Before we get ahead of ourselves. Halong Bay is most easily accessed from Hanoi. BUT, that does not mean Hanoi is just a transit city. (Read my post on why it is imperative for your traveller’s soul to spend ample time exploring Hanoi HERE.
)Moving on. You will have booked your junk boat stay ahead of time, which will include roundtrip transfer from your hotel in Hanoi and/or the airport. The 2.5 hour car ride affords you a gritty glimpse into the reality of Vietnamese life. Keep your cameras ready as you roll through the rice paddies and villages, where you’ll see locals gathering rice or herding livestock. If you’re anything like me, you will marvel at the skinny houses built on stilts, the simplicity of life, and the sheer beauty of the countryside. The van transporting you will stop twice at two Vietnamese tourist hells. Shop at your own risk, as prices are heavily marked up, even in American standards. I do suggest trying one of the bizarre pringles flavors like salty seaweed or fried chicken.
The welcome center: you will be herded like the countryside cattle you just saw into the appropriate holding room associated with your junk boat. You may need to pay the remainder of your balance, at which point you’ll find out that they charge an additional 5% for credit card use and the nearest ATM is a 20 minute cab ride in the direction you just came from. While you curse the credit transaction and your significant other bugs you for money so she can buy an “I slept on a junk boat” tshirt, you will second guess your decision to go on this overpriced tourist spectacle. I hear ya.
These junk boats are not all created equal. At all. Not even close. The only two viable options if you want to be comfortable and/or not sink into the abyss:
1. book a private small junk boat for you and your group (4-10 people max for most of these boats). With this option you can bypass the popular tourist stops. You will also have the delight of the captain cooking you traditional mouth-watering Vietnamese dishes, as opposed to the poorly executed ‘American’ dishes you will eat on the larger and more commercialized boats (think: cold ‘french fries’ with fish sauce). This more intimate option is only good for groups who really enjoy one another’s company, as these boats are quite compact.
2. If you’re looking for more of a structured trip – then the only other option is the Indochina Junk Boat called “Dragon Legend”. If the name doesn’t say it all then keep reading. Dragon Legend is the most expensive boat, and for good reason. This mahogany majesty has enormous guest rooms with gorgeous crown molding, intricate detailing and a soaking tub along a giant window. The boat feels clean and new, yet holds onto an old world charm. Picture the state room in the Titanic. It’s nothing like that, but if you replaced Kate Winslet with a tour guide named Huang and you swapped all the victorian decorations with carvings of dragons and oriental bedspreads, well you’d be pretty damn close. Speaking of the host, he really loves to call his guests ‘vip persons’, which for some reason I found slightly amusing. The Dragon Legend is like a small cruise ship. Breakfast buffet, 10 course sit down lunch and dinner included (alcohol is separate). After dinner the host will sing to you. I’m not going to elaborate, but I encourage you to leave me a comment after you experience it. There are scheduled activities, like morning tai chi on the roof, kayaking at 2 and swim time at 4. You’ll get a walking tour of an island cave, free kayak use and a tour guide who loves taking photos for you.
|Lunch with quite the view
Did I like the experience?
– It was cold out, and therefore we couldn’t swim or enjoy the sun deck and pool.
-Single file lines, life vests and group photos make me cringe.
-I discourage anyone from ever booking a massage aboard the Dragon Legend.
-The food was great the first lunch and got progressively worse… and there was just so much of it …and so much wasted (or, gulp, reused).
Yet, I am really glad that I went. The bay is stunning.. and a once in a life time, can’t open your eyes wide enough to take it all in, kind of experience. The boat was similarly spectacular, and I’ll forever remember that delightful bubble bathe. I made some new friends, laughed heartily at dinner, enjoyed a glass of wine at sunset, and kayaked around a UNESCO world heritage site. Yes, it was most definitely worth it.