“This must be what it feels like to be a tick,” grinned my dad from the deck of our boat. “Engorged and going for a ride.”
We were on the Red Dragon, the junk (boat), which would be our home for the next three days. We’d just had a seven-course lunch and had been on the boat for less than two hours. The grins on all of our faces were permanent already and Ben and I quickly knew we’d made the right decision to bring my parents here.
We’d actually been on the Red Dragon before. It was towards the top of our must-do list when we visited Vietnam in 2012, and after our 2 day/1 night tour with Indochina Junk, we were wishing we had more time.
My love of being in, on, or near water was instilled by my parents, so I knew Halong Bay would be right up their alley. I also remembered we had wanted more time in Halong Bay last time, so we splurged for the 3 day/2 night tour.
3 Day/2 Night Itinerary
- 8 am – Hotel pickup in Hanoi
- 10 am – Stop at a huge handicrafts shopping center where people affected by Agent Orange make the handicrafts, and 70% of the money goes to those impacted by Agent Orange.
- 12 pm – Arrive in Halong Bay and board the boat
- 1:30 pm – Lunch**
- 2:30 pm – Relaxing/cruising
- 4:30 pm – Kayaking and swimming from the boat
- 6 pm – Relaxing/cruising
- 7 pm – Dinner**
- 8 pm – After dinner drinks
- 8:30 am – Breakfast**
- 9:30 am – Relaxing/cruising
- 11 am – Arrive at private beach
- 11:15 am – Kayaking and swimming from private beach
- 1 pm – Beach BBQ**
- 2 pm – Back to boat for relaxing/cruising
- 5 pm – Hiking to cave
- 6 pm – Sunset cruise/relaxing
- 7:30 pm – Dinner**
- 8:30 pm – After dinner drinks
- 7:30 am – Breakfast**
- 8:30 am – Visit floating fishing village and pearl farm
- 10 am – Start the cruise back to the harbor
- 12 pm – Get back in the vans toward Hanoi
- 2 pm – Water puppet show
- 5 pm – Arrive back at Hanoi hotel
*All times are approximate **All meals were at least five courses, with many dinners being seven or more.
As if the itinerary wasn’t exciting enough, when our van rolled up to pick us up in Hanoi, we met the two other people who would be on our boat, Matt and Martha from Minnesota! (Side note: we met more Minnesotans in Vietnam than we could’ve ever imagined. My dad’s Gopher hat drew them in all over the country!)
Halfway through our drive to Halong Bay, we stopped at Hong Ngoc Shopping Centre to stretch our legs and shop for souvenirs. Hong Ngoc is a special place. They hire and train people who have disabilities – most from exposure to Agent Orange – so they can provide for themselves and their families. More than 70% of the proceeds go directly to those who have been impacted by Agent Orange. We bought a couple pieces of embroidered art here and got to meet the artists who created them.
Then, after three hours of driving, we arrived at Halong Bay.
We were surprised at how much it had changed since 2012. A huge amusement park now looks over the bay and there are many more tourist boats. Yet, even with the changes, it is still an impressive place to be.
We met up with our guide and got on a small boat which brought us out to the Red Dragon. Once we were on board, we were greeted with fresh fruit juices on the deck as our guide talked through what the next few days would look like and the boat started its journey. The smiles on everyone’s faces told me it was going to be a fantastic few days.
After checking out our rooms and lounging on the deck for a bit, it was time for lunch. It was the first of many spectacular multi-course meals we had. Once lunch had finished we spent a few hours relaxing on the deck watching the limestone karsts, which Halong Bay is known for, creep by.
Halong Bay translated means “Descending Dragon.” It gets its name from a local legend. According to the story, when Vietnam was newly formed there were invaders coming from the North whom the Vietnamese had to battle. To help defend Vietnam, the Jade Emperor sent Mother Dragon and her children to earth. They used fire and giant emeralds to help fight the enemies and ultimately helped Vietnam win. The emeralds eventually turned into the limestone karsts that are seen all throughout Halong Bay today.
When the quiet “putt-putt” of the engine slowed and we stopped, it was time to do some kayaking.
In 2012, this double-kayak adventure led to a huge fight between Ben and me, and serious thoughts of divorce – both of us believing we knew what we were doing and thinking the other person was in the wrong. We often tell this story while laughing, but this was the moment of truth. Would we be able to enjoy our sightseeing this time? Or would it be another argument-filled paddle?
We entered our double kayaks from the boat, being very careful not to tip, and started paddling. We ventured out and around some limestone karsts, getting close enough to see the different birds and plants that live there. It was incredibly peaceful – because this time we weren’t shouting at each other – and we could actually appreciate our surroundings.
Back on the boat, we enjoyed some more time on the deck before having another stellar meal and calling it a day.
After breakfast the next day we spent the morning reading on the deck and we cruised to a private beach where we were going to spend several hours kayaking, swimming, and having a BBQ. This kayaking trip was a bit longer, and more challenging since we crossed the open water, but it was breathtaking. And, we didn’t argue this time either! Feeling like we finally had this double-kayak thing down, we kayaked through caves and around huge karsts before paddling over to our private beach where the staff of our boat was busy grilling our lunch.
Once our bellies were full, we begrudgingly left our private beach and went back to the boat. We cruised for a few more hours until we arrived at a cave where fisherman used to hole up during storms. The cave has also become busier over the last five years and they are currently building a more accessible way to access it. It’s a bummer they are making such a large impact to the bay, but I also understand the importance of allowing people of all abilities to experience such a special place.
Once we had explored the cave and its many formations, we got back on the boat for our sunset cruise. We were going back to the same location, a quiet bay, where we had anchored the night before. Dinner and drinks completed day number two, and we went to bed trying to figure out how to lengthen our time there. We weren’t ready to leave the next day.
Unfortunately, time kept ticking and we got up the next morning bright and early so we could complete the last few things on our itinerary. After breakfast, we visited the Vung Vieng fishing village. Sadly the village is less than half the size it was in 2012. Government initiatives are forcing families inland for a variety of reasons including stemming pollution and improving the residents’ livelihood. Last time we were there, we visited a school, but the school has since closed since most of the school-aged children are no longer living in the village. When we arrived, we got into a sampan, a traditional Vietnamese fishing boat, and were rowed through the village. We stopped at a pearl farm and learned about the pearls farmed in the area, and my mom got a beautiful souvenir, before returning to the boat and sailing back to the city. Our time in Halong Bay was drawing to a close.
Once we were back on land, we headed to our van for the journey back to Hanoi. Before we arrived in Hanoi though, we had one last thing on the itinerary; a water puppet show. Water puppetry in Vietnam dates back to the 11th century and is an important part of their culture. We stopped in Yen Duc village for the show which was made up of several parts depicting day-to-day life in rural Vietnam and well-known Vietnamese folk tales. This was a truly unique experience, unlike anything we’d ever seen before.
Once it finished, we said goodbye to Matt and Martha who were in a different van and returned to Hanoi.
Halong Bay is a remarkable place, and I am so happy we could return and share it with my parents.