Halong Bay showcases the dual nature of travel today: the absolute thrill of finding an icon (in this case, the hazy outline of those towering limestone peaks) and the dismay that everybody and his dog found it first and that the overwhelming tourist machinery will crush the magic spell.
The arrival on the departure pier threatened to do the latter and to do it with gusto.
Crowds swarmed, luggage disappeared, names shouted, disappeared, bobbed and reappeared while boat after boat crammed into the port and every language in the world could be heard except the songs of nature and of silence. Or even much Vietnamese.
Then, after check in and an uneasy fifteen minute wait, all of that melted away.
As we transferred to the ship and entered our room, it vanished completely.
The magic of Halong Bay returned.
Room 217 is a Long Quan Suite, so beautiful that frankly I could have spent the whole trip sat on the private deck or inside on the crisp white sheets had I had the nerve to get away with it, watching karst after beautiful karst parade past my window as a fleet of pink and charcoal sails.
However, some guests get bored, apparently, and so a programme of events filled in the hours. (Note – none of these are compulsory. It’s just the dull sense of conscience on behalf of your writer here that she thought she ought to test them all out rather than lay snoozing and drinking pina coladas all day, which is what I’m sure most of you think I do anyway…)
First up was lunch, a buffet with a fresh blend of Vietnamese spring rolls, peanut, lime and chilli noodles with some western options available too.
Then, a curious trip to the floating village of Vung Vieng where women row passengers around on individual rafts. The unease returned. I had no desire to become a pack of tourists gawping at the local zoo. Yet despite the incongruous procession of luminous jackets on the water,”the locals” seemed content to ignore us completely as they got on with their lives. Children splashed in the water, women chatted and smiled. I didn’t see much of the men.
I did wish I’d had an interpreter (or, in my dream world, learnt Vietnamese) to get a little more involved but the beauty of the coves left me speechless so perhaps it wouldn’t have made a difference ;-)
After that, was a swim.
A cooking class on the terrace.
A cocktail hour (see, you knew pina colada was in there somewhere!)
Dinner. Fishing. Star gazing.
And then sleep, which I sank into with all the weight of an ancient anchor falling to the seabed floor.
My alarm sounded for Tai Chi at sunrise…
And then breakfast arrived and it was time to check out. There hadn’t even been time to “test” the spa (life can be cruel, right?) and, given my jet laggy state, the bed could have done with a more thorough inspection.
It was all over so quickly and as the scrum of the port hoved into view, I longed for more time on the water.
What I loved
Excellent service and attention to detail. Jump overboard for a swim and staff appear with towels at the ready for your return.
Excursions are included in the price. Once you’re on the boat, you can just relax and enjoy it.
The scenery. Just unbeatable and there’s a reason why it’s a World Heritage Site.
The beautiful soothing white of the room in the Vietnamese heat
Spectacular sight of sunrise during the dawn Tai Chi class
No hard sell with souvenirs on the excursions
Wifi at the port
The spontaneity of the staff – e.g. teaching carrot and tomato carving on the deck
What to know
You must pay for drinks (other than water.)
You must queue for the buffet – and some things do run out
Although billed as a two day cruise, you’re on the water for less than 24 hours. This seems standard for Halong Bay and if you use the transfers to and from Hanoi, you’ll need two free days in your schedule. But still, the description makes some feel short-changed.
Check out is early – and a while before you leave the boat
No wifi & no TV
32 cabins, restaurant, sun deck, Jacuzzi, fishing & kayaking equipment available, spa room, babysitting services, doctor on call, bar & boutique library. Find all the facts and figures here.
Who was Au Co anyway? Find out here…
I travelled as a guest of Bhaya Cruises for review purposes. All pina coladas my own. Oh, and opinions too. That’s right, as usual, as always, as the breathlessly exciting disclosure policy suggests. This review also forms part of the Dragon Route.
The Au Co Cruise is currently the only two night luxury cruise option in Halong Bay. The Bhaya Legend is a private charter so you can tailor your own itinerary and the Bhaya Classic offers both one and two night cruises on Halong Bay.