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. This is the seventh post in the series about our experiences.
We could have started our mornings with the 7:30 sessions of tai chi on the top deck of the Dragon Legend 2, but instead of practicing a succession of slow controlled movements, we got a boost from strong coffee in the bar area of the dining room.
At breakfast, everyone gravitated to the same group of tables they’d sat at the previous day, and this pattern continued for the rest of the trip. This meant that we had a chance for in-depth conversation with a couple from Denmark and a Canadian couple who live near Toronto.
We alternated among three tables, so everyone had an opportunity to sit nearest the window and enjoy the Bai Tu Long Bay scenery as we dined.
I stuck with a Western breakfast of juice, toast and eggs. Susan was more adventurous and had a big bowl of pho ga, the chicken version of pho, the famous Vietnamese dish of rice noodles in broth, sometimes served with beef.
Our first activity of the day was to go by rowboat to visit Vung Vieng, a floating fishing village. Many of Indochina Junk’s itineraries include this stop. (The crew was rigorous in making sure that each time we left the DL2, everyone was wearing a life vest.)
A woman in a conical straw hat stood at the stern of our rowboat, her purple-gloved hands expertly guiding the oars, delivering a smooth, gentle glide on a coolish, drizzly morning.
A black scarf partially covered her face, and she wore a knee-length gray coat and black trousers. A young German couple who spoke English were in the rowboat with us.
Before long, our little flotilla of DL2 passengers arrived at the fishing village. The few people who were there paid us no mind and went about their business.
We walked along the worn planked decks, got a look at a schoolroom (furnished with an Australian school’s aid), some sparsely furnished living quarters and a room with a display of implements used in the fishing industry.
The schoolroom’s lesson on the chalkboard included English translation of the word “ma,” which, depending on the accent, has at least six meanings, including “ghost,” “mother” and “rice.” It also featured the requisite framed picture of Ho Chi Minh.
(The Dragon Legend website says the village is more a “museum” now, indicating that safety and educational regulations require former residents to live on land. Maybe it was referring to the buildings that we walked around because the other houses we saw on the water were definitely inhabited.)
Our visit was brief, and we climbed carefully back into our rowboat. A light rain was falling, and our pilot gave each of us a conical hat that matched hers to keep our head and face dry.
She maneuvered us into tiny coves and up close to the limestone karsts, an excellent opportunity for photos.
Among my favorite of the whole trip: A young fisherman, solo in his boat, with his feet on his oars to row, thus freeing his hands to cast his fish-catching equipment into the water.
With no mechanical sounds of any vehicle nearby and calm water, this interlude was pleasingly peaceful and sublimely scenic.
We also made a stop at a pearl-growing area, where we witnessed a specialist inserting tiny seeds into oysters, in which gems will eventually grow. In the next room, pearls set as jewelry were available for purchase. Thankfully, the sales pitch wasn’t overly aggressive and the stop was short.
The whole outing took only about an hour, and we returned to the Dragon Legend 2.
Barbecue lunch was scheduled to be on the beach of Thien Canh Son Island, but because of the rain, it was relocated to the island’s cave. This delighted me no end, because when I had originally researched Indochina Junk’s itineraries, I wanted to book its ship that features a meal in a cave, but couldn’t because of a schedule conflict.
Tender boats delivered us from the ship to the beach. Cautiously, we climbed 100 steep, winding steps to the entrance. The cave isn’t one of the largest — the ones in Halong Bay and other locations in national parks have that distinction — but what it lacked in size it more than made up for in ambiance.
The crew had elegantly laid the cloth-covered tables with china, glassware, silverware and candles. They set up the barbecues in a covered area that overlooked the bay, so the smoke wafted in that direction.
On the menu (kudos to Susan for writing this down): barbecued ribs, spicy squid, gigantic grilled prawn (“that was delicious and tasted like lobster,” she reported), chicken wings, grilled fish (“very mild”) and veggie rice.
After our leisurely meal, we were given the choice of exploring the beach, or later going kayaking. Because it was still raining lightly, we returned to the Dragon Legend 2 and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon.
Dinner was another multicourse menu, which unfortunately I didn’t get a copy of. The chefs went all-out with the table decorations, carving intricate floral designs into small, oblong watermelons and fashioning flowers, birds and a dragon from other fruits and vegetables. A bouquet of “roses” was in reality crafted from beets.
The Canadian couple we were sitting with was celebrating an anniversary, and the staff had prepared a small chocolate cake. It was cut into petite pieces and shared throughout the dining room, a nice touch to end a pleasant day.
On our last morning, we again had coffee before breakfast. Knowing there would be a full lunch service before we departed the ship, I ate lightly.
Checkout of our cabin was at 10 a.m., so, as instructed, we put our luggage in the hall for staff to collect and organize to be brought back to shore.
We went onto the top deck to take more pictures, and I tried to mentally store the images in my “memory palace.” As mentioned previously, Bai Tu Long Bay isn’t crowded, and though we did see other boats, they appeared mostly to be fishing vehicles, though one woman selling souvenirs rowed up to the side of the DL2.
Lunch was an inviting buffet. The menu:
Vietnamese salad with carrot sauce
Seafood spring roll
Pan-fried shrimp with aloe leaves
Grilled fish with banana leaves, served with tomato sauce
Indochina Junk’s traditional beef on a sizzler plate
Vietnamese eggplant with prawns in a clay pot
Stir-fried seasonal vegetables
Steamed fragrant rice
Seasonal fresh fruit
We arrived at Hon Gai pier at about 11:30 a.m. and boarded our vans to begin the trip back to Hanoi.
The stop at Yen Duc village for the water puppet show was about 30 minutes.
Water puppetry is an ancient Vietnamese performing art, dating to the 11th century. It is said to have originated in flooded rice paddies of the Red River Delta. The paddies could partially hide both the puppeteers and the long horizontal bamboo poles used to manipulate the puppets.
The village “stage” we saw was more of a square pond in front of a bamboo curtain. We only saw the puppeteers in their bib coverall waders when they came out to take a bow after the performance.
The brightly colored puppets — animals, dragons, human figures — are made of lacquered wood, and because of the repeated exposure to water, don’t last more than a few months, my guidebook says.
The show had musical accompaniment with traditional instruments and some explanations about the brief acts, which dramatize myths, legends and ordinary village life. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make out most of the narration and instead just concentrated on watching the dragons and other puppets darting from side to side.
(Visitors who want to see a water puppet show but aren’t stopping at Yen Duc village can book at theaters in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.)
We were dropped off at our hotel late in the afternoon, having thoroughly enjoyed our cruise experience.
Scheduling it in the early part of our trip turned out to be a wise move in that we were able to rest and recharge for the busy days ahead in Cambodia.
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.
Price depends on length of cruise and time of year. Be sure to check for available promotions/early booking specials. 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.
Oct. 31, 2016 addendum: The option of dining in a cave is no more, at the Thien Cahn Son cave where Indochina Junk ships stop in Bai Tu Long Bay, or anywhere else on Halong Bay. Citing concerns about possible damage to the landscape and natural environment, Quang Ninh Province authorities, specifically the People’s Committee of Halong Bay, announced in September that by the end of October, all tour companies must drop this feature. Indochina Junk’s itineraries have replaced the cave-dining experience with a chance to have lunch on a beach.