to Hanoi.
As with anywhere, so much our impressions of a place are based on our overall experience with the people, the activities and the food. We feel really lucky to have experienced Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay in all their glory aboard a well-run cruise ship. We found the Treasure Junk staff to be extremely friendly, professional and accommodating from start to finish. Our room was surprisingly spacious with great natural light and offered every amenity we needed to make our stay comfortable. And best of all we enjoyed a really unique and authentic experience spending our second day with Phước and Phúc learning the art of local fishing techniques. This really set Handspan Travel apart from other cruise opertors out there.
We were very happy with our Halong Bay cruise aboard the Treasure Junk so have few criticisms to offer. However if we are being nit picky I’d say route the Treasure Junk sails is not varied from one day to the next even if you stay on board for two nights. You’ll only get to see Bai Tu Long bay which we didn’t mind since it was quieter and supposedly better preserved.
Additionally, those staying on for a second night have to board a smaller day boat while the Treasure Junk returns to the harbor to pick up the next group of tourists, which we weren’t aware of when we booked the tour. Regardless it didn’t impact our experience much as we were busy fishing and kayaking the day away and enjoying the natural scenery. Plus it was like we were getting our own private cruise ship for the day.
Finally, if you are looking for a party or wild nightlife, this is not your boat. While the passengers ranged from groups of young adults to families with children, the atmosphere was generally relaxed and subdued. Don’t expect the King’s Cup olympics to commence after dinner.
What: We’re big proponents of a multi-day cruise to experience Halong Bay in all it’s serenity and splendor. We went on a 3D/2N Halong Bay cruise aboard the Treasure Junk, which by day took us kayaking and fishing through the lesser-touristed Bai Tu Long bay and by night had us squid fishing and taking cooking lessons from the resident chef.
Where: Ha Long Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay can be accessed by boat from the port city of Halong City which is located 170 kilometers (3.5 – 4 hours drive time) from Hanoi in Northern Vietnam. Inquire with your travel agency or junk boat operator about transfers from your hotel in Hanoi or Sapa. This is typically included in the package.
When: Ha Long Bay can be visited year round though the best time to visit is between mid-October and November when the temperatures are mild with blue skies and sun. As you can see from our photos, the weather is quite overcast between the months of December and February. The temperatures start to heat up again, along with a spike in humidity and storms, in May, June and July so plan to spend a lot of time during these months cooling off in the water or in your air conditioned cabin.
How: Junks (meaning classic Chinese sailing vessels) are the modus operandi in Halong Bay. In fact approximately 500 of them sail these seas on a daily basis.
Cost: Cost of cruises vary significantly between junk boats and accommodate a wide array of budgets from a mere US$60 per night to US$600 or more. Take caution of deals that sound too good to be true on this adventure – these boats often have hidden costs or aren’t going to be offering the experience you deserve on Halong Bay. This is one of those activities where you really get what you pay for. As a point of reference, a 3D/2N Halong Bay cruise in a superior room aboard the Treasure Junk costs US$310 per person.
Our 3-day/2-night Halong Bay cruise through Bai Tu Long Bay was provided by Treasure Junk via Handspan Travel Indochina (+84 4 3935 0053, [email protected], www.treasure-junk.com). As you start planning for your own Halong Bay cruise check out their multi-day cruise options offered by Treasure Junk. As with everything on Bold Travel, our opinions remain our own!