To Junk or Not To Junk
December 1 – 3
The junk boat phenomenon in Halong Bay creates inner turmoil for all northern Vietnam travelers. If you’re in Hanoi (or really, anywhere in Vietnam), you can hardly pass a tourist office that doesn’t tout 2 – 3 day trips to the gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage site (and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, Halong Bay.
To junk or not to junk…that is the question.
After careful deliberation, we decided to take the metaphorical plunge and hit the bay. To be clear, all boats – run-down, mid-range and luxury – are dubbed “junk boats” and by law, are painted white. This means the bay is littered with outwardly identical vessels cruising a similar route between the more than 1,960 limestone islets in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Halong literally means “descending dragon.” According to legend, the gods sent a family of dragons to protect Vietnam against invaders during an attack. As they descended, they spit fire and emeralds that decimated the battleship fleet and created a protective wall of emeralds…fast forward thousands of years and you have the incredible limestone islands that currently dot the horizon. Oh, and the dragons totally dominated.
Dave and I opted for the A-Class Opera cruise, and joined 30 eager sea-worthy (we hoped) travelers as we set out to see what all the fuss was about. We definitely weren’t disappointed. The first day already saw us skipping the organized activities in lieu of lounging, books in hand, on the sunny deck. After a welcome party with fresh fruit and wine overlooking the spectacular seascape, we were sold – hook, line and sinker.
A sunset stop at Titop island gave 360 views of the bay (after a short hike up to the lookout point) as the sun sank behind the jagged karsts. We strolled the beach with our feet in the (freezing!) water, watching the more adventurous strip down to their suits and take a dive. Back on the boat, we dined on fresh crab and fish, vegetables, chicken curry and rice until we were stuffed.
Our overeager boat director made it his business to make everyone feel sufficiently awkward by insisting guests to stand up and wave to one another (what is this, Carnival Cruiselines? Not that I’m knocking a place that invites you to binge eat and lay around as ex-Broadway dancers help shove piña coladas down your throat, but did we really need the joke about the couple here celebrating their 30 wedding anniversary practicing private tai chi in their bedroom? No, we certainly did not.), and sharing personal information –including your closely guarded room numbers (the private tai chi session could be found in room 320) – for the whole group.
Post dinner the first evening, Dave exercised his fine-tuned bartering skills with the most ferocious “street” vendor yet – the woman manning the oars on the floating mini-market. After he secured two bottles of prohibition wine (shhhh, don’t tell the weird cruise director) from our bedroom window at a rock bottom price (EDITOR’S NOTE: Since personal space and privacy seem optional in this corner of the world, why wouldn’t she just row up within two feet of our closed bedroom window yelling “Hello, buy something! Buy something from me!”), we cracked open our own vintage and took to the balcony to sit peacefully in the calm evening air. Hours later, the waves rocked us to sleep as we cozied up in our cabin.
The next day found us exploring some of the floating villages, kayaking through natural caves, visiting the bay’s pearl farm and spending more time on deck as we took in another beautiful sunset and bountiful dinner.
On our final morning, we made a visit to one of the larger caves in the bay, Song Sot Cave, which was slightly cheesy (the neon lit cavern and line of westerners immediately triggered my anti-touristy-stuff alarm). However, the dimensions of the cave truly were impressive and it was cool to imagine being the first to stumble upon the natural vastness all those years ago.
To recap: the food was incredible, the atmosphere was romantic and the sunsets left us breathless. So if you ask us?
Junk on, fair readers. Junk on.