Halong Bay Junk Boat: Paloma Cruise
Halong Bay, Vietnam
Halong Bay Junk Boat – We had a difficult time figuring out which junkboat cruise to take in Halong Bay. Reviews on the cheaper cruises made them seem to be run-down party boats and the more expensive ones were older-folks and well, more expensive. We weren’t necessarily looking to get blackout playing beer-pong and funneling beers all day, but we didn’t want a floating retirement home either. In doing our research, those seemed to be the choices. Getting down to the wire, a friend found Paloma Cruises out of Hanoi. The price was on the higher-end, but no as high compared to some of the others and their reviews were real good.
Day 1: With our group size, the owner of Paloma organized a private minibus pick us up in Hanoi right at 8a.m. to make the four hour high-speed drive to Ha Long City. As we shuttled from the main dock to the anchored junkboat, low lying clouds and fog blanketed the bay and the breeze on the moving boat was actually chilly. We took up anchor and immediately started heading for Bai Tu Long Bay as everyone got their “45 minutes” to settle into their cabins. The tiny rooms were simple, but nice with a similar Lanna-style decor we had experienced at other places and although real cramped, the private bathroom was surprisingly decent. We were just hanging out on the top deck when one of the guides came and told us that everyone was waiting on us to come to the dining room for lunch – the first major sign to us of how rigid these junkboat itineraries truly are. We meandered downstairs to a traditional Vietnamese lunch of mainly seafood and veggies being served. The portions were not stingy by any means and the six of us left a lot of food on the table – Like enough to make us feel really, really guilty. As we were finishing up, unsure of whether we were “excused from the table” or not, the fog began to lift as the sun struggled to beak through and we were able to see the true expanse of the bay.
Right at 15:00, we anchored at Vung Vieng fishing village (“Floating Village”) and hopped on the small shuttle boat again to tour the village. They dropped us at a dock where we then loaded in pairs/triples into smaller row boats to form an orange boat-train around the village – tourists in their bright (mandatory) life vests and the local guides rowing the boats in government issued orange jackets and their Non La’s (conical Asian hat). We were at a distance so the ping of guilt wasn’t as acute, but I once again got the same feeling as when we were being paraded around Ban Houy Pwa Lam Village in Laos. The locals went about their lives as hundreds of tourists took boats around their village, snapping pictures of their children from afar. (At the end of the tour, we also got paraded through a jewelry store with local pearls for us to buy…)
As the afternoon grew later, we got back to the boat promptly at 16:30 (as planned) with the “sunset party” starting right at 17:15 – although very nice, “party” basically meant everyone on the boat awkwardly gathered on the top deck for a glass of free sangria. With the sun’s rays breaking the bottom of some high clouds, the sunset was beautiful and it was a really relaxing setting as the warm sun disappeared – especially because we started buying cocktails. Right at 18:30, our guide “Johnny,” came and found us for the cooking class in the dining room. It wasn’t a full-on cooking class in that we acted more as labor to stuff the egg rolls for them (which in-turn has really helped my burrito making skills), but it was still fun. And they turned out delicious. Dinner was even bigger than lunch and even though I don’t eat much seafood, I’ll pretty much try anything – the food was awesome. After dinner, squid fishing (mainly tossing a line into the water and not catching anything) was offered off the back of the boat, but most of us opted to just hang out on the top deck drinking. And since we again, weren’t on a “party boat,” we pretty much had the entire ship to ourselves with everyone else heading to their rooms. It was great.
Day 2: The next morning, I was pretty surprised to get a wake-up call at 07:30 with the guides wondering why we weren’t at breakfast yet – the strict itinerary was really irritating, especially since breakfast was set to go for another half hour. Afterwards, the twelve of us who were staying two nights were loaded up onto a smaller junkboat and made way for Lan Ha Bay as the main boat headed back to Ha Long City to drop of some people and pick the next group up. We made a quick stop at another floating village to pick up some kayaks before anchoring in Lan Ha Bay. Six other day-boats were already anchored in the small “secluded” bay (with more coming later) as we piled into our kayaks. We spent the next hour going bay-to-bay, in and out of caves, and just floating in the sun under the karsts. At one point, Johnny went back to the ship to get us headlamps and we ended up kayaking through Sang (“Dark”) Cave – the tunnel was maybe 6-15 ft wide with a ceiling 3-5 feet above our heads and in total about 300ft long – It was the type of setting where you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.
When we got back to the boat, we spent some time jumping off the top deck and floating in the completely disgusting water. For a UNESCO World Heritage site, I was really surprised at how gross the water was – there was trash everywhere and gas/oil stains ebbing with the tides. After another massive (delicious) meal, we finally got the beers flowing, threw on some tunes, and lounged on the top deck before taking up anchor and making our way to Soi Sim Island to then relax on a beach. As we were just sitting there being lazy, a couple that we had been hanging out with came back from a hike to the top of the island and convinced us we had to do it. As the sunk sank lower on the horizon, we got to the top and it truly was absolutely worth it – I think it was one of the best views I saw the entire trip. Eventually we somehow got word that we were messing up the strict schedule and the boat was now of course waiting for us. Once again, we were on their time and had to rush down the island to catch our ride. We watched another vivid sunset from the rocking boat. Again, dinner was fantastic before we took up our spot on the top deck next to the bar where they were fine with us just blasting our own music. Another private 10-person gathering.
Day 3: I awoke the next morning to a strong cool breeze coming through the open windows as the junkboat cut through the choppy water. Sluggishly making my way upstairs to some coffee, I was told we’d be visiting “The Amazing Caves” before heading back to Halong City. We piled back onto the small shuttle boat and along with all the other junkboats in the area, made the quick five minute trip to the entrance of the caves. After my visit to the Chiang Dao Caves, I was pretty much expecting the same thing. It wasn’t close – these were all lit up with different colored lights and after a few smaller caverns, it just opened up into a massive area the size of an airplane hanger. Even with the slow train of people meandering down the sidewalks, it was still extremely impressive.
We got back and had a very early “thank you” departing lunch and in too short of a time, we were back on the small shuttle boat headed back to the dock of Halong City.
Overall, I thought Paloma Cruises was a great experience – The service was good, the rooms and the boat in general were really nice, the food was fantastic, and I think the itinerary was really solid. The biggest thing that bugged me was I spent a lot of the time feeling like I had to be somewhere. I completely understand the rigidness of the overall itineraries of where the boat has to go and what sites they need to take everyone to – it’s government regulated and not controlled by Paloma. BUT, I found the on-ship experience too structured for my taste – If I want to sleep through breakfast and be hungry the rest of the day, that should be my choice. Or if I want to be taking pictures of the sunset, I shouldn’t be guilted into sitting down for the “sunset party” cocktail. We spent a good amount of money and maybe all the boats are like this, but I feel like we kind of got ordered around a bit. I don’t think that’s how it should be. Again, overall, it was a great experience and I’m really glad we didn’t end up on one of the party boats blacked out by sundown. If you’re looking for a relatively cheap cruise in Halong Bay, I’d definitely recommend Paloma Cruises. In general, no matter what junkboat operator you choose, I’d also recommend a three-day, two-night cruise. In watching some other groups come-and-go and in looking at the way the itinerary works out, I think I would have felt incredibly rushed if I had only stayed for one night. The second day on the small junkboat, kayaking around, and hiking Soi Sim Island is when I felt like we really experienced Halong Bay. (Paloma’s 3 Day, 2 Night Itinerary.)
***Careful when reading “Costs Include: Mineral Water.” What they really mean is that there are two small bottles of water in the room upon arrival, but when you’re baking in the sun all day and drinking all night, you actually need to buy each additional bottle beyond the first two. It added up very quickly.