Most travellers to Hanoi also plan a trip to Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site. I was not an exception: I had read so much about it and enjoyed lots of pictures, so of course I wanted to include a Halong Bay cruise into my Vietnam travel itinerary.
What makes Halong Bay so popular? It’s probably one of the most iconic features of Vietnam and a breathtaking location like no other. The 775 limestone islets at the heart of the bay stretch for 334 km2, creating incredible scenery best seen from a boat. The number of tourists is dramatically increasing here and by recent estimates reaches about 2,5 million foreign visitors per year.
While Hanoi's old name is Thang Long (Ascending Dragon), Halong literally means Descending Dragon. Legend has it that once upon a time, when Vietnam was invaded by enemies, the Jade Emperor sent Dragons down to help the Vietnamese people. The dragons breathed not fire but pearls, which then turned into thousands of stone islands. They emerged in the sea like great walls thus stopping the invaders’ boats and letting the Vietnamese win the battle.
As my trip had been scheduled for late March / early April, I was happy to find out that September/October and March/April are considered to be the best times to visit the bay. I rarely leave planning the main parts of my trips to chance and wanted to book my Halong Bay cruise in advance too. I saw I could do it on Agoda, the site I’d had good experience booking my Asian hotel stays with, so I decided to go for it. There were a whopping 80 cruises to choose from! First I had to decide on the length of my tour and cruise. The Halong Bay is located 170 kilometres from Hanoi and a one-way trip takes about four hours, so if you go for a 2-day, 1-night tour, you spend almost 24 hours on the boat. I chose this option to have a full experience of the place and the sights. Then I had to choose the boat. Many of the reviews I checked complained about old boats of poor quality, so I decided to look for a new one. I also wanted to have the trip to Halong Bay from Hanoi included in the package. In the end I decided to book a 2-day 1-night Halong Silversea Cruise for 170 euros, including the transfer from Hanoi and back.The ship was new, launched at the end of 2015, and could take 40 passengers on board.
Arriving at Tirant Hotel in Hanoi the day before my cruise, I asked a concierge to contact Silversea Cruises, and they confirmed I would be picked up at 8.20 a.m. The next morning I was ready on time when my transfer to Halong Bay arrived.
After one and a half hour drive we had a 30 minute stop at the Hong Ngoc shopping centre. On the one hand, you may say it’s a tourist trap; on the other hand, you are not forced to buy anything. This was an opportunity to watch disabled people of Chan-Thien-My Company make embroidered pictures – their workplaces are positioned in front of the building.
The shop was quite large and you could buy different kinds of souvenirs, pieces of art, clothes, handbags etc. Food was also available. I didn’t check prices carefully myself but the other travellers said they were a bit higher than in other parts of Vietnam. And of course the stop was a chance to visit a clean toilet.
4 hours later we arrived at the Hon Gai Port in Halong.
First we boarded a smaller boat for a short sail to the Silversea Cruise ship.
It was my first time on a ship overnight, and I was really impressed by the cabin I checked into. There was no visible difference from a neat hotel room at all. The well-decorated 18m2 cabin had a large bed and a convenient bathroom.
I also liked hallways with pleasant lighting and paintings on the walls, the dining room and the sundeck on the top floor.
When we started the cruise, I had to share my attention between the sights and a delicious lunch, plenty of tasty food beautifully served.
The drinks were served for additional charge, and I bought a bottle of wine that would last me the whole stay. I ran in and out between the servings to take pictures as the scenery was just breathtaking.
The only pity was the foggy weather with no sun and the temperature of just about 20 degrees Celsius, not enough for swimming or sunbathing.
One interesting feature of Halong Bay is floating villages we saw nestling in the sheltered bays between the stones. These constructions allow landless people to farm sea creatures – each house is built on planks with nets attached to raise fish, crabs and shrimp in the water below. We’d see such villages throughout the whole trip.
In the late afternoon we sailed to Cat Ba Island to visit a cave located a short bus drive away from the pier.
The cave was not very big with no lighting inside – spoiled by the later visits to Phong Nha caves, I would say I was not impressed. Then we returned to the ship and sailed for a while, then stopped for the overnight stay. We had an excellent dinner followed by karaoke.
Next morning before breakfast I had to choose between tai chi and kayaking because both of them started almost at the same time.
I chose tai chi and was glad I did: the trainer seemed to be a professional. It was a great start of the day even though some exercises were quite straining for me after a few years’ break from my tai chi classes.
After breakfast we were invited to a cooking class to make fresh spring rolls from prepared ingredients.
It was my first time doing it, and this new acquired skill proved to be useful later on when I could make my own spring rolls at street food stalls in Hanoi.
A little past noon we were back at the pier to get back to Hanoi for more things to do. We arrived there at around 5 p.m. I enjoyed my cruise very much: the ship, the scenery, the meals, the tai chi and the cooking class, plus the excellent service. The only drawback was the faltering English of the guide but his attitude and care about travellers made up for that. So if you decide to do a Halong Bay tour, I can definitely recommend Silversea Cruises. Want to explore more of Vietnam? Check these Vietnam must visit destinations! Have you been to Halong Bay? Please share your experience in the comments section!
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