No, this is not a mythological story as the title suggests. Dragons play a vital role in Vietnamese culture. They believe that the Jade Emperor requested mother dragon and her children to descend from the heaven and protect Vietnamese from the invaders, who were rushing to the shore in a herd of boats. Dragons ejected a torrent of pearls, which turned into thousands of rocky islands on the sea creating random barricades to block the invader’s boats. The place where Mother Dragon arrived is known as “Ha Long Bay” and where Child Dragons arrived as “Bai Tu Long Bay”. Ha Long has taller limestone islands compared to Bai Tu Long’s shorter ones.
Ha Long Bay was a long pending destination in our family holidays list and it was time to tick it off. We landed at Hanoi, the beautiful capital city of Vietnam. Hanoi was continuously bombed during the Vietnam War and Christmas Bombing of 1972 remains a dark spot in the history. One can visit the Old Quarter to witness buildings and town planning with French influence. In 1999, UNESCO presented Hanoi with the title City for Peace, and in 2019, it joined UNESCOs Network of Creative Cities.
We decided to spend a few days in Hanoi before our visit to Ha Long. We did an Airbnb on arrival in Hanoi. Our host was well disposed and spoke fluent English, unlike most Vietnamese. Her assistance initially and availability on phone later, helped us overcome our teething problems and navigate our stay in Vietnam. It is advisable to buy a local SIM card at the airport; it may be difficult in the city. The best and economical mode of travel in Hanoi is GRAB. Our host had advised us to set a location on Grab manually with a shop number on the street, which is easy to locate and this way Grab arrives exactly where you are waiting. This helps save time and effort for everyone.
Our first outing in Hanoi was the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, a rich collection of heritage and socio-cultural diversity. Showcased here are 54 different ethnic groups of Vietnam. They have a guided tour in Vietnamese, French and English. You get a glimpse of the lifestyle, culture and glory of Vietnamese people living in different regions. The outdoor exhibits are replicas of a variety of Vietnamese homes with varying architecture. The water puppet show hosted in the late afternoon is an experience one should not miss. Ensure that the timings of guided tour and water puppet show do not clash with each other.
Hmong's rich tradition of hemp weaving is displayed at Ethnology museum.
A walk in the Old Quarter is a nice way to explore Hanoi. A walk on Hoan Kiem Lake periphery is relaxing and takes you away from the noise and buzzing city life. You can walk across the iconic Huc Bridge (Rising Sun Bridge) to reach Jade Island and Ngoc Son Temple (Pagoda) in middle of the lake. You can spend a relaxed time watching the local customs performed by Vietnamese people. The weekend night market in the Old Quarter, between Hang Dao Street and Dong Xuan Market is an all-night spectacle equally enjoyed by the locals with their families. We got good bargains on street purchases thanks to our local host who accompanied us. We then enjoyed local performances on the street while having a favorite Vietnamese desert, Sweet Soup. Exploring Hanoi with a local is a unique experience as you get immersed in their culture, which is what we were interested in; not the typical touristy agenda. We also visited the 100+ years old ancient Vietnamese 2-story tube house located at 87 Ma May Street in the Old Quarters. It is beautifully restored with North Vietnamese urban architecture. Ma May Street translates into Rattan Street where Rattan was traded in the ancient time. Each street in the Old Quarter is named after the goods sold in that street. There are many restaurants to explore in the Old Quarter that serve local and continental food.
A Bedroom in more than 100 years old ancient house in traditional Vietnamese architecture.
One of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ha Long Bay is the most popular tourist attraction in Vietnam. The best way to visit Ha Long Bay is either on a cruise boat or in a Seaplane. If it is your first visit then I would recommend taking a cruise boat. Please note I say boat and not ship because one does not see the popular cruise liners of Caribbean, Mediterranean, Singapore. Since ancient time, junk boats have been used hence many cruise lines call their boats Junk and make it look like that from outside with luxurious interiors.
Please do your own research as there are many operators offering a variety of cruise experiences. I was extremely cautious while choosing our cruise after reviewing the abundant positive and negative reviews. Operators have also gamed platforms like Tripadvisor with hundreds of fake 5-star reviews. I soon realized that budget couldnt be a constraint when planning this experience. Many operators offer packages for about $50-$60 a night, but I would rather skip Ha Long than travel for completely compromised experience. I have heard from acquaintances that many cruise companies (mostly newbies) cancel the tour at the last moment if they are not optimally booked citing reasons like boat maintenance or breakdown. For those who have experienced gigantic cruises before, you know $300 a night is a big thing. But in Vietnam, this is the cost of an experience of a lifetime in Ha Long Bay.
With the operator finalized, I needed to choose between a day trip, 1 or 2 nights. The longer the trip the costlier it is. Also, the boats are heavily piled up in Ha Long Bay like bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highway. When the boat anchors in the middle of nowhere in the evening and you step out, you see a bucket-load of tourists all around. You are literally rubbing shoulders when you go for offshore activities.
There are many things to know before visiting Ha Long Bay. Considering all these aspects, we decided to do the 2-nights cruise with a highly reputed operator that sails off the beaten path. Believe me, you wont enjoy the entire experience if you choose a shorter trip. The cruise liner we selected was the only company that had permission to sail in Bai Tu Long Bay. I advise to re-confirm the latest status. They not only have one of the best Junks around but also have their privately leased islands where they host the barbeque. We were a family of 3 hence needed two rooms, which was heavy on my wallet. They offered us a suite on the upper deck with one lavish bedroom and an adjoining small room and two separate bathrooms. The entire boat had about 22 rooms with about 50 odd tourists. They have their own private terminal from where you embark your journey instead of the busy Bai Chay terminal flooded with boats.
Hotel pickup in 7-seater pickup van from Hanoi as part of their package worked well for us. It is a 5-hour drive from Hanoi with a stopover for food. They have a seamless process in place to walk tourists through the formalities and briefing of the tour. We were then chauffeured to the boat terminal and from there further to the cruise boat on two smaller boats; which was a 10-minute ride. Those boats remained with our ship as we had many activities planned for the next couple of days. Boarding and room allotment was done efficiently and as promised.
The Cruise is waiting to welcome us aboard.
Once onboard, our activities began with a welcome drink and safety demonstrations. This was followed by a lavish lunch on the outer deck with a breathtaking view of a thousand karsts while the boat maneuvered through limestone karsts at a snails pace; a spellbound experience! While booking the tour, you can specify your food preference, which will be catered to along with the other regular cuisines on offer. It was a relaxed, 5-course lunch in the most stunning environment of age-old karsts at a stones throw away. Adequate spacing between the tables provided privacy also. The suite allocated to us was a pleasant surprise! We never imagined such a lavish arrangement in such a small boat. We soon realized our choice of operator was bang on and worth every penny, as everything was high quality with 5-star amenities. We were all set to be pampered.
View from our suite while the ship navigates through limestone karsts.
We were handed a detailed schedule for the 3-day tour including on board and offshore activities. It was well planned with a perfect balance of activities and free time to enjoy the cruise to the fullest. We had an exhilarating kayaking activity that evening. For the more delicate, there is the option to board the boat to the beach. Navigating the kayak between the limestone karsts is an experience in itself; occasionally peeking into small caves inside the karsts. Majority of these islands and beaches are deserted so it is important to stay close together. One of the solo travelers ventured out on his own, climbed up the rock and got stuck between the cactus plants. At dusk, it was time to leave for the ship and during headcount; the crewmembers realized that one person was missing. The crew searched for the traveler, sounded sirens etc. but there was no response. There was a tense atmosphere among the crewmembers as the safety of tourists was their responsibility. Also, after a recent boat capsize incident, the government has very stringent rules regarding safety of tourists. The crewmembers started relaying SOS messages through their wireless handsets. About 30 minutes later we spotted the gentleman waving his hands from the top of the rock as he managed to escape from the cactus, with bruises all around his body. We all heaved a sigh of relief.
Kayaking in Bai Tu Long Bay is a different experience.
After an eventful evening, we returned to our luxurious suite. Soon, it was dinner time, which was an extravagant affair with music, disco and karaoke. The ship had anchored for the night and we were going to spend our entire night in the middle of nowhere. It was time to lie down on the sun deck, and, in Van Morrisons words Smell the sea, feel the sky, let your soul and spirit fly. We were up early the next day to catch the sunrise, but unfortunately, the clouds hid the sun from us that day.
The view of limestone karsts at dawn with sunrays sneaking through the clouds.
Breakfast that morning was elaborate with both Vietnamese and continental cuisines. The days schedule was to visit a floating village followed by pearl farm. We headed out in smaller boats towards the 19th century Vung Vieng floating village in the center of Bai Tu Long Bay. This village is the most authentic and ecologically aware among the four floating villages. Until a few years ago there used to be 50 families with about 300 residents living in the village, out of which 100 were children. Their livelihood largely depended on the rich marine reserves of the bay. However, the government initiated the process of moving them inland for the benefit of future generations. Today, there are a handful of families living there who service travelers seeking an authentic experience and understanding of their life and rich culture. Next was the tour of pearl farm where they make artificial pearl by Oyster seeding.
Vung Vieng floating village tour in smaller rowing boats in Bai Tu Long bay.
Upon return, we had another exceptional experience planned, an exclusive barbeque lunch at their private beach. A private party on a secluded island with the most sumptuous barbeque and a glass of champagne, is it not picture perfect? Well, that was our reality that afternoon!
A picture-perfect location for our beachside barbecue lunch.
We took a short nap after the party and then had planned activities like squid fishing, kayaking, etc. The sea was a bit rough hence we preferred to kayak circling the karst where we had anchored. We spent an hour kayaking through small caves and marveling at the beauty of Mother Nature. Being our last evening on the cruise, special cooking classes were organized for those interested in Vietnamese culinary culture. The art of carving vegetables and fruits was also demonstrated. The dish you cooked during the classes was served to your family at the dinner. The magical evening ended with an impressive musical and dance performance by the entire crew. We were amazed at the multitalented crew members!
A beautiful evening at Bai Tu Long Bay, how I see it from my kayak.
I am fond of capturing sunrise and sunset but it seems Helios wished otherwise because the next morning was again a cloudy, drizzly day. Being an optimist, I reconciled with reality and instead captured some amazing shots of cloudy sky and rough sea before we had an early lunch and headed back to the boat terminal to disembark. We were happy as we had figured out how to have the best trip to Vietnam.
A cloudy morning panorama of millions of years old karst formations at Bai Tu Long Bay.
The package included a visit to a Vietnamese village on our way back to Hanoi. The main attraction in the village was a water puppet show, which we decided to skip and took a private drop-off at the terminal for an extra $50. This was a wise decision as we spent a good 8 hours exploring Old quarter before heading to the airport.