My husband David and I love living in Hanoi. It’s a wonderful blend of ancient traditional culture, hustle and bustle and exciting new developments. Sometimes, though, we like to take a break from the city and seek out hidden treasures that don’t make it into the guidebooks—and Vietnam is full of them.
When we first came to Vietnam in 2005, we took a cruise on Halong Bay, the most visited attraction in the whole country. It’s an undeniably beautiful bay, with hundreds of tiny, isolated, limestone islands jutting up from the calm waters of the Tonkin Gulf. I can see why it receives thousands of tourists every year.
But we’ve discovered an equally amazing seascape without the crowds, one where getting off-the-beaten-track doesn’t mean forsaking five-star luxury. Luxury that costs way less than you might think.
Bai Tu Long Bay lies immediately north of Halong. This part of the Bay receives just a small fraction of the tourists that flock to its more famous neighbour. Only a few boats ply the waters of Bai Tu Long, yet the hundreds of amazing limestone islets that dot the bay are no less stunning.
This laidback, undiscovered vibe was definitely our cup of tea, so we booked a luxurious three-day cruise on the Dragon’s Pearl with the well-regarded Indochina Junk tour company. The $406 per person price included transportation from Hanoi to the pier, park fees, kayaking, meals and all the coffee, tea and water we wanted. Wine and beer cost extra; a bottle of wine starts at about $35, a beer costs around $4. Our wood-panelled en-suite cabin had a double bed and a big picture window from which we could take in the stunning seascapes.
The cruise company picked us up at our home in a luxury van complete with leather seats and WiFi. We rode on the newly constructed highway to Halong City, arriving at the pier less than four hours later.
We boarded the elegant, modern junk. The cruise staff all spoke excellent English and as we cast off from the dock we were greeted with cold drinks and escorted to our well-appointed cabin, then invited to the deck for lunch. We set sail to the north, past all the other tour boats to our own private, hidden bay.
When we arrived on deck, we were seated at linen-covered tables and served an assortment of Asian and Western dishes that included several seafood courses—fresh squid, shrimp, clams, oysters, snapper… Fresh flowers decorated not only our table but were arranged on each dinner plate, as well. This was the first of many wonderful meals on this cruise.
The Vietnamese understand the concept of customer service more than any other country we’ve experienced in our travels. The staff were at our beck and call for the entire cruise, answering our questions, preparing our excursions, serving us meals and fixing our drinks upon request.
From our lounge chairs on the upper decks, we saw hundreds of stunning limestone pinnacles jutting straight up from the water. This seascape—which consists of more than 2,000 islets—stretches from Vietnam well into China, and the scenery is truly breathtaking. Many of the tiny, uninhabited islands are topped with lush jungle vegetation, you might catch a glimpse of a cave or a deserted sandy beach but many of them are just lonely rock outcroppings with sheer cliffs that plunge into the sea. There are enormous caves on some of the islands, but unlike Halong Bay, none in Bai Tu Long Bay have been developed.
On the second day of the cruise, our boat dropped us off at a secluded little beach, where we all swam, relaxed and walked off our sea legs. We were then escorted up a wide, easy path to a hidden cave, about halfway up the side of this tiny island. Aside from the portable tables, chairs, candles to mark the path and torches to light our way, the cave was totally natural. Having dinner in the cave was one of the highlights of our cruise. Intricately carved fruits and vegetables in the fanciful forms of dragons, swans and flowers adorned each romantic candle-lit table, their warm glow reflecting off the crystalline formations in the cave, as we were served a bountiful supply of fresh seafood, barbecued meats and carefully prepared side dishes.
We went kayaking, explored deserted beaches and spent the evenings with our travelling companions chatting over drinks, fishing for squid and watching the stars. We stopped at a village populated by fishermen and their families, built totally on the water, where shops and a school were connected by wooden walkways and children learned to swim before they learned to walk.
Perhaps best of all, we enjoyed the clean waters and starlit nights in almost total solitude, a world away from the crowds of Halong…
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