on October 2, 2010
One of the highlights to my recent trip to Vietnam was a junk cruise to Ha Long Bay. Junks are traditional style sailing ships, many are very modern now with en suite facilities and air conditioning in your private cabins, they are still styled in the traditional way. You will find hundreds of these junks offering tours out to the bay, the one we went on was Huong Hai Junks, and this review covers my experience. We only stayed for one night. GETTING TO HA LONG BAYHa Long bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Quang Ninh province on the North Vietnam coast and is approximately four hours drive from Hanoi. The bay is made up of up to 2000 small limestone islands; the best way to explore Ha Long Bay is, of course, by boat, hence the proliferation of junk cruises to the region. We took a coach from our Hanoi hotel to Ha Long, with just a small overnight bag. Arrival at the port was quite confusing, as we looked out onto the bay there were literally hundreds of junks lined up, waiting for the tourists. We accessed our junk by tender.THE JUNK ITSELF – FIRST IMPRESSIONSOur junk was of a darker wood,the lower level, which you entered onto, had a passageway all around, you were covered over your head but the side was open above waist level. Here is where you accessed your cabins. I am not sure how many cabins were on our boat, I am guessing about 8-10. I was impressed with the size and décor of our cabin. I had expected it to be more cramped with bunk beds, but we each had singles (which could be combined to make doubles) and there was a good sized bedside table in between. Obviously not a massive room and smaller than a normal hotel room, it offered hooks and enough space for our requirements for the short time we were on here. It also had a modern air conditioner with remote control, which was very effective and quiet. Décor wise the cabin and furniture is all done out in dark wood which fits in with the ‘look’ of the boat but means it can be quite dark in the cabins. There are a number of lights in the cabin, for reading etc, although sea air usually sends me to sleep in seconds! All cabins have an en-suite wet room, with shower head, lavatory and sink. Towels are also provided, as are robes and flip flops. There are also toiletries – soap, shower gel, cotton buds etc. Each room was lockable, but there are no safety deposit boxes. On the deck above was the dining area and a terrace, and above that a small sun deck. There were also a couple of public toilets.DINING AND DRINKINGWe were divided up into four tables of four – as there were two vegetarians in the party we were asked to sit together, which wasn’t a problem, as all dishes came out as a platter for two. The room could have been laid out as intimate tables for two or one long table had we have wished. Décor wise it was quite formal, with table clothes and fabric covered chairs with tie-backs, much like at a wedding. Lunch was eight dishes and dinner was nine. Meat/fish eaters got a lot of seafood, so I would advise informing them on booking of any dietary requirements as I would imagine it is hard to stock up after the boat has left. Some of the dishes had by meat eaters included jumbo king prawns, elephant clams, squid plus soup and stir fried meat and fish dishes. As a vegetarian I also had a veggie soup, stir fried vegetables, tempura vegetables, deep fried apple and pear (the former worked, the latter didn’t) and tofu. The only dish we had replicated across the cruise was rice, although as veggies we did have a few deep fried vegetable/fruit dishes but always with different veg or fruit. We certainly didn’t go hungry and each meal was finished with a portion of fresh fruit. Portion sizes were generous and not everything got eaten. Breakfast included fruit, chips (French fries), vegetable spring rolls, pancakes and a few other dishes. Drinks were not included in the cruise (except tea and coffee at breakfast) so you need to bring some money for that. As you would expect some drinks were more expensive than the mainland, but in the case of local beers, bottled water and branded soft drinks the price was fairly typical of what we had paid elsewhere in the country in restaurants. I didn’t enquire as to the price of spirits or cocktails (although they seemed to have a fair stock) but we did decide to purchase a local wine with lunch and dinner. Da Lat is the local wine, and we tried the white variety. This cost US$18, which is about double the price I had seen it in other restaurants. Imported wines were even more expensive, starting at US$26. THE JOURNEY AND STOP OFFS.We set off a little after noon and spread out across the terrace sipping chilled drinks and spying on the other junks. You don’t see to many of the other limestone islands for a bit, and then they start to pop up. I found the travelling very peaceful and gentle, sometimes eating in the dining room looking out of the open window with a bit of a breeze or relaxing on the terrace with a book, I felt very chilled out. The first stop off was at some caves, known as Hang Sung Sot, or better known as the Surprise cave. The junks pull up right by the caves and you will need to climb quite a few steps to access the caves, and more down again. It is lovely and cool in the caves after the tropical humidity outside, but it is damp inside and there are lots of steps both up and own to traverse so you need to be fairly fit and able bodied to get around as the steps can be slippery. The caves are a popular stop off, so do no expect an intimate experience, and your time may be held up by the crowds of people in front of you. Whilst there is lighting inside the caves, some bulbs will be out, so you need to watch your footing, generally the caves are large and cavernous, so claustrophobics should be fine - there are just a few short (a few metres) and narrow passages to walk though. As busy as it was in the caves, they are pretty impressive with their size and well worth a look. Most trips will also give you the opportunity for some swimming - you will moor up in a quiet area and have the opportunity to jump from the boat or climb down he ladder, I didn’t go but I am assured that the water was lovely, almost bath like and that it wasn’t difficult to get back on the boat. It was also quite salty, so it was easy to float. The night was spent near a lot of other junks, I believe it is a legal requirement for health and safety reasons - there is mobile phone reception here on the local networks - so should anyone be taken ill or anything happen help can easily be sent from nearby Cat Ba island, which is inhabited. In the morning we took a small rowing boat early (about 7.30am - this wasn’t a problem as we were so relaxed we all had early nights) to Ho Ba Ham or Three Tunnel Lake in the middle of Dau Be Island. At the time we visited, there was just one low tunnel available to access the lake. You can’t take motor boat, so it was either large rowing boat (which is what we had) or kayaks. It is very quiet and peaceful in the secluded lagoon as we were the only group. Others arrived a bit later, but we had it to ourselves which made it really special. Back on the boat we had breakfast before heading back to the mainland, arriving about 10.30am.Huong Hai operates several different junks in Ha Long bay We had one of the larger deluxe boats, our group of fifteen plus guide had the boat to ourselves. As I have already mentioned there are many companies operating tours in the region, so it is a case of finding the one for you. There will be luxury ones, budget ones and party boats offering karaoke (*shudder*) so check carefully before booking. I would urge you to go for a two night trip minimum if you have the time in your schedule, as I would have loved to have stayed on longer and experienced more of the bay. This was a definite highlight of my holiday.
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