Travel Musings: Halong Bay 2017 With Treasure Junk (하롱베이)

In between my time in Hanoi I didn't want to pass up an opportunity to see Halong Bay. As with any major tourist attraction, there are multiple tour operators that do tours with the option for one to choose to experience the bay for a few days, an over night trip, and even a day trip. I'd heard many say one night two days was enough and after a recommendation via a friend (thanks Tiff!) I booked an overnight trip through Treasure Junk.

The quality of these Halong Bay cruises can vary greatly not only in terms of the condition of the ships used but some really try and jam pack people in making one feel like herded sheep. The reviews online for Treasure Junk was not only fantastic but it got the thumbs up from my friend too. I paid around 177 USD for my one night two day trip which was inclusive of the shuttle, meals, and private room (drinks are separate).

Treasure Junk's tour operator are called Handspan and booking online was very easy, quick, and superb service. Their actual office in downtown Hanoi is where you meet early in the morning before departing around 8 AM for the docks in Hai Phong which took roughly an hour.

The docks are busy in the morning as this is where the numerous tours board their ferry shuttle to their respective cruise ships. While waiting at the docks there's a small convenience store/mart that sells simple snacks, drinks, and items like bug repellent, sun screen etc. Though the prices here are just slightly marked up, as a tip, you can purchase drinks here rather than paying the even more marked up drink prices on the cruise which is what I did by purchasing a few Ha Long beers and storing in my backpack :)

When it gets time to board your shuttle ferry you'll all hop aboard a small ship and do a 10 minute ride or so to your cruise ship.

Once inside the staff gave us a simple overview of the boat and then handed out our room keys.

The rooms are on the basement floor and away from the main dining and hang out area which was nice to give those who wanted to rest in their rooms some peace and quiet. I was pleasantly surprised at how spacious the room was which was very tidy and clean as well.

The bed was big and comfortable, the windows lovely to gaze out of, and the bathroom was as nice as a hotel's with plenty of hot water.

The rooms are also air conditioner-equipped.

While the private rooms are in the floor below, climbing the stairs up will take you to the main dining room/hangout quarters. It’s quite spacious with plenty of windows to take in the surroundings.

You can also step out to the sides to make use of the chairs and tables or you can go another story up, outside, to the ship’s deck where rows of sun beds are found for those who prefer a bit of tanning, book reading, etc.

For the first few hours, the boat chugs full on and because so many other boats have departed from the same bay around the same time, it’s not exactly the private-surrounded-by-islands kind of view that Halong Bay is perhaps best known for. Despite being massive in size, the main touristic portion of the Bay lies within the 1 day distance as many choose the overnighter trip. If you want to really enjoy the Bay in its more natural and private state, it's recommended you do one of the longer trips out.

One thing I did appreciate about Treasure Junk, however, was that even though I was on an overnighter trip, they had their own course which took the ship away from the others for the vast majority of the trip. Even when it docked for the night, the ship was alone in the sea which was truly a memorable experience. But more on that later .

"Halong" means "descending dragon" with the many islands said to resemble the curves of a dragon in the water. "Bay" gives a smaller impression than truly how enormous it is and it's quite amazing to see so many islands of so many different shapes dotting out in every direction. You can read a bit more about the legend revolving around the bay here.

To be honest though, after a while the initial novelty dies down and I admittedly felt a bit bored at first. I didn't realize how dependent on being connected online I was until getting on the boat where, with no internet reception in the ba, I was wondering what to do with the time until I realized this was a great opportunity to just break off from the digital aspects of life and just be. Just sitting on the deck and watching the various islands pass I was surprised at how long it seemed to have been since I just sat and just let things be. We don't really take the time these days to just reflect and contemplate but hey, why not at such a picturesque location? .

As the ship continued to make its way away from the bay, it was soon time for lunch. When it comes to these kinds of arranged tours the food is usually average (at best) so I had low, low expectation for the food but I was very pleasantly surprised.

For every meal they would set out folded napkins, plates, wet towels, etc giving it a bit of upscale touch. I was expecting a canteen-style buffet of reheated food for the meals so this sort of extra step gave the impression they really cared to offer an experience, even if it was only for two days. They also cater to dietary needs/restrictions so long as you let them know in advance.

Our lunch menu.

Condiments provided on the side.

Starting off with a very flavorful hot and sour seafood soup. Very fresh seafood and you can tell the herbs are freshly chopped as well. Great way to perk up the appetite at the beginning of the meal.

I'm sure the proximity to the ocean helps but the seafood dishes were very fresh and delightful in every way.

Can't go wrong with a nice bun cha and these were nice. The rolls were still hot from their fresh frying, greens were fresh. Yum-o.

 After lunch, there was a bit of free time and many took the time to go up to the deck outside to take in the scenery. The various islands and rock formations are quite nice to look at and the way each of them are shaped so differently is quite interesting.

In the afternoon, we had the chance to also take a short kayak trip. In pairs, we boarded our kayaks and followed our guide as we had the chance to see the islands up even closer. Being away from the cruise ship, there's something very nice about paddling out on the ocean with only the rhythmic sound of your rows pushing against the water.

 As the sun sets, the silhouette of the islands gives it an entirely different feel from the day. Add to that the dawning realization of just how ancient this area is and how it will continue to be long after I'm gone from this earth *insert movie mood music*.

Just before dinner, there was another activity time where they taught how to make spring rolls. All the ingredients are prepped so it's essentially a session where we function as a spring roll making factory for them to fry later on but hey, these sort of activities are always fun.

Coming back down to the dining area for dinner, I initially thought it was coincidental that of our entire group of 10 or so people, all but two (including myself) were all couples. Then came dinner time and I began to realize my tour seemed to be popular with the romantic pairs as evidenced by our dinner set-up. In our entire group all but two individuals (myself included) were couples so it was a bit awkward having dinner with this nice girl from Mexico who I had met that day and who also had a boyfriend haha. But we had a good chat and enjoying the meal while watching the last lights of the day reflecting off the islands was a treat.

 Dinner, unlike lunch, was a buffet which I forgot to snap a picture of but there were hot trays of a range of dishes, all of which were delightful.

 My plate. Can you tell I love rice? They had a variety of drinks including wine and cocktails available for purchase.

After dinner it was just free time although they did have a small optional activity for those who wanted to try their hand at squid fishing via the deck. Though the squid were supposed to be attracted to the light, no one in our group caught anything. :(

They also played a movie (Top Gun? Independence Day) in the dining area with the bar open for people who wanted to purchase drinks but I was tired from the day and retired to my room to enjoy the beers from earlier :)

By this time the ship parks in a secluded area (no other boats around) and with the main motor engine off, you can hear the sounds of the bay much clearer. Cracking open my room window, I busted out the Halong Bay beers I purchased on land and just watched in awe of the stars, the dark silhouettes of the huge islands, the gentle waves lapping around. Obviously no pictures but it was personally one of the most memorable times I still think back on fondly.

 Early in the morning there was another optional activity where one could do an early morning yoga session on the deck. Obviously I don't have any pictures of it but I did drag my tired and non-flexible body out to the deck to do so. Taking the time to stretch the body, get the blood flowing, and centering the mind, soul, and heart amid the fog-draped islands was also a special experience.

It got me thinking that although thousands of folks like me pass through this bay with a desire to fulfill our own travel desires and memories, we are the visitors to the ancient land and not the other way around. Who knows if I will ever visit this bay again but I'm grateful I had the opportunity to do so.

Breakfast was very simple with some simple breads and fruit. Compared to the other meals it was a bit uninspiring but it was passable.

 At least the views, again, were amazing.

For our last activity, we had a chance to board a few row boats to visit a local fishing village as well as a pearl farm.

As a tourist hotspot it’s easy to forget that, before the throngs of daily photo-snapping tourists, Halong Bay was home to centuries of communities who spent the majority of their lives right here. So it was nice that we had a chance to peek into their lives and be able to support them.

For our tour, we boarded smaller paddle boats that were rowed by some of the women and men of the local fishing villages. By utilizing members of the local community, it gives them an opportunity to raise their income, an excellent decision on Handspan's part.

Hats to shield us from the sun.

Even though it's still a boat, there's something a bit different about seeing the bay in the quieter, slower row boats as opposed to the big cruise boat.

With only the sounds of the rhythmic rowing in the water, it's a chance to really take in the bay in its most natural state.

Including seeing some of these more interesting formations up close.

We also passed by some of the local fishing communities which are now small houses that float in the middle of the water. Such a unique and different way of life! Imagine having the entire ocean as your back and front yard. I imagine the residents are all quite close-knit as well.

We stopped at a local pearl farm as well which is a major source of income for the locals here. We began by learning about the different types of shells and the different kinds of pearls they produced

As you can see below, the shells are different in size and shape depending on their type.

We also observed the pearl extraction process which was a much more delicate procedure than I thought.

And voila.

There was a huge shop of pearl and pearl products at the end of course, but there was no pressure to purchase anything and the employees didn't push either.

And then back onto a smaller motor boat to take us back to our main cruise ship to take us back to our final meal.

In contrast to the humbler breakfast, the lunch was another satisfying and very full meal.

Really, just on the meals alone, they deserve top remarks. With the exception of the breakfast, the meals were all prepped fresh, no dishes that had obviously been pre-made and reheated before serving, and a good variety and balance of ingredients, flavors, and textures.

After the meal, the cruise ship made its way back to the port upon arriving which we boarded our shuttle buses back to Hanoi to the Handspan office where we arrived around late afternoon.

Putting in this trip in between my time in Hanoi proved a welcome time to catch one's breath but ultimately it was a comma that came in my life personally to just disconnect and stop to just be. With no mindless scrolling through SNS feeds, no work emails or colleagues able to reach me, and just putting down the phone and away from a computer, it gave a lot of time to just reflect on life. Though you may not be enlightened or blown away by some major revelation, it's a little time for rest for your soul as well.

And this was largely aided by the tour operators. I found Handspan and Treasure Junk a fantastic tour operator. Not only was the value top notch but the ship was comfortable, the food was superb, and the staff super friendly. Major bonus points to them for taking the boat away from the crowds, supporting the local community, and a great balance of programs and free time. Highly recommend booking through them for your Halong Bay tour! Information about them below.

Handspan Travel Indochina
78 Ma May, Hanoi, Vietnam
Tel: (84-4) 3926 2828