If you’re headed to Vietnam you’ll for sure hear about Halong Bay. The cluster of 3000! islands off the coast of Vietnam draws people from all over the world for overnight cruises on junks – they range from the beautiful little sailboats you’ll see on post cards to (smaller) cruise ships. We heard from other travelers how disappointing it was to see the pollution in Halong Bay. While we were curious to scope out the environmental degradation, we desperately wanted to swim. So we skipped Halong and booked a junk that took us to Bai tu Long Bay, further out into the islands, where less tourists venture.
There are endless companies running seemingly similar trips, but we chose Indochina Junk. We booked on their ten-person boat – I was most excited about the promised visit with a pearl harvester in a floating village. The night before we were warned that there was a fire safety issue with the boat, so they were going to have to upgrade us at no additional charge to their five star boat. We had no problem with that! The whole operation was well run and so organized, from our transport in a luxury van, so the maestro “Kenny” who recapped the group on the schedule after every activity and shamelessly offered every cheesy joke in the book, to the warm towels we were handed when we got out of the water. The rooms were luxurious with hardwood floors, bathtub, giant window on the water, crisp AC, and the comfiest bed we’ve had in all our travels. The boat had a top deck for lounging and for tai chi – which we enjoyed at 6:30am under light rain and dramatic clouds – a simple exercise room on the back deck, and a small pool! The multi-course meals were delicious and gave us a taste of all ends of Vietnamese cuisine. The crew were so professional and clearly a product of a well run company.
We were taking it all in, reluctantly easing into the luxury (cruise ships are not our natural environment), admiring the rock walls covered in dense forest that we were coasting by. But when we anchored next to a fishing village – maybe seven small boats tethered together, each with what looked like a makeshift room on each, a few people milling about with great balance – it really sunk in. The juxtaposition of our bloated, gaudy, gold-encrusted cruise ship next to people who make a living catching fish and lack basic necessities like medical facilities, toilets, and schooling, made us feel very guilty and like we were missing out on a more authentic experience. Could we have stayed with them we wondered? Didn’t look like it, but maybe at one of the larger villages. One positive thing that we learned was that the tour boats will buy their seafood directly from the fishermen. We also learned that the government wants the villagers to move on land, but the families that are multi-generationally bound to the sea choose to stay out there.
We unfortunately did not get to visit a fishing village or oyster harvester, as we were a group of 30+, but we did get to kayak with the group and on our own. At one point we both had a surge of “oh shit I think we went too far,” but we eventually turned a corner and found our group, fewf. The best part was swimming toward the end of the day when the cloudy sky made the green water a calm, smoky color. After a few minutes of floating on the surface, listening to the crackling of shell life, feeling the cool current move around us, we emerged refreshed and relaxed. Our boat did offer nighttime squid fishing! We were so excited about it, but ended up face planting on the bed with lights and clothes still on. Luckily, we woke up in time for morning tai chi.
For someone that wants a night of luxury, no planning, and does not immediately gag at the idea of a cruise – organized meals and activities and all – I would certainly recommend this company. If we were to do this trip again, we would for sure book on a smaller boat (Indochina has a private boat for just a little more money) or seek out a homestay experience (Ethnic Travel was another group we were looking into). Though Bai tu Long Bay was not as remote an experience as we assumed from blogs (we saw other boats the whole time) it was still jaw-droppingly beautiful.