With my birthday coming up soon, I started thinking about how I’ve celebrated my birthdays in previous years. I’m not the birthday-celebration type; usually it’s just a low-key dinner or get-together (or various different ones with different groups of friends). Nothing fancy, nothing too crazy.
I have a few personal favourites in terms of birthday celebrations and one of the Top 3 is my 30th: I went on a Halong Bay cruise with Indochina Junks. They say turning 30 is memorable, so I figured I might as well make it a freakin’ awesome memory.
When I was doing my research, I read what seemed like a bazillion Tripadvisor reviews and basically came away with “You get what you pay for”. Since it was a birthday trip, I figured that choosing a cruise company with good reviews would be the best option for me. I decided on the Dragon’s Pearl in particular because I thought the dinner in a cave would be a great experience. (Spoiler alert: I was absolutely right.)
Here’s the play-by-play of how it went down:
The booking process
I booked my cruise directly through the Indochina Junk website about a month before my trip and the booking process was simple and fuss-free. I was lucky that there was a trip which exactly fit my requirements (I wanted Day 2 of the cruise to coincide with my birthday).
After making a deposit to secure my reservation, I was all set. When I arrived in Hanoi, someone from the company called me at my hotel to confirm my pick-up time the next morning and advised that I could make my balance payment upon arrival at their office at Halong Bay.
Pick-up was prompt at 8.00am. I was the first one, and we stopped at a few more hotels. There were 6 people in total in my mini-bus to Halong and they gave us bottles of water for the trip. It was mostly an uneventful journey. We had a 20 minute stop at a crafts/souvenir place for a toilet break before continuing on. As we got closer to Halong, the roads got quite bumpy at times. Our driver was quite cautious though and drove safely, which I appreciated.
Upon arrival at the Indochina Junk office, someone checked with us which were our bags, tagged them and we were ushered to the waiting area where our guide, Tom, greeted us. He told us that there would be 13 people on board and that we’d be on the Dragon’s Pearl 1. For those of us who had not made full payment for the cruise, we were led to the cashier to do so. After that, at about 1pm, everyone set off for the pier where we got into a small boat which would transfer us to the Dragon’s Pearl 1.
When we boarded the boat, we were led to the open-air dining area and received our welcome drink. As we got going, Tom introduced us to the layout and features of the boat and we were checked into our rooms before lunch was served.
On my cruise, we had 13 people in total. We had 3 couples, a mother-daughter pair, 2 friends and 3 solo travellers (including myself) from various parts of the world. It was a lovely bunch of people, and I was glad that it wasn’t all couples else I would’ve felt very very out-of-place, haha. We were told the cruise has a maximum capacity of 22 pax, so it was great that our group was a little more cozy.
I was assigned to Room 302 which was on the 2nd deck. The room had a double bed and was quite compact, but the bed was comfy and there was air-con so I had no complaints at all. The ensuite bathroom was more than sufficient and the shower had hot water and good pressure.
All-in-all, I was pleasantly surprised by the room and the boat, in general. There were 2 sundecks on the 3rd deck, on which a lot of us spent time on. The lounge chairs had cushions and there were big umbrellas too, if you wanted some shade from the sun.
When we were all gathered at the outdoor dining area for lunch, Tom gave us an overview of our route and itinerary for the trip. Thereafter, he introduced the rest of the crew and then lunch was served.
The food during the duration of the Halong Bay cruise was pretty amazing. We usually had something like 8 – 10 courses each for lunch and dinner, with everything from fish to beef to chicken to seafood. There were a few of us who had some dietary requirements and the crew did a great job accommodating us and also remembering who was vegetarian, who doesn’t eat beef etc. We would get separate dishes when it came to a course which we were unable to eat. Due to wet weather on the other days, our first lunch was unfortunately only one of two times we got to dine outdoors.
I have to say I was feeling pretty good; between the delicious food and the beautiful scenery, it felt like a fantastic start to the trip.
Once lunch was over, most of us adjourned to the sundeck to relax, read, etc for about 2 hours before we were due to kayak later in the afternoon. True to the itinerary, we set off to kayak at about 4.30pm or so. Our cruise had a pretty active bunch of people (and also, quite young) so we all wanted to kayak. Our kayaking session lasted for more than an hour and it was absolutely breath-taking (in more ways than one, haha!).
One of the reasons I picked Indochina Junks is that they’re one of the few that has the rights to cruise in Bai Tu Long Bay. I had read reviews about how Halong Bay is crowded with many boats and too many tourists, and my experience at Bai Tu Long Bay was the complete opposite. We saw only 1-2 boats while we were cruising and only a handful more once we had anchored for the 1st night. It was so peaceful and quiet (especially since the boat’s engine is practically silent!) and that feeling of serenity is unbeatable!
So when we were kayaking, it really felt like we were lost in the middle of the nowhere and the landscape made me feel like we were in some fantasy land and it was really beyond beautiful. While they did provide us with some drybags, I would recommend getting a waterproof case for your camera or having a disposable waterproof camera with you cos taking stuff out of the drybag can be a pain. Kayaking was really fun though and we ventured into this shallow cave which was very cool.
After getting back to the boat, for those who wanted to swim, they could do so. We had some time to shower and clean up before dinner was served at 7.30pm. Some of us had pre-dinner drinks at the top deck. (The sunset was spectacular!)
Dinner was a variety of dishes and I remember the prawns and crab were especially yummy. Right about when dinner was winding down, there was a commotion at the front and it turned out that the crew that snagged a big fish! It weighed something like 5kg!
Later on, some of us tried our hand at squid-fishing. It was a bit of a failed endeavour; by luck, I was the only one who managed to snag a squid! Felt pretty pleased with myself about that! 😛
Day 2 had us up by 8.30am for breakfast. Breakfast is a much less elaborate affair. We got eggs with toast and a really yummy pastry. The coffee was to die for (as it is in Vietnam) and we also got a glass of juice. Unfortunately, just as we were almost done with breakfast, the skies opened up and it rained so we had to move to the indoor dining area. That was a bit of a bummer as I had been looking forward to chilling on the sundeck.
The rain continued on for a bit, and after Tom gave us a short history lesson on the fishing village we would be visiting later in the morning, most of us went back to our rooms. Luckily, by the time we were leaving to visit the fishing village, the rain had tapered off. We were given some plastic ponchos and an umbrella and we set off in the small boat.
At the village, we got into groups of 3 or 4 and into these small wooden boats which were rowed by the villagers. It was a leisurely ride through the village, with some great scenery. We stopped at a fish farm and also saw the school and the community facilities in the village, before visiting a pearl farm. Then it was back to the boat for lunch.
The weather improved significantly in the afternoon and we all got to bask in the sun for a while which was lovely. At one point, we anchored and the captain gave permission to jump off the top deck, which some people did.
And then later in the afternoon, we set off for another kayaking session. This also lasted for about an hour and we kayaked through more beautiful landscapes to a small beach. Again, we only saw two other small cruise groups and they both left soon after. So we had the beach all to ourselves and enjoyed the gorgeous sunset.
We were ferried back to the boat, which was moored nearby, to clean up for dinner. And then it was back to the little beach where we climbed up to the cave entrance.
And Reason #2 for picking Indochina Junk and the Dragon’s Pearl: dinner in a cave! I was pretty psyched that the itinerary perfectly matched my birthday and I thought a dinner in a cave would be a sweet memory for a birthday celebration 😉
The entrance to the cave seemed impossibly small but it opened up into this big cavern. Tom gave us some history about the cave before we went deeper inside and to the dining area. Our first sight of the dinner set-up made us all gasp in surprise. It was really really lovely. Candlelight, wooden furniture, white tablecloths, glassware. There were also fans there, so it felt relatively cool.
It was a BBQ dinner which was a nice change from the Vietnamese fare in the other meals. I wish the portions were a bit bigger for this meal (might’ve been all that kayaking & frolicking on the beach!) but otherwise it was all good. The chef made these amazing carvings to display the food in! After dinner, Tom and the crew came out to check on how we had enjoyed dinner and the trip, and even sang us a Vietnamese song about Halong Bay.
Then Tom told everyone that we had some special occasions to celebrate; one of the couples was on their honeymoon and it was someone’s birthday (MINE! Ehehehehe!). So he asked us to close our eyes and they brought out cakes for us! Everyone sang happy birthday for me, and after we blew out the candles, the cakes were served to everyone. They were also kind enough to give us a small souvenir gift. That was really unexpected and sweet!
We had about 15-20 minutes in the cave after dinner for photo-taking etc and then we made our way out and back to the boat. We had to cruise in the night to get to our anchor spot so a few of us ended up at the sundeck, talking and enjoying the starry night! It was pretty awesome seeing the bay at night and I thought it was the perfect way to cap off my birthday!
We had to wake up super duper early. Breakfast was scheduled for 7.30am; there was some kind of delay though and it only ended up being served at 8.00am. It rained quite heavily that morning which was a major downer. I had planned on waking up to catch the sunrise but when my alarm rang, I looked out my window to see heavy rain so I went back to the warm cocoon of my bed, haha. Since the weather was bad, most of us went back to our rooms to catch more zzzs before our check-out at 10.00am.
For our last lunch onboard, the crew took our orders and we had a choice of 2 out of 4 dishes. Lunch was served early at about 10.30am as we cruised back to the harbour. And after goodbyes to the crew, we were loaded onto the small boat and back to the mainland.
There was another short wait as they sorted out the transport back to Hanoi and then we were ushered to our respective mini-buses. This time, the pitstop was Yen Duc village where we were treated to a 30min water puppet show. As I hadn’t seen the water puppet show in Hanoi, I thought it was interesting to at least see it then. One downside was that there was only one bathroom for like 5 mini-buses of people, so the wait for the toilet was pretty long. And then it was back to Hanoi.
The Bottom Line
Indochina Junk frequently gets good reviews on Tripadvisor, but I have to say that it is well-deserved. Yes, it is one of the more expensive options for a Halong Bay cruise but the experience absolutely warrants it.
The two reasons I picked them were: cruising to Bai Tu Long instead of Halong and the dinner in the cave, and both experiences were well worth it. I really enjoyed the quiet tranquility of Bai Tu Long, and the stillness of the environment really enhanced that magical, fantastical feeling I got while I was there. The dinner in the cave was equally lovely and such a memorable event. (And the cake and gift were a nice touch!)
The food served onboard was good and generally quite flavourful (though I think it was dialled down to cater to Western taste buds) and served in generous quantities. What was even better was the service from the crew: they were friendly, warm and unobtrusive yet always willing to help. You feel very well taken care of.
I also appreciated that we stuck pretty closely to the itinerary; there were no surprises, nothing was cancelled and we were on-schedule without being rushed through anything. The boat was well-maintained, very clean (by the first afternoon, we all ditched our flip-flops and walked around the boat barefoot) and with good amenities. I especially liked the sundeck and the outdoor dining area (wished that we could’ve had more meals outdoors!).
The only downer of the entire experience would be the long bus journeys to-and-from Hanoi, but there’s nothing to do but just deal with it and try to get some sleep and hope the time passes by more quickly.
So if it fits your budget, and you’re looking for a tranquil and more “upscale” experience at Halong Bay, I would definitely recommend choosing Indochina Junk and the Dragon’s Pearl for your Halong Bay cruise! I would also suggest taking the 3D2N option when visiting Halong Bay because the journey to-and-from Hanoi is pretty long and more tiring than you’d expect. You’d want to maximise your time in Halong Bay to make that bus journey worth it!