If one is visiting Vietnam, they always plan to go to Halong Bay. The iconic UNESCO world heritage site. I was there, and I have to say the beauty is unparalleled. There is nothing that can come close to this experience. Halong bay is around 2 hours drive from Hanoi. The roads are spectacular, and I absolutely loved being on the highway. From a distance, as you can start looking at the green waters and the mountains, you know deep down in your heart that you are in for something different.
You can experience the bay in less than a day by visiting the area spending some time, perhaps hiking and just looking at the various limestone formations - or you can go on a cruise which is typically 1-2 nights. Selecting the right kind of cruise then becomes imperative for the type of experience you would want.
I was researching extensively on what cruise to go on. A lot of confusing reviews were present all over the internet. Moreover, there are a million websites that are probably selling cruises to you. Here is my experience, and I hope it helps you figure out if you want to go on a cruise or not and, if yes, which one to go for.
I took the Stellar of the seas cruise. Like its name, it is absolutely stellar. My research for the perfect cruise was long and arduous. If it was not Stellar of the Seas, then probably I would have gone for Peony Cruises.
Day 1 Morning 8:00 am
It is finally time for me to experience a Halong Bay Cruise. As you can Figure, I am beyond excited at this point in time. They send a swanky minibus and pick me up from in front of my hotel. I think it was close to a 2-hour ride to the main area where all the ships were docked. At this point in time, I was a little disappointed because none of the cruises looked like the one I booked, and I was like, this is a scam I have fallen into.
Luckily that was only the check-in area. They would transfer us via a speed boat to the cruise, which was docked about 40 minutes away.
We are then asked to head into an interim space to check us in and take up our luggage. We waited here for a bit before they got a speed boat ready for all of us. Maybe this was a new cruise - or the timing was a little off, but it was not at all running on total capacity. Just a handful of people were checking in onto the cruise that day.
During this interim boat ride - we were briefed about the cruise - our food options were taken for lunch, and some safety instructions were shared. Moreover, they also gave us the itinerary for the entire stay and what is planned for us.
This boat ride was, by the way, super crazy. Strong winds blowing onto your face, the boat is quite jumpy at this point in time and you are filled with anticipation of what's coming up next. Moreover, one is really mesmerised by the beauty of the surroundings. (Damn, I really want to go back now, while I am writing all of this)
Day 1 Afternoon 12:00 pm
We finally arrive at the cruise, and it looks grand. As we were approaching, I was just gaping at this beauty. I think another reason I was awestruck was because of the fact that I had never been on a cruise. Being on a cruise for the first time added to all the fun and excitement.
The entire crew was waiting for us. They were the most cheerful bunch on the cruise. We got off our speed boat on to the cruise and were directed right to the restaurant. We were told once we are done with our lunch, we can check-in into our rooms. Moreover, I had got an upgrade to my room. So that was a kind gesture from them.
The lunch was splendid. I spent the rest of the lunch looking at the sea - and having a drink by myself. They had served a full 4-course meal - and a choice of meat and fish as well. The chef, in my opinion, was extraordinary, and he did come to check on all of us individually too. My excitement knew no bounds, and I think after every course, I was prancing around the cruise like a kid.
Soon after lunch, we all checked into our respective rooms, and the cruise also started to move by this point in time. It was a beautiful room.
I had a sit-out deck. The wind was calm, and a slight breeze was hitting my face. The surroundings were so tranquil. It just felt like we are cruising over jade-green waters. The room was spacious, with all the basic amenities in place. A touch of personalisation made me cheer. They had a welcome note for me and thanking me for choosing them for the cruise experience. However, the highlight of the cruise was the washroom for me. It was incredible. A complete uninterrupted view of Halong Bay while you bathe. The long french windows were letting me immerse in nature completely. I was at peace. I did feel I deserved to be in the lap of luxury after staying in hostels for about 10 days. So it was okay for me to be a little over-indulgent here.
I took a bath, and it was therapeutic. Almost meditative. I could have just stayed here forever and not come back to the real world.
Day 1 Late afternoon 3:00 pm
By this time, I was ready to get out on my private deck and read a book. In fact, I had picked up Meditations by Marcus Aurelius - a book I have been wanting to read up for a while now. This was my time - and nobody, not a single soul, could distract me here. I felt disconnected from technology. Moreover, because the Wifi was very choppy and deeper into the bay, the connection dropped quite often. So I shut my phone and, as I said - completely immersed myself in this experience.
Day 1 Evening 5:00 pm
In the evening, once they anchored the ship, I went out and dived into the waters. It was so clean and cold. I was the only one who did that, so lowkey proud about it. Swam across the seas, touched a limestone mountain and swam back to our cruise. I lay there on my back, looking at the setting set and stillness all around me. In fact, two years later, while I am writing this, I am getting goosebumps.
In fact, I also Kayaked when they had anchored the ship. I all by myself went into the deep crevices I could find and just be there admiring natures beauty. I also made friends with a couple travelling from the UK and were chatting up while we were kayaking. Great fun, I would say. Quite glad I did because the same evening, I ended up having dinner with them.
They also had a spa service available. Although I did not opt for the same, I heard from various other guests that it was a great experience. For the spa service, one needs to book it in advance and reserve a slot.
I got back to the cruise - got fresh, and was ready for the evening.
Day 1 Evening 6:00 pm
In the evening, they had set up a mini cooking session with a chef. We made some spring rolls and devoured them all. For the first time, all of us gathered together and got introduced to each other. In fact, it was a great mixer, and I did make some really great connections. The fun part was they also gave away free tequila shots, which really set the tone for the evening.
Day 1 Evening 8:00 pm
The dinner spread was delicious. In fact, it was barbeque night, and I loved every bit of it. Depending on the weather conditions, they either do it on the sun deck or indoors.
Post dinner, you can do whatever you want. Take some rest, walk around or just head to sleep. They have a pool on the third deck of the cruise and a mini-golf area on the second deck. If you like these things, then y0u can definitely skip floors and enjoy these amenities. As for me, I met a few fellow travellers and was just chilling with them on the deck until midnight.
I remember we were sitting on the deck at night, and our ship was anchored and it was pitch dark all around. Though we could see the silhouette because there was a little bit of moonlight. I could see so many stars and hear the water everywhere. It was meditative. We were just there - sitting all night under the stars, strangers talking to each other about their lives and sharing drinks. One by one, each of us faded away into the comfort of our rooms and slept peacefully floating on the water - knowing that the following day is going to be super fresh, unlike any other.
Day 2: Early Morning 6:30 am
No, I did not get up this early. But I had an option to attend a Tai Chi class on the Sundeck. Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese exercise form. Quit a graceful slow-motion exercise that sets the tone for the rest of the day. But I was sleepy and how. However, I pushed my self to be up at 7:00 for breakfast. I am a breakfast person and can simply not miss it.
Post breakfast, we hopped on to smaller boats and went exploring various islands and caves. The morning chill on the face and the light breeze woke all of us instantly. We went on a nearby island-hopped back into the same boat. There was a time when we were surrounded by all sides of the mountains.
The cave we visited is called the Dark & Bright cave, and the boat went on is called the Bamboo boat. We could also see folks from other cruises come together for this incredible experience at 7 am in morning.
Once we were back, we got a short window to pack our luggage. There were a few folks who had booked this experience for 2 nights. In fact, I was very tempted to stay an additional night - but I was on a budget, and an extra night didn't seem to fit in on this budget.
We had an early brunch on the ship and departed on to the speed boats to the area we initially boarded the speed boat. I will never forget this moment.
I would come back to Vietnam soon. This country has my heart like no other. And if I do - Halong Bay is one place I will be visiting for sure. That is because the experience is unparalleled.
FYI: Since I had made the payment in full online, I was really sceptical of this turning out to be a scam, and I would end up losing all my money. However, that did not happen. The customer care support was in constant touch with me, making me comfortable about the entire process.
Vietnam has mastered the travel and hospitality industry. The service is impeccable, and the way they make a guest feel comfortable is quite mindblowing. If you have been to Vietnam, please feel free to share your experiences below. Moreover, if you have been to any of the Halong Bay cruises - do share your story. Maybe next time, I will be open to trying out a new cruise experience. In case you want to check out in detail what I ended up doing in Vietnam, please click here for the first part of the journey and here for the second part of the trip.
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