The last leg of our Vietnam adventure was modestly luxurious: a two-night cruise on Bai Tu Long Bay, the newer, cleaner, less known and less-overwhelmed-by-tourists neighbour of Ha Long Bay. Ha Long is said to have over 1000 cruise boats packed like sardines and Bai Tu Long doesn’t. That’s the big difference. Bai Tu Long’s karst geology is similarly magnificent and we’re happy to have taken the path less travelled.
Cruise choices are simple: pick one night or two and the number of stars. We took the two night, four star option and booked through Alex, cousin of our Ninh Binh homestay host. You can email him at email@example.com. The process was straightforward. Alex researched various options, took care of the details and made sure we got a fair price. We left a small deposit with our host and met up in Hanoi to finalize the deal. We were offered three price options starting at US$210 but went with the four star, US$300 Huong Hai Sealife cruise. It was worth it. We got a shuttle from our Hanoi hotel, a nice, new-ish, clean boat, good food, friendly staff, spacious cabin, queen bed and private balcony. All as promised. Note that “two days” or “three days” is a generous description as it’s really a 24 or 48 hour period stretched over two or three calendar days. If you want one full day plus half a day at either end, choose the two night option.
That was then, before Covid-19, and now is now. I have no idea what these people will do as the tourist industry collapses but it will be very, very difficult.
Huang Hai picked us up at our hotel at 7:30 for noon boarding in Haiphong. From there we headed out through Bai Tu Long’s many islands, visited Thien Canh Son cave, went kayaking, learned to make spring rolls and ate. The trick to spring rolls, by the way, is the egg yolk wash. It glues everything together. After an evening Tai Chi session, the Sealife dropped anchor and we spent the night with other boats at the Cong Do sleeping area. It was not crowded, there was no noise, the water was clean, the air was fresh, and the sea was calm.
As it turned out, we were the only two-night customers so, after breakfast and a visit to Vung Vieng fishing village, we headed out on our own tender while the mother ship returned to Haiphong for a fresh load of customers. With our private guide, we visited Thay cave, had a long kayak trip, a fantastic lunch and a swim at a secluded Cap La beach. It was back to the ship for supper and another night at Cong Do.
The scenery is magical and, regardless of the activities, scenery is why you go on these cruises. Be sure to get up for the sunrise. It was peaceful and lovely.
Next morning we headed back to Hanoi and finished in style at the four star O’Gallery Majestic Hotel (US$70 through Expedia). This was a rare treat for downmarket travellers like us and it really was quite good: their service was fantastic, the included breakfast buffet was extraordinarily varied and huge and they even loaned us a room for a quick shower before our late departure the next day. Maybe five star is even better but I can’t see how and probably never will.
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