Perched on the ship’s sundeck and floating through Bai Tu Long Bay, we were mesmerized by our surroundings: islets and mountains jutting up from sparkling turquoise water, with nothing between us and nature. The calm, the quiet, and the total lack of connection with the outside world made for pure bliss, and we wanted to soak it up as deeply as possible.
Our cruise in Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam – a peaceful and pristine alternative to the famed Halong Bay – was undoubtedly one of our top travel experiences yet.
A Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise to Remember
I recently wrote all about how we found out about Bai Tu Long Bay when we were debating whether or not to strike Halong Bay, its world-famous neighbor, from our bucket list. After hearing horror stories about the crowds and pollution and how much the bay’s environment has been degraded, we weren’t sure we could feel good about going there at all.
But as I was researching responsible travel in Halong Bay, an alternative popped up that sounded like it would be more sustainable and less crowded: a luxury Bai Tu Long Bay cruise with Indochina Junk, which would avoid the tourist hotspot and instead take us through the neighboring national park.
Indochina Junk & Dragon Legend
Indochina Junk is widely recognized as one of the most sustainable companies in Halong Bay, so it’s no surprise that they were the first to get permission to operate cruises in Bai Tu Long Bay, under their Dragon Legend branch.
The company has undertaken all kinds of conservation, development, and cultural preservation projects in Halong Bay over the past several years, including leading clean-up efforts and providing education and training opportunities for people living in the area.
Plastic bottles and straws are banned from all of Indochina Junk’s ships, filtered drinking water is always available, and guests who need one receive a refillable glass bottle to use throughout the trip. These are the kinds of efforts I wish more companies would make!
Dragon Legend offers one- and two-night Bai Tu Long Bay cruises, as well as day trips from Hanoi. We took the two-night cruise, and we were so grateful to have the maximum time. Being out on the water was a magical experience, and we wouldn’t have wanted it to end one second earlier!
The Dragon Legend cruise (and most every Bai Tu Long or Halong Bay cruise) normally includes transportation to and from Hanoi. But since we were coming from farther south in Vietnam, we reserved our trip through a booking site that offered transportation separately.
So instead of getting picked up in Hanoi, we started our journey in Ninh Binh, where we hopped on a bus straight to Halong City, the little-visited city on the edge of the bay. We mostly used our time there to get ahead on work in preparation for taking two days off (!), but we also had an interesting experience wandering the city’s strangely empty streets and perusing the surprisingly busy shopping mall.
Since it was just one night, we opted to stay in a dorm at Zostay Backpackers, which set us back less than $5 each, including breakfast. While it wasn’t bad for a night, it was also a reminder of why we rarely stay in dorms – the room had no space for our stuff, there was lots of snoring, and although I didn’t witness it, Ryan swears that some guy brazenly picked up our water bottle, took a drink from it, and put it back without batting an eye.
Believe me, we were the only people in our hostel who were headed for a luxury cruise, and also the only people on the cruise who’d spent the previous night in a 16-person dorm. We had to laugh at the contrast, and the moment we arrived at Hon Gai Harbor, it was like a different world.
Hon Gai Harbor
The service during our wait at the harbor was the first clue of the treat we were in for. We were immediately greeted in perfect English by super friendly staff, who took care of the heavy bags we’re accustomed to lugging around ourselves.
In the seating area, a waiter came over with an iPad to take orders. We had coffee and did some people watching while we waited, noticing that passengers of all ages, both Western and Asian, would be on our cruise. It was mostly other couples, with a few groups and families with kids.
Not long after we’d arrived, it was time for the hilarity of boarding the ship. We’d already gotten lanyards when we arrived, but as our group walked over to the pier, one of the staff passed out paper tickets. We were told in no uncertain terms not to lose them and not to put them in our bags. About two feet later, we went through a checkpoint where a woman stamped the tickets – and two feet past that, someone else collected them. Why any of that was necessary, we’ll never know.
Then we hopped in a small boat at the pier, which would take us out to the ship – and safety was taken VERY seriously. First, everyone got a lifejacket. Then, people were told to buckle their lifejackets if they hadn’t. Everyone who was facing toward the back of the boat had to turn around.
Only then did we start to motor the couple minutes out into the water – where we, of course, were instructed to keep our lifejackets on as we stepped onto the main ship. It was a level of concern for safety we’ve rarely witnessed in Southeast Asia.
The Dragon Legend Cruise Ship
More welcoming staff awaited us on the ship, passing out refreshing cold cloths (once we’d shed our lifejackets) as we headed up to the deck.
The Dragon Legend is a four-story boat with 24 cabins, making it tiny compared to a typical cruise liner. In fact, I almost hesitate to call our trip, or any Bai Tu Long cruise, a “cruise,” because the small boats that ply these waters are far from the monstrosities we usually associate with the term. But even though it was a small ship, there was plenty to enjoy – and plenty of spaces to relax.
We spent most of our free time drinking coffee in the open-air dining area or resting in lounge chairs on the sundeck, both ideal places to breathe in the fresh air and watch the scenery drift by. There was also a spa on board, which sounded delightful, but I couldn’t really justify the inflated prices. One of the other passengers who went for a massage said it was excellent, though.
Another important aspect of the ship? It didn’t have Wi-Fi, and cell service out in the bay was spotty. Maybe some passengers considered that an inconvenience, but to us, it was part of what made the trip so special. It was a rare chance to fully disconnect, spend undistracted time together, and live in the moment – and we relished it.
It practically forced us to take some time off, which was a gift. In fact, the only “work” we did throughout the whole cruise was taking pictures (and videos) and jotting down notes to use for this post.
I also appreciated the ship’s speaker system, which the crew used to make an announcement anytime something (a meal, activity, or excursion) was about to start. That meant we didn’t even have to keep track of time, which took the ability to relax to a new level.
While most aspects of the ship felt like luxurious treats, there were two things that seemed…a little off. After seeing the size of the ship, I was surprised to hear that there was an on-board pool. As it turned out, the pool was more the size of a hot tub, and it seemed to be filled with ocean water (?), which was cold and looked a little gross, to be honest. I never saw anyone using it.
The “gym” on board was equally sad – in fact, the first time I passed it, I thought, “Oh, I guess that’s where they store the old equipment.” It was just a couple machines stuck in a little space at the end of the ship, and the one I tried didn’t work.
The Ship’s Rooms
After a brief introduction to the Dragon Legend and our cruise route, we checked into our assigned cabin on the ship’s second story. It was cozy but spacious, and we swooned over every detail.
With a huge bed, artsy design touches, and a couch by the window, it felt like an upscale boutique hotel – except that the view out the window was constantly changing (and I was amused to notice that the fire escape map on the back of the door was, for obvious reasons, shaped like a boat). Compared to our normal budget accommodations, the cabin was a slice of luxury, and we were giddy to call it home for two days.
I didn’t even know what to do with the free time we had before lunch. Soak in the large tub in the bathroom? Lounge on the super comfy bed with a book? Sit on the couch and watch the changing scenery out the window? After giving it some serious thought, I settled on the last option. Sitting in stillness and staring out at the islets as they floated past, I felt so relaxed and content, I didn’t even want to leave the room.
Food on the Cruise
But it was time for our first meal on board, and we were in for a treat. Maybe we’d read beforehand that every lunch and dinner on the ship would be a five-course affair, but I’d forgotten.
At that first lunch, we were served soup, then salad, then a fried corn appetizer. By the time the main dish came out, we laughed at how much food there was. The vegetarian option was soy sauce-dressed tofu and rice topped with tomato, mushroom, warm melon, and sesame crumble, and it was more than we could eat. And then out came some fresh fruit for dessert.
I have to admit, the dinner that evening didn’t quite live up to lunch (not the vegetarian version anyway, which shared at least a couple dishes with the kids’ menu…). But that first meal set the bar high, and most of the food throughout the rest of the cruise lived up to it. And the breakfast buffets served on both mornings had a huge variety of both Western and Asian options – when’s the last time you saw a breakfast spread with an egg station and a soup station?
It was also during that first lunch that the high level of service (something else we’re not exactly accustomed to having) became clear. The staff were just so incredibly attentive and friendly, and by the time we sat down, they’d somehow managed to learn everyone’s names and dietary preferences.
Our Dragon Legend cruise was full of highlights, but paddling a kayak among the karsts may have topped them all. Kayaking is always one of our favorite things to do when we’re traveling, no matter where we are. There’s nothing like the feeling of being right on the water, exploring nature from an intimate vantage point, and propelling yourself along a lake or river (or ocean).
And I’m not exaggerating when I say, this was some of the best kayaking I’ve ever done. We went out in a group with other passengers from our ship, maybe ten kayaks in all. While we were paddling, we saw some local boats and a couple other ships off in the distance. Otherwise? We had this incredible piece of nature to ourselves.
Gently paddling around and taking in some of the most unreal scenery I’ve ever seen, I was almost in awe of the experience. And at the same time, I felt so relaxed and so at peace. (I mean, except for when we paddled right past a giant jellyfish!)
We also appreciated that our guide used the opportunity to collect the few pieces of trash and debris we came across and took them back to the ship so they could be disposed of.
I wished we’d been able to kayak longer, but one of the only downsides to taking a trip like this one is that you don’t get to set your own schedule. Besides, it was time to jump in for a swim. The water was pretty chilly (March isn’t the ideal month to visit), but it wasn’t too cold for a quick dip. Getting directly in the bay gave us another level of appreciation for our surroundings – and fortunately, we didn’t see that jellyfish again!
This was another time I was especially glad we’d opted for a Bai Tu Long cruise instead of Halong Bay. When we’d asked other travelers about swimming in Halong Bay, they were alarmed at the idea, to say the least. With the number of ships and the amount of pollution, people told us swimming wasn’t really possible – and even if it was, nobody would even think of jumping into that water.
Visiting A Water Village
After breakfast on the second day (our only full day on the water), we went on an excursion to get to know the bay a little better. Our first stop was Vung Vieng Fishing Village, a community built directly on the water.
Getting to the floating village actually turned out to be another one of my favorite parts of the whole trip. We disembarked from the ship and (lifejackets on!) and boarded small bamboo rowboats, each paddled by a local rower. As we floated gently along the water with nothing between us and this amazing scenery, I just kept thinking about how incredibly peaceful it was.
Vung Vieng is home to about 120 people and made up of 40 or so houses built on the water, each surrounded by a maze of floating boardwalks. Our rowboats pulled up to a platform with a building that used to be the local school, now a small gallery with some information about the village.
The village also has a pearl farm, where we made a rather unexpected stop (at least for me). Apart from rowing boats and fishing, pearl farming is the village’s other main source of income. We learned all about how pearls are formed and then stopped in the attached gift shop, full of jewelry.
And this was truly bizarre to me. Because, sure, plenty of tourists probably stop and decide to buy pearl earrings or a necklace for $40 or so – but there were pieces that cost over $10,000! We were equally shocked to see them on display there and puzzled about who would ever be buying them…
An Afternoon on Cong Do Island
After leaving the pearl shop empty-handed, we headed over to Cong Do Island, one of the hundreds of islets found in Bai Tu Long Bay. Only this one has both a cave and a (man-made) sandy beach.
After the boat docked, we climbed the hundred steps up to the entrance of Thien Canh Son cave in the middle of the island. We were rewarded for our effort by impressive rock formations inside the cave and an unexpected viewpoint looking out the other side.
Then it was back down to the beach for a picnic lunch. I was expecting bagged lunches or a small buffet and some blankets on the sand. Boy did I underestimate what we’d be getting. Instead, we came down to find cloth-covered tables with elaborate place settings. And just like on the boat, it was a multi-course feast.
One of the things I loved about our Bai Tu Long Bay cruise was that doing random activities on board really wasn’t the point. Instead, the purpose was just to relax and connect with nature.
But a few activities were available on the ship, and I did enjoy the ones we participated in. A tai chi teacher taught an early-morning class on the sundeck, which was a relaxing start to the day, although I think most people in the class would have appreciated a little more explanation of what we were doing.
On the second night of the cruise, there was a cooking demo, and we learned about what goes into spring rolls and how to prepare the filling. We also learned that there’s definitely an art to both stuffing and rolling them (one we haven’t mastered, to say the least!).
Some of the staff put on a musical performance that night as well, playing traditional Vietnamese instruments. UNESCO has recognized this style of music (which I can’t remember the name of, unfortunately!) as being intangible cultural heritage, and the company provides staff with training in playing the instruments to help preserve the art form.
On both nights, there was also an option to try catch-and-release squid fishing, which we gladly skipped. Frankly, from a sustainability and animal welfare standpoint, I’d be happy to see them stop offering that particular activity.
The End of the Fairy Tale
After our cruise came to an end – despite my efforts to somehow prolong it by consciously savoring each second – we boarded a bus to Hanoi and quickly got back to our usual style of budget travel and working from the road.
That evening, we checked into our $14 room, wandered Hanoi’s chaotic streets, and sat on plastic stools to eat some $2 banh mi sandwiches. And I had to wonder, had that luxurious cabin and those mist-shrouded landscapes all been a dream?
Booking Your Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise
There are currently just a handful of Bai Tu Long Bay cruise operators, and Indochina Junk/Dragon Legend is the longest-running of the bunch. You can book directly with the company, and they’re also listed on several booking sites.
Compare prices on Halong Bay Tours (the site we used), Booking.com, and Agoda (our two favorite booking sites), or read more reviews of the Dragon Legend cruise here. Before you make your reservation, double check what’s included, since it might vary by site. Also know that if you skip the luxury van transport from Hanoi like we did, you’ll also miss the visit to Yen Duc village and the water puppet show that’s normally included in the itinerary.
Got any questions about our Dragon Legend cruise? Ask in the comments!
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Looks like you had an amazing time. We have just finished our second Halong Bay Cruise (the first was 6 years ago) and I will say, they are doing their best efforts to clean it up. Boats have moved to no single use plastic and everything is looking much cleaner than it did 6 years ago. The waters around Halong Bay though, are still not as clean to swim in so I will definietly check out Bai Tu Long Bay next time we are in Vietnam. Thanks for sharing!
Jen Ambrose says
I’m so glad to hear things have been improving in Halong Bay, that’s great news!