Duncan Forgan eschews the crowded waterways of Vietnam’s Halong Bay for the equally beautiful, but blissfully quiet, streams of Bai Tu Long Bay
We’re barely out of Halong City when the charm offensive begins. “This is Cong,” says Nam, our guide, as he introduces the crew of the Prince Junk IV, dutifully lined up in front of us on the ship’s upper deck. “He’ll be cooking lots of delicious food for you.”
When the roll call is over, the crew shuffle back downstairs to a round of applause, leaving us alone with the wondrous scenery unfolding as we head into Bai Tu Long Bay.
The endearing innocence of the welcome is mirrored by our surroundings. Vietnam’s Halong Bay has, many believe, been tainted by over-exposure. Bai Tu Long, however, shares all the majesty of Vietnam’s premier bucket-list natural attraction while seeing a fraction of the traffic of its neighbour to the west.
The two seascapes are virtually identical. Nam tells us the limestone outcrops that jut perpendicularly out of the emerald waters of Bai Tu Long aren’t as lofty as the ones at Halong. But you’d need to be a seriously obsessed karst aficionado to notice the difference.
There are other similarities too. Cruise companies in North Vietnam aren’t known for taking a radically innovative approach to their schedule. And our three-day/two night itinerary doesn’t deviate much from those in Halong Bay. There’s a bit of kayaking here and a visit to a cave there, with a stop at a floating village, equipped with a souvenir shop and a pearl retailer.
What’s striking about life on the Prince Junk IV is how laid-back it is. There are only six of us on the boat and we’re not beholden to any schedule. That leaves us with less than stressful dilemmas, like choosing between a languid paddle through the karsts or time with a book on the boat’s sundeck.
Kayaking is an undoubted highlight of the trip. We set off late in the first afternoon, as the sun casts long shadows on the water and bathes the karsts in a soft glow. Nam leads us directly towards an outcrop where a low chasm reveals itself. We busk our way through, using our paddles to fend off encroaching stalagmites and stalactites, before emerging in a lagoon enclosed by steep limestone walls.
The next day, we moor just off a sandy beach and spend most of the afternoon alternating between deckchairs and a blissfully unblemished ocean. Even at the height of summer, the seascapes of northeastern Vietnam can seem perennially shrouded in mist. Today, the skies are a spotless blue and the sunset goes through a vivid repertoire of red, gold and purple. The scene is familiar from a million postcards sold in Hanoi but missing is the array of tourist boats crowding the karsts. In Bai Tu Long Bay such subtle shifts make a world of difference.