Date Traveled, February 2013
Ha Long bay is Vietnam's most popular destination and the most popular way to experience its scenic limestone karsts and isles is on a cruise aboard one of the many "junks" that ply its waters.
Most visitors can find an overnight junk quite easily in Hanoi. There are hundreds of junks and plenty of operators around the city who can book you a journey on one of them. You will probably also be able to book one through your hotel. The junks vary from the basic to the luxurious costing hundreds of dollars a night for a cabin. If you have a specific junk operator in mind though, it probably makes sense to book ahead of time online.
I had a specific operator in mind...I had read that there were literally hundreds of junks to share the space with and was looking to avoid some of the crowds if possible. Even though February wasn't the peak season, Ha Long is still popular year round. In terms of avoiding the crowds your present option short of getting a private junk to go where you wanted it to, is to book with one operator, the Indochina Junk company. They are the only ones currently licensed to operate in Bai Tu Long bay, a part of the bay in general but away from some of the more famous sights along the Ha Long route and also away from Cat Ba island on that route. Well I would have picked either having never been to Ha Long before but it was a question of enjoying the popular sights with the crowds or other equally scenic sights without, I chose the latter at least for this trip.
Indochina junk has several different junks plying their route, from the private couples option on the Princess to the larger ten cabin junk, the White Pearl. My partner and I decided on something in between in terms if number of people and price, the ten passenger Red Dragon junk, a choice we were ultimately quite happy with. We booked a month in advance and typical of the well oiled Ha Long junk tourism machinery, it included an early morning pick up from our hotel in Hanoi and the return journey as well.
The bay in the mist
Indochina junk sails in "Bai Tu Long Bay", much much less crowded than the regular routes
February is Hanoi and Ha Long bay is misty and overcast. It is also cold by Vietnamese standards but we had just flown in from 20 degree F weather in New York and were quite alright with that part. While the bay is sort of mystical in the cover of the mists, if possible you should really consider coming in clearer weather which I think will make the visit much more enjoyable. Unfortunately the weather was overcast and misty on our entire overnight trip, but at least it didn't rain and we enjoyed ourselves nonetheless.
The pickup vans arrive early for the four hour ride to Ha Long. We were the first pick up and we made nearby stops to get the rest of the fellow tourists, 4 of whom happened to be on going with us on the Red Dragon. There was a total of eight people in our van and a driver and a coordinator who briefed us and wished us a happy trip before getting off after everyone was in. It was a friendly if a bit unimaginative service. For instance, there was a rather open question about anyone's birthdays or anniversary without any attempt to get that while booking in case someone wanted a surprise. The only answer to that question was a loud "divorce" which had us laughing but confused the coordinator. And then we were off. It's a long ride but at least for the first half it wasn't dull, in fact quite interesting driving through the city of Hanoi and then through the outskirts and the neighboring towns. If this was your first time there is enough to see to keep you occupied. But after two hours of this, you realize it is just much more of the same and start to get bored, which is fortunately around when we get our first pit stop.
We stopped at some crafts center which is one if those places clearly made for the daily buses going to Ha Long, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The interesting thing about this particular place had many large marble statues and sculptors on display on its gardens and it made for nice break walking through and viewing them but that was not all, they also had a veritable miniature mall inside with food, snacks, supplies, clothes and plenty of artwork and jewelry and anything else you could possibly think of taking back as a souvenir from Vietnam. Even if you are uninterested in buying anything it is good window shopping. Note the statues and some of the items are quite expensive. The rest of the ride was boring and it would help if you are one of those people who can fall asleep easily unlike me. If not I would recommend bringing some music or book or something to keep you occupied. And don't expect to be near the end of the journey when you first see the sign to Ha Long city if you are going with Indochina Junk as their dock is a good 45 minutes away after you reach the city. But eventually you do reach the dock and are now almost ready to begin the cruise.
Our pitstop was this place with hundreds of scultors for sale
Clearly for the tourist crowds, the center was stocked with all kinds of souvenir options
A depressing sight, fortunately once we started sailing we were mostly alone with our sister junks
The Indochina docks are the staging area for their supplies and such and of course ferrying passengers to and from the junks. They operate a well oiled machine, and passengers leaving the cruise are times to leave on the vans you came in while you are ferried out on the boats they just arrived in. While you wait to be ferried out you are treated to a truly disheartening sight that makes you wonder if this Ha Long thing is all hype. The bay just out side of Ha Long city is full boats, junks and giant cruise ships that have brought thousands of passengers from all over Asia. And the limestone cliffs and isles while visible here certainly do not look as pretty.
Fortunately that changed very soon after we started sailing and I completely forgot about scene until we returned the next day.
Finally, after nearly 5 hours since leaving our hotel, we were introduced to out guide and Captain and ferried to the Red Dragon to start our true trip to Ha Long. Almost as soon as I got on the junk my mood dramatically improved and the excitement was back after that tiring journey. Coincidental to that but certainly helping everyone's spirits was the fact that the mist started to clear a bit. Not completely and the sky remained overcast but enough to extend the visibility significantly.
The Red Dragon is a small to medium sized junk as far the typical junk sizes go. It has 5 cabins for 10 passengers but our trip had only eight passengers. Two young couples including my partner and myself and a group of four young ladies from the Philippines. The other couple were from Australia. The size for the ship was perfect I felt and everyone had enough personal space on the deck. Although I seemed to be the one who spent the most time up there :-). There was a pretty outdoor dining area and the back part of the junk had an enclosed dining area and a small bar. The cabins were all in the lower level and were cozy and comfortable. Their profile right above the water and with nice wide windows made even the cabins a great place to view the scenic bay which is probably why many folks spent a lot of time there. The bathroom was tight but fine and you had the usual amenities including flip flops in the rooms which was great to use when we left the boat for kayaking later. The boat overall was in good shape if showing some wear in the woodwork which is all a pretty red and matched the color of the sails. The sails were unfurled only once during the trip when we left the boat later that afternoon for the included activities and made for some beautiful photo opps.
After setting our stuff in the cabins, we all gathered for lunch which we had on the outdoor deck. This was when we finally got to know the other passengers and although a day was hardly enough time to make any deep connections we generally got along well and there was happily no drama. All the meals we were served were decent but nothing spectacular. There were typically multiple courses with lots of seafood unsurprisingly. Dessert was always fruit and all drinks except for the tea and coffee were billed at the end of the cruise. After lunch we had some time before we reached our afternoon destination, the Than Sohn cave and this was the time to truly appreciate the beauty of the bay. We sailed along the perfectly calm blue waters with limestone karsts on either side of us, each one a different shape gently revealing itself to us in the mist, each scene was so differently picturesque than the previous one. What a place to forget all your worries and stresses and just enjoy one of the most enchantingly beautiful places on earth.
I also truly truly appreciated not having to share this moment with a fee hundred other junks. There were only a few junks of the same company in the distance. Eventually all the boats converged around a little island where the Than Sonh cave and also the spot for our afternoon activities in the bay. We went via the ferry to a little island with a beach with Kayaks. Kayaking around the bay is one of the perks of a cruise to the bay and was a lot of fun. The next time I get a chance to visit I would likely look for something where I could kayak some more. But before we went kayaking we had a short hike up a cliff to see a large cave. A few of the isles on Ha Long bay have similar caves and they are a good diversion. I personally found the bay outside to be far more fascinating to watch than the cave. We were told that for folks who do the longer cruises, there is one evening where they get a candle lit dinner in the cave here. At the end of the short trek through the Than Sonh cave, we end up at a point with some of the best views of Ha Long and saw our junk with its sails unfurled on the bay amidst the misty limestone karsts, a memory of a lifetime.
There were thousands of such views and you don't tire of them
The Red Dragon on the bay
The Than Sohn cave in the cliff
The little beach for Indochina Junk company customers
Kayaking the bay
The waters were cold and only me and one fellow passenger took to it
We spent the next 45 minutes or so kayaking around a bit...far too short a time after which we were given time to relax on the beach. By now there were people from the other junks here as well. It was a little over 60 degrees and the water was a bit colder so no one seemed to want to take a dip...I wasn't going to moss the chance having traveled all the way and I charged right in to enthusiastic cheers from the guides from all the junks and stares from a lot of the passengers :-) It was fine after the first minute or so and I let people know, but I could only get the Australian guy from my boat to follow and he wasn't happy with my assessment of the temperature. Anyways we both got to say we swam in the bay in February, not exactly polar bear club worthy but still.
All too soon it was time to head back to the boat. After a nice hot shower I spent more time on the deck watching the bay until it was dark. By then we had laid anchor at a place for the night and were invited for a large 14 course dinner. The dinner also included a showcase of food carvings with every course which was nicely done. By then I was tired and ready to drop although I heard the crew did some fishing with some of the guests and even fried the little fish they caught as a late night snack. The next day I was up early to watch the misty isles in the morning light which was spectacular and worth the trouble of getting up and out early. After breakfast we left for Vung Vieng fishing village, another fascinating experience in Ha Long which I have written about here and then back to Hanoi via Yen Duc village.
Entertaining dinner courses