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posted May 12, 2014, 6:37 AM by Tran Quoc Long   [ updated Dec 8, 2014, 6:47 PM ]
We decided to have breakfast at the hotel at $10pp, more than we wanted to spend but it was easier and we had limited time since the shuttle to Halong Bay was coming at 8:30am.
breakfast in Hanoi


*TIP: Choosing a boat/ship or as they call it a "junk" to cruise Halong Bay can get overwhelming. First narrow down if you want a day tip, 2 day 1 night, or 3 days 2 nights. I really don't recommend the day trip as you don't even get far enough away from land, it will be in view the whole time. For me it was a fairly easy choice- I knew I wanted only a 1 night as I would be super bored looking at limestone karsts for 2 days, as I had encountered similar landscape when I was in Yangshuo, China. 

The other deciding factor was that I don't like crowds and prefer off the beaten path when possible, so I opted not to do the Halong Bay but instead Bait Tu Long Bay which is currently opened only to 2-3 companies. I booked the Dragon Pearl which belongs to a company called Indochina Junk (http://www.indochina-junk.com/). Please note that their official website doesn't load at times. There are many other websites that come up when you look for Dragon Pearl such as this one- http://www.dragonpearlhalong.com- which notes in the corner that it is not the official website, so you have to be careful when trying to book direct as many companies will not be so honest and I am not sure what you will wind up with. To play it safe book through your hotel or through your agency. My agency IndoChina Voyages charged the same as the quoted price and was able to meet the price when I found another agency with a lower price. I also went with IndoChina Junk because they sail to Bai Tu Long Bay, which is not the larger Halong Bay that all the other ships sail to, so this may also affect your decision. 
traffic hanoi

7.45 Pick up at your hotel in Hanoi by shuttle bus. (we were actually picked up at 8:15am) A rep from IndoChina company, who spoke English accompanied the shuttle bus to make sure all passengers were collected from the various hotels. We were the last ones to be picked up. To save on expenses, she does not accompany us to Halong Bay and is dropped off at the office in Hanoi. We were to continue our 5 hour, not 4 hour trip with a non- English speaking driver who would call the office if there are any issues.
on the way to Halong Bay- Chuong Duong bridge


I had read online that it was a 3.5-4 hr drive so I was not happy to learn it was closer to 5 hours which means their times itinerary is not on point. Traffic didn't seem to be that great much of an issue.
I found it interesting that the highway was narrow, and above the street but not railed off, and so close to homes...
way to halong bay vietnam

These corn and winter melon candies that we swiped from the hotel were pretty good ..
sweet oishi

It was a really LONG ride. There were about 8 of us in the shuttle van, which was comfortable and air conditioned. We were made up of Australians and Americans. And it was fun to meet Keith and Adria...I finally found someone (Keith) who is as obsessed as trip planning as I am! Our driver kind of sucked, he drove really really slow, but if you can believe this, not safely. He would drive into oncoming traffic in an attempt to cut a car, but he would not bother speeding up to pass the car, and we would be watching a game of chicken whenever he did that which was throughout the 5 hour ride as we watched every car pass us. He was incapable of staying within his lane! It was a trully PAINFUL ride!

At the halfway point...the rest stop of course was also a souvenir stop...
rest stop

They had disabled persons doing embroidery paintings...
disable

I am so thankful for all the medical resources I have back home...and glad that I broke my leg before I was supposed to go to Vietnam back in Nov 2011 rather than while I was in Vietnam.
disabled

The bathroom stall door was rather short. We were able to hear what was going on in the men's room as the sections were not enclosed but rather one open space separated by a wall. At least the wall was taller than this door...
door

We continued onto Halong Bay. Interesting how there are train tracks between these homes and the highway...
highway

Approaching the pier...Hon Gai Harbor
hon gai

12.00 Embark at Hon Gai International harbour (since it was a 5hour ride in actuality, it doesn't quite make sense that we could embark by 12 with a 7:45-8:30 pickup time)
embarkation

We were escorted to a waiting area, where passengers who had just disembarked were waiting for their shuttle to return to Hanoi. We were assigned a table to sit at while we waited for the rest of our group, and were told we would be on Dragon Pearl 2. Unfortunately none of the folks we weathered the 5 hr ride and bonded with were on our junk. Keith and Adria were booked on the Red Dragon, a smaller junk.
The wait called for some ice cream, I opted for Tiramisu while Ugly doll tried the green bean which was quite good.
my picture

After about a 15-20minutes the rest of our ship mates arrived, and we proceeded towards the pier. Along the way we get a glimpse of the below...Disturbing...and there were people eating in the restaurant, clearly not bothered by it. I didn't want to figure out what animal it was...
animal

Boarding our tender to get to our junk. The guy in blue was our guide, Truong.
guide


The Sales Pitch: The newest and largest of the Indochina Junk family, the 2 Dragon’s Pearl are modeled after the traditional Chinese junks that used to sail these waters. Whether you are dinning in the restaurant, lounging on one of the two sundecks or relaxing in the comfort of your cabin, you will be surrounded by the handcrafted teak and oak that make the Dragon’s Pearl wonderful sailing vessels. This classic junk is ideal for parties for larger groups (up to 20 people) or even incentive groups. Alternatively book a berth and get to meet new friends as you cruise the bay. 11 Deluxe Cabins (7 Double, 4 Twin) 
dragon pearl junk

13.00 Check-in, enjoy a welcoming drink and cruise briefing (I think we didn't even board until 1:30 or 2pm)
dragon cruise halong bay

Ha Long Bay (Vịnh Hạ Long) [UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE}: {this is the bay most visited by tourists}
situated in the Gulf of Tonkin, includes some 1600 islands and islets forming a seascape of limestone pillars. Because of their precipitous nature, most of the islands are uninhabited and relatively unaffected by human influence. The geomorphology of Ha Long Bay is known as a drowned karst landscape due to combination of its limestone karst features which have been subject to repeated regression and transgression of the sea over geological time. The limestones of Ha Long Bay have been eroded into a mature landscape of fengcong (clusters of conical peaks) and fenglin (isolated tower features) karst features, modified by sea invasion at a later stage. The smaller islands are fenglin towers of 50m to 100m high with height. A distinctive feature of Ha Long Bay is the abundance of lakes within the larger limestone islands. Extensive limestone caves represent another important feature of Ha Long Bay, with three main types able to be identified: old phreatic caves formed below the water table of the time; old karstic foot caves formed by lateral undercutting of cliffs at base level; and marine notch caves formed at sea level where rock structures are powerfully eroded and eventually reduced to a wave cut platform. (http://whc.unesco.org)
Bai Tu Long Bay: {this is the smaller bay less congested bay that I chose to visit}
northeast of Vietnam, covers a sea area of ​​Halong City, Cam Pha Town and Van Don island district. Adjacent to Halong bay in the southwest, to Campha district in the west, to Coto district in the northeast, toward the Eastsea. Bai Tu Long Bay includes hundreds of islands, many of them are large and inhabited. Climate 2 distinct seasons: hot, humid summer and cold, dry winters. The annual average temperature is from 15°C to 25°C; rainfall is about 2,000 mm / year. One of the three triangular peaks of the World Natural Heritage. In Halong Bay over four hundred boats bring thousands of tourists each day so hundreds of tourists converge on the same place at the same time. Contrastingly Bai Tu Long Bay has few tourists. but the same topography- 340 millions years of history conserved with places such as: Da Xep Park, Ang Cong Dam, Thien Canh Son Cave, Quan Lan Island, and Vung Vieng fishing village. The ecological zone of Bai Tu Long, stretches over an area of ​​100ha with over 10km of coastline. The islands of Bai Tu Long bay are of such types as limestone and schist. On the islands,there are also caves, especially the Quan cave (Navy cave) for ships hiding when the sea moves. (http://www.poseidonsails.com/index.php/halong-bay-places/117-bai-tu-long-bay.html)(http://www.indochina-junk.com)Our 2 day, 1 night itinerary leaving from Hon Gai Pier. Listening to the guide tell us the story of Halong and Bai Tu Long Bay...
Located in the northeast of Vietnam, in Quang Ninh Province, covering area of 1,553 square km, including 1,969 islands. Halong’s islands are concentrated in two main areas – in the southeast (Bai Tu Long Bay) and the southwest (Halong Bay). According to local legend, ever since the first settlement of the country, Vietnam has been attacked from the sea. Knowing this, the Jade Emperor sent Mother Dragon and her child down to help the Vietnamese against invaders. When enemy ships were approaching, the dragons flew down from the sky and spat countless pearls into the sea. These turned into a myriad of jade islands. They linked together to create a solid wall that blocked the approaching enemy ships. These crashed into the rocks and were torn into pieces. After driving away the invaders, the Mother Dragon and her child were so charmed by the beauty of the bay that they decided to stay rather than returning to heaven. Where the Mother Dragon landed was called Halong, her child settled in Bai Tu Long Bay, and where their tails writhed is called Bach Long Vi. (http://www.indochina-junk.com)
13.30 Have lunch while cruising in the magnificent Bai Tu Long Bay, admiring the fascinating rock formations in the bay. (lost track of time as I was enjoying the cruise but I am pretty sure we were running late)
Pedro lives in Portugal...

with his lovely wife... Heidi and I will be visiting soon, we think ;)We had a great bunch on the boat...
Pumpkin and Kidney Bean soup
I loved all the variety we had for lunch!! Fried salt pepper prawns, Pickled Salad, clams with mango and herbs
Steamed fish with scallion and ginger, sauteed vegetables, tofu with soy sauce and fried oyster
Fresh fruitI can't really tell from my research if Bai Tu Long is considered a part of Halong Area per se or is it its own Bay entirely. The research seems mixed bit it does seem to be a separate bay in which case, it may not be a UNESCO site (boo hoo, but it was wonderful nonetheless)Heidi's room is the room to be in, you have to enter via a few steps, but it faces the back of the boat...
The view from Heidi's window was perfect, straight into the water...with no chance of anyone looking in...
Room 302, which was our room was not as ideal because was on the side of the boat, next to dining room. People can walk by as they choose too so we could not keep out shades open at all times to enjoy the view. Luckily it was not on the side to go down to the tender and away from the staircases leading up to the decks, so there was not regular foot traffic. The room on the opposite was probably the less desired room, as everyone needs to walk by that window to get down to the tender...
The was plenty of lounge chairs for everyone...
While sailing the only other boats we saw were 2-3 others which also belonged to the same company. 
SALES PITCH: Red Dragon is complete with five deluxe cabins and designed to resonate with superior class and grandeur. Larger than The Prince and Princess it is still small enough to get up close to the natural wonders, pocket lagoons and small fishing communities of Halong and Bai Tu Long bays. As soon as you board the Red Dragon, you will be surrounded by traditional handmade artisan woodwork. Whether you are relaxing in the comfort of your own cabin, lounging on the spacious sun deck, or dinning in the cosy restaurant, you will feel treated like royalty. This masterpiece is a wonderful option for those who need a little more space for a small group cruise of up to 11 people. 5 Deluxe Cabins (3 Double, 1 Twin and 1 Triple)
Our buddies, Keith and Adria on the Red Dragon...pic taken from our boat...After lunch, we boarded our tender for

16.45 Short cruise to Hon Co Island where you can relax on a white sandy beach, swim or kayak. 
The view as we ascended some stone steps to the cave entrance...
15.40 Explore the secluded Thien Canh Son Cave, The pathway to Thien Canh Son Cave is set below the forest canopy and a stone cliff.

Inside the cave, is a strange beauty – an image of a lotus, a picture of baby elephant. The ceiling of the cave is covered with a layer of shiny ‘carpets’, numerous sparkling stalactites appear like “hanging lamps”The cave was well lit...
Going back out the same way we came in...
Nice looking Port A Potty. Heidi checked it out, said it was really clean and flushed :)
The kayaks and beach beckoning to us below as we head back down the stairs...
15.00 Enjoy swimming in the crystal clear water. We landed on Puppy island...These little guys made the beacht ime so much more fun...too bad we could not sneak one back.
We kayaked for a bit...I was happy to see that the water was free of pollution and very clear...
...actually Heidi did most of the work LOL
finally we are in sync...
18.00 Back to the junk for relaxation. Another 15min on the beach and we were herded back to our tender...must rinse feet of sand before boarding.
Once back on the junk, we showered and went to the deck to enjoy the sunset and took way too many photos of karsts and sunset...
Bai Tu Long was definitely the route to go...just look at pics below...no other tourist ships in sight aside from the 2-3 sister junks from IndoChina Junk and a few local fishing boats. Absolute serenity...Everyone taking photos of the sunset...lol

The moon was super bright and illuminated the clear sky and water...
19.00 Have dinner and stay overnight on board.[I lost track of time at this point] Our fancy dinner set up...we could not have had more perfect and clear weather!
Dinner was a feast for the eyes...
The food was pretty good. I am not sure I would have had enough if we didn't have 2 vegetarians on our side which gave us a little extra food... [overall I was happy, except my crab was rancid...I could have asked for another one but was too lazy to bother]

The finale...was a sculpture of our junk...
After dinner, we went back up to the the deck to relax and stare at the stars...
How wonderful is this...absolutely no boats around except for 2 junks from the same company. Ah...peace...what a sharp contrast from where we had come from the night before on the train. Even though our morning started early and uncomfortable, the night ended perfectly....

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