Ha Long Bay is one of the most famous sights in Vietnam and there are hundreds of trip options available out of Hanoi – daytrips, overnights, large boats, small boats, routings, etc. Given our research we discovered that most companies crowded around the same few islands, with Indochina Junk’s routings through the neighboring Bai Tu Long Bay an exception (itinerary). From their set of options we chose the Red Dragon because it was a smaller junk with only 5 state rooms and a maximum of 11 people (plus our guide and boat staff).
We never got a clear answer on when our shuttle for the Halong Bay cruise was going to pick us up so naturally the van arrived whilst we were still eating breakfast. The hotel staff told him we would be down in 15 minutes, so the driver decided to fetch another couple first. However, when we finished breakfast and checked out, an empty shuttle was waiting for us. Not sure if it just waited or no one else was ready either?!?
Instead of taking the larger complimentary shuttle bus we opted for the fancy van, which cost an extra $60 for both of us round trip. The van was quite pimped out with USB outlets, blankets, water bottles and mood lighting. There were two other couples in the shuttle with us for a total of six adults. We sat across from each other on the way there but I found the leg space a bit cramped so we choose the back for the return trip.
The four hour ride is partially due to a one hour stop for a bathroom break and shopping. The sculpture garden wasn’t very high quality but at least we could stretch our legs.
We arrived at the ferry terminal around noon and were assigned a waiting area for our boat. Our larger bags were taken for loading, so we just followed our assigned guide through the organized mayhem of docks and waited for our tinder to pull up. It was a quick ride to the boat. Once onboard we met for a quick discussion about our travel and meal agendas and to hand out cabin keys.
Our cabin was all dark wood with a very hard bed (hardest of the whole trip) and decent storage given the size. Unfortunately there was only one outlet for charging electronics so we had to charge batteries in shifts. On the plus side, our ensuite bathroom that was bigger than expected.
The preset lunch menu was focused on seafood and Leandra enjoyed the fresh prawns and scallops. When they discovered I do not like seafood they made special dishes with chicken and an omelet despite my protestations. Quite nice of them to go out of their way, and tasty overall.
Once we left the busyness of the port it was easy to relax and enjoy the views. A large cave was our first stop which was somewhat interesting but crowded with a few other boats there at the same time. We both preferred the optional kayak ride away from the beach with peaceful views of the lagoon.
At 5:30pm we headed back to the boat to switch out of our beach clothes, have a quick rinse, and enjoy more gorgeous views as we moved to the evening anchorage spot. The temperature was cool but pleasant, so we spent about two hours enjoying the views, and were the only people on the deck for most of it! And since the price wasn’t too bad, we split a Chilean bottle of white wine as it grew dark.
Dinner was even better than lunch, and they automatically substituted the fish dish with a nice beef steak for me (Leandra may have been a bit jealous). The chef also showed off his impressive vegetable carving skills on several of the platters.
Overnight the boat engine was quiet, but we still found the room a bit noisy due to thin walls, so sleep wasn’t great.
Friday was still grey, unfortunately. The whole boat rose early; in fact, Leandra was still drying her hair at 6:50am when she got a knock on the door to come up for breakfast. [Considering meal time was listed at 7am, she was less than pleased.] After our meal, we got on our tinder to tour a fishing village. We were rowed by a woman from the village around the lagoon, which was quiet and peaceful – except for the occasional barking dog.
The boat tour ends with a stop at a pearl shop where you can see how they ‘seed’ the oysters to produce pearls.
By 10am, they wanted us to check out of the room so they could prep for the next round of tourists. After checking out we lounged on the top deck and watched more islands go by. We also got the final bill which included the wine from the previous night’s dinner and to our surprise, the juice from breakfast. Apparently coffee was included but juice wasn’t, something they never mentioned at the time as Leandra would not have ordered an additional $3 juice. An hour later the tender transferred us back to land and our shuttle to Hanoi.
The Shuttle (return)
For some reason, the shuttle ride back to Hanoi was more bumpy and uncomfortable at times. The stop on this time was for a water puppet show – cheesy, but nice to get out of the van for 45 minutes. We were both glad for the experience and also glad we didn’t pay extra for it.
Altogether, getting to the islands is very touristy, but can be partially mitigated by certain choices. Given the uniquely beautiful landscapes it was worth doing at least once.