Chances are you’ve seen Halong Bay in photos or films even if you didn’t know where it was. The legend goes that the green pillar-like islands off the coast of Vietnam were formed by descending dragons that formed a wall to protect the people from invasion. Joining a cruise through the bay is a must-do in northern Vietnam, although I heard plenty of mixed stories before booking. Tourism in the bay has certainly become a huge industry and you do hear stories of party boats and litter everywhere, but that wasn’t our experience at all and I’m so glad we didn’t let that put us off. After reading countless reviews, we chose to book with Paradise Cruises for a one-night trip around the bay aboard Paradise Luxury.
We were met by our driver from Paradise Cruises on a rainy morning in Hanoi and picked up two other couples from neighbouring hotels. It was really nice actually as we had a great chat and got to know each other on our journey to Halong Bay of a couple of hours or so. On arrival at the harbour we checked in and looked out as the weather started to clear ever so slightly – it wasn’t raining any more at least. We sat with a drink to pass the time until we were called on to a buggy which carried us to our boat. We said goodbye to our new friends from the minibus as we were on different boats.
Once on the boat we had a welcome drink and a quick briefing from our cruise manager who was very professional and quite charming. Then we had some time to settle in to our cabins before our Vietnamese lunch. I was super impressed with our cabin which was right at the front of the boat and had its own little sun terrace! I could quite literally get on board with that. Sorry couldn’t resist…
We had a bit of time to gaze out over the view of islands dotting the seascape as the sun finally peeked out of the clouds. There were plenty of boats around, but it still felt serene to me as we sat and watched the islands glide past us and took plenty of pictures of course.
For our first excursion after lunch we had the choice to visit a pearl farm or to go kayaking, and in a decision that was rather out of character we chose to visit the pearl farm as neither of us were really feeling the kayaking. Weird! But the pearl farm was interesting, and we got to see where the oysters are farmed, how they are implanted with a piece of membrane and a little mother of pearl bead to kick off the growth of the pearls, and of course we were guided to their shop. I learned about the variation in pearls and how they are classified in terms of quality and I may have caved and treated myself to a little something in the shop as well…
Back at the boat we had another short break to get ready for a trip to Soi Sim beach where there was an option to go “hiking” to see the view over the bay. It wasn’t really a hike, but a few flights of stairs up to a viewing platform overlooking the bay. The late-afternoon sun cast a really beautiful light over the islands. We still had plenty of time to enjoy the beach afterwards so it was good that we could do both. Mark was a brave (or stupid?) soul and had a swim in the sea, but even he thought it was cold so I don’t think I’d have fared very well being as nesh as I am. Instead I sat and enjoyed reading my book and watching the chickens (yes, chickens!) that were clucking around as the warm sun was glowing with the approach of evening.
In the early evening on the sun deck we were treated to a Vietnamese cooking demonstration where we saw how to make spring rolls and could have a go at rolling them ourselves as well. Everyone got a bit distracted when the sunset began in earnest and lots of us got up to watch the sun dip behind the islands. Understandable though right?
Mark and I ducked out a little bit before the end of the demonstration to sneak off to our appointment at the spa. We both booked 90-minute treatments which I don’t think I’ve ever had before all in one go so it was a real treat and we came out of the spa unbelievably relaxed.
Dinner was served in the dining room in the evening and this time it was a western-style menu rather than Vietnamese. We started with a small amuse bouche/starter of Mediterranean vegetables rolled up in a delicious bacon blanket and served with a spicy, tangy red pepper sauce. Next was a potato and broccoli soup with tiny bacon pieces which was delicious and beautifully presented with the green soup in one half of the bowl and the golden potato soup in the other – really clever! The highlight was the Australian steak seasoned and cooked to absolute perfection and melted like butter in my mouth, served with beautiful vegetables and a rich gravy. We finished off with a lovely tiramisu before heading back to our cabin with a cocktail as the bar/restaurant started to empty out.
The next morning, we woke up early for tai chi on the sun deck to help us wake up in the morning breeze with the gorgeous view of the islands. I had no idea what I was doing, but I just let go and enjoyed myself! If there hadn’t been a tai chi session, I’d probably have gone up to do some yoga or stretching anyway as it was so beautiful.
Our last excursion of our trip was to the Hang Sun Sot caves, a network of caves opening to huge chambers with amazing stalactites and stalagmites. It felt like something out of a movie! There’s something so captivating and mysterious about caves and you feel like you might turn a corner and see glistening gems, buried treasure, or Indiana Jones himself…I digress…but yeah it was beautiful!
After checking out of our cabin and settling our bill we relaxed on the sun deck until we were back at the harbour. We said our thank yous and goodbyes and made our way back to the check-in buildings. We had a buffet lunch before getting a minibus back to our hotel in Hanoi.
I can honestly say that if we had more time in Vietnam I would have loved to spend longer on the cruise. We were worried that we would get bored but actually I think it would have been a perfect chance to really relax. The itinerary was just full enough that I think it almost verged on being too many excursions as we wanted to do them all and fit in a spa treatment, but that was our choice of course. It was a really lovely couple of days and I would recommend Paradise Cruises in a heartbeat.