To do, or not to do… That was the question!
We oscillated back and forth on this one quite a bit, I’ll be honest, whilst planning our Vietnamese Vacation over the Christmas and New Year holidays last year!
I was pretty convinced I wanted to visit Halong Bay but Arjun was refusing to buy into the idea. He doesn’t like a very hectic pace when he travels, and the 3-hour journey from Hanoi just for spending one night on-board a boat in a bay full of limestone karsts simply wasn’t appealing to him. “Didn’t we already do that in Thailand?” he said! And then we met friends who had some pretty nasty experiences to share from their trip a few years ago, and he almost had me convinced to let this one pass.
But I can be a pretty stubborn little lady, and fortunate as it was for me, this was one time he actually thanked me for being as annoyingly headfast and stubborn as I am.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site and perhaps one of the country’s most popular travel destinations, Halong Bay is a collection of some 1,600 islands and islets scattered about the Gulf of Tonkin, located just off the coast of northern Vietnam.
Literally translated as “descending dragon”, there’s a bit of mystery and intrigue to Halong Bay in Vietnamese folklore. Legend has it, that the Gods sent a Mother Dragon down to Earth to help the ancient Vietnamese people defend their country against fierce invaders. Along with their mighty fire-breathing prowess that incinerated the enemy, the Mother Dragon and her children were said to have also spewed giant jade and emeralds all across the sea. These solidified into great islands and islets of differing shapes and sizes, thereby creating an impregnable wall to stave off the encroachers. And that is how Halong Bay came to be – the Bay of Descending Dragons…!
Whether it’s the legends and folk tales that have caught your fancy, the premise of a memorable cruise on the calm blue waters of the South China Sea, or simply a desire to escape the hustle and bustle of Vietnam’s colourfully chaotic capital city of Hanoi, making your way over to Halong Bay is a must!
Day trips, though possible, are not advisable. It’s a 3 to 4-hour journey by road from Hanoi, and Halong Bay certainly deserves more than just a fleeting glimpse. Overnight cruises are offered aplenty, with the option of both one-night and two-night cruises.
It’s important to decide beforehand what sort of experience you are looking for; cruises cater to everyone from the budget conscious to the flash-packers and more. If you’re looking for a party boat full of intoxicated revellers you’ll find that too, but if it’s a romantic retreat you’re after, choose wisely! Do bear in mind that as is usually the case, you get what you pay for, so if there’s one experience you are willing to splurge on while in Vietnam, let this be it!
After a fair bit of research, we zeroed in on Paradise Luxury Cruises as our choice of preferred Cruise Companies and I’m happy to report back, we came back very happy troopers indeed.
Most companies that offer Cruises to Halong Bay include a complimentary pick-up and drop-off to your hotel in Hanoi, but with Paradise Cruises you have to book this facility separately. We were picked up from our hotel in Hanoi promptly at 7:30 am in a luxury minivan. After weaving through the labyrinthine streets of the Old Quarter to pick up another 2 couples from their respective hotels, we made our way out of the city. The drive took us through rolling green expanses of Vietnamese countryside, interspersed with small villages and local communities, and was a smooth and comfortable one for the most part.
In a little over 3 ½ hours, we arrived at Tuan Chau Island, the access point to Halong Bay, where Paradise Cruises has its own private marina. After a quick and efficient registration / check-in process, we found us a table in the Café & Lounge, also run by them, nibbled on some snacks, and waited to board.
- The Cruise
All boats in the Paradise Cruises fleet are built to resemble traditional junk boats (ancient Chinese sailing ships), and do a remarkable job of blending in traditional Vietnamese elements of design and aesthetics with modern luxuries and creature comforts. Paradise Luxury – the cruise we were on, was truly gorgeous.
The cabins are spread across the 1st and 2nd decks, and the 3rd deck consists of a stylish restaurant and bar with glass windows across the room, allowing for stunning views across the bay. The top deck is entirely open, the 360 degree vistas making the perfect companion for that sunset cocktail…!
- The Cabin
Consisting of just 17 tastefully decorated Deluxe & Deluxe Balcony cabins in all, there are never more than 30-35 passengers on board, ensuring that a certain level of camaraderie and intimacy develops between all present.
Our Terrace Suite on the 2nd deck was lovely; small but uber-comfy. But the best part? Our own private terrace, right at the front of the boat, replete with our very own lounge chairs.
- The Activities
The Cruise Staff have a pretty choc-a-bloc itinerary planned for their guests during their 24-hours on board. Excursions include everything from riding in bamboo boats steered by locals to kayaking through caves, hiking and climbing up the biggest cave in the Halong Bay area in search of the best vantage point, and the chance to get in some beach time on a private island as well.
All activities and excursions are optional, of course; and you can always choose to remain on the boat itself, lazing about. But if you do opt to go along, you’ll be rewarded by views like this:
- The Food
With everything else going so well, how could the food be far behind! All our meals were served in the restaurant on the top deck, and with views like that for company, the ambience couldn’t have been better.
Meals were set menus with multiple options for vegetarians and meat lovers alike. Lunch was served immediately after we checked in to our cabins on the first day, and consisted of Grilled Aus Beef steak served with fried mushroom and organic vegetables; which Arjun loved. I opted for the baked mushroom crepes with sun dried tomato cherry and aroma salsa, and I have to say was one of the best vegetarian stuffing in crepes that I have had.
In the evening, post the activities of the afternoon, the staff held a cooking demonstration in the restaurant, and after learning how to make them, we got to eat the delicious Vietnamese spring rolls as well. Also on offer was a small shot of traditional rice wine to taste, which was just a bit too pungent for my liking.
Dinner that evening was a pre-set menu; and was sadly a bit of a letdown after everything that had come so far. Beginning with Traditional Vietnamese pickles, and moving on to fresh rice-wrap rolled with Halong Squid cake, the appetizers were appetizing enough but nothing outstanding.
The next two courses fared better. Pan fried Halong Sea Bass fillet with honey soya sauce and forest mushroom came served with pan-fried fresh noodles and hit all the right notes, even for someone like me who usually steers clear of fish. The Grilled Beef Tenderloin with Vietnamese spices came served with traditional sticky rice and had me wishing I’d steered clear of the previous dishes. Clearly the star of the night, I sadly didn’t have enough room left in my tummy to truly savour it.
The dessert, on the other hand, was a different story. South East Asian desserts are a bit odd for my taste, and baring Mango Sticky Rice in Thailand, I’m yet to find any sweets to my liking. These stuffed sticky rice balls with green bean sweet soup convinced me I should stop the search altogether; I’d best stick to fruits or ice cream in this part of the world. :/
The Last Word: Is Halong Bay crowded? Yes! Go back and look at the pictures taken from vantage points during my excursions and you’ll see; the over-abundance of cruise ships is hard to miss. Is it over touristy? Perhaps. All the boats dock at the same excursion points, and all the 30-plus guests from each of the 30-plus boats congregate in the same caves and climb the same stairs and jostle elbows at the same vantage points. But is it worth it?
After having spent a night out floating on the waters of Halong Bay, sipping my chardonnay and staring out into the darkness of a cloudy night sky, I can say, without a shadow of a doubt and without batting an eyelid, absolutely! Halong Bay is popular for a reason – and that reason is quite simply that it is gorgeous.
So swallow the cynicism, disallow the disdain, and give it a chance. Halong Bay is worth it!
Did you enjoy this post? Have you travelled to Vietnam and taken a cruise out to Halong Bay?
Did you love it or hate it? TELL ME EVERYTHING…
I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Disclaimer: I received a discounted Media Rate for this 2 Days / 1 Night Luxury Cruise on-board Paradise Cruises; but I’m an opinionated little lady and I tell it like it is…! All opinions, good or bad, are entirely my own!