We find that high expectations are often disappointed, whereas greater pleasures can be derived from the unexpected. Ha Long Bay seems to fulfill both.
Ha Long is the most visited location in Vietnam, if not Southeast Asia. Little surprise therefore that we aren’t going to have the place to ourselves. What we don’t expect however is the sheer volume of tourist traffic at this time of year, in the period between the rains and the high season.
Just to get the negative aspects out of the way before moving onto the positive and more rewarding ones, the ‘cruise terminal’ at Ha Long – for that is the scale of it – caters for over six hundred ships and boats of all sizes. From day boats to the mid-size and more substantial ‘junks’ of all capacities, boats line the quaysides awaiting a well-organised distribution of passengers for their Ha Long experience.
Rather naively we’ve expected a more leisurely and exclusive introduction to this experience but it follows the well-practiced routine of all cruise ship facilities where large populations of people have to be managed with minimum stress to either staff or passenger.
Fortunately, we discover that we’re on a Junk that has only about twenty cabins, so there are only about thirty of us waiting in the holding lounge for our cruise to be called.
As we’re guided along the jetty to our Bhaya Classic cruise Junk, the crew stand on the fore-deck calling and waving a welcome, in the endearing but cringe-worthy style of packaged travel.
Having overcome the mild shock of the sheer volume of boats and passengers at the dock, a pattern that continues outside of the ship; the experience on board, by comparison, turns out to be exceptional.
We are shown, and our luggage delivered, to our Terrace Suite at the front of the boat. It’s a delightful wood-lined cabin with a spacious sun deck at the front, one of only two on the ship.
We’re immediately charmed by the ambiance of the boat, from its wooden decks and panelling to the well thought out and spacious communal areas. Although there are smaller boats in the fleet, of six to eight cabins, Bhaya Classic has sufficient numbers on board to make it pleasantly lively, without being either too quiet or overpopulated.
We’re not enamoured of cruising in the conventional sense, with experiences created and catered for masses of people we’d rather avoid. The mass exodus of ships from the quayside resembles a naval review, with a huge fleet spreading out into the bay.
To finish being negative about what turns out to be a delightful experience overall, the only elements we dislike whilst on board are when we get off the ship.
To clarify, we participate in kayaking and a beach visit at one of the many islands. The kayaking is very limited, in that its restricted to a small bay for a short period and the beach is lapped by water that seems far from clean – both potted ‘group’ experiences that we would pass up in the future.
Now, on to the positives!
Our cabin with its private sun deck is superb; the crew are exceptionally helpful and courteous; the fully inclusive dining (drinks extra) is outstanding in quality, variety and quantity and the overall comfort and ambiance of the Junk is charming.
Meals are well thought out and presented and its not long before adjacent tables are engaged in conversation – or hand signals – depending on your grasp of Japanese, Chinese or other Asian tongues.
We would say, in fact, that the experience on board is faultless and at a cost that is very sensible.
Because we’re not the cruising type generally we think that one or two nights is sufficient time on board, as we become stir crazy if controlled in one place for too long. The cooking demonstration distracts Cherrie for an hour and is fun but otherwise we are left to our own devices.
Once you’ve got used to the stunning world-famous scenery of towering limestone islands topped with patches of rainforest, the rest becomes repetition that’s only given variety on board by the changing light conditions between sunrise and sunset.
Its sounds as if we’re simply jaded and ungrateful travellers but Ha Long is certainly worth the visit. Its somewhere we’ve always wanted to go, somewhere we’re really pleased to have experienced and somewhere we’d even return to in order to get better pictures and enjoy Bhaya Classic again.
We certainly saw some ‘Junks’ that too closely reflected the name and larger ships that left us cold. The Bhaya fleet, of which the Classic is part, offers a degree of authenticity and aged charm with modern facilities and comfort.
Although we were never out of sight of other cruise boats, they didn’t cramp our space on the bay until the evening when they congregate for the sunsets or proximity to tomorrow’s attraction.
Back onshore, the hinterland of Ha Long offers more tourist magnets with interesting seed pearl ‘factories’, art and embroidery centres but for us we prefer peace and quiet away from crowds. The rural scenery between Hanoi and Ha Long can be very pleasant.
So, for Ha Long, If you can look past the tourist clamour and staged sampan with coolie-hatted fisherman adjacent to a photogenic rock, with numerous large tourist boats queuing for the next photo opportunity, then you can make Ha Long something special for yourself – even if you’re as cynical and private as we are.
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If you’d like to combine this with your own adventure to anywhere in Southeast Asia, then why not ask us to arrange your own tailor-made travel – to immerse yourself in the wonders of this world?
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