From our Travel Notes: December 2018
The story goes that a few centuries ago, dragons descended in the northern part of Vietnam and spewed fire to protect the sea from nasty invaders! They spit out jewels which scattered around the sea and turned into small islands & tiny karsts – forming what is now known as Halong Bay & Bai Tu Long Bay.
And while we did not get see any dragons on our sojourn (a bit disappointing for us GOT-fans), we had an absolutely lovely time cruising through Bai Tu Long Bay – a gorgeous segment of the Gulf on Tonkin, known for its emerald waters and towering limestone islands that are covered with rain-forests.
Ha Long bay is quite popular amongst visitors from all over the world, who either book a junk boat, or take a cruise to explore fishing villages, the caves, & rock formations within this bay.
For us, we knew it had to be part of our South-East Asia itinerary, but then came the tough part – planning it out. Do we go and come back the same day (Sohil’s initial choice) or stay in the sea cruising for a couple of nights (Itisha’s initial choice)? Which company and type of boat should we choose? Which activities to include (Iti had a long list) and which to skip (Soh had to shortlist)? Is it really worth the cost?
The Internet can answer a lot of question but in the case of Halong Bay, we realised there are unlimited options available and not really a perfect solution. There are literally hundreds of boats & cruises that operate in the area and even after filtering out based on our budget & duration, there was not only one, but at least 10 different cruises that popped up (Not ideal to Iti’s liking, who wants to take the ‘best decision’, always).
We did some time-consuming & a little confusing research almost a month before our cruise dates, and finally made these choices –
- We decided to go with a mini-luxury cruise (with our own cabin and balcony) for our journey. Cruises are not exactly an economic affair, but we realized that the cost of the cruise in Ha Long is much lesser than a cruise we might take in other parts of the world. And we had not taken an over-night cruise ever before, so the novelty factor also came into play.
- The duration option that made the most sense was the 2-day & 1-night. Our base was in Vietnam was in Hanoi, which is 4 hours from Halong. It would have been rushed to our liking if we had travelled back on the same day; the additional day also gave us time to soak in the views of the place at a different time of day. (There was also a 3-day & 2-night option available, but that was too long and would have hampered with rest of our Vietnam travel plan).
- After some back & forth on reviews on Trip Advisor, blog posts and aggregator websites, we decided to go with Signature Cruises (we shortlisted around three cruise ships but Iti’s favourite travel YouTube vloggers, Kara & Nate, had taken this one, and that gave it the winning edge!)
- The good part about the Vietnam cruises is that the price included everything – to-and-fro Hanoi to Halong (at additional cost), all meals, activities, and stay which meant that once we made our booking – all we had to do was sit back & relax.
- The Signature Cruise ship actually navigates in Bai Tu Long Bay, which is quieter and less-touristy compared to Halong Bay
- Also, all cruises also have a standardized itinerary that includes everything from (from hiking to kayaking), so there isn’t a need to plan anything separately.
- We booked directly through Signature Cruise’s travel desk, who gave us good information and (more importantly for Soh) a better deal.
Journey into the Bay
We started our day with a serving of Vietnam’s popular Bahn-Mi sandwiches for breakfast at our homestay in Hanoi Old quarters. Our pickup was at 8 in the morning and we kept our remaining luggage in the homestay itself (why carry Iti’s 25 dresses when 5 are enough for 2 days and 1 night). We were pretty groggy (not exactly morning people!) and mostly slept during the 4-hour journey in a comfortable coach on a calm highway. Once we reached Halong, we signed up a few forms and waited at the dock with our co-passengers for about an hour, finally to board a small boat, which took us to our main cruise ship.
Our cruise was a luxurious white vessel, with a colonial-style wooden flooring and included a restaurant, an open deck with sun loungers and about 10-12 cabins for the passengers. It came with its own grandiose & sophistication and yet the super cheerful crew and a limited number of passengers (around 25 from what we remember) gave the entire place a cosy & intimate vibe.
We started sailing immediately and were directly taken to the ship’s restaurant for lunch and given our two-day written itinerary with reporting times and activities. Most of the times, we enjoy DIY travelling and creating our own unique (weird!) travel agenda.But there is also a charm in leaving the planning to someone else and going by a set plan – the only thing we had to do was turn up and enjoy. A welcome break compared to rest of our South-East Asia schedule.
The lunch was a bit tricky. There were multiple options in the buffet and Sohil was more than happy to start gorging on the delicacies, but for Itisha, the vegetarian food was limited. (There was a dish of ‘Tofu and Veggies’, which, Iti will not say bad, but to be polite, so very far off from the Indian palette, that she has now stopped eating Tofu completely. She was a little upset, for the lunch, and the thought of not having food to enjoy for the rest of the trip. And that showed on her face because soon the Captain was at her side asking for her preference and assured that from next meal onward the food will be prepared with the exact ingredients and style that she asks it to be made).
We checked-in to our cabin which was no less than a suite of a hotel – Well-spaced area with a wooden flooring, grand double bed, a wide dressing and a surprisingly luxurious bathroom that had a remote-controlled loo and a Jacuzzi with a sea-view! The best part, however, was the attached balcony where we could lounge on chairs and enjoy the breeze coming through limestone island over the pristine sea. There was a moment when both of us thought that we might just skip the rest of the itinerary and spend rest of the day just absorbing the views from the balcony.
Our cruise docked and we were ready for our first activity of the day (2nd as per Soh who counted lunch). We boarded a jetty to go to Vung Vieng fishing village. We were given a Kayak to explore the area. It took us a while to synchronize our rowing; Iti’s fear of water and Sohil’s over-eagerness were not really a good combination to start with, but we did settle after a few ground principles and started enjoying it.
Vung vieng is a full-fledged village that floats on the sea! We kayaked near the colour coordinated fishermen houses, then turned a corner to come to the children’s school and further ahead reached a large community hall. All the structures in the village were on stilted wooden beams and made in a way to blend with the surroundings, matching with the perfect calm. We spent a little less than an hour kayaking in this peaceful location next to the gorgeous grottoes and caves. At the village, we also saw a demo of how pearls are extracted from oysters, though weren’t given souvenirs to carry off to the disappointment of Sohil.
We were back in our cabin. As we kept sailing deeper into the sea – we realized that Bai Tu Long Bay is huge! The water became clearer, the surrounding became quieter & we lost count of all the hundreds of limestone islets & rocks that we saw on our way! We utilised this time (on Iti’s insistence) to click a lot of photos (a lot), (on Sohil’s insistence) to chill out on the cruise deck for sunset and to also watch a demo class by the chef on – how to make a Vietnamese spring roll.
And did we mention, we were there on Christmas Eve – so this was time for our Christmas party on board!
It was a super fun evening planned meticulously planned by the crew. There were gifts from Santa Claus which included free chocolate (Yey! for Iti) and wine (Yey! for So). Then came a round of games for the guests, followed by a few singing performances from guests and crew alike. We learnt and sang the Vietnamese version of ‘Merry Christmas’ withal the while filled with lots of food and conversation.
Of all the games that were organized, there was a game – ‘who can drink and finish a beer bottle the fastest’ and (needless to say) the winner was Sohil.
We wound the evening down with a calm walk around the deck watching the other anchored cruises around our own, the only sources of light around.
We woke up just as the cruise started sailing again. There was a Tai Chi class on the open deck which, even with one person’s reluctance, we ended up attending – though it was so chilly that we were packed in our sweatshirts and the movements a bit laboured.
After having a quick and mini (but well deserved as Sohil would say) breakfast, we were ready in our hiking clothes and sneakers and set out to explore Thien Canh Son cave. We climbed up about 100 stairs on a small cliff to reach the entrance of the cave and once inside, could see a surprisingly vast hollow filled with limestone stalactites and stone structures.
There are limited stopping points and activities in the Halong Bay and with the increased influx of tourists and cruise ships and limited itinerary, there is always an expectancy of huge crowds. Luckily (or maybe planned by our Captain) ours was one of the first group to reach the spot and we had good enough time without much crowd to explore the reflecting hues and diminishing lights of the various segments and paths of the caves.
But by the time we were starting back, there was a huge line just to get into the caves! After enjoying some stunning views of the bay from the top of the islet, we were back to the warmth of our cabin.
Brunch came early, thankfully, with more variety for Sohil and as promised a fried rice combo for Iti.
We lazed around a bit more and spent some more time on the deck and it was soon check-out time. Within the next hour, we were packed, landed back on land and were off to Hanoi dozing in the comfort of the coach.
We were back in Hanoi by afternoon, and it seemed like crazy madness compared to the serene beauty and calm of the Halong Bay; scooters everywhere honking, people everywhere in hurry and it felt for a moment that we were in Chandni Chowk in Delhi. But Hanoi has a very different charm owing to the language of conversations, the smell of the food and the façade which was a mix of rustic and neon.
Ha Long was our perfect mini-cruise vacay. A first-time cruise experience in such a breath-taking landscape.
In summary, the priority list of decisions for cruising in Ha Long / Bai Tu Long Bay comes down to the following –
- The cruise company (and the ship) – too large and it might feel like crowded
- The mix of inclusive activities
- The duration which is worthwhile
We were delighted with our decisions and lost ourselves in the calm sea and the bay of wonders loving every minute of it.
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