Sailing Halong Bay on a Junk Ship

In Hanoi the night before we set off to sail Halong Bay I had a mild panic. Would we need sleeping bags? Had I bought enough warm clothes? What would the food be like? Would the next 2 days be completely overshadowed by the fact that I was freezing to death?

It turns out my fears were groundless. I had completely underestimated the quality of the junk ship we would be staying on during our two-day Halong Bay Junk Cruise with Intrepid Travel. Our private wood panelled room came with a duvet-covered double bed and an electric heater. We even had an en suite bathroom with a suitably hot shower (you just need to wait 10 minutes for it to heat up in-between washes.)

Sailing Halong Bay

The tour had started very smoothly too. When we arrived at our hotel in Hanoi the evening before a welcome pack from Intrepid Travel was waiting for us with details of the trip ahead. There was also a reminder to pack our passports (this is very important – the port authority need to see them before you can board a boat and if you leave them at your hotel 4 hours away this is a problem, as some people on our bus discovered!) Our hotel, the Hanoi Elite, was superb. They reminded us to take our passports and once we had packed up our luggage we left it behind in the hotel room to be looked after while we were away. We took just a small bag each with some extra layers and toiletries and this was all we needed.

Halong City is about a 4-hour drive away from Hanoi. The journey takes you through rice fields, past high schools where students on bicycles race the bus, and around motorbikes with cows on the back. The bus breaks up the journey with a toilet stop at a service station (which has free Wi-Fi by the way!) but I found the scenery so fascinating the journey passed in no time.

At the port we were guided into a restaurant to wait with several other busloads of backpackers and tourists. Our guide took our passports and hurried off to sort out what boat we would be boarding. In the distance I could just make out the first of the dramatic limestone cliffs interspersed with traditional white junk ships. Our group was guided onto a tender boat and we set off to find the vessel that would be our home for the next two days.

Junk Ship Cruise Halong Bay

Bedroom on Junk Ship Cruise

Immediately after boarding we were guided to the warmth of the dining room for a briefing and our room allocation. The traditional junk ships hold just 16 passengers max so there were only 7 other couples on board for us to get to know; some Aussies (of course), some Brits (as expected) and some couples from Vietnam and Korea. The group made introductions over lunch and tucked into the first of many local dishes we were to enjoy over the next 2 days. I’m a bit of a fussy eater in the sense that I like to know what I am eating and had struggled with this in Vietnam. For each meal a menu on the table spelt out clearly what we were about to eat, with both it’s local name and an English explanation, and for the first time I started enjoying eating Vietnamese food in Vietnam. Alcoholic drinks are charged extra but the bar man kindly keeps a note of how many Hanoi beers you consume and you just pay before leaving the boat.

The route of your boat and order in which you do the activities in the bay depends on the decision of your guide. He will take into account factors such as the weather and visibility, as well as what other ships are doing, to set the agenda for the day. Visiting in January meant it was very cold up on deck and visibility was a little poor in some areas (although it gave the whole area a magical, mystical appearance.) Our guide decided that we would do all the main sightseeing on the first day as it was due to get even colder the following day.

The first thing we did was hop on a little non-motorised boat and float through a low ceilinged cave. On the other side was a quiet inlet where some tiny monkeys were swinging through the trees. My eye, however, was caught by the floating sweet shop. For in the middle of the water, far away from shore, there was a lady rowing around with a boat full of junk food and booze. It was surreal to say the least.

Floating tuck shop

monkey in Halong Bay

Our next stop was at Surprise Cave; the surprise being that it is absolutely massive! As we walked through the cave our guide pointed out shapes in the rock formations which resembled different people and animals (sort of). We slowly wound our way up through the cave and the best bit for me was coming outside again to find a beautiful aerial view of the bay.

Aerial view of Halong Bay

Aerial view of Halong Bay

The next activity on the agenda was kayaking. I held back on the boat, afraid and unwilling to get wet in such cold temperatures, but when it looked like everyone else in our group (including many of the older generation) were going to take part, I thought I had better man up. And it was worth it. Rowing our own kayak meant we could get much closer to some of the fishing villages I had been peering at from the junk ship. Fisherman and their families have set up floating villages in little clusters around the gorgeous green bay. We could see dogs running around the planks and there was a schoolroom in one hut. Rowing even closer we discovered we could hear the unmistakeable beat of Gangnam Style blasting from one of the homes – that song really is everywhere.

Floating Village

Floating village

Floating Village

Proud to have made it back to the boat without capsizing we joined the other guests for some beers on the top deck. In summer, the crew explained, all the boats play music and the top deck turns into a dance floor.  We braved the cold just long enough to watch the sunset and then went back inside for the evening entertainment. Tonight we will be showing a ‘movie’, we were told, named Top Gear Vietnam Special. Brilliant!

After several courses of fresh seafood and sweet and sour chicken I fell asleep to the sound of the engines gentle hum. The boat barely moved in the night and when I opened the curtains in the morning it was a surprise to see those phenomenal rocks poking out through the water, right outside our window.

View outside our window

After all the action from the day before, our second day was about cruising. We looped around another part of the bay and I took about a million photos of the famous rocks I had ogled at in brochures for so long. Just before lunch we were called back inside to help out; we were to be making the Vietnamese Spring rolls. Some of us had more success than others at rolling them up but they all tasted great in the end.

Sailing Halong Bay

Sailing Halong Bay

Lunch was served back in the harbour whilst we waited for a tender to take us back to shore. The minibuses were already parked up to take us back to Hanoi that afternoon. For us that was the end of our time being well guided and fed by Intrepid Travel because we had a flight to catch, but for many of the group it was just the start on their southbound Vietnam adventure – the Vietnam Express Southbound tour continues to Ho Chi Mihn city via Hue and Hoi An.)

Sailing around Halong Bay was one of the main reasons I was so keen to return to Vietnam and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The whole area really is as breath-taking and unforgettable as you imagine it will be. I am so pleased we decided to arrange this in advance with Intrepid and do it in comfort and style; everything was executed with absolute ease. Thanks to Intrepid for helping me put a big, fat, happy tick through this bucket list litem.

Disclosure: Intrepid Travel kindly sponsored my stay on the ship after I told them I was keen to review the experience. All thoughts, pictures, happy memories and new found love for Vietnamese food are my own.

13 Comments

  1. Reply

    TylerIngram

    February 10, 2013

    We loved out trip with Intrepid to Halong Bay. We hopped that we could have stayed another night on the boat, but it seems to be only a one day thing for us.

    Our local guide was telling us even though Surprise Cave is big, there is another much bigger cave in Vietnam. Either way it was a pretty cool cave to see.

    It would have been cool to kayak around like you did. Perhaps another time!

  2. Reply

    Suzanne (Travelbunny)

    February 11, 2013

    This post brought back some great memories from our trip in December 2011. It was pretty chilly when we were there too but the hospitality and food on the junk was second to none. I notice that since we went they’ve brought in a new rule that all the boats be painted white – they were all dark wood on the outside when we went. Not sure I like the change….

    • Reply

      Jayne

      February 12, 2013

      Yes we heard that them being all white was a rule put in the place by the new president, would have been great to see them in their original state

  3. Reply

    Helen

    February 11, 2013

    This looks amazing – love the look of the traditional junk ships.

  4. Reply

    Far east Flashpacker

    February 12, 2013

    did you go with Alova cruises?

    • Reply

      Jayne

      February 12, 2013

      no I think they were called Margerite….

  5. Reply

    Steven T

    February 16, 2013

    Great story. Even thou I was born in Vietnam, i haven’t been to Ha Long Bay – one day. I wonder why is the ship is called “junk” to begin with? I can see it’s not a Mediterranean cruise ship with 5 star restaurants, but certainly this boat is not junk.

    • Reply

      Jayne

      February 24, 2013

      Haha I agree, not sure where the name comes from…

  6. Reply

    Miles of Happiness - Marie

    January 16, 2015

    I’ll definitely try to organize this trip in 2015. It looks wonderful…

    • Reply

      Jayne Gorman

      January 18, 2015

      It’s definitely an unforgettable travel experience

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