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This post is sharing my non-sponsored experience visiting Bai Tu Long Bay (a great Halong bay alternative) with a company called Indochina Junk. I hope my Indochina Junk review helps other travelers who want to make responsible choices!
An introduction to Halong Bay
Halong Bay is a bay area located in the Quang Ninh Province in Northern Vietnam.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong Bay is famous for thousands of limestone rocks or mini islands scattered throughout the bay.
The area includes:
- The Halong Bay area (where all the tourists go);
- Bai Tu Long Bay; and
- Cat Ba Island.
Most cruise ships will visit the main Halong bay area, and unfortunately, given its popularity, Halong Bay suffers from over tourism.
A staggering 6.9 million tourists visited Halong Bay in 2017. As heartbreaking as it is, there are also reports of rubbish dumping by cruise ships returning to the harbor.
After seeing the beautiful images of Halong Bay, I was keen to visit but also hesitant. I didn’t want to contribute to the damage that tourism was doing to this beautiful place in Vietnam.
My research brought me to a company called Indochina Junk, which run overnight cruises in Bai Tu Long Bay. Bai Tu Long Bay is quieter, less crowded and a great alternative to Halong Bay.
After much deliberation, we decided that we would visit Bai Tu Long Bay instead, and hopefully not add to the unnecessary over-tourism happening at Halong Bay.
Why Indochina Junk: the Halong Bay Alternative
Indochina Junk is one of the largest cruise companies that operate in the Halong Bay area. They were one of the first and today one of only a handful of cruise companies allowed to use Bai Tu Long Bay.
Their exclusive access to Bai Tu Long Bay means that the cruise experiences through Indochina Junk avoid the more crowded part of Halong Bay.
For me, this was a huge bonus. While the busier part of Halong Bay suffers from over-tourism, I didn’t want to be part of the problem. Visiting Bai Tu Long Bay means you aren’t putting unnecessary pressure on Halong Bay or contributing to the issue of over-tourism.
Indochina Junk also takes part in countless community-focused activities, having founded the “For a Green Halong Bay” program.
As part of this program, employees take part in clean-up efforts (particularly around Halong Bay), and in 2017 they collected more than 17,700kg of garbage.
I loved knowing that the company I was handing over my hard-earned cash was using it for community projects and helping look after the local area.
The one other cruise ship we saw when out on the water – also run by Indochina Junk
My experience taking the Dragon Boat Legend: 2-day, 1-night cruise
Because of time restrictions, we opted for the Dragon Boat Legend cruise, which is a 2 day 1-night cruise through Bai Tu Long Bay.
Before visiting Vietnam, I had friends who recounted horror stories of the crowds at Halong Bay. I’m so glad we decided to visit Bai Tu Long Bay instead.
When we were out on the water, it was always a peaceful experience. Other than the crowded Hon Gai Harbor, We only ever saw one other cruise boat (another Indochina Junk cruise) and small local fishing boats.
Indochina Junk focuses on smaller groups and personal experiences. Our cruise manager (known as JD!) even learned everyone’s names! The Dragon Boat Legend boat was spacious enough that we never felt crowded or too close to our fellow passengers.
Our room was so spacious (and probably one of the nicest rooms we slept in during our entire Vietnam trip!)
Dragon Boat Legend Itinerary:
DAY 1: HON GAI HARBOR – BAI TU LONG BAY – VUNG DANG – CONG DAM – TRA SAN
07:40 – 08:00: Hotel pickup by Luxury van.
12:00 – 12:30: Arrive at the Hon Gai International harbor.
12:30 – 13:00: Check-in. The cruise begins with a welcome drink and safety briefing.
13:30 – 14:30: Set menu lunch served in the outdoor dining room (weather dependent)
15:00 – 17:00: Cruise to Vung Dang – Cong Dam area: kayaking through the mystery Karst Mountains in Vung Dang area.
18:00 – 20:30: Return to Dragon Legend Cruise & relaxing time!
20:30: Dinner served in the outdoor dining room featuring traditional Vietnamese food.
DAY 2: TRA SAN – THIEN CANH SON CAVE – HON GAI HARBOR
06:30 – 07:00: Tai Chi demonstration on the sun-deck (optional)
07:00 – 07:30: Complimentary tea and coffee available
7:30 – 09:45: Cruise to Cong Do area to visit Thien Canh Son Cave.
10:00: Cabin check-out
10:45 – 11:30: Buffet brunch while cruising towards the harbor.
11:30 – 12:00: Disembark. Drive to Yen Duc village in Dong Trieu province for a short break in this typical Vietnamese agricultural village.
13:30 – 14:00: Water puppet show in Yen Duc village performed by local artists.
17:00: Arrive in Hanoi.
We loved the kayaking activity in the afternoon – it was a great way to experience Halong Bay. There are also dry bags available to keep your camera equipment dry on the water.
While we didn’t take part in the early morning Tai Chi, we did take part in the morning cave walk and hike.
At times the walk was referred to as a “hike,” but it is a short 5 – 10min depending on your fitness. While the cave wasn’t that grand or exciting; we loved the views of Halong bay from the top.
Kayaking was a peaceful way to experience the bay
How eco-friendly was the Indochina Junk experience?
Note: If you don’t want to know all the nitty-gritty, Skip down to the summary at the bottom of this page. Otherwise, read on! Especially if you’d like to learn more about how environmentally responsible this Halong Bay alternative was!
On plastic water bottles:
If you’re a zero-waste traveler (or zero-ish waste), you’ll love this cruise.
While 2 water bottles are provided in all rooms, during the check-in briefing guests are encouraged to re-fill their bottles. Every time I asked for a water bottle refill, the staff at the bar were more than happy to oblige.
The encouragement was a nice change compared to the rest of my Vietnam travels. I have found many hotels to be confused at my request for filtered water fountains, as most tourists will only touch packaged plastic water bottles.
The unfortunate flip side of this is that before the activities (kayaking and the hike to the cave) staff hand out additional bottles of water to guests who need it. I suspect this is more to with ensuring guests are well hydrated.
On straw and other single-use plastic:
Drinks onboard were always served in glass or cups. There were no paper coffee cups or plastic bottles. You will need to ask for drinks without the straw, but the staff was happy to oblige.
Update 29/01/2019: Indochina Junk have announced that they are banning plastic straws from all their cruises and their office working area! The staff will hand out glass or paper straws instead of plastic. This is amazing news, especially since plastic straws are one of the top plastic polluters to the ocean! If you want to find out more, you can read more here!
Most of the time you never other boats – a contrast to other Halong bay cruises!
Bathrooms on board all have plastic packaged shower gel, shampoo, and conditioner. It would have been great if they used larger permanent toiletry bottles like many other hotels and guesthouses in Vietnam.
The upper deck toilet also had reusable fabric towels, which are washed and re-used, a small but appreciated detail.
For my vegetarian/vegan friends:
Indochina Junk is extra accommodating to dietary requirements.
We were asked to confirm dietary requirements upon payment and when we boarded the bus. I was given a form to fill out what I could / couldn’t eat, which also included a section for vegetarian/ vegans.
I don’t eat dairy products, but my dietary needs were accommodated at every meal without question.
I imagine my vegetarian/vegan friends would be well catered for, especially since the dietary requirement form has a section especially for them!
Some of our delicious meals on board – I wish I could share more, but I think that’s a post in itself 😉
The drive from Ha Noi to Hon Gai harbor is about 3 hrs (yes, it’s a long drive!) While the vans were not environmentally friendly (fumes y’all) it was nice to not be on a coach with 50 of my besties (aka my fellow tourists).
My one pain point with the experience was the stopover on our transfer from Ha Noi to Hon Gai harbor.
We stopped at a souvenir shop which seemed to indicate that all workers hired were disabled. My main problem with this was that there was very little information about the name of this social enterprise or how they operated.
Was this really an enterprise that provided jobs and support for the disabled community?
Or was this designed to get money from tourists? With zero explanation after being dropped off at this location, I was a bit suspicious. This was the only aspect of the tour that I was uncomfortable with – I enjoyed everything else!
Upon arriving at the Hon Gai harbor, the waiting area for customers has comfy seats, filtered water taps, and bulk drinking water.
Unfortunately, they do have free bottled water available. I imagine this is more tourist driven, as most tourists would rather drink from pre-packaged water bottles.
The view from our room
Sustainability – in review / my thoughts
While not perfect, I genuinely believe Indochina Junk is one of the more sustainable boat cruises available. Their focus on travel to Bai Tu Long bay also reduces over tourism at Ha Long Bay.
I loved their encouragement of reducing plastic bottles and the towels available at the on-deck bathroom. It’s small details like this which normalize reducing unnecessary waste for other travelers who might not have the environment front of mind.
While Indochina Junk is not perfect at reducing waste, I do think plastic waste is one of the most significant contributors to pollution at Ha Long Bay.
At the end of our trip when we went back to the harbor, we saw another boat (not Indochina Junk!) dump waste and plastic bottles into the water. It’s heartbreaking to see incidents like this, as pollution can reduce the ability of future generations to enjoy the area.
Indochina Junk’s clean-up activities at Halong Bay are a step in the right direction, and their support of local agriculture villages like Yen Duc indicate that their actions are more than just “greenwashing” or a marketing ploy.
Our overnight cruise with Indochina Junk was our favorite experience in Vietnam! We loved the Bai Tu Long Bay cruise – it was a great alternative to the busy touristy part of Halong Bay.
Psst – want to learn more about the Dragon Boat Legend Cruise?
You can check out the TripAdvisor reviews here
Or check out the Indochina Junk website!
I’d love to hear from you – are you planning on visiting Halong bay?
Would you consider visiting Bai Tu Long Bay, the Halong bay alternative?
Leave me a comment and let me know!