By Gilles Malaisé
One life is not enough to see the 1000 most unique places on the planet. This is why we included our personal Top 100 the phenomenous Ha Long Bay, in Northern Vietnam. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the most popular travel destinations. We read a lot about it before scheduling our trip, and would like to share some tips with the luxury traveler toda: as the bay must be discovered in style to be fully enjoyed. Hotels are mushrooming, cruises are anarchically booming, offering the best (and most often the worst) to the floods of tourists increasingly pouring from around the world (and particularly China).
Let's, therefore, discover Ha Long Bay like a traveler. Not like a tourist.
It usually takes three days to enjoy the site. We didn't want to spoil our visit with jetlag, and flown business class from Europe. In Rome do as the Roman do: we preferred to fly with the national airlines. Vietnam Airlines operates direct routes from the five continents to Hanoi, the nearest airport from the bay. It takes an average of twelve hours from Paris or London. and not less than twenty hours from New York. With guaranteed tireness; unless you lay all flight on a comfortable 180° full-flat bed. You may read our excellent impression in our Vietnam Airlines Paris to Hanoi Business Class review. The rate is often cheaper compared with European and American airlines. More or less adjusted on the companies from the Middle East (our favourite are Oman Air, Gulf Air, and Royal Jordanian), and usually better value than Singapore Airlines or Thai Airways. Most of Vietnam Airlines competitors don't operate a non-stop long-haul flight to Hanoi.
Once landed in Hanoi Noi Bai International Airport, it is possible to fly to Ha Long by seaplane. For far the fastest way (45 minutes) to travel to your destination, it normally costs around USD 400/person/round trip. This is the price charged by Hai Au Aviation. Our tip? Consider Bhaya Cruise attractive combo package, including both seaplane transfer and cruise. The price is globally very affordable. The reason why we would like to recommend seaplane? The experience is totally unique, particularly at sunset, with a fly over the bay and its islands. The view is memorable!
Taxi is alternatively a good, most flexible option. But DO make sure that you ordered your car for a few days in advance with a serious company, featuring new cars, trained drivers, and insurance. The price is then USD 70 till 100, depending on the type of car. Taxi companies are fast changing, with Grab now present on the local market. We would advise you to inquire about the list of taxis and limousines recommended by the nearest Vietnam Tourism Board official office.
Are you an adventurous traveler, indeed? So you might be a train lover too. Our on-the-cheap, most picturesque tip: invest as less as USD 5, book in advance, and get prepared to wake up early (the train departs from Hanoi Yen Vien Station, every day, at 4.55 am, and returns at 13:50 pm). You will reach the Ha Long Bay Station six hours later, after a picturesque trip on a track built by the French during the glorious times of the Protectorate!
We had plenty of time ahead, and transited by a private van with a small group of travel bloggers. With a short detour via the amazing Trang An caves (UNESCO World Heritage Site), and Ninh Binh, an awesome Catholic city in the Red River Delta, before reaching our destination in the evening. We actually recommend this itinerary, eventually spending one nightthere. We liked the eco-responsible, splendidly designed and landscaped Emeralda Resort a lot. It has the best location to fully enjoy the sunrise or sunset rowing boat ride over the still river, contemplating the three natural caves and magnificent limestone mountains, is as a unique experience as the visit to Ha Long.
Wanna stay overnight in the harbor? What a good idea! The city isn't super exciting, but a good rest in one of the newest five star hotels with a panoramic bay view is worth the try: particularly for the elder persons, or to those who simply want to feel fresh stepping aboard their ship, enjoying the one/two night cruise in the perfect condition. We booked in the splendid, 217 panoramic rooms and suites, Wyndham Legend Halong. One of the ritziest hotels in Vietnam, it is only a few minutes away by walk from the biggest Asian themed park: Sun World Halong Complex. Truly a palace-hotel, it remains astonishingly affordable: with some of the nicest rooms charged under USD 100. Just make sure that you book on the top floors, with the most capturing view of the nicest bay in the world.
Let's cruise now! Your impression will principally depend on the company you selected. A cheap cruise will be a total deception. We received so many claims from tourists who came back totally frustrated from the “dirty”, “tricky”, “overrated” Ha Long. Those who booked on a low-cost ship will receive a low-cost treatment and, worse, won't get the access to the nicest parts of the bay. Let's write it straightly: 75% of the cruisers are Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese. Usually on a tight budget. Their large, often tired up boats are stuck on a long line, spoiling the landscape... and the sea. Security stands on the very local standards, with repeated accidents.
There are three or four good companies. The most reliable, and definitely most luxury, is Bhaya Cruise. Their ships, ideally tailored for comfort and intimacy, have exclusive access to the prettiest sections of the bay, and don't mix up with the one transporting mass tourists. You can see on our pictures that we always enjoyed an infinite view of the sea and hills. The staff was young, educated, perfectly trained. Smiling and polite. The cabins were large and spotless. F&B was delicious. The safety matched the Western standards.
The “Bhaya Classic Cruise Center” private pier was located only a few blocks from our hotel. After a fast and courteous check-in procedure, exactly like in a hotel, we have been escorted to one of the four “Bhaya Classic” ships operated by the company. The nicest and smallest “Bhaya Legend” boats are dedicated to three-day, top-class cruises over an extended area of the 1,500 sq. km bay extending until the Chinese border. Allowing to see the most secret limestone islands (there are more than 1,600 in total). The “Au Co” line by Bhaya also deserves the highest requirements, for a three-day cruise.
Time was scarce in our program, nicely designed by the dynamic Vietnam National Administration of Tourim, and Vietnam Airlines. We, therefore, had our cruise nicely set in a value for money, yet first-class Bhaya Classic four decks boat. One of the most popular options, requiring a few weeks advance booking, it allows two days / one night experience offering authentic emotions. Combining the bay’s magnificent scenery, with a taste of Vietnam’s rich traditional culture. The rate varies a lot depending on the season. It was a little bit less than USD 300, full board excluding some drinks (liquors for instance), for two adults in October (which is regarded as the beginning of the peak season in Northern Vietnam).
The passengers are escorted on board with a smile. “Xinchao!”. We enjoyed our welcome drink, chatted a little bit with the staff who gave us some quick instructions, before being graciously guided to one of the 15 cabins. Larger than expected, classy and romantic, they gave us the impression that we cruised in a boat dating back from the legendary French colonial era. The illusion was perfect, with freshly waxed tropical wood from the floor to the ceilings, and precious silk over our oversized bed. We didn't expect so much space! Moreover, our 16.5 sq.m“Terrace Suite” opened to a small personal balcony.
We had the same nostalgic impression stepping into the vintage bar and dining room. Some tables had been set for the small groups (usually friends or families). Others were intimately separated for couples.
The buffet, served for the three meals, was full with delicious dishes and fresh fruits. Of course, we all preferred the succulent Vietnamese specialties, as Western food is always standard in Asia. Even in a luxury boat. There was a convenient choice of wine from the “New World” and cheap, tastefully refreshing local “Hanoi” and “Saigon” beer. The extra which we paid for it was neglectful.
We spend much time relaxing on the rooftop deck. Observing the islands and the still water. There were some fishermen junks, and cruise boats, sailing slowly over the seas. Was it technically necessary, or just to designed to deal with the tradition?: our “Bhaya Classic” was equipped with the same sails as the traditional junks.
The sunset is just well worth the trip! No picture can reflect the impression which we actually felt, more than 10,000 kilometers from Europe, penetrating like another universe. The mystery of the Ha Long Bay, described in so many novels, and seen in plenty of movies, was surrounding us. With a deep silence, quite unique in the noisy, bustling and festive Southeast Asia. We sat at a table, enjoying one glass of Cognac and smoking a Montecristo N°2, telling to ourselves: “-A dream comes true!”.
Cruisers can enjoy a good choice of onboard activities. Drinking Hanoi Beer on the deck, chatting and contemplating the breathtaking landscape, is a favorite one... We couldn't miss the sunrise on the second day, after a soothing night, while some passengers joined the early Tai Chi class on the upper deck. A relaxing way to deal with the traditions. We preferred to attend the instructive and entertaining demonstration of Vietnamese cuisine by the executive chef.
Two excursions were included in our package. A visit by rowing boat to Cua Van: one of the most charming fishing villages in the bay. We couldn't skip the cherry on the cake: the Tien Ong Cave, with a thousand-year history. Officially opened for tourism in 2010, this sheer sized cave, spreading over nearly 1,000 sq.m, satisfies Ha Long Bay enthusiasts and archeology aficionados alike.
The system of stalactites is nothing short of stunning, compared to those inside the finest caves in Ha Long Bay: such as Thien Cung or Sung Sot. The cave contains stone artifact assemblages from Hoa Binh Culture, dating to 10000-2000 BCE. We climbed up to the hill, and could capture cinematographic pictures and videos of the bay. One can't die before experiencing such an excursion!
Back to earth, after two enchanting days only, we felt like that we spent one-week cruising. The concentration of activities and the strength of feeling was such that our senses captured every single second on the cruise. We shall come back. On a special occasion, certainly, booking that time a three-day exciting experience aboard the exclusive, five-star “Bhaya Legend”. Discover more secluded islands, over the most beautiful bay in the world.
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