UNESCO-protected Halong Bay had been on my bucket list ever since I first watched the movie Indochine and I was thrilled to finally have the opportunity to experience a Halong Bay cruise this year over our recent Vietnam family vacation. I’m happy to report that the visuals were all beyond expectations — the 1,600 rainforest-covered limestone islands jutting out of the bay are nothing short of unbelievable.
The best way to experience Halong Bay is from the water. It’s vast, so at least an overnight, if not a few days, is required to get far enough in to feel absolutely immersed in the exotic beauty and to get a sense for the variety of island shapes and sizes. There are many different Halong Bay cruise options, but seeing it via a ship modeled on a traditional-style junk boat, an ancient Chinese sailing ship, is part of the fun (in the photo below our sails aren’t up which are the key replica feature). Some of the cruises are adult-oriented, so the supplier we use with our clients recommended the Halong Violet, a luxury junk cruise with just six cabins. Our son was the only child on our cruise, but it felt flexible and private given the small size.
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Our suite slept three people comfortably, but with more children families need two adjacent cabins. Given the small size of the ship, this setup is not a problem. All rooms have a shower, a Jacuzzi bathtub and a private balcony.
The Halong Violet has no specific kids’ amenities, but the service is personalized with a dedicated host, so custom kid-friendly activities outside of the core sightseeing can be organized on request. That said, the cruise follows a fixed route and flexibility in that regard is limited, particularly for the one-night sailing.
For the one-night itinerary, you check in for lunch and then spend the afternoon cruising through Halong Bay for a few hours before stopping at a floating village, where families can choose to kayak through the village or to be rowed on a boat by a local. We wanted to take pictures, so we opted for the rowboat, but the kayaks looked fun too. The floating villages are comprised of a network of homes strapped together on top of the water. The land here is not farmable, so the families that live in these villages are either fishermen or they sell food and other items brought in from the mainland. Of course, tourism is an important part of their income. The remote, inhospitable locations of these villages are amazing — it is hard to imagine living here during a storm when they’re totally cut off from the mainland for days at a time.
Evening activities include a short Vietnamese cooking demonstration (we made spring rolls) over cocktails, followed by a multi-course meal. Although the menu items are limited, the food is traditional and quite good.
Morning starts early with a Tai Chi lesson on the deck as the sun rises from behind the limestone mountains. This is an incredible time of day on Halong Bay. We had a brief snack and set out early to be one of the first groups to visit Ti Top island, a famous island with a small sandy beach, swimming and a short but beautiful hike to a breathtaking vista point overlooking the bay. This is quite a touristy spot, so getting there early is key. A late breakfast is served as the Violet heads back to the harbor.
This overnight is literally 24 hours from start to finish. Although we are glad we did it, if the itinerary time allows for an extra night, the two-night cruise is better for more activities, exploration and relaxation on the boat — there is an entire part of the bay that we didn’t get to see. All-inclusive pricing for a double cabin starts at $US 883 per night.
TIP: The drive from Hanoi to Halong Bay is 4 hours. It is not a particularly interesting drive, but the time in the car gave us an excellent chance to catch up with our guide and get some in-depth historical perspective and information. We also stopped at a factory where people disabled in some capacity by Agent Orange produce art and artifacts to for sale. I wouldn’t drive here from Hanoi just to see the factory, but it makes a pleasant midway-point stop. You can fly to Halong Bay from Hanoi on a seaplane, but this is significantly more expensive.
Editors Note: Ciao Bambino received a media rate to review Halong Violet Cruise for families. As always, our opinions are our own. Photos by Amie O’Shaughnessy.
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