We wanted to do something a little bit different for New Years this year, and we figured just being in Vietnam was a good start to that. Rather then dinner and drinks in the city somewhere, we decided to spent a couple nights on a junk boat floating around Ha Long Bay. I know, I know, spending time on a junk boat doesn’t really sound like it would be much fun, but luckily the name does not refer to what the boat is carrying, but rather the style of the boat itself. Phew. And they’re actually pretty neat.
Traditionally, junk boats are from China and were first used around the second century AD. The boats themselves can differ greatly depending on the need – such as cargo carrying, ocean going, pleasure boats, or live-aboard – and range in size and variations of the rig. The term junk refers to the fact that they all use fully battened sails, and they’re still used today in China and parts of SE Asia.
Ha Long Bay is located on the North East coast of Vietnam, about 3 hours from Hanoi, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The bay consists of thousands of limestone monolithic islands with thick vegetation, and many of these islands have their own cave systems within them. The name Ha Long means ‘Decending Dragon’ and it is believed that long ago when Vietnam was first becoming a civilization, there was a war with invaders who came from the north sea. The Emperor sent a mother dragon and her children down from the skies to help, and they managed to defeat the invaders with their dragon fire, which also spat out jewels and jade. The jewels and jade turned into the islands and islets dotting the waters and linking together to form a great wall preventing the outsiders’ intrusion. Once the invaders were defeated, the dragon fell in love with the peaceful land and decided to stay and make it it’s home. Thus, Ha Long Bay is where the dragon’s descended from and the name stuck.
The bay has always been used by the local people for fishing, farming, and cultivating oysters for pearls; however, with the rise of the internet and mass tourism, it’s become more and more crowded and busy. Today, there are literally hundreds of options to choose from if you want to explore the bay, from afternoon trips, to multiple nights spent on a boat. You can opt for a quiet, relaxed tour, or you can join a party boat for something a bit more wild. I have to admit though, regardless of what type of trip you want, it is not cheap, even for just an afternoon. Despite the price tag, it is an incredible area and worth doing if you can fit it into your budget and schedule.
We decided to go to Sapa between Christmas and New Years and didn’t get back to Hanoi until the 30th, which meant in order to celebrate New Years on the boat, we had to have one that left on the 31st. Like most things on this trip, we’d left booking slightly later then
we probably should have, so we had limited options for packages that fit our budget. We decided that we wanted to do 2 nights, as you can go farther into the bay (where there is less people) and you get to do more activities as well, and we found a number of options that fit within our dates and price range. We booking through booking.com, as their site had the cheapest options and was also the easiest to navigate, and ended up choosing Halong Fantasea Cruises for our trip. They were a decent price, had good reviews, and also offered a lot of activities for free, which was not the case for some of the other boats. There were a ton of other boats that had excellent reviews and looked amazing, but unfortunately, they were way out of our price range! If you can afford it though, I would suggest getting an upgrade.
We spent the night in Hanoi, and were picked up at 7am on the morning of the 31st from our hotel by the bus. It took about 3 hours to get to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi, and most of the tour company’s seem to include a free shuttle to and from in their packages. We arrived at the harbour, where they split us into various groups depending on what boat we were going on, and then told us to wait. Our boat had about 15 people on it in total – us, an Australian couple, an American family (living in Saipan), a German family, and 2 guys from South America – and everyone was really nice. We ended up spending most of the time with the Australian couple, as they were a similar age to us and we all got on pretty well.
From the harbour we hopped on a little taxi boat, which took us across the water to our junk boat that we’d be staying on. Within minutes of boarding, we were sat down in the dining room for lunch as our boat made it’s way into the bay. The boat itself was 3 levels – a lower lever with cabins and the kitchen, the middle level with the dinning room/bar and 2 more cabins, and an upper ‘sun deck’ level that was completely open. Unfortunately, the weather was cloudy and chilly for the entire trip and we didn’t get to see the sun, but it didn’t rain on us which was a bonus.
After lunch we were all showed to our cabins (which were pretty basic with a bed and a bathroom), and then we got off the so we could explore the biggest cave within the bay. It was a pretty cool cave, although there was nothing about it that made it unique, but it was super crowded as it’s one of the places that the day and overnight trips take people to because it’s so close to the harbour. We weren’t even at peak tourist season and we found it really busy already, I can’t imagine what it’s like in the summer when they’ve got good weather and extra tourists.
Once done, it was back to the boat for maybe 30 minutes before we were out again to do some kayaking. Both Rich and I weren’t too bothered by the cave, but there were a couple opportunities to do some kayaking on the trip that we were really looking forward to. The first area we went kayaking in was a natural cove that the big boats couldn’t access, as the entrance was through a fairly low cave. Once we’d kayaked through to the other side, it opened up to magnificent views of the surrounding mountains and vegetation. It was also blissfully quiet as the sound from all the boats waiting outside did not make it through. We had 45 minutes to paddle around and explore the area before we had to be back on the boat, and we really enjoyed it. There are monkey’s that live on the island, and most people were staying right near the shore where you could see them, which meant we had pretty much the entire cove to ourselves once we’d cruised past them. When our time was up, we paddled our way out and back to the boat to get ready for the evening.
New Years in Vietnam is traditionally celebrated on the Lunar New Years, which is on the 5th of February this year. Although the 31st of December is not a big deal to most Vietnamese people, there is enough tourism in the area for them to make a bit of an effort. We all sat down to dinner on the boat, and were told that happy hour was being extended all night for New Years, and all drinks (except beer) were $1 off. We spent the evening playing various games with our new Australian friends, and with about 5 minutes to go before midnight the crew brought out a New Years platter for us which had a bit of fruit and some Durian candy on it. We’d had plenty of wine by that point, and so weren’t too bothered by anything else. The countdown began and the clock ticked over – welcome to 2019! We made a few phone calls to Canada and the UK before heading to bed.
They keep a pretty tight schedule on the boat, and at 8 am we got a knock telling us it was time for breakfast. Much like everyone else on the boat, we blearily stumbled out of our cabins and to the dinning room where we all gulped down tea and coffee and a bit of food. Pretty soon we were told we were going to explore another cave on a different island; although this was was good because we were the only people there. Cave explored, we were then able to do some more kayaking, but this time we had almost 2 hours for it.
One of our crew members came with us and guided us around numerous islands, and we were able to stop a few times to head up into some of the caves and beach areas of them. We were pretty far into the bay by this point, and although we saw a few other boats around, there wasn’t many which was nice. Ha Long Bay is beautiful, even when it’s cloudy and a bit cold, and I can imagine that it is absolutely stunning in the summer time when the sun is out, there is blue sky, and all the flowers are in bloom. The upside to when we went was that, according to our guide, there are a lot less people compared to other times of the year.
We had lunch on the boat again, and afterwards we had a tour through an oyster farm. The Ha Long Bay area has a long history of cultivating pearls from oysters, and there is a big oyster farming community around. They still use a lot of the traditional ways of farming, which means each farm is still fairly small and nothing is massed produced. They artificially inseminate each oyster by hand to create the pearl, and it was neat watching the process. They also create different jewelry pieces to be sold as well, and although they’re beautiful, they were out of our price range!
Once everyone had their fill of pearls, the boat headed over to Titop, an island with a pagoda on top of it with around 500 steps to get to the top. Once again, it was pretty busy which made it a bit slow going, but at least we didn’t get out of breath or need to stop as we were going up. The view from the top was great, and it was cool to see so many of the islands spread out all around us. When we got back down to the bottom, we had the option of going for a swim, but we decided not to as the water it really gross (garbage as well as petrol spots), and it was still really cold. We did watch a number of people go in though, but no one from our boat.
Our second evening on the boat was much the same as our first evening – we had dinner and then played some games. We were all pretty tired from the late night and early morning, as well as kayaking and steps, so it was a much earlier night. Our last morning was actually the warmest we had, which was nice because after breakfast we had some free time to hang out on the sun deck as we made our way back into the harbour. We were served our final lunch just after we dropped anchor, and once everyone was done we all got back on to the taxi boat which took us to shore. From there we were put back onto buses depending on where we were going in Hanoi, and then had the 3 hour bus journey back into the city.
We really enjoyed the 3 days, although it would have been better if the weather was warmer. We spent the next day in Hanoi catching up on sleep and being a bit lazy after feeling like we’d been going non stop since Christmas. Looking back on the cruise, neither of us feel like it’s worth the amount that we paid for it; however, that seems to be the price across the board regardless of who you book with, so we weren’t too annoyed about that. It is definitely something to do if you can, and the 2 night option is great because it takes you farther out to places where it’s not so busy. Like I said before, if you have the money, it’s one of those things that gets better when you upgrade to a better tour, but it’s not a bad way to spend 3 days even on the budget boats.