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A “Junk Boat” is still a Junk Boat, no matter how much you pay. Halong Bay Junk Boats are still Junk Boats even if the brochure the Vietnamese travel agent gave you makes it look like luxury incarnate. It is still a Junk Boat if, compared to other Junk Boats around you in the water, it looks like the veritable Sofitel of Junk Boats. Moral of the story? Junk Boats are in fact, rundown pieces of, well, junk. Granted, they’ve been given a lick of paint and a clean fit-out, but if you look closely enough the rust will reveal itself and the doors wont close properly. They’re simply a mere 2 minutes from being sent to the scrapyard. I’m not being negative, I just feel it is my duty to inform each and every one of you of this undeniable fact so that you can make an informed decision. Know before you go, right?
The problem is, it’s pretty hard to experience Halong Bay without staying on one of these, let’s say, “interesting” old things. And the fact that the scenery is out of this world amazing makes this even more of a pickle. So, apart from being forewarned (you can thank me later) do yourself a favour and research, research, research! And don’t just look on Trip Adviser people, because those reviews are deceiving, pester anyone you know who’s been on a semi-decent Junk Boat in Vietnam and ask questions! There have been whispers (and don’t hold me to it) in travel circles that the Paradise Pearl and Paradise Luxury Boats from Paradise Cruises Halong Bay are both premium offerings, so you might want to start your search there.
We spent two nights on the A-class Opera Cruise (fondly christened the “Ass Opera” by yours truly) in their best room known as “The Honeymoon Suite”. Pay close attention to the use of inverted commas! The food (which was included in the package) was some strange mix of Western/Vietnamese moosh of fries, frozen microwave fish and fried whatever. Needless to say we were disappointed. For $260USD per person for 2 nights we expected a little better. Especially when the amount didn’t even include beverages or snacks. The group itinerary for the trip was made up of numerous cave and beach romps which got a bit boring after a while. We wanted action! We wanted adventure! What we grew tired of was being collectively marched off the boat every two seconds to visit every single nearby attraction. If a rigid schedule is your thing, then this would be music to your ears. If however like us, all you wanted to do was march to the beat of your own holiday drum some of the time, then you would have found visiting fifty variations of the same cave quite torturous.
What I will say is Halong Bay is simply breathtaking and, despite the junky junk boats it’s a must for any visit to Vietnam. The bay covers an area of 1500 square km’s and with more than a thousand limestone peaks soaring from its crystalline emerald water it’s not hard to see why this is Vietnam’s number one draw card. The cliffs jut out of the water like soldiers standing to attention and the misty mornings place you in a dreamlike state.
You only need a day to really witness the beauty of the area, but because it’s a six-hour bus ride from Hanoi all of the Junk Boat operators operate on either an overnight or 2-night rotation. Which means that in order to get back to Hanoi you need to stay on one of these things.
You could stay in the harbour, but in order to get amongst it you’ll still need to frequent a Junk for the day anyway because it’s nearly an impossibility to charter a small boat. Nearly. If you’ve got the gift of the gab (and the wallet to match) you can try your luck in booking a private speedboat for half a day. Enquire in person when you arrive at the harbour. I’d say your best bet would be targeting one or two of the tour operators and because the Vietnamese are so helpful and accommodating, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone took you out in their own boat… if the price was right. This is what we ended up doing. Well, sort-of. We’d had enough group activities by the second day on the Ass Opera Cruise so we decided to ask the Captain to radio someone with a speedboat to pick us up and take us out for the day. This someone ended up being his cousin and, after some quick negotiations ($200USD), my travel buddies and I (plus the captain and his cousin of course) were on our merry little way. We toured a private Pearl Farm, darted through caves at 40 knots/hour and stopped at a secluded beach for lunch (which was, of course, sailed out to us from the main boat where everyone else was eating…suckers) Was the day worth it? Absolutely.
Was it more money than intended on spending? Yes. Was it out of the ordinary? Yes. But the best things always are.
Feature Image via Lonely Planet