Spend the Night on a Pirate Ship in Vietnam

This is no Caribbean boat ride. In Vietnam, real adventure awaits those who travel to the other side of the world.

Avoid the crowded cruise ships and sail through Vietnam's Ha Long Bay on a pirate ship. 

Photo by: Joe Sills

Joe Sills

Avoid the crowded cruise ships and sail through Vietnam's Ha Long Bay on a pirate ship. 

By: Joe Sills
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The old ship bobbed idly in the morning light, waves lapping gently against its wooden bow. As the sun began to crest over the hundreds of jagged islands reaching towards the sky in every direction, I knew the rumors were true: Ha Long Bay really is the pinnacle of travel in Vietnam.

The sunrise from a makeshift roof deck covered in astroturf left no doubt.

Ha Long Bay, the legendary UNESCO World Heritage site, is no secret. This unreal archipelago is one of the most-visited tourist destinations in all of Southeast Asia.

Every backpacker from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi will tell you a tale about Ha Long Bay. They’ll tell you about the floating villages hidden within its maze of winding waterways. They’ll tell you about kayaking through its tidal caverns. And they’ll tell you more than a few versions of its mythical creation story by dragon’s breath. But they might not tell you how to get there, or how to escape the crowds once you finally arrive at a place that feels like the end of the world.

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Ha Long Bay is known for its towering limestone pillars. 

Photo by: Joe Sills

Joe Sills

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Ha Long Bay is known for its towering limestone pillars. 

This is the way to do Ha Long Bay right: Hire yourself a pirate ship and spend the night.

The fastest way to reach Ha Long Bay from Hanoi is to hire a shuttle for the two-hour ride to the port of Hai Phong. A taxi for three will run you about $40. However, a slightly longer route is available via train on the Reunification Express for $10. In either case, your goal is to make for a “speed boat” ferry to Cat Ba Island, which will whisk you away to the heart of Ha Long Bay in about 45 minutes.

For less than the price of a Big Mac, you’ll find yourself onboard a worryingly rickety and surprisingly fast hydrofoil, zooming past cargo ships and fishing boats several feet above the Pacific Ocean. Then, you’ll careen gracefully onto a concrete dock at Cat Ba Island, one step closer to your pirate ship for hire.

About your ship…En route to Cat Ba, you’ll likely pass a variety of modern cruise ships sprawling with passengers leaning over ivory railings with cameras, cell phones and sunglasses. You want to avoid these throngs at all costs, so relinquish any dreams of a luxury cruise in your near future. Once you dock on Cat Ba, you’re looking for a nitty-gritty, dirty ship—one held together with elbow grease and the hopes and dreams of a friendly, if grungy, crew.

Explore the bay on a traditional wooden sail boat with Ha Long Imperial Cruises. 

Photo by: Joe Sills

Joe Sills

Explore the bay on a traditional wooden sail boat with Ha Long Imperial Cruises. 

This is a ship you can hire for yourself, and this is the true Ha Long Bay experience.

Fortunately, it’s one that a variety of peddlers on Cat Ba Island are happy to provide, including Eco-Friendly Vietnam, who will bring a cooler full of local beer that even comes with ice if you remind them several times to put it on your tab. Eco-Friendly Vietnam may be the ultimate pirate ship experience in Ha Long Bay (their fleet is certainly the most down-and-dirty); however, Ha Long Imperial Cruises provides a slightly more upscale option.

Sip local beer on an Eco-Friendly Vietnam ship. 

Photo by: Joe Sills

Joe Sills

Sip local beer on an Eco-Friendly Vietnam ship. 

Both operators include isolated, overnight tours in their itineraries. And both operate from wooden ships that feel more at home under Johnny Depp’s boots than your own. Departing in the afternoon will give you or your group time to soak in the full panorama of Ha Long Bay for hours on end. Favorite pastimes for travelers? According to our Eco-Friendly guide, people from every corner of the globe love jumping off of the top deck into the sea. By our reckoning, that’s more than a 20-foot fall, and one that would definitely not be allowed by lawyers in the United States, so take advantage of the opportunity when you get it…at your own risk.

The South China Sea, as it’s known to most, is an incredible place to swim. With high salinity, swimmers float with relative ease in its typically tame waters. It’s littered with secret beaches and an endless array of private coves; and according to locals, shark sightings are rare. (Though that’s no wonder, as nearly every boat capable of floating seems to house a fisherman, fisher-woman or fisher-kid with a net or rod.)

With luck, your salty crew will have managed to catch dinner while you were underway. And though they’re more likely to have purchased it at a Cat Ba Island market, you won’t care to know the difference while dining on fresh fish, clams and squid under the glowing Vietnamese sunset. And, as hulking day-cruise ships scurry back to their ports, you’ll be left alone in solemn tranquility in one of the world’s most beautiful places.

Watch the dramatic sunset over the bay. 

Photo by: Joe Sills

Joe Sills

Watch the dramatic sunset over the bay. 

In the morning, you’ll rise to a scene of soft, glowing sunlight, ragged astroturf and masts that once held sails. Most operators offer one-, two- or even three-night cruises to suit your schedule and budget.

The price for your freedom? A little discomfort, a few warm beers and a few hundred bucks split between friends. It’s all in a night spent living the pirate life in Vietnam.

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