Picture almost two thousands small islands and islets rising sharply from emerald green waters. Beautiful limestone rock faces sparkling under the sun’s gaze. Clingy green rainforest vines springing from rocky crevices and netting large areas of the rugged, uninhabited islands. Sea eagles circling above. Lone fishermen wading in shallow waters off the sand in sheltered inlets. Sound like paradise? Close enough. I’m describing Halong Bay in northwest Vietnam and we were privileged to explore the area with a luxury Halong Bay cruise.
When I thumbed through the itinerary for the three-day, two-night cruise around Halong Bay with Paradise Cruises, every box had been ticked from food to a little fun fitness; the perfect way to explore the UNESCO World Heritage site. This was my first cruise too, so I wanted it to be extra special. How did it go? It went a little something like this:
Waiting with a heart starter in hand in Hanoi, nine of us boarded a mini-bus bound for Halong Bay. There isn’t an airport near Halong Bay, so transfers are provided by most cruise companies. It’s about a four-hour drive from Hanoi to Halong Bay. The bus was very comfortable. I enjoyed the scenery as I indulged my latest obsession for listening to podcasts (nerd alert), and even splurged on a new dress at our rest stop, during the trip (we women are efficient like that).
We arrived at Tuan Chau Island wharf just after 12pm where Paradise Cruises has their own cafe and the Paradise Suites Hotel. This is the place to check your emails in preparation to unplug for a few days. There isn’t any wifi on the boat. If you have a healthy addiction to the internet or social media (like me), don’t worry, you won’t even miss it once you’re on the cruise.
After a short wait, we walked the bright blue boardwalk to our boat, Paradise Luxury I. Once onboard, our Cruise Director, Christophe introduced us to the crew as we took our seats in the dining room where our tables were set for lunch. As we sailed off, lunch was served. Bright, colourful salads, fresh spring rolls, rice noodles topped with aromatic herbs glowed from the buffet table. We followed the healthy entree with a piece of Australian steak served with steamed vegetables and a rich sauce along with a stuffed chicken breast. There was dessert buffet too and we couldn’t resist a little taste. The food was amazing and it was a literal taste tease of the quality of food we would be served over the next couple of days.
Deluxe Balcony Cabin
After lunch we settled into our Deluxe Balcony Cabin. As we stepped inside the first thing I noticed was the view. Those stunning limestone pillars passed by, almost as if we could touch them. It’s such a surreal setting to be sailing through. Looking around at the luxurious digs, there was a double bed (which was extremely comfortable) topped with plush pillows with dark wood bedside tables to either side and lamps above. Gorgeous artworks hung on the soft yellow bagged walls added a cosy appeal to the room. A generous balcony with a table was waiting outside – another great place to take in the scenery and chat to the hawkers that row up to the side of the boat to sell their wares. The bathroom has everything you’d need, including a hairdryer. Overall, the cabin was a cosy and comfortable space and a lovely place to spend a little down town. (Tip: Make sure you get the room with the balcony. It’s such a great little place to enjoy an afternoon cuppa or early evening tipple).
Hiking on Ti Top Island
We soon arrived at Ti Top Island. The island was named after a Soviet astronaut Ghermann Titov after he visited it back in 1962. Ti Top is small, featuring a steep peak and a cute, crescent shaped white sandy beach. It welcomes tourists all day long who hike up the peak and play at the beach. After climbing about 400 steps to the peak, you’ll see why it’s so popular. It’s the perfect place to take in a 360 degree view of Halong Bay and it was a great way for us to appreciate the beauty and vastness of the stunning seascape. If you’re fit, you’ll find it easy. If you’re not, you’ll just have to take your time because it’s well worth the work to get to the top and it only takes about 10 minutes to hike up.
We had a quick dip at the beach after our hike to cool off and relaxed on the sand for about an hour before being transferred back to the boat in time for high tea.
The sun deck was where we spent the afternoon and I have to say it was my favourite spot on the boat. There are sun beds spread across the dark wooden boards and it’s the best vantage point on the whole boat with undisturbed views to every direction.
Vietnamese Coffee Masterclass
Christophe took us through a demonstration of the traditional technique for brewing the famous Vietnamese filter coffee and locally grown green tea. Vietnamese Cà phê sua dá is brewed using a stainless steel filter that sits on a single cup. The coffee filters through, filling the cup, sweetened by a a generous teaspoon of condensed milk (they love condensed milk in Vietnam!). The brew was served alongside some spicy, savoury and sweet cookies.
Afternoon became night as we pulled up anchor near Coconut Tree Island with the best seats to watch the sky begin to blush. Happy Hour (2 for 1 drinks and cocktails) is served on deck too, so you can settle in to watch the sunset with the handful of other guests and a glass of your favourite drop.
A spring roll cooking class followed and it was both educational and entertaining. The Hubby and another guest tried their hand at making the traditional Vietnamese finger food after the chef’s own demonstration. The rest of us happily heckled from the sidelines (did I mention it was Happy Hour?).
We enjoyed eating the results of their labor while relaxing on the deck and chatting to the other guests. Mainly couples, there were people from around the world; France, Australia, Germany, England. We shared stories of travels around Vietnam, sharing sightseeing and food tips while feasting on the fabulous view.
We donned ‘ao dai’ (the Vietnamese national costume), a silk tunic and hat and climbed the stairs to the dining room. Dinner was a six course tasting menu. The menu comprised small, tasty servings of gourmet Vietnamese dishes featuring seafood, meat, rice and vegetables. We washed down the delicacies with a couple of glasses of delicious Chilean red wine and curled up in our cabin to rest for another day of cruising.