You may think cruises aren’t your bag, but Indochina Junk’s Dragon Legend I is different. First off, the boat sails where others in Northern Vietnam do not: tranquil Bai Tu Long Bay, 30 kilometers east of Halong Bay. Unlike its famous sister, Bai Tu Long doesn’t draw nearly the number of sunburnt backpackers and follow-the-leader package tourists. The vessel itself is small (just 24 cabins) and sedate (no casinos, movie theaters, karaoke, line-dancing, awkward communal dining, or other Carnival-esque trappings). Itineraries last two days and one night, three days and two nights, or four days and three nights, and all include cave hiking, kayaking, and barbecues on the beach. (Day cruises are also available, but what’s the point if you’re already driving this far east?) More importantly, the Dragon Legend I attracts a chiller, artier, more alternative crowd—the kind of travelers who’d never otherwise be caught dead on a cruise.
Here’s how it worked: After conducting hours—nay, days—of research, and feeling really depressed by the internet’s many terrible Halong Bay reviews, we landed on the Indochina Junk excursion to Bai Tu Long. We booked our tickets online and paid for them in person at the company’s Hanoi headquarters the day before our departure.
The following morning, an air-conditioned van picked us up at our hotel. The driver was half an hour late, but his ride had comfortable leather seats, bottled water, and WiFi. The van stopped at a massive souvenir shop en route to Halong Bay; we bought jackfruit chips and used the restrooms, which were surprisingly clean. All told, it took four hours to get to the port.
Check-in was a breeze. The workers were all really friendly—a trait we noticed again and again throughout the trip. From here, we loaded into tender boats, ferried out to the junk, and climbed aboard. This being the low season (June), our junk had just 36 out of 48 possible guests. It was clean and new and the suites were surprisingly spacious, with a queen-size bed, compact sofa, safe, mini-fridge, standing shower, soaking tub, and separate vanity. Robes and slippers were included, and every room had orange life vests, a hammer, and a flashlight for emergencies. There wasn’t a whiff of mold or mildew, either—a rarity on these types of ships.
Dinners onboard were multi-course affairs, but pretty bland. Breakfast was croissants and omelet “strips,” plus coffee and juice. Lunch was fried rice accompanied by questionable meats. Vegetarian requests were accommodated in theory, but the cooks don’t understand that vegetarians don’t eat fish. (One of us was served prawn crackers and several dishes laced with fish sauce.)
There was a small spa on board, where you could pre-book treatments, but most guests spent their time lazing on the sun deck or wandering the boat from end to end, snapping pictures of the dramatic limestone karsts rising out of the water at every turn. There was a small jacuzzi, but no one used it.
There was a posted schedule of activities but nothing ran on time—an endless source of frustration for guests trying to cram a lot into their short trip. Some of the activities were a bit over-stated, too. For instance: “squid fishing.” We imagined ourselves pulling on galoshes for an episode of The Deadliest Catch. In reality, it was a couple of tweens standing at the back of the boat with string attached to bamboo poles. Nobody caught a thing.
At one point, our junk dropped anchor and tender boats ferried us off to an unnamed white-sand beach, where we could cave hike, kayak, swim, or sunbathe. The cave was well-lit and had hand rails, so even the elders could handle it. The kayaks were in good condition and the water was clean, although not the sparkling turquoise color you’d expect to find in Thailand, Indonesia, or the Maldives. Sand is shipped in to create the faux beaches that hug the karsts, which gives the water a murky green hue. Still, we appreciated that the Indochina Junk staff didn’t litter and made a point of picking up any trash that wasn’t theirs.
Swimming at sunset in Bai Tu Long was one of our fondest memories from Vietnam. Outside of a few local fishermen, and the other guests from our junk, there wasn’t a soul around. It was as if we had the whole ocean to ourselves. And compared with Halong Bay, which averages 400 to 500 tourist boats a day, there was no contest.
Our advice? Lower your expectations and they’re more likely to be exceeded.
There’s no sense in schlepping all of your luggage to Bai Tu Long if you’re just making a side trip from Hanoi. Instead, ask your hotel to store your luggage for the duration of your cruise. We stayed at the excellent and affordable Essence Palace Hotel in Hanoi’s Old Quarter and they were more than happy to help. It is a common request.
It is worth waking up early (5:45 a.m.-ish) and ascending to the top deck to watch the sunrise. You won’t be alone but you will get some awesome photos. Stick around and you can join a tai chi class.
Due to our limited time, we opted for a 2-day/1-night cruise on Indochina Junk’s Dragon Legend I. It cost us $473.04 USD for two people, plus alcohol and tips (another $16 USD). Were we to do it over, we’d opt for a less rushed experience on a 3-Day/2-night cruise.
Bai Tu Long Bay, Quang Ninh, Vietnam; +84-9-6434-3322.