Beautiful Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam

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Even with an overcast sky and a bit of mist blurring the tops of the karsts, there’s no mistaking the magnificence of Bai Tu Long Bay, in northern Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

My friend Susan and I took a fascinating two-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia in March. Here’s another post about our experiences.

A trip to Vietnam wouldn’t be complete without a relaxing cruise on one of its beguiling bays. Halong Bay, a UNESCO world heritage site since 1994, is the most famous.

We opted for a slightly different route, choosing a cruise on Bai Tu Long Bay, northeast of the more congested Halong, but with the same spectacular scenery: towering karsts as far as the eye can see.

More than 2,000 of these vegetation-covered limestone islets dot the water in the bays (part of the larger Gulf of Tonkin). My guidebook says that Halong translates as “where the dragon descends into the sea.” So visualize a dragon, its lengthy body submerged, but its somewhat triangular, spiky back appendages jutting skyward out of the water and you’ll have an idea of the landscape.

We made our decision to cruise Bai Tu Long Bay based on the fact that it has far less boat traffic and cleaner, clearer water than Halong Bay, which, unfortunately, is paying the price for its popularity, with pollution taking a toll. I’ve seen articles that estimate 500 or more ships ply the waters of Halong Bay.

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On our three-day, two-night cruise, we saw few other ships on Bai Tu Long Bay. The ones we did see were generally small, belonged to fishermen or the occasional vendor in a rowboat selling souvenirs.

Many companies vie for the almighty tourist dollar, and offer similar schedules and activities. Costs range from the super budget to the “I can’t believe I paid that much money” for a top-end ship. I spent more time researching this leg of our journey than any other, checking prices, itineraries and safety record of 11 companies.

Knowing we’d be sleeping two nights on board, I wanted to make sure that the steel ship we picked, the Dragon Legend 2, had a good safety record, and that the company we contracted with, Indochina Junk, had a good reputation.

As it turned out, this was one of those “you get what you pay for experiences,” and we were extremely pleased with the result. The 24-cabin ship was well-appointed, the food smashing and our fellow cruisers an interesting bunch.

We met lots of Canadians, a few Aussies and Brits, one German couple, one Danish couple and one American family. (The ship was not booked to capacity.) The staff worked very hard to make sure everyone was comfortable and having a grand time.

Let me digress for a moment to discuss the overall duration of the trip. On the three-day, two-night itinerary, the total time on board is about 48 hours. It takes nearly four hours to get to the ship, so about half the day is gone by the time you embark.

The second day is a full day on board, and on the third day, passengers disembark about 11:30 a.m. The lengthy drive back is interrupted for about a half-hour at Yen Duc village so passengers can watch a traditional water-puppet show, and also stops at the same multimedia workshop visited on the way to the bay.

Arrival back at your Hanoi hotel is sometime around 5 p.m. So time on the ship is really two half-days and one full day. The two-day, one-night itinerary has the same travel time to and from the ship and is, in reality, about 24 hours total on board.

Some companies also offer a “day” trip. Again, with the same amount of travel time at each end, time on board a ship is only a couple of hours. Obviously, passengers will see the karsts but with the hurried itinerary, the overall enjoyment will probably be limited.

And I can’t stress highly enough to research a company’s safety record, though, even then, there are no guarantees.

In the morning hours of May 6, the top two decks of a luxury Aphrodite Cruises ship were fully engulfed in flames, causing many of its 37 passengers to jump into the water as it was returning to the dock from a Halong Bay cruise. A kitchen fire is suspected as the cause. According to various news reports, all passengers were quickly rescued and three were treated for the injuries. The boat sank.

The cruise line said on its website that the wooden ship was not equipped with an “automatic fire-fighting system.”

In February 2011, 12 people, including two Americans, died when an anchored boat, the Bo Mien (Dream of the Ocean), on which they were sleeping, sank in Halong Bay. The BBC reported that the AZ Queen Company was fined $700, and was suspended from doing business.

Furthermore, in the wake of the Aphrodite Cruises fire, VN Express International reported that the local authorities in Quang Ninh province want all wooden ships sailing Halong and Bai Tu Long bays to be replaced by steel ships within the next 15 years. And it wants to ban the ships from staying overnight in the bays.

In that overnight cruises bring in so much revenue, I doubt this possible ban will become reality.

Now, back to our cruise. We were picked up promptly at 7:30 a.m. by a driver and a representative from Indochina Junk. Two people were already in the minivan, and we picked up two more after us. Once the six of us were collected, the rep departed and we were off.

The air-conditioned “luxury” van was as advertised: Two sets of two facing seats and a bench seat in back that could accommodate three or four people. The van was equipped with Wi-Fi and a supply of bottled water. It was, by the way, a Ford.

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Workshop artists spent many hours sewing this embroidery of villagers harvesting a rice crop.

A couple of hours into the drive from Hanoi to Hon Gai pier, we had a planned stop at an artists’ workshop that employs people with disabilities. It was a shopping opportunity that no one capitalized on and a restroom/snack/stretch-your-legs stop too. Among the items for sale: embroidery, stone carving, lacquerware and jewelry.

A French-Canadian couple who had been traveling since January and a couple from Ontario, Canada, shared our van, and the long journey gave us plenty of time to swap travel stories: Where we’d been, what we’d done, what we would recommend, etc.

Overall, the road was good. Once outside Hanoi, the scenery quickly changed from urban to rural. Lots of rice paddies — this being the offseason, more brown than green — occasional villages with modest living quarters and concrete buildings.

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The Dragon Legend 1 (above) is identical to our ship, the Dragon Legend 2.

At the pier, those who hadn’t paid in full did so. Then each passenger was given a life jacket, we boarded our tender boat and were taken out to the DL2. A welcoming glass of hot, sweet lemon grass-ginger tea was served while our tour leader, “Kenny,” outlined the available activities and went over the safety procedures.

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Cabin 201, our home for two nights, as we cruised Bai Tu Long Bay.

Meanwhile, our luggage was being delivered. We had about a half-hour to settle into wood-paneled cabin No. 201 before lunch. In addition to two single beds, we had a small table and two chairs set beside the big picture window. The bathroom had a large round tub next to a window and a separate shower. We also had a flat-screen TV, ample closet space and a mini-safe.

We were asked about allergies and food preferences when we booked the tour, so things I don’t eat, such as prawns and crab, were replaced by chicken, tofu or vegetables. Each time our waiter brought me substitute dishes, he said, as he set down the plate: “Prepared special for you.” Indeed.

The lunch menu:

Appetizers

Spicy and sour seafood soup

Chef’s green salad with lime dressing

Main courses

Steamed prawns with lemon grass and garlic

Deep-fried crab paste ball van don-style

Chicken with goji berries and lotus seeds

Hue royal steamed sea bass with spring onion

Steamed fragrant rice

Dessert

Fresh fruit

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Chicken with goji berries and lotus seeds was one of the main courses for our first meal on the Dragon Legend 2.

Action-packed days were catching up with me. I was feeling “off” when I left home, I didn’t sleep on the overnight flight via Seoul, South Korea, to Hanoi, and I hadn’t slept well for three nights in Hanoi. So after lunch, I retired to our cabin at about 3 p.m., pretty close to exhaustion.

I asked Susan to check on me at dinnertime, but if I was asleep not to wake me. Fortunately, the ship was smooth-sailing, the bed deeply soft and comfortable, and the cabin quiet. One of the staff called around 6 p.m. to ask if I would like to have dinner brought to the cabin.  I declined.  I slept for about 16 hours, and felt much better at breakfast the next morning.

While I slept, Susan went on one of the tender boats for a closer look at the karsts. Some other passengers went kayaking. Before dinner, Susan attended a cooking demonstration where Vietnamese spring rolls were prepared.

I’ll write about the second and third days aboard the DL2 in my next post.

Quick reference: Indochina Junk, www.indochina-junk.com; direct link to Dragon Legend ships: www.dragonlegendcruise.com The four-deck Dragon Legend 1 and Dragon Legend 2 are identical ships, built in 2013-14. Each has 24 cabins (maximum of 48 guests), staff of 35, outdoor and indoor restaurants, two bars, a pool, fitness area and a spa.

I booked directly with the company on its website. Price depends on length of cruise and time of year. Be sure to check for available promotions/early booking specials. A downpayment is required. Read the refund policy, and other information on the website closely. Cruises are sometimes canceled, rerouted or shortened because of poor weather, especially during the summer monsoon season. Purchasing travel insurance is a good idea.

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