Even if you’ve never been aware of its name or location, you’re sure to have seen photos of Ha Long Bay. It’s a spectacular seascape of endless towering limestone pillars which rise from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin in northeast Vietnam. Sculpted by nature, the jungle-topped green monoliths have been worn down by 500 million years of wind and rain, creating mysterious caves, arches, hidden coves and grottoes.
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Ha Long means 'descending dragon' and according to legend, back when Vietnam was first being formed, the Jade Emperor sent down a Mother Dragon and herd of child dragons to help the people against invaders. So far, so very Game of Thrones. From their mouths came pearls, which turned into stone islands and blocked the ships of the invaders, who were driven out. Their job done, the dragons stayed on – the Mother Dragon taking up digs in Ha Long Bay while the younger dragons headed northeast, to Bai Tu Long Bay. Their ‘pearls’ still remain: the 1,600+ now-famous limestone karst islands which spread out over 1,553 square kilometres. The size of it all will blow you away.
Halong Bay was recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1994 and listed as one of the New7Wonders of Nature in 2012, but even before its 1994 honours it was high on many travel wish-lists, with tens of thousands of visitors making the journey every year. These days, unsurprisingly, it’s the most popular tourist destination in Vietnam and this figure has soared to around 8 million. So forget any Robinson Crusoe fantasies, this is not a place for solitude. In the centre of the bay there are 775 of the jungle-topped islands in an area of just 330 square kilometres, and this is where most people come to play. The sheer number of boats might take you by surprise, with traditional sailing junks and local fishing boats plying these waters alongside cruise ships ferrying tourists from all over the world. Yes, it’s a well-worn track track, but it’s easy to see why: this is a place of staggering beauty.
There are loads of companies offering different cruise options, ranging from ultra-budget and mid-range to the height of luxury. Halong Bay is going to be an unforgettable spectacle whatever boat you’re on, but let’s be honest, a bit of luxury is sure to make the memories even sweeter. Our memories promise to be very sweet, as we’re booked on a two-day, one-night cruise onboard Paradise Elegance. This is a new cruise option in Halong Bay, with two vessels launched last year. Each features 31 deluxe cabins and suites, plus a restaurant and separate bar, spa and top sundeck with day beds where you can take in 360-degree views of the jaw-dropping scenery.
Boarding around noon, we set sail from the Tuan Chau marina amidst a flotilla of other pleasure boats, heading for the wall of islands that looms in the distance. We reach the heritage site quickly; there’s just enough time for a welcome drink and to check in – and check out – our Executive Balcony Cabin. It’s far more spacious (25sqm) and stylish than I was expecting, with timber floors, dark mahogany walls and studded black-leather panelling lifted by crisp white linens. It’s old-world-meets-contemporary chic, and a very nice place to call home for the night. The private balcony after which the cabin is named is especially welcome.
As well as the Executive Balcony Cabins (there are 13 on the upper deck) there are three other accommodation categories on the Paradise Elegance: 14 Deluxe Balcony Cabins (the entry-level cabin) on the main deck plus two Elegance Balcony Suites and two Captain’s View Terrace Suites. All feature a comfy king-size bed and TV, air conditioning, dressing room, balcony and luxury en suite bathroom with rain shower, while the larger Elegance Balcony Suites also have a bathtub, and the Captain’s View Terrace Suites, the largest of all, can add an outdoor canopy daybed on a spacious terrace, and a prime location with an almost-180° view to the list.
Suitcases stowed, we head straight to Le Marin Restaurant for an official welcome (complete with traditional local dance) and Vietnamese buffet lunch. The restaurant proves to be a real fulcrum of the boat, with people gathering here for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even super-early morning coffees. The menus are replete with Halong Bay recipes, Western dishes and vegetarian options, and fresh seafood is a real highlight.
Sated, we move to the deck and watch in wonder as water vendors – locals selling wares from tiny bamboo boats – appear as if from nowhere and approach the ship at breakneck speed. Seriously, these ladies can row fast! The big decision for the afternoon is: excursion or spa treatment? There are plenty of things to do on and off the boat, including a sunset Vietnamese cooking class on the top deck; visiting the Cua Van floating village; checking out the stalactites in the largest cave in the bay, Sung Sot (‘Cave of Surprises’); and swimming at the only beach in Halong Bay, on Ti Top Island, before climbing 200 steps to the top for a breathtaking panoramic view of the bay.
Pampering won out, so it was off to the Le Parfum Spa for a heavenly treatment. Afterwards, glowing from a traditional Vietnamese massage, we watch the limestone cliffs – described more than 500 years ago by poet and scholar Nguyen Trai as “rock wonder in the sky” – take on a glow themselves, as the slowly setting sun bathes them in gold.
The à la carte dinner in Le Marin Restaurant later that evening is another culinary treat, and is followed by drinks and (very bad) dancing in Le Piano Bar next door. There’s live music here on most nights – on our journey it was provided by a duo comprising a man on piano and a woman on vocals. She had all the divas down pat: Mariah, Celine, Whitney et al. It’s hard to not sing along to ‘I Will Always Love You’ or ‘My Heart Will Go On’ and her set quickly morphed into a brilliant session of (again, very bad) karaoke with guests. To this day, I’m still not sure if it was actually supposed to.
The next morning, slightly worse for wear, I was up early for t’ai chi on the deck as the sun rose (translation: I totally had a sleep-in, but the t’ai chi did sound lovely). The second activity for the morning was a kayaking trip to Luon Cave and its tranquil hidden lagoon. Kayaking is a must on Halong Bay – it’s so quiet away from the big ships and allows you to get right up close to the limestone towers and see them from a sea-level perspective.
Back on board, a leisurely breakfast buffet – complete with made-to-order egg station – offered up all sorts of delights. On the drinks list was traditional Vietnamese coffee, which is served hot or on ice. Sweet condensed milk is added to counteract the coffee’s bitterness, and the result is a toffee-like flavour that this non-coffee-drinker was told is absolutely delicious. Sadly, this was our last meal on board and as we sipped and supped, the limestone mountains eventually gave way to the more prosaic Tuan Chau harbour.
It was all over far too soon. The cruise is billed as a ‘two-day, one-night’ trip, but in reality you’re on the boat for less than 24 hours. Everyone you speak to and everything you read about it says the same thing: there’s so much to enjoy in such a magical setting, so rather than sacrificing any opportunities or experiences, book a longer cruise. Three-day, two-night trips are also available on Paradise Elegance, or (time and budget-permitting) you can go the whole hog and book a Paradise Prestige cruise. These traditional wooden junks (there are two) have just 15 luxurious cabins each, and an all-inclusive concept that includes free-flowing drinks and a complimentary 50-minute massage per person per night. But the main attraction is surely the fact that this cruise takes you off the tourist path and into Bai Tu Long Bay (home of the baby dragons), for a longer, even more peaceful way to experience the magic of this extraordinary part of the world.
Halong Bay is located in the Gulf of Tonkin, within the Quang Ninh Province in the northeast of Vietnam. It’s around 165km from the capital of Hanoi, where most international visitors arrive on their way to the Bay. From Australia you can fly direct from Sydney to Hanoi with Vietnam Airlines.
While in Australia we can usually bash out 165km in a couple of hours without too much trouble, the traffic and roads in this part of the world mean that it can take up to twice as long to travel the same distance. So when planning your itinerary, leave at least four hours for the Hanoi to Ha Long Bay leg of your journey. Paradise Cruise operates a transfer service from the airport. And if you can’t coordinate your arrival with cruise times, it also has a hotel on Tuan Chau Island (from where the cruises set off). The 154-room Paradise Suites Hotel is sleek and modern, with possibly the most comfortable bed I have ever slept in. Tip: be sure to have a drink in the bar next door where one entire wall is – inexplicably – covered in a mural of Mr Bean.
The writer travelled courtesy of Vietnam Airlines, which flies thrice-weekly from Sydney to Hanoi. Passengers can also fly daily from Sydney or Melbourne to Hanoi via Ho Chi Minh City.