In Hanoi the night before we set off to sail Halong Bay I had a mild panic. Would we need sleeping bags? Had I bought enough warm clothes? What would the food be like? Would the next 2 days be completely overshadowed by the fact that I was freezing to death?
It turns out my fears were groundless. I had completely underestimated the quality of the junk ship we would be staying on during our two-day Halong Bay Junk Cruise with Intrepid Travel. Our private, wood-panelled room came with a duvet-covered double bed and an electric heater. We even had an en suite bathroom with a suitably hot shower (you just need to wait 10 minutes for it to heat up in-between washes).
The tour had started very smoothly too. When we arrived at our hotel in Hanoi the evening prior a welcome pack from Intrepid Travel was waiting for us with details of the trip ahead. There was also a reminder to pack our passports. (This is very important – the port authority need to see them before you can board a boat and if you leave them at your hotel 4 hours away this is a problem, as some people on our bus discovered!) Our hotel, the Hanoi Elite, was also superb. They reminded us to take our passports and once we had packed up our luggage we left it behind in the hotel room to be looked after while we were away. We took just a small bag each with some extra layers and toiletries and this was all we needed.
Halong City is about a 4-hour drive away from Hanoi. The journey takes you through rice fields, past high schools where students on bicycles race the bus, and around motorbikes with cows on the back. The bus breaks up the journey with a toilet stop at a service station (which has free Wi-Fi – win!) but I found the scenery so fascinating the journey passed in no time.
At the port we were guided into a restaurant to wait with several other busloads of backpackers and tourists. Our guide took our passports and hurried off to sort out what boat we would be boarding. In the distance I could just make out the first of the dramatic limestone cliffs interspersed with traditional white junk ships. Our group was guided onto a tender boat and we set off to find the vessel that would be our home for the next two days.
Immediately after boarding we were guided to the warmth of the dining room for a briefing and our room allocation. The traditional junk ships hold just 16 passengers max so there were only 7 other couples on board for us to get to know; some Aussies (of course), some Brits (as expected) and some couples from Vietnam and Korea. The group made introductions over lunch and tucked into the first of many local dishes we were to enjoy over the next 2 days. I’m a bit of a fussy eater in the sense that I like to know what I am eating and had struggled with identifying dishes in Vietnam previously. But for each meal on the ship a menu on the table spelt out clearly what we were about to eat, with both its local name and an English explanation, and for the first time I started enjoying eating Vietnamese food in Vietnam. Alcoholic drinks are charged extra but the bar man kindly keeps a note of how many Hanoi beers you consume and you just pay before disembarking at the end of the trip.
The route of your boat and order in which you do the activities in the bay depends on the decision of your guide. He will take into account factors such as the weather and visibility, as well as what other ships are doing, to set the agenda for the day. Visiting in January meant it was very cold up on deck and visibility was a little poor in some areas (although it gave the whole area a magical, mystical appearance). Our guide decided that we would do all the main sightseeing on the first day as it was due to get even colder the next.
The first thing we did was hop on a little non-motorised boat and float through a low ceilinged cave. On the other side was a quiet inlet where some tiny monkeys were swinging through the trees. My eye, however, was caught by the floating sweet shop. For in the middle of the water, far away from shore, there was a lady rowing around with a boat full of junk food and booze. It was surreal to say the least.
Our next stop was at Surprise Cave; the surprise being that it is absolutely massive! As we walked through the cave our guide pointed out shapes in the rock formations which apparently resembled different people and animals. We slowly wound our way through the cave, climbing higher until we popped through an opening that offered the stunning aerial views of Halong Bay that you often see in photos.
The next activity on the agenda was kayaking. I held back on the boat, afraid and unwilling to get wet in such cold temperatures, but when it looked like everyone else in our group (including many of the older generation) were going to take part, I thought I had better man up. And it was worth it.
Rowing our own kayak meant we could get much closer to some of the fishing villages I had been peering at from the junk ship. Fisherman and their families have set up floating villages in little clusters around the gorgeous green bay and by rowing a closer we got a fascinating insight into their everyday lives. Dogs ran about yapping, children sat in neat rows in the classroom, and someone somewhere was blasting Gangnam Style out of a stereo.
Proud to have made it back to the boat without capsizing we joined the other guests for some beers on the top deck. In summer, the crew explained, all the boats play music and the top deck turns into a dance floor. We braved the cold just long enough to watch the sunset and then went back inside for the evening entertainment. Tonight we will be showing a ‘movie’, we were told. That movie turned out to be Top Gear’s Vietnam Special – we loved it!
After several courses of fresh seafood and sweet and sour chicken I fell asleep to the sound of the engine’s gentle hum. The boat barely moved in the night so when I opened the curtains in the morning it was a surprise to see those phenomenal rocks poking out through the water, right outside our window.
After all the action from the day before, our second day was about cruising. We looped around another part of the bay and I took about a million photos of the famous rocks I had ogled at in brochures for so long. Just before lunch we were called back inside to help out; we were to be making the Vietnamese Spring Rolls for starters. Some of us had more success than others at rolling them up but they all tasted great once they’d been in the fryer.
Lunch was served in the harbour whilst we waited for a tender to take us back to shore. The minibuses were already parked up to take us back to Hanoi that afternoon. For us that was the end of our time being well guided and fed by Intrepid Travel because we had a flight to catch, but for many of the group it was just the start of their southbound Vietnam adventure – the Vietnam Express Southbound tour continues to Ho Chi Mihn city via Hue and Hoi An.
Sailing around Halong Bay was one of the main reasons I was so keen to return to Vietnam and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The whole area really is as breath-taking and unforgettable as you imagine it will be. I am so pleased we decided to arrange this in advance with Intrepid and do it in comfort and style; everything was executed with absolute ease. Thanks to Intrepid for helping me put a big, fat, happy tick through this bucket list litem.
Disclosure: Intrepid Travel kindly sponsored my stay on the ship after I told them I was keen to review the experience. All thoughts, pictures, happy memories and newfound love for Vietnamese food are my own.