Basing ourselves in Hanoi allows many day trips, one of which is Halong Bay. The story goes that prehistoric gods sent a dragon down to protect Vietnam from invaders. The limestone “karsts” are from the dragon crashing down, hence the name of “descending dragon”. Halong Bay is a massive network of karsts, porous limestone plateau formations that are responsible for the many caves in Halong Bay.
The term junk boat can be a little misleading, especially when you are told you’ll be sleeping on one and even more so when you take your first glimpse at one. It’s really just a really big house boat. On the outside its looks like a beat up fishing boat but on the inside it’s much more decent. Outfitted with a bar, dining area, lounge area and usually a rooftop area, it’s surprisingly comfortable, well at least we were. It’s hard choosing one because when you go to a tourist office or even at your hotel, you are only shown pictures of the good parts of the best boats. You either have to do A LOT of research to see what boat suites your style or just pick one and hope for the best. Just to help out anyone wanting to go to Halong Bay, we took pictures of all the boats going by with the names of the boat company. All I can say is do your research or you’ll end up, literally, on a junk boat and when you see the phrase “Eco-tourism” or “green tour” don’t be fooled. These are diesel boats, there’s nothing green about it.
We, got lucky. I spoke with travel agent for quite a while and made sure that we had a room with a balcony and not on the bottom and not near the motor. We ended up being one of two rooms with a balcony, it’s good to speak the language. The Golden Bay junk boat was our home for three days and it was great. The staff was extremely nice, the captain was really nice as well, the drinks are ridiculously expensive but understandable as you’re on a boat and can’t get much, so they charge accordingly. There are small paddle boats that go by selling snacks and drinks, so keep an eye out for her. Each night they had a keg of Bia Hoi (fresh beer) and karaoke, yes, that’s right….and no we didn’t sing.
Each boat company has several options for routes and what you want to do. Usually it’s either all nights on the junk boat or split between the boat and Cat Ba island. We chose to stay on the boat the entire time. We cruised around the bays, visited Dong Thien Cung aka “Suprise cave”, we kayaked, participated in cooking class for “Nam” (northern style egg rolls) jumped off the boat into the water and visited a pearl farm. Now before you get too excited about jumping off the boat into the water…..the water around Cat Ba is pretty nasty, so swim at your own risk. The water around the pearl farm is pristine and warm. We all, including this little 8 year old girl, jumped off the top deck and into the water.
Cruising around the bays and seeing the horizon is what we loved the most because of the shadows that the karsts creates is definitely unique. Odd shapes karts are home to animals around the bay including eagles and there is a small traditional fishing village right across from Cat Ba island and be on the lookout for the giant penis karst!
At the end of the day, it’s the views most are after and they do not disappoint in Halong Bay. Somewhere along the way, you meet a pair of great Brits as well who ironically enough are on the same travel path as we are…..now, I’m trying to figure out who will be stalking who for the rest of Vietnam?? Hannah and Alex, can I borrow 20,000 dong??