Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise: Halong Bay Without The Crowds!Emma - 14 January 2017
Bai Tu Long Bay is a beautiful area of protected national park, part of the world-renowned Halong Bay. However, it’s still a well kept secret, with few tour companies taking this route. This means that for now you can experience this incredible coastline without the crowds that plague the normal areas of Halong Bay.
To be honest, we were a bit worried about Halong Bay. We’d heard horror stories about everyone being missold tours, being given sweltering hot cabins without working bathrooms, and a beautiful bay ruined by crowds of boats and the litter/waste they create. And to be honest, I wasn’t sure what was so impressive about a few bits of rock sticking up out of the water anyway. But since people sing the praises of the area, we figured we’d give it a go. Thanks to a kind Christmas present from Mike’s parents, we decided to go all out and book on one of the more expensive cruises which starts in Halong Bay before going all the way out to Bai Tu Long Bay.
Why go to Bai Tu Long Bay?
The vast majority of tours will not take you to Bai Tu Long Bay, because it is further out, and therefore requires more fuel to get there. What’s more, only certain tour companies have the necessary permits to go out there, so it’s not just a question of bullying your boat captain into taking you there!
My reason for wanting to go to Bai Tu Long Bay was to escape the heavy traffic I’d heard people complain about in Halong Bay. Bai Tu Long Bay is comparatively unpolluted and tranquil.
Treasure Junk Cruise
Journey To Halong Bay
Handspan / Treasure Junk doesn’t offer hotel pick-up, which was a bit of a pain, but at least it means that you don’t spend an hour traipsing around Hanoi picking everyone up. Once we were all on board our friendly tour guide got all 16 of us acquainted with one another, and gave us some snippets of information about Vietnamese culture while we got out of Hanoi. Then we all just settled in for the 3.5 hour journey.
Halfway there we stopped at an arts centre, where disabled children and adults create art to sell to tourists. While this is clearly a good cause, it felt a bit like a guilt stop, particularly for Americans, as many of the children were the victims of the long term damage caused by wartime use of agent orange.
Once we arrived in Halong Bay we were immediately put on a small boat to take us out to the big ship moored in deeper water.
The sails are decorative rather than functional, and are only put up in favourable weather conditions, so sadly we never got to see them in their full glory. The ship looks like it was previously dark wood, but like all other ships in the area it has been painted white to comply with new regulations. This is a bit of a shame, as the romance of a wooden ship is kind of lost when it is painted white like a modern yacht.
The cabin was great, with a hot water shower and windows allowing us to watch the islands drift by from the comfort of our bed in the morning.
It had three levels:
- Lower level - reception and the majority of cabins
- Middle level - bar, restaurant, and lower deck with tables and chairs
- Top level - top deck, with sun loungers
Kayaking in two-person kayaks gave us the chance to get up close and personal with all the islands, which was interesting. We got drenched from the sea water dripping down the paddles, but perhaps that's just poor technique! After spending around an hour in the kayaks we all jumped into the water for a swim.
We didn’t actually get to do this as the sea got a little too choppy, but I didn’t mind too much that we missed out. Apparently December isn’t squid season anyway.
Cooking Class / Demonstration
This is a mini-cooking class where you get to make your own betel leaf spring roll, which is a common dish in Vietnam. You plonk some pork in the middle of a leaf, roll it up, and hand it to the chef to fry up. It was brief, but fun!
Sunrise Tai Chi Lesson
As the ship was silently moving through the eerie islands in the early morning, we came on deck and participated in a Tai Chi class. As we were going through the slow, fluid movements the dawn was breaking, basking us and the scenery around us in golden-orange light. Completely beautiful.
Vong Vieng Fishing Village
Mike and I rolled our eyes when we heard we’d be going to a local fishing village, expecting either to feel like you were treating people like a zoo, or feel like you were being shipped in with the sole purpose of buying something. But actually it was really interesting!
It began by a row boat tour by a local person around all the dispersed clumps of floating houses in the spread out village. All are now abandoned as all long term residents were offered free housing on the mainland by the Vietnamese government. This was partially to keep them safe from storms that occasionally blow through the bay, and partially to keep the bay clean from the litter and waste that is inevitably discarded into the water.
We then went back to the main area of the village, where the remaining residents now farm oysters for pearls. It was fascinating to learn a little about how pearls are harvested, and to see them crack open a live oyster and find a pearl inside.
Ahhh, the food! If you love seafood you'll be in heaven, if you don’t you will struggle. I fall decidedly into the former category, and Mike into the latter. Lunch was a seven-course extravaganza of shrimp, clams, and many other delicious things, and dinner was equally delicious. It felt a bit strange to be eating at a table with a white table cloth sprinkled with fresh rose petals when the previous day we had been eating grungy street food. Breakfast the next day was taken on deck, where we could watch the scenery glide by in the early morning light. In total the two day cruise includes lunch, dinner, breakfast and a very substantial ‘brunch’ so we were certainly well fed!
It’s probably worth pointing out that while we both found the food delicious our stay on Treasure Junk was followed by Mike having severe food poisoning and eventually being hospitalised! While we can’t say for certain this was from the food on Treasure Junk, it seems the likely culprit, especially since someone in another cabin also felt ill. We contacted Treasure Junk as a courtesy to notify them that it was possible that their food had made him ill, and to enquire as to whether anyone else had reported illness, but we never received a response, which seemed quite disingenuous.
A few random observations
- ‘Ha Long’ means ‘descending dragon’, named after a legend in which a dragon came down to help defend Vietnam against invaders, creating the islands as a defensive wall. Bai Tu Long Bay gets its name from the same legend, named after the baby dragons left behind by the Halong Bay dragon (or something like that)!
- The boats seemed to all cater to very specific crowds. Ours was almost entirely white, English speaking countries (American, British, Australian, Canadian, etc), and we saw other boats loading up filled entirely with Chinese and Korean travellers. Perhaps different things appeal to different people. All I can say is that on the bus back the attempt to drum up enthusiasm for karaoke fell extremely flat...
- Having heard a few people report back from Halong Bay that the staff on their boat would just throw litter off the side, I was pretty worried that we’d feel like we were buying into a destructive form of tourism. Thankfully I felt like the company made an effort to respect the environment and has a vested interest in keeping Bai Tu Long Bay pristine and unpolluted.
Halong Bay in December
We were a little apprehensive about going to Halong Bay in December, since it is meant to be cold and misty. Here’s our breakdown of the pros and cons of visiting Halong Bay in the winter:
- Misty scenery - Halong Bay in December is misty, but this enhances the mysterious karsts scenery, rather than obscuring it. You get stunning grey-blue silhouettes outlined against one another, mixing with the soft turquoise water to create a colour palate to make a painter drool!
- Warm water - weirdly in the summer the water in Halong Bay is cold, and in the winter the water is warm. So if you can psyche yourself up for a swim, it’s actually pretty nice
- Shorter daylight hours - the advantage of this is that you can see both sunrise and sunset! Our tai chi lesson on the deck coincided with a spectacular sunrise, which is surely a bucket list item checked off
- High season - for unfathomable reasons, December is apparently high season, which means higher prices and busier boats.
- Can’t sunbathe - well, you CAN sunbathe, but you probably don’t want to. The sun loungers were optimistically laid out on our boat, but December is a bit too cold. We wrapped up in fleeces and thermal underwear when we went out on the deck.
- If you’re hoping to try your hand at squid fishing, you’re out of luck! It’s apparently not ‘squid season’ and although most boats will still let you have a go, you’ve got next to no chance of actually catching something.