(Written by Her)
Ha Long Bay, in the Gulf of Tonkin, has been listed as a UNESCO world heritage site since 1994 (for its aesthetic value) and 2000 (for its geological value). In 2012, the area was listed as one of the new 7 natural wonders of the world. In short, it’s worth a visit! The unique landscape is made up of almost 2000 islands formed over a period of 500 million years. Once a rocky, mountainous region exposed to erosion and degradation, over time, huge tectonic movements have meant that the land effectively sank and was flooded with nearby seawater creating the Bay as we know it today.
Booking a Cruise
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We had read numerous reports about unsafe practices, poor hygiene, scams, cancellations and worst of all – polluted water. However, we experienced none of this. We avoided high season which meant our boat only had 12 people aboard including us (there were almost as many staff as passengers). I was able to sit on an empty deck and enjoy the scenery for literally hours without interruption. Also, being low season meant that we could get better deals which meant we could choose a nicer boat. We went with the 5* Emeraude. It has a great reputation having won 2 ‘best cruises in Ha Long bay’ awards in the last 10 years.
Our Boat - The Emeraude
The Emeraude appealed to us because of its unique style and history. It is the only boat cruising Ha Long that is modeled entirely on an old French paddle steamer. The original Emeraude was built by a French colonizer in the late 1800's but the she sank in 1937. A French entrepreneur found a picture of the original Emeraude in a flea market in Paris and set about finding the owners. When he did, he told them he wanted to build a paddle steamer in homage to the original Emeraude, complete with paddle wheel!
8:00 - Hanoi to Ha Long
After a 4 hour, very bumpy, very swerve-tastic mini-bus ride from Hanoi, we finally arrived in Ha Long Bay. To be fair, I don’t think it is possible to have a comfortable journey to Ha Long regardless of the transport. The roads are in terrible condition, the drivers tend towards speeding and seem to really enjoy overtaking anything and everything, on the outside or the inside. Just make sure you have air conditioning, some decent leg room and a seat belt! Most means of transport stop half way to drop you at a tourist shop for 15 minutes, hoping to lighten your wallet. Regardless, it is a welcome break from the bumpy road. Most buses leave Hanoi at 8am and arrive in Ha Long at 12ish.
12:30 - Embarkation & Lunch
14:00 - Free Time
After lunch, he wasn’t feeling too well (still ill from digesting bacteria a few days before) and went for a lie down. I went exploring! I found an amazing spot right at the front of the boat which had 2 private sun-loungers looking directly out to sea with not a soul in sight. I saddled, feet up to drink in the views and enjoy the warm breeze. I later realised that this very secret private area is usually reserved for the couple who book the boats only suite. Luckily for me it was vacant today, and no one else knew it. Yay. Not wanting to leave my haven I sat for 2 hours taking it all in.
15:00 - Sung Sot Grotto
16:30 - Pearl Farm
Declining the chance to swim the couple of kilometers to the pearl farm! We took the small motor boat which landed us on a large, floating wooden platform. Looking at the water between the boards under my feet, I gingerly walked from timber to timber as they dipped, wobbled and creaked underneath us! Our guide showed us how pearls are grown and harvested by manipulating little oysters with surgical like methods.
18:00 - Cookery Demonstration
Before dinner, but after enough time for us to change into our ‘smart’ dinner attire, I popped to the sundeck for a cooking demonstration. The Chef, a young girl no more than 25 was showing us how to make fresh spring rolls and tomato swans (of course!?). As I sat there, the sun set over the islands creating an orange glowing backdrop. A wonderful way to end the day you might say. But it wasn’t over yet! After a 4 course dinner of Vietnamese favourites we headed to the back of the boat to see if we could catch some squid – as if we hadn’t eaten enough!
20:00 - Squid Fishing
Nestled among the sleeping Kayaks and accompanied by a couple of crew members, we decided to try our hand at some squid fishing. We were told that the previous night, passengers had caught more than 10kgs of squid so we were hugely hopeful if not a little cocky. As we stood, perched on a small platform at the back of the boat, hovering just above the water's surface, we saw plenty of squid darting about in the water below us – none of which were willing to jump on our hooks!
21:00 - Silver Screen
Using a full-sized projector screen on the top deck, chairs were set up like a movie theatre for the screening of ‘Indochine’, an award winning French movie with English subtitles. A random choice one might think but part of the movie was filmed around Halong Bay. In fairness, the idea couldn’t have been more lovely; watching a movie outdoors with the lights of other docked boats in the distance as we anchored for the night. However, after such a long day, and acutely aware of our 5am start, we (and everyone else) headed to bed after less than an hour.