If you all are ANYTHING like me, you’re insanely overwhelmed with the options for booking a Halong Bay cruise, or a Bai Tu Long Bay cruise, which the bay WITHIN Halong bay. There are at least 30 companies with professional websites set up that all look great, another 20 or so you’ll see recommended in guide books, and another (approximately) 8 billion companies ready to sell you a tour from a side-of-the-road travel agent in Hanoi. It’s overwhelming and way harder than it should be to figure out which one is the best Bai Tu Long Bay cruise.
If you need help deciding, check out my post “How to Pick a Halong Bay Tour” (which I haven’t written yet, sorry!) But if you don’t want to do the leg work and just want to know which actually is the best Bai Tu Long Bay cruise, here’s the answer, cause I spent about three weeks doing the research: The Treasure Junk, with Handspan Travel. The tour was affordable, off-the-beaten-path, active, and just the right amount of luxurious.
Here’s my experience and recommendations for a three-day, two-night EPIC sail with Handspan.
Day One in Halong Bay:
Your trip starts early from Hanoi, which is great, as you don’t have to pay extra for the ride to Halong City (which many companies charge anywhere from $20-$40 USD per person for.) You leave early in the morning and get to Halong City around noon. The drive goes by pretty quick, with one rest stop, and if you are lucky enough to have the guide we did (shout out to Duc,) he’ll share stories about life in Vietnam and how much it’s changed in the last 30 years.
When you arrive in Halong City, you’ll take a quick minute to get checked in at the private Handspan lounge (or enjoy your last few minutes of WiFi for a few days!) and then you’re off to the boat. Well, actually, you’re off to a little ferry taxi type thing, but that’ll take you out to your home for the next two nights: The Treasure Junk!
Upon entering the boat, you’ll be greeted with a kind-of-cheesey-but-fun drum solo of sorts, followed by a welcome cocktail as everyone relaxes in the dining room. Your guide will then show you the route and explain the agenda for the coming day, but realistically, you’ll be taking in the views and probably won’t hear anything. After he’s done, it’s off to explore your room.
And *damn*, what a room…
Our room was….well, it was epic. No other way to describe it. It was generously sized, had three huge windows and an oversized couch, and a private sundeck! Full disclosure: we were in the suite, of which there are two. What REALLY blew me away about the room, though, was the amazing bathroom, in dark marbles with a private Jacuzzi (with a huge window looking out to the bay) and private steam room. Whaaaaaaat!? It even had extra little touches like a vintage phone and basket of exotic fruit. We were blow away! I think I knew this was the best Bai Tu Long Bay cruise within, like, five minutes of arrival.
We didn’t have long to ooh and ahh at our room though, since lunch was served on board while we sailed.
I’m pretty bad at describing food, except to say “I like it” or “wait, no I don’t,” but the food on this cruise was bombAF. Everything was so good (the best we had during our three weeks in Vietnam) AND plentiful – you get at least five or six courses with every meal. I don’t eat red meat, nor do I like squid, and it seemed to be no problem at all for them to accommodate that request with other tasty, creative dishes.
Lunch was fantastic, but come early afternoon, it was time for what we were really looking forward to: kayaking!
That afternoon cemented in our minds the fact that the Treasure Junk was definitely the best Bai Tu Long Bay cruise. We spent about three hours kayaking around the karst mountains, and Duc, our guide, was super informative when it came to talking about Halong Bay. It was also really easy to tell how passionate he is about the bay, from his obvious enthusiasm for the coral and kelp we found to the way he went out of his way to pull the occasional pieces of trash we saw out of the water.
The afternoon of our first day was spent paddling and then swimming at a private beach in the middle of the bay – not too shabby!
For the rest of Day 1, we returned to our boat, enjoyed some cocktails, had another fantastic dinner, and, as is Halong Bay tradition, did a little late-night squid fishing. No bites, but I probably would have freaked out if I caught one anyway.
Day Two in Ha Long Bay:
Day two was maybe the best day of our whole Vietnam trip. During breakfast, you’ll cruise pretty far out into a smaller area of Halong Bay – THIS is Bai Tu Long Bay! This is the edge, if you will, of Halong Bay. Not many vessels go this far out and as a result, you’ll have views to yourself and no shortage of private space.
After breakfast, you’ll transfer to a smaller day vessel, though it still has plenty of indoor and outdoor space for everyone. Our morning started with a leisurely paddle past a floating village into a series of remote bays. The water levels will determine which bays you can and can’t access, and unfortunately, we had trouble getting into some of what our guide considered to be the best bays. We were able, though, to access quite a few, and managed to see monkeys, rare coral, and unbelievable jungle and rock formations that really feel like another world. We then paddled to a few private beaches close enough to swim from one to another – pretty amazing.
For lunch, we paddled back to the boat, where we offered coffee and tea. Fair warning: it’s not free. Even though they’ll come and offer you one, you’re going to get a bill for it later. Granted, it’s only going to set you back about $1USD, but even so, know it’s not a gift.
Lunch back on the boat was as fabulous as the meals on the main boat – my memory is a little fuzzy, but you won’t be hungry at all. And, during the lunch period, you can do what you’re *technically* not supposed to be doing at all – flinging yourself off the side of the boat into Bai Tu Long Bay’s waters. That’s right – you can jump off the boats! Yet another reason this is the best Bai Tu Long Bay cruise. In defense of Handspan Travel, they told us it was not allowed and that we shouldn’t do it – they covered their bases.
The afternoon is filled with a much longer paddle, though you have the option of skipping it and relaxing on the boat if your arms are a bit sore. In addition to cruising under and through karst (limestone) formations, we made a stop at a remote cave system and enjoyed a brief tour from our guide, who it turns out is passionate about both the Bay’s waters and geological formations.
Post-cave, the normal route is to kayak back to the day-boat, but we actually opted for a much longer route and kayaked all the way back to our main boat. All in, I’d say we paddled 6 – 8 miles in the day, so it’s definitely best for people who don’t mind sore muscles.
On the evening of day two is where having the suite becomes extra enjoyable. Imagine a fresh fruit cocktail and Jacuzzi tub below oversized windows open to a Halong bay sunset. It’s literally perfect.
Day Three in Bai Tu Long Bay: we need another day!
Day three was what I was most unsure about – it didn’t include kayaking, and instead included a visit to a pearl farm, where I assumed we’d be pressured into buying overpriced jewelry. Fortunately, my trepidation was unwarranted, as it turned out to be quite the unique experience. The floating village we visited, though touristy, offered amazing views from our four-person bamboo boat, and it turns out the pearl farm was really interesting. The oysters are raised on site, though they’re “seeded” with chemicals to encourage them to develop pearls.
Truly, the worst part of the day was returning to port and watching the time tick down to when we’d have to leave beautiful Halong Bay.
I really can’t recommend Handspan enough as being the best Bai Tu Long Bay cruise. Many of the tours we looked at were built around leisure, not adventure, and Handspan really was the exception. We did a fantastic amount of kayaking, we had a guide who you could tell was passionate about his job and the formations of Halong Bay, and the food and cabins were well worth the price. I strongly recommend considering the Treasure Junk for anyone looking to really experience Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay in an up-close and personal way. Honestly, I really just wish they had a five day tour!
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Disclosure statement: Handspan Travel provided upgraded accommodations to a suite in consideration of this post. HOWEVER – we selected, booked and paid for Handspan travel before that happened, so you can rest assured the opinions are unbiased.