Exploring Halong Bay by Junk | Vietnam

Junk Boat in Halong BayEven if people can’t find it in their hearts to fall in love with the traffic-clogged streets of Ho Chi Minh City or the cheap bowls of noodles found down the alleyways in Hanoi, most will concede that Halong Bay, Vietnam, really is quite beautiful.

Though the city of Halong Bay is rumored to be quite touristy, overgrown and unappealing, most people don’t visit the area for what’s on land. Rather, they flock to Halong Bay for the junket tours that float among the islands that dot the bay.

While traveling in Vietnam, I had the chance to tour the bay by junk. These pirate-looking ships generally hold anywhere from a single couple to half a dozen people, depending on the boat and tour operator. Some junks are known as party boats, taking visitors out for a quick, one-night visit into the bay waters. Others are designed for multi-day luxury cruises for honeymooning couples. I imagine the beds in the honeymoon suites are much more comfortable than the bunk-style sleeping quarters on party boats.

I sailed with Indochina Junk, which falls somewhere between the two. I was the seventh wheel, onboard with three other couples, a guide, half a dozen cooks / housekeepers / ship hands and a captain. We met in the dining room, greeted with a clearly outlined introduction that included details about our itinerary and information about meals.

Upon conclusion to our orientation, our guide, Ahn, clasped his hands in front of his waist and bowed several times, grinning. “Are you happy?” he asked. We all nodded. “Chris, are you happy?” A guy around my age nodded. “Jo, are you happy?” I nodded.

Finally, we were free to go our separate ways.

*****

Of the nearly 2,000 islands in Halong Bay, only about 300 of them have names. These sheer rocks, covered with luscious trees and foliage, rise out of nowhere in the sea. Apparently birds, snakes and monkeys live on them, but I can’t imagine that much else does.

As the junk floated among the islands, I sat on the top deck, my legs dangling over the edge of the boat, watching the world recede behind us. The warm, humid air sat heavy on my shoulders, and the dark green coloring of the islands reflected onto the rippling surface of the water. I felt like we were cruising through a waterlogged version of Jurassic Park.

*****

Child in floating village halong bay vietnamWe piled into the day cruiser that was pulled alongside the junket. One of the boat hands steered the craft toward Công Đâm.

The village “chief” met us, smiling with browning and rotted teeth. He poured each of us a small cup of lukewarm tea in a set of mismatched, chipped mugs and answered our questions about his home. A small wingless bug floated in my beverage. The second largest fishing village in the bay is only inhabited by 163 people, many of whom have never been to the mainland (particularly the women and children). A typhoon had torn through the bay just a few weeks before our arrival and the school was completely destroyed, but there didn’t seem to be any rush to rebuild it. Such a shame, I thought, that these children learn to swim and paddle a boat before they learn to read or write. But if they never leave this isolated village, then why bother?

As we floated in boats paddled by women in the village, I watched daily life on the water. Several small, colorful homes make up the floating village, which sits atop large plastic barrels. Dogs lounged on the porches; wet clothes hung from the eves above makeshift porches that surrounded the buildings.

Several hours later, I sat with my journal beneath the deck awning as the sun set behind the clouds. “How does one decide where to live? There’s a lot of ocean out here,” I wrote. “Do you just stop your boat and decide to build a house?”

*****

Dinner was family-style and heaping. We chatted among each other, inquiring over travels and hobbies beyond the open water. As the last dish was cleared away, Ahn walked into the dining room and clasped his hands. “Are you happy?” he asked us as a group. “Are you happy?” Ahn turned toward a girl from L.A.

“Actually,” she said, “I’d like a cup of coffee.”

“You will be up all night,” Ahn said, turning on his heels.

We sat for a few moments looking at each other, unsure what to make of his comment, but after 20 minutes, we realized he really wasn’t coming back with a cup of coffee.

*****

Kayak on island in Halong Bay VietnamMy cabin was comfortable, with a queen-sized bed and private bathroom. I turned the lights out, concerned I would stay awake from the scratching of the rats that apparently run among the walls of the larger party boats. Within moments I had fallen asleep, the lull of the boat rocking me into a deep sleep.

*****

Despite rain, we set out in kayaks the next morning. I’d been kayaking in the Bahamas in calm, clear waters before, but the rough waters and inclement weather made the paddling tough, despite the fact that I was sharing a boat with Ahn, who kayaked several times a week.

He muscled our boat between the outcroppings as I feigned my attempt to help power the boat. Several times we stopped the kayak, rain pouring down, waiting for the others to catch up. “They are slow,” Ahn said. “They are weak.”

“No,” I insisted. “They are tired. We’ve been rowing for over an hour. Where are we going?”

“Yes, we will keep going,” Ahn said, then pushed off on our random route without an end. Nearly three hours later we pulled up on a beach … within eyeshot of where the boat had been sitting most of the morning. My arms burned. Sea kayaking is fun with a purpose. Paddling for the sake of paddling? Not so much.

*****

That night, I snapped a photo of a rainbow as the sun set during a rainstorm.

*****

Junk and islands in halong bay vietnamThe next morning, on our third and final day, I awoke to a bright sun and clear sky. The emerald foliage of the outcroppings was painted a surprising shade of brilliant shade of green, which reflected in the water like a flat mirror.

We hopped in the kayaks and paddled to a small island with a large cave. The opening on the island was clearly heavily trafficked; the fragile formations were broken and discolored.

“What does this look like?” Ahn asked. “Jonas, what does this look like?”

“A dragon?” Jonas answered uncertainly.

“Nope.” Ahn laughed. “Jonas, what does this look like?”

And so we moved through the cave, trying to guess Ahn’s made-up formations as quickly as possible so that we could get back in the sunshine. Four days in, and this was the first sun I’d seen in Vietnam.

*****

Back on the boat, we were each given a survey about our experience. I had the option to rate the various components of my experience as Excellent, Good, Average and Poor. I waffled on a few options, uncertain how to handle the hair that clogged my shower or the fact that, though Ahn spoke English, he knew enough to do his job without being able to say much beyond the basics.

*****

Junk staff crew Indochina Junk Halong Bay VietnamDuring our last lunch together, the seven of us exchanged contact information as we bit into fresh fruit and discussed tipping. Ahn walked up to the stairs into the dining room and stopped by my spot at the table. “Jo, I don’t like the answers on your survey,” he said as he handed the piece of paper back to me.

“This is a survey,” I said. “This is my opinion.” I felt heat rising up in my chest, very aware of the silence that had fallen over the table as everyone tried to busy themselves with the food on their plate.

“I am not happy,” he said.

“Are you asking me to change my answers?”

“I am not happy,” Ahn repeated.

Now aware that I was completely out of cultural bounds, I tried to handle the situation as calmly as possible.

“First of all, if you want to call me out, please ask to speak to me apart from everyone else. This is very uncomfortable for everyone at this table. Now, if you want me to change the answers on my survey, just tell me what you want me to write.”

Ahn laid the piece of paper on the table, and pointed out, one question at a time, which answers he deemed inappropriate.

*****

Jaw tense, I packed my bags. Our junket pulled up to the dock. I said good-bye to my new friends. Ahn, having received his tips, was checking his clipboard for the next boat full of passengers to take out into Halong Bay.

13 Responses to “Exploring Halong Bay by Junk | Vietnam”

  1. Cam

    Sounds like a great adventure! We enjoyed Halong Bay by Junk Boat but had our trip cut short due to an angry typhoon that made a surprise visit… all the tourists had to be evacuated!

    Reply
  2. leland

    the brown rotten teeth of the village chief is probably due to his use of betel nut…an alkaloid used as a mild stimulant by many people in southeast asia….particular women…bummer about the survey but sure points up the distinct differences in culture…thanks for the article

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Thanks for the information about the betel nut. That’s an interesting tidbit I was not aware of.

      Though being called out on the survey was a bit awkward at the time, I look back on it as a lesson in cultural differences. When in Vietnam, do what the Vietnamese do, I guess.

      Reply
  3. Abbie

    This is exactly what I want to do if I ever go to Halong Bay, minus the tour guide asking me to change my survey answers of course. 🙂

    Reply
  4. Zablon Mukuba

    the trip sounds cool and everything but am not fond of Ahn. Did he really ask you to review your survey?

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Yes he did, and I did. What did it really matter? If the company wasn’t interested in honest opinions, then why give them? I actually found that to be the case throughout Vietnam. There were a lot of things that had pretty fronts but beyond what was presented initially, there were imperfections. It seemed to me that it was a cultural thing, and that was a cultural lesson I had to learn.

      Reply
  5. John

    Nice post with excellent pictures. The pictures alone would make me want to go there, because they show how much character the place has!

    Reply
  6. Armin

    On your pictures it looks like you had great weather. Unfortunately on our tour it was hazy all the time. The trip must be so much more beautiful with sunshine.
    Our tour guide (not Ahn) also asked us if we where happy! 🙂

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Hi Armin ~ We only had sun on the last day of our trip. It was cloudy and overcast and even raining during most of our stay, but the sun did break out on the last day and it made a huge difference!

      Reply
  7. Heather

    Wow – hard to believe he asked you to change the answers in front of everyone. So much for constructive criticism huh? I guess having a guest put negative comments/ratings on the survey came across as violating his ‘face.’

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I didn’t find this to be a common experience throughout Vietnam, but there was definitely an undercurrent of belief that everything is right in the country, when that isn’t necessarily the case. I think this is just one good example of that facade.

      Reply
  8. Chris

    Just found this a year late. Having been on the boat with you, Kari and I both kept looking for your write-up on the trip (although clearly failed until now), because we knew it would invariably be entertaining. You captured the trip all too well.

    And I must also say that your relaying Ahn’s comment about “They are weak” really puts that nightmare of a kayaking session in perspective…

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Great to hear from you Chris! Hope you and Kari are still continuing with your travels!

      Reply

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