One of the must do’s if you are visiting Hanoi is a side trip to Halong Bay. I personally have done it twice – once on a bit of a budget and most recently in style on Indochina Sails. Indochina Sails presents a truly elegant cruising experience on its lovingly restored, lacquered wood, antique junk.
It all starts with a morning drive from Hanoi, which is about 3 hours – your boat will arrange transport from your hotel. Undoubtedly around the halfway point you will stop at some souvenir shops…these are usually prearranged with the driver (unbeknownst to the passenger) and we suspect he gets some sort of commission. You can either spend time here or go quickly. I will say on my more budget trip the caliber of the shop reflected the caliber of the trip. However on this one, we managed to stop off at a place where they were making pottery and statues, so for some of us, it was actually truly interesting to wander around the workshop and see the vases being hand painted and then kiln fired.
As we drove past the dock where I took off last time (full of backpackers standing around in a dusty parking lot and loading their own baggage), I was relived to arrive at an entirely civilized departure point repleat with coffee and gift shop. If you are traveling Indochina Sails a steward will meet you at the coffee shop and whisk away your luggage while you check in. After a short ride to in a smaller boat, you board the junk and are immediately enveloped in old world elegance.
After checking in, lunch is served. We enjoyed (Sup Kem Bi Do) pumpkin soup;
(Nem Tuoi Cuon Phuc Vu Cung Nuoc) fresh spring rolls with fish sauce and green papaya salad;
(Tom He Ha Long Chien Xot Me) fried Halong shrimp with tamarind sauce;
(Ga Nuong Cung La Chanh Tuoi) grilled chicken with lemon leaves;
(Than Ca Vuoc Nuong Phuc Vu Cung Bun Tuoi Va Nuoc Cham Duc Biet) grilled fish with rice and classic sauce;
(Cocktail Hoa Qua & Sua Chua) fruit cocktail and yogurt.
The pumpkin soup was really excellent – smooth and creamy. And the spring rolls were also a hit.
Overall, it should be noted that while the food is good, this is not a culinary cruise. In my book, the welcome lunch was probably the best. The other meals were buffet style, which is often not my preference. The dinner buffet did however feature some tasty steamed littleneck clams. With that said, all food is included in your per person rate, its just wine, beer, coffee or tea you will pay extra for a mealtime (excepting breakfast where the coffee / tea is complimentary.)
The real attraction however on this trip is the majestic scenery of the peridot green Halong Bay and the limestone rocks that make the view so dramatic and compelling. Halong Bay was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1994. As a result the waters and the land are well maintained and one can be sure that the beauty will be preserved.
And beyond the beauty that you can see there is lots of beauty that you cannot. This is where the ship’s excursions come in. On day one you can visit Titop island and hike 400+ steps to the top for a panoramic view of the bay.
Also on offer is a 1 hour kayak trip (+$10 USD pp) or a visit to a local fishing village. We chose the kayak trip and so we set out with a guide to explore the bay. It was really fantastic being so close to the water after having admired it sparkling gem-like qualities from on high. I was really hoping it would be translucent, but it wasn’t. So instead we got a little arm and shoulder workout as we maneuvered underneath low hanging cave entrances and admired the limestone rock formations.
Once back on board, there is a happy hour. Again, all drinks are a la carte, but if you do want to participate in an all you can drink 60 minute happy hour for $15USD the option is yours. The nice thing about Vietnam is given their French colonial heritage, they get a nice selection of French wines. I enjoyed a crisp Sauvignon Blanc on the upper deck with friends as we chatted about the day we had enjoyed and the day ahead. It was a perfect night, a bit crisp and breezy, and as I enjoyed my wine and conversation, the cares of the world melted away and I was in a rare state (for me anyway) of truly being 100% present in the moment.
Later that night, we slept quite comfortably in our cabin. The boat had docked for the night and was quite still in the placid waters of the bay. Paul was worried he wouldn’t be able to sleep on a boat, but his concerns melted away as he fell into a very deep sleep. In fact, in the morning we were both surprised how well we had slept – probably a combination of exercise, fresh air and good wine.
Day 2 started with an early morning trip to Sung Sot Cave (also known as Surprise Grotto) on Bon Hon island where you can climb the 100 steps to the cave entrance and explore for about an hour. Inside the grotto, Light illuminates the passage so you can see thousands of stalactites and stalagmites along the 500-meter paved passage. It’s probably the only grotto of its kind that I have personally seen and so it lives large in my memory. I wish it was a little more rustic rather than tourist heavy, but in the end I am glad I visited.
After the morning excursion the boat heads back to the dock and it is time to head back to Hanoi. Another 3 hour drive, another stop at a souvenir shop. As we recounted the trip during our ride back, myself, Paul and the other 5 travelers who were with us agreed that Halong Bay was an absolutely spectacular thing to see and doing it aboard the Indochina Sails was time and money well spent.
To contact Indochina Sails, you can do so through their wesbite below.
$165 USD pp for a double room, includes meals and transport. Dos not include some activities like kayaking.