Our trip to Hanoi was divided into two parts. We were spending the first part in the fancy Sheraton so that it was easy for Sam to attend the Indian Ocean Conference being held in the same venue and the second part to be where the city action is, in the Old Quarter. We found Hanoi Emerald Waters Hotel Trendy via Booking.com. and booked a room facing the bustling street. Hardly,100 meters from the Hoan Kiem Lake and 10 mins walk from the Ngoc Son Temple, Hanoi Opera House, and the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, the hotel is centrally located. It’s a small, clean, decent hotel. Nothing fancy, but what sets it apart is the outstanding service it provides. While Sam was checking in, I got busy talking about Halong Bay with the pleasant, ever smiling concierge, Max. It took all of 10 mins for him to show me different folders with varying options for our visit to Halong Bay. There were day cruises, two days-one-night cruise and three days – two nights packages that nearly all tours offered. Just like Goldilocks found the “neither too hard- neither too soft” bed just right, 2 days-1 night seemed ideal to enjoy this beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site known for its emerald waters and thousands of towering limestone islands topped by rainforests. For the price of $165 per person, we booked a room in Era Cruises.
An early pick up from the hotel and a drive of two hours in a 7 seater limousine bought us to the pier in Cat Hai City. From here we were taken on a ferry to Hai Phong City where our boat was docked. Since Sam has lived a part of his childhood on ships (my father-in-law was a Chief Marine Engineer in Singapore and Jordan) he was pretty chilled about the cruise. I, on the contrary, was super excited. Once on board and after a brief talk about security and the facilities, we were shown to our rooms. A king sized bed faced glass windows which opened the view to the karsts as the boat sailed along. Two lounge chairs on the sun deck were a perfect spot for daydreaming, lazing or reading a book. With a beautiful rainfall shower and a big jacuzzi tub right next to another giant floor to ceiling window., the bathroom was uber chic. This was nothing less than an opulent 5-star room.
For lunch, we enjoyed a five-course meal of fresh seafood and an assortment of appetizing delicacies at the restaurant. The decadent dining restaurant is luxurious and modern. We then set sail for Lan Ha Bay, passing Da Chong islets. The fascinating limestone karst formations stood up out of the ocean with all their might. This was raw, beautiful and nature at its best as not many cruise ships use the route. It was for this reason why we had decided on an overnight trip. The day trips give a 3 and a half hour ride to enjoy Halong Bay and take a route with heavy traffic. As a result, one doesn’t get to enjoy the hurried trip. It’s exhausting with a lot packed in. Overnight cruises take you through the less frequented routes and visit a part of the bay that still remains untouched. The final part of the cruise took us through the Cua Van area to Lan Ha Bay (part of Halong Bay). The 300 or so karst islands and limestone outcrops of Lan Ha are stunning.
The entire itinerary on the cruise is well planned and chalked out. They’re particular about timings. Announcements are made in all the rooms through the public address system. At 3:00 p.m a tender boat took us to a floating fish farm where we boarded a bamboo boat ride. A few people were happy to explore on the kayaks. Straight out of a postcard, the vistas enthralled us. The water seemed more green than usual. All was calm as we approached a huge karst with a grotto. Barely a two-minute sail took us through the cave to a small lake surrounded by tall cliffs. There’s nothing much to do here except sit and admire the beauty of nature. I wonder which person managed to find his way through the maze of the karsts to reach here first. Though the trip is spectacular, if given another chance I would love to visit the Sung Sot Caves. Also known as the Cave of Surprises, they are known for their stunning stalactites and stalagmites and are the best caves to visit in Halong Bay.
On our return, facilities for kayaking had been made. Those who didn’t want to kayak could swim near the boat. We didn’t want to miss the opportunity and headed off on our kayak. Synchronisation and maneuvering the oars came easily and that half hour was a time we both will cherish forever. On our return, we joined the other people for a swim. The highlight of the trip was the dolphins who joined closeby and we saw them leaping in and out of the waters.
The evening had descended by then and we all got dressed up to enjoy cocktails and mingle with each other on the deck. There was a cooking class demonstration where we learned to assemble rice paper rolls to enjoy with our drinks. The crowd later shifted to the restaurant where a lavish buffet was spread out. The sparkling glasses of wine and the music set the relaxed mood. After dinner one had the option to either go back to the room to relax, or go to the cinema for a movie, or squid fishing. However be warned, in the summer the chances of you catching a squid are zero. We spent the last few minutes on the deck watching the dark sky sprinkled with sparkling stars. The cool breeze, the sound of the water and the deep night enveloped us in an unforgettable moment.
The sunrise and the sunset are exquisite from the cruise. The waters, the tall rugged karsts and the cruise boats parked for the night all add to the spectacular view. I strolled to our personal sun deck when I had company. A lady from the nearby village had bought wares for selling. She didn’t understand English but her sweet smile and soft voice had me buying a couple of souvenirs for friends back home. Tai Chi Classes conducted on the deck and an hour in the gym rejuvenated us. A breakfast, some more time kayaking and an hour more to lounge in our sun deck brought us to the close of our cruise.
After a ﬁnal early brunch and a last goodbye from the crew at 11:30, we boarded our tender and headed back to the wharf where a return trip vehicle transferred us back to Hanoi.
A two day-one night cruise gives an opportunity to soak in the surroundings and enjoy the untouched part of the bay. It’s a more relaxed way to enjoy the natural wonder. Era cruises offer excellent services, exceptional hospitality, and delicious food and beverages. It is an experience not to be missed. Our visit to Halong Bay couldn’t have been better.