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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Northern Vietnam: Indochina Sails Luxury Cruise at Halong Bay Through Handspan

Halong Bay is a UNESCO world heritage site at Quang Ninh Province.

Initially, one of my travel buddy wasn't up to the idea of staying overnight because of unfortunate recent events of tourists drowning due to a sinking junk and suggested to do a day trip instead. A day trip to Halong Bay is possible but might be too taxing since it takes more than 2 hours (per way) to get there from Hanoi.  As for me, a trip to Vietnam isn't complete without an overnight stay in a junk in Halong Bay so I had to convince my peer and spent hours to google for options, read reviews, and checked the age of the junk!

Tripadvisor's top picks are the Red Dragon Junk and Paloma Cruise while travel blogger Ironwulf suggests the Aloha Junk through Handspan Travel Adventure.  Handspan is a reputable travel agency in Hanoi and they offer bookings in several types of junk. It is recommended to take packaged or guided tours if you are going to visit Halong Bay. Doing it on your own would be more costly and you would run a risk of encountering some frauds.

For $167 per person, we arranged with Handspan to be booked with luxury cruise Indochina Sails for 2D/1N.

Included in the package:
• Accommodation on Indochina Sails Junk
• Welcome drinks
• Meals as specified in the program:  lunch buffet, plated dinner, morning tea, brunch; (beverage excluded)
• Travel in an appropriate air-conditioned vehicle with an experienced driver to/from Handspan Office in Hanoi  (they do not offer hotel pick-up)
• The services of an experienced English-speaking guide (or French upon request)
• Entrance fees
• VAT and other taxes


8:00 We were running late after breakfast in our hotel in Hanoi.  We hurriedly went to Handspan Adventure Travel via taxi with our overnight bags.  After passport check, we were taken to board a coaster along with other travelers. There were several young backpackers and an old couple.  The guide was entertaining.  We were asked to introduce ourselves.  We somehow received a knowing look from the guide after learning we were from the Philippines, young and taking a luxury cruise.  I'm sure he can't believe it and asked if we worked in some international companies.  In all modesty, we didn't have to brag about anything, a smile is enough, we just want to experience luxury this time.
handspan office

9:30 Stop at a factory for pee break.
11:30  Arrived at Bai Chay/Halong pier.  The young backpackers were dropped off in different junk terminals  while we, along with the old couple, were dropped off at Indochina Sails' waiting lounge.  At this point, you can already tell the difference between a luxury cruise and not.  Indochina Sails' waiting lounge has comfortable sofa, comfort rooms, bar... while other terminals looked empty.

12:15 Shortly, we were transferred by tender to the Indochina Sails boat.  A tender is a smaller boat generally used for transporting people and/or supplies to and from shore or another ship.  On board, we were given welcome drink and received cruise briefing and so the cruise began.  We were in awe how spacious the junk was and it was perfectly neat and comfortable.
two twin bed room

the sun deck of Indochina sails
13:00  As soon as we sailed, lunch buffet was opened.  It was a deluxe Vietnamese and international buffet, serving mostly seafood.  The clams was exceptionally good!  Drinks are billable while coffee or tea was complimentary.  After lunch, we had our coffee served al fresco at the deck;  they willingly served it for us.

Massage service is available beginning after lunch and throughout the cruise but we had to pass on this, we just had one at Hoi An.
a picturesque view of the karst on a hazy day
14.30  Arrived at Titop Island. "Enjoy swimming, relaxing on the beach and climbing the steps to the top of the mountain on the island for fantastic views and photo opportunities." was our itinerary.  We boarded the tender to the shore.  The weather in Halong Bay in late March was cool, 18 degrees, the ice cold water wasn't inviting at all. The junks were perfectly anchored with their false sail up, orchestrated for a picture perfect view of Halong Bay's karst and junks from atop.
view of Halong Bay on top of Titop Island 

looked like an orchestrated entertainment since they left on an Indochina sail tender when we did

15.15 Transferred back to the boat and sailed for another hour to our second destination - the Bat Cave area.
afternoon coffee at the deck
16.15 Arrived at the Bat Cave area. There are two programs to choose from at this time. One option is a 40 minute kayaking program to the nearby Bat Cave and lagoon and surrounding waters. Kayaking is $10 per person unless already booked as part of your package. Bottled water is provided for each stop.
sampan ride at the fishing village was not a must
The second option is to visit the largest floating fishing village in Halong Bay. On sampan ride, it's a 20 minute tour around this floating village.  In Vietnam, it's the ladies who do the hard labor, on land they toil the soil, here, they row the boats. The visit was an eye opener, people live in the middle of the bay, built their own community, have their own classrooms.  It wasn't clean, there were rats and trash floating around, but surprising there was no fowl smell.

At this weather, kayaking was not an option.

18:30  Arrived at Luon Bo area and anchored overnight.  The cove was peaceful.

19:00  Set menu dinner was served.  We ordered a bottle of wine to go with it.
dine and wine!  too bad my taste of wine wasn't on promo

20:30  Evening activities include: film entertainment in the dining room at approximately 9:15, night fishing, board games and playing cards are available.
playing scrabble for the first time!  didn't realize that is was part of the itinerary haha

21:00 – 23:00  Happy Hour! Buy one drink - get one free (wine excluded).  We already had wine for dinner, we stayed up til midnight and played scrabble all night long at the deck in the cool breeze.


7:00  I woke up too late to have time for coffee, tea and breakfast pastries served in the dining room.  I headed to the deck to join the Tai Chi class.  Twas a good stretch early in the morning,  while Tai Chi class was on going, my mind was wandering, the view was simply outstanding when we docked near the surprise cave.  I can't pass up the chance to grab my camera and take lovely pictures around.
Taichi in the morning with such a pretty view

halong bay vendor

8:00  Transferred by tender to the Surprise Cave. Walk up the 100 steps to the entrance of the cave and explored the cave on foot for approximately 45 minutes.  The walkway inside the cave was not natural, it was cemented and paved, ideally for the elderly tourists.

9:00  Upon returning to the boat, we had a short time to freshen up.  We had to put our luggage outside the cabins already (staff will transfer to the pier) before we depart for Bai Chay/Halong pier.

9:30 Breakfast buffet (or should I say brunch) was served in the dining room. I had numerous servings of Pho, that was the best I've tasted.  Afterwhich, we settled bills for the drinks we ordered not included in the package.
tasty Pho!  had two servings of this :)
10:00  "Relax on the sundeck or in the dining room and enjoy the bay scenery as we approach the pier." was the itinerary.  We sat at the lounge and opted to... play scrabble again! This must be our new past time.

10:45  Arrive at Bai Chay/Halong pier.

11:00  Transfer by tender to the pier and waited for Handspan's couch to arrive.

view of the rice fields from Halong to Hanoi

20:30 It took a little longer to arrive in Hanoi.  We made a detour half way since one tourist was left behind.  Pee break stop is not readily available on the way, it's best to empty your bladder on the boat.

We had an excellent stay at the Indochina Sail and taking the luxury cruise Indochina sail was worth every penny.  These pictures tell the rest of the story.


Handspan Adventure Travel
Ha Noi Head Office: 78 Ma May
Phone: +84-4-3926-2828  /  -2421
Hot Line: +84-932-231-489
Fax: +84-4-3926-2792

Indochina Sails
27A6 Dam Trau, Hanoi, Vietnam
Tel: +84-4-3984 2362
Fax: +84-4-3984 4150 |
Hotline: +84-98-204-2426

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