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Cruising the Bai Tu Long Bay

posted Apr 26, 2014, 8:22 PM by Long Quoc Tran   [ updated Dec 8, 2014, 6:43 PM by Tran Quoc Long ]
Halong Bay. Ha Long means "descending dragon".  Local legend says that a family of dragons descended onto the bay to protect Vietnam from invaders by spitting large jade and jewels into the water, forming thousands of island barriers against the invaders.  Afterwards, the dragons decided to stay and make these waters their home.  We think you will quickly see that the islands are reminiscent of dragons resting in the water.  
halong bay


Apparently, we saved the best experience for last! We think this UNESCO World Heritage site and 7 New Wonders of Nature is one of the most stunning natural landscapes we've seen so far on our trip. Right up there with Plitvice Lakes in Croatia.  Yes, Machu Picchu (Peru), Angkor Wat (Cambodia), and the rice terraces of Sapa (Vietnam) were also awe-inspiring, but they are largely man-made wonders.  The two thousand limestone formations that pepper the northernmost bay of Vietnam was formed naturally over millions of years through erosion.  Even more amazing are all the hidden caves and lakes inside these hollow islands, where many have yet to be discovered.  


As a result, Halong Bay was definitely on our "must-see" list, but we didn't know how to best experience this place.  Do we just find transportation to Halong Bay on our own, then find a day boat to take us around?  Do we sign-up for a one or two night cruise?  Should we just go to Cat Ba island, the backpacker capital, and admire the limestone formations from the shore?

Although we prefer DIY travels, this is one place that is best experienced by joining a tour.  Unfortunately, it seems every hotel and business in Hanoi has a cousin or brother-in-law that supposedly runs a tour.  There are soooooo many tour operators to Halong Bay that it is hard to know what's legitimate and what's not.  After much research, we decided on a 3-day/2-night cruise through the less touristed Bai Tu Long Bay just northeast of Halong Bay for a full and unhurried experience.  

We wrote an unsolicited infomercial on how we researched and selected Red Dragon Cruise as well as other options at the end of this blog.*


DRAGON'S PEARL I
After a 3+ hour minivan ride from Hanoi to the port along Halong City, we waited only a few minutes at the Red Dragon Cruise, Inc. terminal until we were escorted to a small boat that took us on board the 22-capacity Dragon's Pearl .  Besides us and the 13-member crew, there were 16 others on board: 2 Canadians, a couple from Switzerland, two Aussie couples, and a family of 8 from Tasmania traveling through Vietnam for their 25th wedding anniversary with their grown children and partners.  The mom from Tasmania is an ICU nurse for 29 years, and one of her daughters is a CRNA, so between the 3 of us, we had medical skills and supplies for anyone who decided to get sick or hurt!
dragon pearl junk by red dragon
  

We lucked out with a beautiful upper cabin in the rear of the boat with a large window taking in the panorama.  

It was already 1:30 pm by the time we got settled in to our room, and it was time for lunch on the deck of the boat while we sailed away.  The 9-course lunch, heavy on locally harvested seafood (fish, prawns, crab, squid, clams, oysters), surprised all of us.  We soon discovered that most meals would be a multi-course "event".  We thoroughly enjoyed the gourmet food and can't remember the last time we ate so much.  Chef Viet was also very accommodating to any food allergies or preferences, so Akiko got something else during the shrimp and crab courses.  



A typical meal onboard!  This was a 9-course lunch which came with a big bowl of rice.  Pumpkin soup; salad; corn battered in rice flour, fried, and sprinkled with sugar (very delicious!); Mike got grilled prawns and Akiko got squid; beef with sesame sauce; sweet and sour fish; roasted pork and green bananas; stir-fried veggies; and fruit.


Red Dragon Cruise avoids the crowded Halong Bay, instead opting to cruise through Bai Tu Long Bay for a more off the beaten track excursion.  


The myriad of limestone formations in every unique shape conceivable, jutting out of the calm blue waters was a sight to behold.  The grey overcast of the fog added an ethereal and mysterious element.  You cannot imagine the vast expanse of this landscape that seemed to have gone on forever.  In 3 days, we never did see the wide open sea, ever.  


CONG DAM FISHING VILLAGE
cong dam village
On the second day, we cruised to the Cong Dam fishing village, one of the furthest villages in Bai Tu Long Bay, close to the wide open ocean.  Village ladies met us at the boat to row us to their village in their bamboo boats.  The 3-year old trying to help mom row stole all of our hearts.  Here's a YouTube video of our boat ride to their village. 

The villagers of Cong Dam used to be nomad fishermen along these waters until they established a floating village 18-years ago.  This 180-member village has been largely isolated until Red Dragon Cruise started establishing relations with them since 2008 - the first time Cong Dam saw any foreigners.  

The village has a community center, a primary school where children attend from ages 6 to 11, floating houses, and fisheries.  

Their schoolhouse. Teachers from Halong City come and stay during the week to teach the children. School is compulsory from ages 6 to 11. After that, the children go out on the fishing boats with their parents.

Osaka University in Japan is a partner with this village in supporting community improvement projects.  Note the Japanese flag.


Recycling and trash program set-up for the village instead of throwing them in the water, as it was the case before Red Dragon Cruise got involved.

PARADISE ISLAND - THIEN CANH SON
get into the thien canh son
We then cruised to Paradise Island - a private island that Red Dragon Cruise acquired for their cruise business.  From here, guests can sunbathe (brrrrr in December), kayak, swim (the water is surprisingly warm), play impromptu soccer on the beach, or just stay on the boat!  The other Indochina boats were also here and their red/brown sails were beautiful against the islands.  





GOURMET DINNER IN CAVE
There is a cave in the middle of the limestone formation that makes up Paradise Island.  It can be accessed by trekking up ~80 steps.  Our guide, Tony, didn't want us getting a sneak preview of the cave while we were relaxing on the island because the crew had a surprise planned for us.

After the sun went down and we were back on board to freshen up, the walkway up to the cave was lit up and we couldn't wait for the surprise.  Once we walked up the stairs, we crawled into the cave through a narrow opening and immediately opened up into a huge cave full of stalactites (from above like icicles) and stalagmites (on the ground like a cone).  We were then ushered into an even larger cave room where the entire staff greeted us.  The space was lit with soft lights and candles.  The tables, chairs, tablecloths, china, and silverware were all carried up from the boat and placed in the cave.  BBQ was the theme for the night.  Dinner included char-grilled meats and seafood such as chicken wings (one of the best we've had!), prawns, squid, fried rice over coals, etc.  Of course, our meal wasn't complete without a few vegetable carvings.
dinner



BACK TO HALONG CITY and HANOI

The next day, we started our 3.5 hour boat ride back to Halong City.  We enjoyed more scenery while the chef demonstrated vegetable carving.  Akiko thinks she's found a new hobby.  Once we got back to the terminal, we were promptly put back in vans and driven back to Hanoi.  



And we're back to Halong City...

---------------
*HOW WE CHOSE Red Dragon Cruise 

We decided that this is not the time to be on a low-budget.  There are cheaper cruise operators (including Halong Party Cruises, if that's your style), but we heard plenty of sketchy stories such as terrible onboard room conditions, staff stealing belongings, staff unable to communicate important information in English, bad food, etc.  We didn't want to be stuck on a boat for 3-days feeling miserable.  Obviously, the worst case scenario is a boat sinking due to lack of adherence to proper safety standards, which did occur last year and quite a few foreigners drowned.

So, from a quality and safety perspective, we narrowed down our options to 3 seemingly reputable companies.  Our research included reviews from TripAdvisor and Booking.com, their company websites, and blog entries from other travelers.  We looked at:

Marguerite Junk Cruise (3-star luxury cruise) starting at $400/double
Bhaya Cruise (4-star luxury cruise) starting at $700/double.  This company got reprimanded online and spammed by some travel websites for poaching their websites and writing fake reviews (e.g. at travelfish.org).  Interesting.  
Red Dragon Cruise, Dragon's Pearl (3-star luxury cruise) for $525/double
We also heard very good things about Kangaroo Cafe's organized cruises from Hanoi, but we didn't know about them at the time. Their website is very confusing so it's difficult to decipher the real cost, but perhaps starting at $95 for a 2-day/1-night cruise (?). 

the food


Red Dragon Cruise won out for these reasons:

Excellent, near-perfect reviews.
Mid-range prices.  Not too low, not too high.
Shuttle service to/from any Hanoi hotel included in cost and service.  The other companies charged extra for the service, or we had to find our own way to a central meeting point. 
Goes to a more remote area northeast of Halong Bay called Bai Tu Long Bay with the same stunning scenery, but with no other cruise ships around except for Indochina boats.  (Need a minimum 2-night cruise to get out off the beaten path.  One-night cruises stay closer to the city).
Has an actual sales office in Hanoi at 11/12B Ly Nam De Street (side street off Ly Nam De between buildings with address of 11 and 12), where we could speak to professional agents and book our trip directly without a middleman and avoid paying commission.
Everything clearly written, including receipt, cancellation policy, itinerary.
Not an over-ambitious itinerary.  Lots of free time and less structure. 
Once we boarded The Dragon's Pearl I junk boat, they exceeded all of our expectations, as follows:

A very professional service staff and ship crew of 13 people, catering to the 18 of us on board.
Multi-course meals prepared by a trained chef, complete with intricate displays of vegetable carvings. These were some of the best gourmet meals we've had in all of our trip!  The menu is heavy on locally harvested seafood: prawns, crab, squid, oyster, clams, fish.  Every staff asked about any food requirements or allergies.  Akiko was the only person with a shellfish allergy and they went out of their way to prepare something other than prawns or crabs for her during those courses.  
Clean room with big window and great views.
fruit
Red Dragon Cruise has actually acquired one of the islands, Paradise Island and Beach, and been given exclusive rights as a cruise to travel the waterways in this area, so the only other boats we saw were a few Red Dragon Cruise boats and fishing boats.  
Red Dragon Cruise is a culturally and environmentally responsible organization, sensitive to preserving and sustaining the livelihood and scenery that has persisted in this area for thousands of years.  They've developed relationships with the 180-member Cong Dam fishing village who only saw foreigners for the first time in 2008!  This floating village allows Indochina to bring tourists to learn about their way of life.  They brings some tourist dollars to supplement their meager fishing income, supports their school, and educates them on environmental practices such as recycling plastics and collecting trash instead of dumping everything into the ocean.  
One-of-a-kind excursions such as dinner in a cave!
Professional guide who speaks good English and very knowledgeable about Halong Bay, but also knew how to have fun by going kayaking with us and organizing a soccer match on the beach with the guests versus crew!
Extremely efficient, organized and punctual with the transportation, transfers, luggage service, meal times, service, etc.  We didn't worry about a thing.
High safety standards.
Entire fleet looks well-maintained, fresh paint, clean. 




Basically, we felt safe and very pampered the entire time.  Not to mention feeling like we had the entire Bay to ourselves!  We are so glad we splurged and ended our time in Vietnam with Red Dragon Cruise.  It was worth more than what we paid. .

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