HALONG BAY, Vietnam -- It’s an iconic Southeast Asian destination.
With thousands of limestone islands jutting spectacularly from the sea, the scenery unfolds here like a fantastical Chinese painting. It’s no wonder it has been listed as a World Heritage Site.
There are hotels in the area, but the only option if you want to see Halong Bay and do it justice is by boat.
While day tours are popular, overnight cruises are a growing option, offering more time to relax and enjoy the scenery.
The Paradise Elegance cruises through Halong Bay, Vietnam. (Paul Kerry/The Korea Herald)
Among operators here, Paradise Cruise
is the biggest, with their overnight option setting out just after midday.
After boarding the Paradise Elegance, we had a quick look around, an introduction from the crew and then lunch.
Soon after, we made our first stop, at Sung Sot Cave. It’s the biggest cave in the bay, but was untouched until French explorers found it a little over a century ago.
Less untouched was the “waiting room,” a smaller cave on the way in. It was occupied by fishing families, gone now, who used the pool inside it -- fed by rainwater seeping through the roof of the cave -- for everyday needs. There’s a rock by the pool that locals say is a woman holding a baby, who slowly turned to stone as she waited for her husband to return from fishing -- the pool formed by her tears.
Explorers found the larger cave by squeezing through a tiny tunnel in the back of the first chamber. Fortunately for the claustrophobic, a new entrance has been made.
The main cave has the usual collection of funny-shaped rocks. A cannon-shaped one -- other interpretations are available -- points toward the ceiling, where a hole has formed, as if the roof of the cave has been shot through. The cave’s real attraction, however, is its sheer scale. The best views are the ones that let you take the whole thing in.
Visitors look around Sung Sot Cave in Halong Bay, Vietnam. (Paul Kerry/The Korea Herald)
At the end of the visit we were greeted by a splendid view of the bay, but not before finding the missing husband – his two stone legs dangling from the roof of the cave.
We moved on to Tung Sau Pearl Farm, where guests can take kayaks or canoes out on the water.
The water was flat as a fjord when we went out. Our guide explained that the geography meant that the water here was usually very calm.
Late afternoon and sunset is the best time to see the bay, and the light from the low sun created some spectacular views that unfolded as we glided past. The silence here, on the water and away from the boat, was also striking.
Back on the jetty, we took in a demonstration of pearl farming. The shells are prized ajar and a small seed placed inside, before they are put in racks underwater. Pearl formation takes years, and fails in many clams for one reason or another, but the first opened for us bore fruit. Sadly, none of us got to keep it.
If all this isn’t your thing, you can always stay on board. The rooms are well appointed, with large beds and pleasant balconies, while there is a large sundeck and a piano lounge, with live music at several times throughout the day.
Edgar Cayanan, general manager of Paradise Cruise, pointed to the live music as one thing that marks out Paradise Cruise from rivals with similar itineraries.
The Paradise Elegance was the first in the bay to have a live band, although President Cruises, another service under the same group, has also had live music since last year.
It’s part of a strategy focused on investing in staff to provide services tailored to each customer. They also work with universities in the Philippines, Malaysia and Switzerland to provide work placements, with some students later joining Paradise to work after graduation.
Cayanan also takes pride in the a la carte menu served at dinner time – most other cruises are limited to set menus. The company has been working with Michelin-starred chef John Burton-Race to create a new menu, which they plan to introduce early next year.
“It’s not only Vietnamese food you have to serve because not everybody wants Vietnamese food. We have Vietnamese food and we have the Western food,” the general manager says.
“Our staff can make recommendations for what exactly they would prefer on that (Vietnamese food) especially if it is your first time to Vietnam,” he said.
Cayanan stressed that the menu was “free flow” -- meaning you could order as many dishes as you liked from the menu, but the portions are not small, and the four courses would be enough for most people.
Apparently most people order the steak, but I didn’t regret opting for the sea bass, which was well cooked with a pleasantly tangy sauce. The squid cakes were smooth and crisp, too.
There are two on-board activities: a cooking demonstration before dinner where you can try your hand at a simple dish as well as nighttime squid fishing.
A few cephalopods came to visit when we tried the latter, but were rather reluctant to cooperate. The crew warned us there would be no breakfast if we didn’t catch any, but fortunately the threat proved empty.
It turns out that fall is not the best time to catch squid here. Passengers have more luck in spring and summer.
Sunset falls over Halong Bay, Vietnam. (Paul Kerry/The Korea Herald)
Massages are available in a variety of forms, including Vietnamese massages ranging from gentle to rigorous, although at the milder end, you might have to fight to stay awake.
If the sunset is the best time to look at the bay, sunrise deserves credit, too. You’ll have to be an early riser -- dawn starts before 6 -- but you will be rewarded.
Thai Chi lessons are available on the sundeck at 6:30 a.m. for those who want some early exercise surrounded by spectacular scenery.
There was time for one more stop – Ti Top Island, named after Russian Cosmonaut Gherman Titov, the first man to spend a day in space.
A trip to the island poses a more mundane challenge of climbing to the peak. It’s a stiff but short climb -- think Seongsan Ilchulbong on Jeju Island -- but panoramic views of the bay await at the top.
As you might expect, it’s a popular photo spot, and it was already fairly busy when we got to the peak just after 8 a.m. Our guide said it was more crowded later in the day, especially at weekends, and one of the advantages of the overnight cruises was that stops can take place before or after day cruises get there.
There’s a small beach at the bottom if you fancy a dip in the sea, or would just prefer to relax in a deckchair while others trek to the top.
Then it was back to the Paradise Elegance for a breakfast buffet and a reluctant return to port.
The Paradise Elegance (Paul Kerry/The Korea Herald)
Guests can take in as many or few activities as they wish, but if you take part in all of them, it ends up as quite a full schedule, with not much time to relax and enjoy the room and the breathtaking views. If you only have a day to spend, you can do a day tour with the same activities from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
However, there are two-night cruises available for those who want to stretch things out a little. Regulations limit cruises in the bay to one night, but Paradise gets around this by transferring passengers to another boat for a day of activities, while the main boat heads back to port to apply for another overnight permit. Passengers then travel back to the main boat in the late afternoon.
By Paul Kerry (firstname.lastname@example.org)