Legend has it that millions of years ago, a dragon descended on the sea Northeast of Vietnam, dropping hundreds of eggs, which hatched to form beautiful karst mountains jutting out from the sea. Bai Tu Long means “the dragon departs her offspring.” Clearly she knew her work was done, as she looked back over her leathery shoulder at the calm turquoise waters and fairytale sunrise surrounding her masterpiece. This is the Vietnam you’ve been dreaming of. It would be wrong to miss out on a Bai Tu Long Bay cruise.
Bai Tu Long Bay is Northeast of the famous UNESCO world heritage site, Halong Bay. We decided on a Bai Tu Long Bay cruise over Halong Bay because it’s not much further by boat and you get the same beautiful experience and scenery, with cleaner water and way fewer boats. Only certain companies are allowed to visit Bai Tu Long Bay, so try to get there before that changes. This was my second favourite place we visited in Vietnam (after Phong Nha National Park).
Bai Tu Long Bay cruise logistics
We embarked on a three-day, two night Bai Tu Long Bay cruise with Indochina Junk, leaving from Hanoi in December 2018, with our six and four year olds in tow.
Indochina Junk picked us up from our hotel in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, the Hanoi Emerald Waters Hotel and Spa (which I’d highly recommend for a quality stay in Hanoi, I can’t fault it!) early in the morning. The drive from Hanoi to Halong City was 3.5 hours, which flies by when you have wifi. Thirty minutes of this was a break at a huge shop filled with every kind of souvenir – art, clothing, jewellery – you name it. Disabled locals worked at the front crafting wares, and it was really hard not to spend a few bucks.
Our guide Wang greeted us upon arrival at the Indochina Junk meeting area, complete with a bar and couch seating. Wang was a smily and charismatic Vietnamese dude who referred to himself in the third person. He knew EVERYTHING about Bai Tu Long Bay, and told us cool stories about the remote fishing village he was from and crazy things he’s seen tourists do. We got on our boat by 12:30 p.m. and were on it until we disembarked at the same place 48 hours later for our return trip to Hanoi.
Indochina Junk and the Dragon Bay boat
You get what you pay for when it comes to Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay cruises. I REPEAT, YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR. This is very important. Wang told us stories about boats sinking and careless practices by companies that aren’t careful with the maintenance, safety precautions, and staff training on some of the Vietnamese junk boats.
With young kids, we wanted one of the best boats. We weren’t taking our chances on open seas with kids who couldn’t fully swim yet. If you’re prepared to splurge ONCE on your trip to Vietnam, this is the time. After much research, I believed Indochina Junk was among the best Bai Tu Long Bay cruises.
Our three-day/two-night trip for four people costed $1035 Canadian, which is around $800 USD. This included transportation, two nights accommodation, food, guided tours, and unforgettable experiences. It’s expensive for Vietnam, but cheap for a similar experience in pricier countries. I should note Vayla costed less because she was only four.
Indochina Junk was excellent to deal with. They have different sized boats so you can choose a larger one with more amenities or a smaller, more intimate boat, which we preferred with our kids. Our boat was the Dragon Bay – a traditional wooden junk boat (look up why it’s called a junk boat if you want a boring and convoluted answer) with only three cabins. Our family and two friendly single girls from Colorado were the only passengers, along with a staff of Wang the guide and the chef, server, bartender, and mechanic.
The Dragon Bay featured a lower deck with cabins, an eating/lounging area, and a bar (’cause boats and booze go hand in hand). The upper deck had an eating area, sun loungers for relaxing, and a large sitting area. It was certainly all we needed. In the video below, Cohen and Vayla take you on a cute tour of our boat.
After boarding the Dragon Bay, an amazing lunch (more on the food later), and a celebratory G&T, we set out for a long kayak in the Mua Hoa area. We paddled around the karst islands in the calm water and into a small cave. The sky was clear, our boat was the only one there, and you could see for miles around. These are the types of experiences that made our Bai Tu Long Bay cruise pretty special.
If you’ve read my other blogs, you may know about my wimpy arms. Well, this was a long kayak that resulted in me having to tie mine and Vayla’s kayak to Nick’s to get a tow. Thanks husband.
After a plentiful dinner, it was time to retire to our cabin for some R&R. Actually, Cohen didn’t even make it to dinner. He built a fort with couch cushions on the upper deck and fell asleep in it at 6 p.m. We were still jet lagged from our long journey from Canada and had all woken up at an ungodly hour that morning.
Day 2 – beaches, kayaking, caves, and more
Day two started with coffee on the upper deck while lounging and admiring the scenery, then a delicious breakfast of pho, fresh fruit, eggs, and toast. We visited Captain Chuong and the kids each got a turn to “drive” the boat.
Our morning excursion was to a quiet beach and for a kayak around the gorgeous karst mountains. This time I had Cohen with me for more arm muscle. There’s just something about gliding through open waters on a kayak, isn’t there?
After our kayak and some beachcombing for shells, Wang guided us to the Thien Canh Son cave, a short hike from the beach. This cave was very impressive, and Wang had no shortage of speleology lessons for our excited group. Luckily we visited here before the mammoth caves in Phong Nha National Park, which blew this out of the water. You will be quite taken with this cave though if you haven’t been to Phong Nha.
In the early afternoon on day two, we arrived at a picturesque deserted beach for a barbecue lunch. There we were, sitting on this beach in the middle of nowhere, being served plates of barbecued squid, prawns, and chicken, complemented by sweet jicama salad, and juicy dragonfruit and watermelon for dessert. The plates just keep coming with Indochina Junk. It was the definition of surreal and spoiled mixed together. It was spoirreal.
After lunch we played in the sand, admired a lone sea star, and waded in the water. Brave little Vayla was the only one to do a full swim at this beach, as it wasn’t the hottest day (about 21 degrees celsius and cloudy). The water was warm though and it would be a great swimming spot on a hot day.
The rest of the day was for cruising with my G&Ts and Sauvignon Blanc (and a couple chilled Saigon lagers for hubs), making spring rolls from scratch with Wang, enjoying another delicious dinner, then some evening squid fishing off the boat. We were unsuccessful, but it was still fun for the kids.
Day 3 – Vung Vieng Fishing Village and Water Puppet Show
On the morning of day three, we headed to see the Vung Vieng fishing village. This isn’t your typical “village”– it’s a very small floating community built in the heart of Bai Tu Long Bay, 24 kilometres from the mainland. Locals row about five hours to Halong City to sell fish and buy food or goods needed in their secluded community.
After taking our small boat to a large dock, we were rowed into the village. It was almost eery how quiet and tranquil it was, like how I’d imagine explorers felt uncovering new territory. I pretended in my head for a couple moments that I was in a movie, until I was interrupted by a barrage of questions from a mini Gill.
We saw the tiny school and fishing boats anchored around small houses. “Are those HOUSES?” my six-year-old asked. “Yes,” I said. “They’re SO SMALL,” replied Cohen. This was yet another fine moment to teach our kids about how other people live around the world, and how lucky we are. I swear if my kids aren’t empathetic and resilient adults from all this travelling, I’ll keel over in despair.
After going through the village our rower took us through a magnificent arch in an island and back around. Then Nick tried rowing the boat with oars unlike at home. He took us on a merry-go-round of 360s instead of to our destination, while we laughed and made fun of him.
Back on the Dragon Bay, we packed up and enjoyed our last lunch, then sailed back to Halong City for our transfer. En route back to Hanoi, we stopped at Yen Duc village to see a water puppet show. This odd yet interesting show featured puppets frolicking in a large gathering of water, telling stories of life in rural Vietnam, while Vietnamese ladies sang. I wouldn’t go out of my way to see a water puppet show again, but it was a cool experience and the kids found it entertaining enough.
The food on the Dragon Bay
Okay. The food on our Bai Tu Long Bay cruise blew me away. Damn near the best food we had in all of Vietnam, minus a certain Bun Cha in Hanoi and Bahn Xeo at a farm in Phong Nha. The portions were over the top –family style plates that kept on coming. Nick tried hard to finish the never-ending portions, and subsequently gained about five pounds in three days, which melted off under the wrath of Bali belly later in the trip.
There were high quality meats – prawns, squid, chicken, pork, beef – served in different styles with amazing sauces and rice, noodles, and vegetables. The salads were to DIE FOR. This surprised me most about Vietnamese food – the plethora of ridiculously good salads I had throughout the country. Freshly grated vegetables and tropical fruits mixed with fresh mint and basil, tossed in light and sweet fruity dressings (“is there pineapple juice in here? Why is this salad so GOOD?”) and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. Vegetarians need not worry in Vietnam.
I’m kicking myself for not trying to coax ingredients out of the chef. I doubt he had them on paper, and I don’t think he spoke much English. I believe Vayla had a crush on him though (“can we go see the cook?” over and over), so she probably could’ve got something out of him. All the locals loved her blonde hair, blue eyes, and cute little face, so why the didn’t I exploit her in an attempt to figure out how to make this mind-blowing shit at home?
One evening we made spring rolls from scratch. Wang’s mom’s recipe. A VIETNAMESE BABA’S RECIPE. Best spring rolls I’ve ever had, not even exaggerating. Now I could’ve easily jotted down the recipe for these, since we made them with Wang. What’s wrong with me?!
And… the drinks
Drinks are not included, but there’s a wide selection of wine, beer, spirits, cocktails, soft drinks and juices. I stuck with G&Ts or gin and sodas, and easily made my way through a bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. My bottle of wine was around $35 USD –- a high markup and very expensive for ‘Nam.
Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise: go now not later
So you’re stoked about your Vietnam trip, but you know there’s so much to see and do there. You’re not sure how to decide where to visit (I know the feeling). Do not miss out on a Bai Tu Long Bay cruise. Vietnam is becoming hugely popular for travellers – for good reason – and Bai Tu Long Bay could one day become as busy as Halong Bay. This means it could lose its quiet charm and the water may become more polluted.
A Bai Tu Long Bay cruise is the perfect contrast with the chaos of Hanoi, Hoi An, or Ho Chi Minh City. I highly recommend visiting this peaceful and picturesque pocket of Vietnam.
Love islands and cruising? Check out my post on the Incredible Galapagos Islands.