If you’ve been to or planned a trip to Vietnam, chances are you’ve heard of Ha Long Bay, a group of some 1,600 picturesque islands and limestone pillars in the Gulf of Tonkin. But you may not have heard of Bai Tu Long Bay. This protected World Heritage site occupies three-fourths of the bay area but is unpolluted and much less trafficked than Ha Long. Like many tourists, Him and I were unaware Bai Tu Long Bay existed until we arrived in Hanoi and began researching online and interviewing cruise companies.

Our interview process began with Ethnic Travel. The office staff was very friendly and quoted us $98 USD a person for a two-day, one-night cruise of Ha Long Bay and $125 USD a person for a three-day, two-night cruise of Bai Tu Long Bay. Ethnic Travel’s Bai Tu Long Bay cruise piqued our interest, but we were turned off when the saleswoman mentioned we’d have to spend the first night on one junk and the second night on another.

Next we walked to Handspan Travel Indochina. Handspan boasts excellent ratings on TripAdvisor, but the company does not offer a Bai Tu Long Cruise, and, strangely, the salesperson was unable to show us a map of their itinerary. Their Ha Long trip ranges from $160 – $186 a person.

We ultimately settled on a one-night, two-day cruise on the Indochina Junk company’s Dragon’s Pearl II. We liked the itinerary (an exclusive route around Bai Tu Long Bay) and relatively small size (max of 20 people) of the vessel. The price ($150 USD a person) included transportation to and from our Hanoi hotel, all meals and water, tea and coffee. Alcohol (beer: $2 / glass of wine: $6-7) and soda ($1.50) cost extra.

The Dragon’s Pearl II consisted of 11 en suite cabins, and ours was very clean, comfortable and — for a boat – spacious (a full-sized toilet!). In addition to the two of us, there were 16 other guests divided into two groups, each with its own guide:  nine Russian tourists who seemed to be celebrating a birthday and our group of four couples and an older Dutch man scouting Southeast Asia for his tourism business.

The cruise began with a 10-course, seafood-heavy lunch served under sunny skies on the junk’s front deck. Him and I were not entirely sure how to eat some of the courses – including a heaping plate of scary-looking prawns – but a couple from Heidelberg, Germany, was kind enough to offer guidance.

Whereas scores of other tour companies’ junks headed southwest into Ha Long Bay, the Dragon’s Pearl II chugged southeast with only five other vessels nearby: the remainder of Indochina Junk’s fleet.  Up close, the bay’s largely uninhabited islands revealed lush, green growth. Stacked behind those, the islands in the distance were a hazy blue – like the Blue Ridge Mountains at dusk.

Aside from the scenery, what I found most interesting about the Dragon’s Pearl II tour was our visit to the Vung Vieng floating fishing village, a cluster of wood homes on docks secured to the rocks by cables. The village was established in the 19th century as an anchorage for vessels seeking shelter in the cove from stormy weather.

Today, the Vung Vieng village consists of 70 families with a total population of 400. The residents make their living by catching young seabass, snapper and grouper and then keeping the fish in underwater nets suspended from holes in the middle of the docks until they’re large enough to sell.

The village includes a floating primary school, which employs visiting teachers from the mainland. These young women live in a small apartment within the three-room building for months on end until they’re replaced.

We were disappointed to learn the local children remain in school until just age 11 because continuing education is only available on the mainland, and most families can’t afford it. In any event, parents are eager for their children to leave school so they can help the family make a living fishing. By age 15, most children are married and starting their own families.

In the interest of keeping this blog post from becoming merely an advertisement for Indochina Junk, I’m going to summarize the rest of our trip by mentioning it included exploring a cave, kayaking in the shadow of limestone rock formations, gorging on multi-course meals, swimming off the company’s private island, and, on the return trip to Hanoi, catching an unexpectedly entertaining water puppet show in Yen Duc. You’ll find most cruises in the Ha Long / Bai Tu Long bay area offer similar itineraries.

Him and I generally don’t go in for packaged tours, and some of the activities, including visiting a floating jewelry shop thinly disguised as a pearl farm, were border-line tourist traps, but this turned out to be one of the best of our entire trip. I think the fact we were leisurely cruising through breathtaking scenery in the opposite direction to Ha Long Bay’s crowds made the difference. Lounging on the Dragon’s Pearl II deck was so pleasant that I would have almost preferred remaining on the vessel to engaging in the various activities. But where’s the fun in that?