When we were researching our visit to Ha Long Bay, there were lots of mixed reviews on how to go about it. Should we do a day trip or an overnight trip? Wing it with a travel agent in Hanoi or pre-book it? We decided in the end that staying overnight on a boat and sailing leisurely around the bay was the best way to see this expansive and ethereal UNESCO World Heritage Site, and we went with the two-day Halong Bay Junk Cruise with Intrepid Travel.
We were picked up from our hotel in Hanoi early in the morning and began the 3 hour bus journey to Ha Long City, where we’d meet our traditional junk to begin sailing. Along the way, we got to know the other people we’d be sharing the trip with and soaked up the Vietnamese countryside along with observing the many roadside places that clearly sold dog meat (thit cho). Stopping off at a local handicrafts workshop, I managed to get my wifi fix and was introduced to the amazing Trung Nguyen coffee, a Vietnamese caffeine staple.
Arriving in Ha Long City, we joined many other travellers either eager to begin their sailing trip or just returning, filled with stories and seeing off the new friends they’d just shared the experience with. After port formalities, we all clambered onto the small tenders above to be transferred to our grand traditional junk which was anchored in the harbour.
Upon boarding, we were greeted by the boat’s crew of beaming, friendly staff who helped us with our bags and seated us in the dining room where we were briefed on everything from safety, our itinerary and what we’d see over the two days to our cabins, when the hot water would work for showers (takes a while to reheat apparently!) and when our meals would be. We knew this wasn’t going to be a rough boat trip. It was going to be a fun, comfortable, amazing two days.
The boats Intrepid use in Ha Long Bay are really well appointed. With a sun-deck up top and a lots of space at the front of the boat, there’s lots of vantage points to take in the majestic beauty of the bay and to get some amazing shots of the epic karst limestone rock formations throughout.
Now onto the important bit, what was the accommodation like? Well I was surprised. Our double cabins were decorated with artistic Oriental detailing and featured a massive queen size bed and plush linen. Each room and its own air conditioner and heater and large windows overlooking the bay. So close you could almost reach out and touch Ha Long Bay from your bed.
Our bathroom was the most surprising part of our cabin. We had come prepared to have to share a communal bathroom with our fellow shipmates, but were instead greeted by a very big shower and everything else you could need for an overnight stay. This is definitely the way to do sailing in Ha Long Bay, folks.
But we didn’t come all this way just to lay around in bed overlooking the water all day, because it was time to get adventurous and see more of this incredible part of Vietnam. First up, we disembarked the junk for smaller boats powered only by a single local man rowing us towards a small opening at the bottom of an enormous cliff.
What lay beyond was a quiet, secluded cove surrounded by cliffs covered in dense jungle with no other access to the outside world. It was the absolute definition of serene. And what else did we find? These little guys!
Next up, we left the secluded cove and sailed to what’s called “Surprise Cave”. Named so because of how much of a “surprise” it is once you get inside. Okay then. Nevertheless, once we did climb up the stairs and descended into the depths of the cave, we were suitably impressed with how expansive and well kept it was. Our guide pointed out the remarkable rock formations along the way.
We floated away from Surprise Cave and made our way to a collection of pontoons dotted with small huts near one of the limestone islands. Our guide promptly announced that it was time to do some kayaking. Now I’m not the best on the water, so I was a bit dubious at first. But one by one, everyone else in our group accepted the offer and I thought “bugger it” and we jumped precariously into a canoe.
We then spent the next 30 minutes or so paddling our way around the small inlet, observing local families in their floating homes. One was even pumping out Gangnam Style. It just goes to show, you can’t get away from that song, even in Ha Long Bay!
There are entire floating villages out here who survive solely on fishing and tourism. The villages have everything they need including schools and markets, and villagers only ventured to the mainland once a month or so.
Back on the boat, it was time for dinner. Meals were tasty and plentiful throughout the entire trip and we were treated to delicious Vietnamese food prepared fresh on the boat in the kitchen below us. Everything from beef salads for starters, spring rolls as appetisers to the Vietnamese classic of pho noodle soup and chicken, seafood and pork for mains.
All the food was included as part of the tour, and we just had to pay for the beers we drank (of which there were many as we watched the Top Gear Vietnam Special after dinner!). Our tour was made up of lots of other Aussies, so sharing our travel stories and reminiscing about where we grew up was a great way to spend the evening.
Waking up the next morning, I stepped out of our cabin and was promptly greeted with this view. Pretty bloody special if you tell me.
Our last day was spent casually cruising around the rest of Ha Long Bay and taking it all in. The majority of us spent it on the top deck taking photos of literally everything. Ha Long Bay is definitely one of those places you just want to keep taking photos of.
But before we all bid the crew adieu, we were treated to a spring roll cooking class in the dining room. I only managed one decent one I think – it’s surprisingly more difficult than I expected. Getting the right mix of vegetables and pork without the rice paper disintegrating is something I’d need to spend a lot more time in Vietnam to get right I reckon.
The kitchen took away our somewhat questionable spring rolls and fried them up for us, and they became our starters for lunch shortly before we returned to harbour.
Approaching Ha Long City again, the towering limestone cliffs started to fade into the mist and became but a memory. Before we knew it, we were back on the docks and preparing for the journey back to Hanoi. Some of our new mates from the boat were continuing longer journeys through Vietnam, like Intrepid’s 10 day Vietnam Express Soutbound tour (of which the tour we took is a part of) but for us it was back to explore more of the capital.
Seeing Ha Long Bay for myself and taking the time to appreciate it was absolutely a highlight of my trip to Vietnam. It’s something you’d be crazy not to check out in this part of the world, and you owe it to yourself to do it the right way I think.