Saturday 25 March 2023

From on board: Cruising with Violet in Ha Long Bay

#expeditioncruising .

Is it a mammoth? Is it a bombe Alaska? It’s whatever you want it to be.

The multitude of abstract limestone creations here in Ha Long Bay’s Sung Sot Cave take on all manner of shapes and forms, leading your imagination on a wild ride through whatever fantastic tale you want to create.

Inside part of Surprise Cave (RE)

While the French colonialists are credited with discovering the cave in 1901, calling it “Grotte des Surprises”, or Cave of Surprises, was likely well-known by local fisherfolk long before the French took credit, much like they did with Angkor Wat.

Today the curious cave is visited daily by thousands of eager daytrippers as part of their tour of the UNESCO World Heritage precinct in Quảng Ninh province, barely two hours by multilane highway from Hanoi.

Day visit to Ha Long Bay Pearl Farm (RE)

For the many of us who have seen visions of this serene archipelago with its signature limestone karst formations featuring as a romantic backdrop in so many Hollywood blockbusters, the reality is somewhat confronting. I’m told more than 500 vessels operate on Ha Long Bay, mostly day boats on frantic dashes out to the sights laden with camera- and iPhone-toting tourists gagging for a selfie at the well-trodden Instagram locations like the Grotto of Surprises.

Thankfully I’m on an alternative excursion aboard Heritage Line’s darling overnight vessel, Violet, a traditionally styled ‘junk’ with just six exquisite timber and marble suites all way too spacious to be mere cabins. Our Imperial Suite is a whopping 38sqm with a bathroom bigger than many cabins I’ve been squeezed into on other larger oceangoing ships.

Half of the 38sqm Imperial Suite aboard Violet (RE)

We’re doted on by attentive staff and fed by a kitchen many fine dining restaurants would be proud to maintain. Each plated dish is artfully presented and despite the appearance of modest proportions, we’re more than replete come dessert. Dishes reflect the traditional cuisine of the region, dominated by fish like tenderly fried and dusted sea bass and Chả cá Lã Vọng, a spicy dish utilising the native Ca Lang, a type of catfish marinated in turmeric, tossed with sautéed scallions and dills, and typically served with vermicelli noodles, roasted peanuts and dipping sauce. It’s quite a treat for the unfamiliar palate.

When the throng of day boats have retreated to their moorings at Ha Long port, we’re left to anchor with the overnight fleet of a few dozen vessels among the karsts, each boat garishly festooned with multicoloured lights reflecting in the still waters and silhouetted against the towering jungle-covered limestone cliffs. Somewhere in the distance, a party is underway and the strains of Vietnamese pop music waft across the otherwise tranquil waters.

Violet in Ha Long Bay (supplied)

Our three-day, two-night cruise is more than great food, lavish accommodations and jaw-dropping scenery. There’s a fully equipped spa, lots of deck space and yoga and tai chi classes for the zen inclined. We get a decent cardio workout on the climb to both Surprise Cave and Ti Top Island with its near-vertical 400-odd steps, as well as a pre-breakfast kayak around a quiet cove among one of the many fish farms.

While any cruise around Ha Long Bay is worth the effort, an overnight stay on the water is a bonus, affording you valuable extra hours to enjoy the location without the crush of the daylight hordes.

More: For options, dates and pricing, see Heritage Line website

TIP: It is the writer’s strong advice to book this package with a local specialist agent in your home city as the process of marrying visas, transfers, flights and accommodations can be unwieldy and confusing for even seasoned independent travellers.

Next: we transfer to another Heritage Line vessel, Ylang, to cruise the lesser-visited Lan Ha Bay adjoining Ha Long Bay. What do we find? Read on.

About Ha Long Bay

Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular tourist destination located in the Quang Ninh Province of Vietnam. The bay features over 1,600 limestone islands and islets in various sizes and shapes, scattered across an area of 1,500 square kilometres in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Halong Bay is renowned for its stunning natural scenery, with its towering limestone cliffs, pristine beaches, and emerald green waters. The islands are home to several species of flora and fauna, including rare species of monkeys, birds, and reptiles. The bay is also home to a diverse range of marine life, such as coral reefs, seagrass beds, and over 200 species of fish.

The best way to explore Halong Bay is by boat, with many options available including traditional wooden junks, modern cruisers, and luxury yachts. Visitors can take in the breathtaking views of the bay, explore the islands, swim in the clear waters, and try local seafood dishes.

Halong Bay is steeped in history and legend, with several myths and stories associated with the islands. One of the most famous legends is the tale of how the bay was formed by a dragon descending from the heavens and plunging into the sea, causing the limestone karsts to rise up from the water.

Overall, Halong Bay is a must-visit destination in Vietnam for its natural beauty, cultural significance, and rich history.

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