Monday, October 2, 2017

TRAVEL | Our Ha Long Bay cruise experience (Part 1 of 3)

halfwhiteboy - halong bay cruise 01
Though of course different, somehow this reminds me of that vantage point going to Kayangan Lake in Coron, Palawan.

It was an unplanned trip but in less than a week we found ourselves aboard a Chinese junk-style boat, cruising along Vietnam's famed Ha Long Bay. With 2,000 or so mostly limestone islets spread across more than 1,500 square kilometers, Ha Long is a surreal experience. Yet with such a vast number of islets there is hardly any beach here and the best way to explore the bay is aboard a cruise.

The sheer number of cruise options alone can be overwhelming, with each operator offering something different. Your choice depends on what you want. Is it comfort and luxury or are you on a budget? Do you want a bigger boat with more amenities, but which means you'll have to share it with more guests, or do prefer something more intimate with fewer people aboard? Are you in for a lesser known route or are you more comfortable with what's tried and tested, but which will expectedly be more crowded? Are you pressed for time or do you want to go full 3D/2N?

As for us, we shortlisted several options and gradually narrowed them down. In the end we settled for Dragon Pearl Junks, which offered a 3D/2N cruise aboard a smaller boat with fewer guests but with smaller rooms. Here's a rundown--albeit a lengthy one--of our experience.

Reservation and booking
We made our reservation via Halong Bay Tours, an aggregator site. There was no payment yet at this point. Total cost was USD 600 for the two of us. This included full-board meals (excluding drinks) for the 3D/2N cruise and a USD 35/person add-on for roundtrip land transfers from Hanoi to Ha Long and back. Water's free, though, and you can simply refill your water bottle on the boat anytime. I'd say this option is somewhere in the mid-range category.

We soon received an email containing details of our reservation and later, instructions for the required 30% deposit. The balance, the rep said, was to be paid in cash in Hanoi. I asked why cash and apparently there's a 3% surcharge for credit card settlements.

After asking for a few more details, our booking was confirmed.

Shuttle bus ride from Hanoi to Ha Long
A rep from the tour company picked us up at our hotel in Hanoi and collected the balance. Our ride wasn't a bus but a really swanky van with plush reclining seats and a host of other amenities and accoutrements. If I remember it right there were only six seats and only four were occupied. There was complimentary bottled water, too.

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Some ride, huh!

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Oh, look, charging ports! Sweet!

The trip was about 3 to 3.5 hours long. Thank goodness the seats were comfortable! There's a stop somewhere along the way where life-size stone sculptures were sold, along with food and all sorts of souvenirs. Yes, it can be a tourist trap.

Yen Duc Village
With Ha Long's limestone cliffs already visible in the distance, we were obviously not very far from our destination when we made a detour through narrow concrete roads traversing some rice fields and a few houses. We made a second stop at Yen Duc Village for lunch, which was part of the package when availing of the roundtrip shuttle bus ride.

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Where lunch was served.

We were led to an open-air hall with thatched roofing. Bamboo tables and chairs lined up the space. On one side is a manmade pond fitted with a "stage" for water puppet shows. And yes, we were treated to one.

The show was broken down into segments that speak of Vietnamese rural life, traditions, and folklore. Although there was an introduction in English before each segment, the prerecorded songs and dialogue were in Vietnamese, so I really couldn't understand. But with puppets--human, dragon, fish, tiger, etc.--gliding and splashing through water in well-rehearsed choreography, controlled by puppeteers from behind the stage, it was a fairly nice visual treat nonetheless, even funny in parts.

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Though none of us bothered leaving our tables, these woven mats for puppet show audience seating are cute, aren't they?

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A scene from the water puppet show. I'm amazed at how they're controlled.

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The fishing segment was fun to watch, especially when a tiger repeatedly tried to steal fish.

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Curtain call. Bamboo curtain call.

As for the food, we were served a lot--veggies, spring rolls, fish, meat, fruit. There was probably like 5 to seven different dishes and I couldn't complain at all. Drinks weren't included, though, FYI.

We drove some more and alighted at this simple seaside waiting area. It was really humid but it was nice to see the sea up close. We also had a good view of the towering suspension bridge nearby.

We waited 20, maybe 30, minutes before we hopped on one of them electric-powered carts to a nearby spot where we boarded our "small boat" that ferried us and our luggage to our "big boat." Seriously, it's what our tour guide calls those two boats.

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It's great how Vietnam has been investing in some serious infrastructure like this suspension bridge here.

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The waiting area's outdoor section.

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All aboard our "small boat" en route to our "big boat."

Our boat
Bearing the name Dragon's Pearl, our designated cruise boat was designed after Chinese junks, replete with those gorgeous oriental sails. The boat, of course, runs on fuel, so the junk rigs are simply for aesthetics but are a welcome design addition nonetheless.

Although the boat's exterior is mostly covered in white paint, Dragon's Pearl is really characterized by its handsome dark wood. It's everywhere from walls, floors, and ceiling, to furniture, accents, and fixtures, instantly lending elegance and a luxurious air to the vessel that's evident right upon entering its main door.

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Gorgeous oriental sails atop our boat.

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There's an unmistakable elegant oriental flair 

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Isn't this corridor handsome or what?

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Dark reddish varnish against white paint.

We were led upstairs to the second floor deck for an orientation and a welcome drink of watermelon juice, wind pleasantly blowing in our faces. This was where all of us guests sat together for all but two of our meals throughout the entire cruise.

Right next to this deck is the indoor dining room, which we only used once for lunch--quite understandably because why would you want yourself locked up when you can enjoy your food and the fantastic views outside all at the same time? But then I guess this room gets to be used more when it's raining and during winter.

On this same floor are a couple of guest rooms while right above is the ship's wheel and a sun deck fitted with umbrellas and sun beds. Our room is on the first floor along with the rest of the cabins.

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Meals are definitely made more special with such a view, don't you think?

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Gotta love all the little details on this boat.

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The indoor dining section.

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Soaking up the sun at the topmost deck.

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Beautiful dark wood characterize this vessel indeed.

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Sailing ahead through hundreds more of these limestone formations.

Our room
Because we traded the space and added amenities offered by bigger boats for something more intimate, our cabin was expectedly small. Still, you can't deny that it's one beautiful room--with an air of oriental luxury to boot, however scaled down. And it doesn't hurt that you're treated to magnificent views of limestone cliffs from your window.

It's not as easy to move around, of course, and your suitcases would have to be all zipped up and standing upright for the most part because there's no place to rest them on. For smaller stuff, however, there's a cabinet and a small bedside table.

As for the bathroom, its layout made wise use of available space so much so that most people can comfortably shower or do their thing in the toilet.

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Small but cozy.

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Same room from another angle.

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Look at those lighting fixtures! And how they covered up the AC.

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As tiny as the sink may be, they've managed to fit a hair dryer in there.

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The shower cubicle.

So far, so good. Meanwhile our captain continued to sail on, incense sticks and offerings and all. For good luck and a safe voyage, he says.

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Oh, captain, my captain!

Like a remora attaching itself to a shark, our little boat tagged--or rather, is tugged--along throughout our journey.

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Tagging along, aren't we?

Continued in:
TRAVEL | Our Ha Long Bay cruise experience (Part 2 of 3)

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