Hanoi to Ha Long Bay Roadtrip.
Getting to Ha Long Bay for a cruise is part of the overall experience, but bear in mind that it is approaching five hours of colourful sights. Be prepared for the inevitable stretches of moped and car jams, but they are all part of the travel experience.
The car to collect us for our cruise in Ha Long Bay was scheduled to arrive at 7:00 in the morning and we had just enough time for breakfast before we needed to check out of our hotel. I had booked the sailing cruise after doing a lot of research. Never having been on any kind of cruise before and not knowing what to expect, it took me longer to decide and plan our three days on the boat than I had anticipated. There were certain criteria I had in mind, I was sure I did not want to be on a larger ship, the idea being herded with a large number of people in such a small space gives me the creeps. For me, the idea of a traditional wooden junk felt like a more authentic way to experience the stunning land and seascape of Ha Long and Bai Tu Long Bay.
After fighting through articles and reviews I finally chose to sail with Indochina Junk on their vessel, called Dragon’s Pearl. The itinerary included some exciting visits and excursions for us as a family. Another large plus was the fact that our boat was allowed to sail into the less frequented area of Bai Tu Long Bay. Ha Long Bay can get rather crowded at times with several hundred boats sailing through the limestone karsts every day, surely not the perfect setting for a serene cruise as many people imagine. I have collected some tips and hints on what you need to know before booking a cruise with kids in Ha Long Bay and will be posting that for you.
On the Road to Ha Long bay.
We shared our luxury mini bus with another family with two children of similar age to Jerome. They joined us on our cruise through Bai Tu Long Bay and had already explored other parts of Vietnam. Jerome got to know the kids during our time on the boat and they spend many hours together, which gave Jerome a break from being with us the entire time.
The journey to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi takes longer than one might expect. Parts of the road are not up to Western standard. The sheer volume of traffic and trucks meant that the distance of 170km can take more than five hours by car. However, there was plenty for us too watch as it was our first venture into Vietnamese countryside since our arrival in Hanoi. Once we had left the busy roads and urban area of Hanoi behind, we drove past lush green rice fields, lotus ponds, farmers working with water buffalos and villages. There were women on the roadside with make shift stalls selling their fruit and vegetable and kids playing on the street and in fields.
We played a few rounds of card games to pass time quicker. Sadly the scheduled toilet and rest stop felt like a bit of an additional sales and marketing event. The driver stopped at a vast hall was filled with local handicrafts, apparently made by disabled and disadvantaged local men and women, but it felt more like a tourist trap to us. Jerome was fascinated to watch women embroider large pictures of famous Vietnamese images, including the karsts of Ha Long Bay with their needles and thread. Outside were thousands of marble and granite statues for sale in all kinds of forms and shapes, shipping could even be arranged to almost any place in the world.
Walking through the hall we skipped the scarves, clothes, jewellery and other souvenirs and just bought some dried fruit and tea. The prices were slightly on the expensive side and I am sure no Vietnamese local would ever set foot into this place. It reminded me very much of the bus tours my grandma used to be invited to and that always turned into sale shows for useless things that no one needed. We put the stop down to an unwanted experience that we somehow found funny, I guess this is part of what you get when you go on an organised tour and one of the very reasons we usually tend to avoid them all together.
Yen Duc Village.
Our next stop was at Yen Duc Village. A local village, that supports the people living there by offering homestays to foreigners and a water puppet show. It is said that a water puppet show is an experience everyone should witness when visiting Vietnam, both young and old. Most tourists will probably see a show in a theatre in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh, however we were lucky to get the chance to witness this tradition in an outdoor theatre set among rice fields at the corner of the village. We were the first guests to arrive and took our seats on the benches overlooking the pond with the stage. Once the rest of our cruise members and a few others had arrived the music and show started. The show was a collection of short folk tales acted out by the puppets. Each story was first introduced with a short excerpt and information about the history, although we found it was hard to understand the English at times, but this did not stop us from enjoying the show.
Watching a Water Puppet Show.
Water puppet shows originated with rice farmers who worked in the flooded fields, therefore the stories were based around their experiences and some fables thrown into the mix. There were dragons and phoenixes, fishermen and farmers, and our favourite part was a cat chasing a mouse up a tree. Some local kids had joined us for the performance, which they must have seen a few times before but they still enjoyed it as much as we did. After the theatre show came to end we had lunch in the restaurant that is adjacent to the theatre. The food was delicious, if anything there was way too much for us to eat.
Junks in the Bay.
After another hour drive we arrived at the port of Ha Long Bay where our guide introduced himself and we waited in a lounge for boarding. Jerome and I wandered outside to see if we could see the Dragon’s Pearl, our home for the next two nights, among the many junks in the harbour. It was actually quite surprising how many vessels there were in the bay – all leaving for overnight cruises. We would later learn that up to 500 vessels are out at any one time and each has just an hour to turn round between the cruises, fleets of small lighters were servicing them taking the food and laundry back and forth. There were large cruise ships several stories high and other, more traditional, wooden junks of smaller size. Our boat was one of the last to leave and we were glad to finally board from the small tender that ferried us to our junk.
Read more about our cruise through Ha Long and Bai Tu Long Bay our upcoming post.
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