Navigating Halong Bay with Dragon Legend Cruise
Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s most revered natural treasures. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is characterized by thousands of jagged, limestone karsts that jut from its emerald waters. In ancient mythology, these islets are said to be jewels spouted by dragons who were protecting Vietnam’s harbor from Chinese invaders.
The best way to explore Halong Bay is on an overnight or multi-day cruise. There are hundreds of outfitters to choose from, but cheaper is not often better if you’re concerned about safety and comfort. Over the past decades, there have been numerous reports of ships drowning and catching fire, or unsanitary conditions with rats and roaches. I opted to tour with Dragon Legend Cruise, a member of Indochina Junk’s luxury fleet that visits the less crowded areas of the bay. After lots of research, I decided it was worth the extra money to go with a reputable company rated highly for quality and service. I also appreciated that it is a member of the Responsible Travel Club of Vietnam, an organization that practices responsible tourism for sustainable growth within the country.
I went at the end of November during the beginning of the rainy season. Due to an incoming storm, the ship had to alter its course and follow the more crowded, touristy route. Despite this, the visit was still scenic and memorable.
Dragon Legend offers one- to three-day itineraries. I did the two-day overnight cruise that included:
- van transport between Hanoi and Halong Bay
- spacious cabin room
- meals and water (alcoholic and soft drinks are additional)
- stop at an island to kayak, visit beach, or hike
- cave tour
- village water puppet show on return ride back to Hanoi
Van Ride: The Start of our Journey
Our experience began with an 8:45 am van pick-up from our Hanoi hotel for a three-and-a-half hour drive to the harbor. Dragon Legend employs luxury vans that seat seven guests as transport to Halong Bay. The vans were very comfortable, equipped with padded seats, bottles of water, air conditioning, USB ports, and even WiFi for last minute contact with the internet (there’s none on the cruise).
The van stops for 30 minutes at a large tourist rest stop where guests can use the bathroom, do some serious souvenir shopping, or grab a snack. The final destination is Indochina Junk’s Welcome Center at Hon Gai Harbor where passengers register and check in bags. The center has indoor and outdoor seating areas, a snack bar, and restrooms for use while they wait for the other vans of guests to arrive. Once everyone is accounted for and organized into groups, they are led to a small boat that delivers them to the ship. Once boarded, they proceed to the dining room for an orientation and safety session and are assigned room keys.
The sturdy ship is tastefully decorated with wood panel details and traditional motifs. There are only 24 cabins which ensures the ship never feels crowded. There is plenty of room to wander, public areas consist of an:
- indoor restaurant and bar
- outdoor dining space
- front desk lobby area
- public restrooms
- multi-level viewing decks
- upper sundeck with lounge chairs
- spa area
- small outdoor, seawater pool
I was impressed by the size of our cabin – it was larger than our hotel room in Hanoi. I once took a Carnival cruise and the rooms felt compact and cramped. Not so here! Ours was equipped with a comfy king-sized bed. The room was large enough to house a desk, nightstands, and a flat screen television programmed with English and French cable channels. It was flooded with natural light from a tall corner window where a table and cushioned seating was strategically placed to admire views of the bay.
The cabin is also smartly designed with efficient storage solutions. There is a designated bench to hold luggage, an armoire to hang clothes (stocked with bathrobes and slippers), plus shelved cabinets near the bed.
Did I mention the bathroom? It does not feel like a tight, airplane restroom and is double the size of mine at home. There is a jacuzzi tub placed by another ceiling-high window and is outfitted with a shower stall, toilet, and vessel sink.
I could tell by the attentive service that the staff was highly trained. The employees were all Vietnamese and spoke English very well, often making light, friendly conversation. They were genuinely concerned about our experience and were honest and apologetic when the schedule had to be modified due to bad weather. Because the kayak and water puppet tours were canceled, the company gave us a partial refund and also treated us to a free glass of wine. At dinner, the whole crew was introduced to guests and sang us a song. I was amazed to discover that there was almost one crew member to every guest.
The guests on the boat were very friendly. I expected a different demographic for a luxury cruise, but most of the passengers were between 30-40 years old and enjoyed adventure travel. We had lots of interesting conversations during dinner and on deck and felt that the crowd contributed to our positive experience.
One thing Dragon Legend does not skimp on is food. On the first day, both lunch and dinner were 8-course affairs. Soup, salad, and five entrées were served and split with a partner. By the end of the day, my stomach was beyond full. Soft drinks and alcoholic beverages cost additional, but they are not marked up too high and added to the passenger’s tab that is paid at check-out.
Before and during the trip, the staff asked us if we had any allergies or special dietary needs. They were extremely accommodating in providing us with dozens of non-repeating, creative dishes for our vegetarian requests, avoiding fish sauce and meat-based broths. The plates we received – ranging from papaya salads to curries and cassava patties – were based in traditional Vietnamese cuisine and packed with flavor. As a vegetarian, I never felt like we were getting a lesser meal. They also catered to guests who didn’t eat seafood or were sensitive to gluten.
Itinerary & Activities
The cruise offers several excursions for the leisurely and adventurous. After our first lunch, passengers had a couple of hours to lounge on the deck and admire the craggy scenery as the ship swam farther out into the bay. The scheduled kayak and water puppet tours were cancelled due to inclement weather so we didn’t get to paddle up close to the rugged limestone karsts.
Later that afternoon, we were taken to a small island to laze on its small crescent beach or take a 15-minute hike up a mountain for 360° views of the busy bay. That evening, my husband and I signed up for a couple’s massages on the ship’s spa. It was a little pricier than the ones we had in Hanoi, but still cheap compared to the U.S. and an extremely relaxing way to end the day.
The following morning, there was a complementary 6:30 am tai chi class on the sundeck before breakfast. As we meditated in motion, both awe and peace washed over me as we navigated a narrow passage through majestic cliffs. After breakfast, we took one last excursion to Hang Sung Sot Cave – one of the most beautiful and widest of Halong Bay. We returned to the ship to check out and enjoy a lunch buffet before returning to Hanoi.
Have you taken a cruise of Halong Bay? Leave your impression and recommendations below.
Lara was instilled with the travel bug at an early age and has visited over 25 countries. Her mother’s job as a flight attendant enabled a childhood of discovering the world. She recently relocated to Seoul, South Korea, where she hopes to explore some of Asia for the next few years. In addition to being the founding editor of En Route Traveler, Lara also works as a freelance graphic designer. In her spare time, she contributes as a Local Expert to AFAR, is an ambassador for FIG Clothing, enjoys vegetarian cuisine, instructs Zumba, practices yoga, dabbles in photography and, of course, travels as much as possible.