After a disastrous four hour drive from Hanoi with a four year old with tummy trouble (resulting in some unexpected stops at places even my trusty White King wipes feared to go) we arrived at the bustling port of Ha Long town. Porters trollied luggage around, tourists sat around drinking warm beer and tenders buzzed around, ferrying their bright orange jacketed cargo to and from the floating palaces in the bay.

There are plenty of junk cruises available on Ha Long Bay, and we had been tossing up between the new Au Co and the Violet Cruise operated by Heritage Lines. We chose the latter because it had only six cabins and we thought the smaller boutique option and colonial style more appealing.

The Violet cruise is neither hip nor super-luxurious but it was delightful and exactly what we wanted. Just to give you an idea: an announcement was made during dinner one evening that we had a honeymoon couple on board (obligatory clapping) and then “Tonight I Celebrate My Love For You” came on at perhaps a slightly louder than desirable pitch. How can you be churlish about that? It was really sweet. Let’s just say the cruise is better described as fun and friendly rather than ultra luxe. Despite that, it is very well organised, the staff are friendly and gracious, the food was excellent and the cabins quite possibly the most spacious on the bay. With dark timber flooring, teak furniture and distinctly Asian accents, they were exactly as expected. An initial mix up with our room request was professionally rectified by our cruise director, Hai and we settled happily into our Dragon suite, with its lovely balcony at the front of the boat.

However we soon discovered that the upper deck of the junk was just as lovely, with ironwork lanterns and potted palms, a small bar and plenty of comfortable lounges from which to photograph the passing parade of stunning vistas, have a cocktail or play some scrabble.

This was our first “cruise” per se, and I wasn’t sure what I would do with myself. As it transpired, there was barely a moment to catch my breath between visiting local villages by bamboo boat or on the back of a motorcycle; kayaking and swimming, tai chi and sunset cocktails………I tell you, it was exhausting.

But extremely rewarding. Ha Long bay is beautiful and its Unesco status means that the government, local tour companies and indigenous villages have gone to great lengths to preserve its misty mountains and glassy green waters in as pristine a state as possible (with the exception of Siosim Island – more below).  It’s well worth doing the two night cruise rather than the one night, as all the best scenery takes place on the second day, where the bay is most unspoilt. Sea kayaking amongst the limestone outcrops and under arches and caves, our bright orange craft slicing through the black-green water with barely a ripple, was a wonderful way to get up close and personal with the bay.

The beach swim on Siosim Island was a great disappointment however, with all the junks in the area disgorging their hordes on a daily basis. I’m not sure if the bay acts as a collection point for rubbish by reason of the tides and currents, or if there is just no litter control whatsoever, but swimming in it is akin to the garbage compacting scene in Star Wars.

However the villages we visited had a rare sense of community. The villagers went about their daily lives – mending fishing nets, chatting to neighbours, cooking delicious-smelling things in battered tin pots, schooling their children, and tending their crops – regardless of the parade of tourists.

I told my four year old the (slightly embellished) story of how a dragon was said to have fallen from the sky into the bay, and the thousands of triangular pointed islands were its teeth, now covered by jungles and with eagles nesting in them.

Our guide at one stage asked, jokingly, if we would like to stay the night in the floating village with no internet, no television, and no electricity. Secretly I thought it sounded like bliss: to be rocked to sleep in a hammock, floating on a raft with only the light from nearby fishing boats and the occasional star to see by, surrounded by the ossified teeth of an ancient dragon.