Halong Bay, on the Vietnam coast, is a popular tourist destination. Perhaps a bit too popular. The distinctive limestone island formations have made it a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was recently named one of the New Seven Wonders of the Natural World. All this attention has made it more popular than ever. The bay has nearly 2,000 small islands, or more correctly, islets. Some are large enough to have inhabitants, but most are too small, too steep, and too overgrown to easily live on them. There are many islets with small beaches on them. Some have caverns formed over 20 million years of geological evolution, hot wet climate, and slow erosion and tectonic processes. These processes are also responsible for the various shapes, ratios of height and width, and steep cliffs unique to these islets.
Sheri did a bit of research and it looked like Halong Bay was crowded and touristy. There are over 250 cruise ships and over 500 day cruising boats based out of the port, making for a very crowded marine environment. She originally wanted to book a cruise with another company to Bai Tu Long Bay, which is similar, but less crowded, however, they never got back in touch with her. Poor customer service. Since we were short on time, we ended up booking the cruise to Halong Bay through our hotel who gave us the choice of 3, 4, or 5 star cruises. We’re not the high end cruise kind of people so we naturally chose the 3-star: Swan Cruises. Although our boat was older and less luxurious, Swan delivered what I felt to be 5-star service.
The hotel pick-up was timely and the bus ride was comfortable. We weren’t packed in too tightly, but the trip was quite long. Along the way, we saw many small villages and that Vietnamese architecture that I’ve only seen in and around Hanoi. As is the case in many communist countries, there was the manditory rest stop at some place selling paintings, jewelry and other souvenirs. However, it wasn’t high pressure and the restrooms were usable. Along the way, our excellent guide, TimTam, told us about notable sights and history of the area. Despite his accent, his English was very good and I was able to have a good conversation about many aspects of Vietnamese life.
The town of Halong is obviously developing quickly. There’s almost a carnival, Las Vegas atmosphere within the town. There’s a large ferris wheel, a rollercoaster, and soon to be a gondola ride across the water. Casinos are popping up left and right. The port itself was bustling with ships of all sizes plying its waters. Tenders serving larger boats crowded the pier awaiting passengers from the numerous buses arriving mostly from Hanoi.
Our boat was not one of those huge monstrosities we saw out in the bay. It was rather small by comparison, having only 9 passenger cabins. Our cruise had a total of 15 people so it was easy to meet most everyone and develop some friendships. The smaller group also meant more personalized service. The best cabins on this boat are the three on the upper deck. Since we booked at the last minute, we ended up with one of the lower cabins close to the back of the boat. The boat was definitely older, which is probably why it was 3-star, but it was well maintained. While the boat was moving, we could hear the engine noise from our cabin, but we were rarely in our cabin while the boat was underway, so it wasn’t an issue. At night, the cabin was quiet, the bed comfortable, and the bathroom up to Western standards with plenty of hot water and a sit-down toilet. Since we were on the lower deck, the bathroom occasionally had a foul odor, but opening the window usually eliminated it. The weather was a bit cold for Vietnam, only 17°C, and my only issue was that the heater in the room was hard to figure out and kept shutting off. Minor annoyance, since it was actually a nice reprieve from the usual heat of Southeast Asia.
We only spend one night one this boat, but I think the amount of time we had on board was more than enough to see many beautiful islets. Shortly after our departure, we were served lunch as the boat made its way out into the isles. Our first afternoon was spent kayaking. We rowed to a small beach, and the braver ones swam in the cold temperatures. We had a stone skipping contest, enjoyed walking barefoot along the beach and collected washed up shells. After our dinner, we talked with our fellow passengers and went onto the forward deck to watch the crew fish and try our hand at jigging for squid. Our next day’s activity was going to a cavern on one of the small islands and marveling at the limestone formations and views from the island. Although the caverns were a bit crowded, it still had the feeling of something unique.
However, the highlight of the cruise was the food. Every meal in the dining room was from 5 to 7 courses. The courses, at first, seemed a bit small, but by the time we got to the last course, I was plenty satiated. The food was mostly Vietnamese specialties, but there were a few Western style dishes for variety. Drinks cost extra, but they didn’t gouge us on the prices. The wait staff and manager, Tom (as in Cruise, he would say) were most attentive and always eager to help or answer questions. At the end of our cruise, we had a demonstration of carving fruit and how the chef made the fancy garnishes on the dishes. It was quite enlightening. We also got to try our hand at making our own spring rolls for lunch, which gave me a newfound appreciation for the skill required to make them properly.
One of my only complaints was that I wish they had raised the sails on the boat as I saw on all the photos of Halong Bay. Not a single boat in the bay had sails up during our cruise. Nonetheless, I have lots of beautiful photos to remember our short cruise. Our guide, and all the staff onboard, were fantastic. I highly recommend Swan Cruises and especially our guide, TimTam.