I had already decided that no Vietnam itinerary would be complete without Halong Bay but I also knew it would be a hard sell to a certain someone. Two or three days on a boat, organised activities, no wifi connection, and forced social interaction are not things we willingly sign up to. The only way I stood a chance was to go down the luxury route – if I was going to get him on board, figuratively and literally, it would have to be a rather nice boat. Which also suited me just fine – you didn’t think I was keen on one of those party cruises filled with eager gap-year youths did you? That ship has most definitely sailed.
With this criteria, it didn’t take long to cobble together a shortlist – there are boats aplenty (probably too many if we’re being honest) sailing in the bays, but not many which would get the certain someone seal of approval. And so, armed with photos of gloriously picturesque scenes and inviting cabins with balconies, I made my pitch. Slowly but surely I won him round, though just in case… I threw in the pleading girlfriend eyes to seal the deal and a few weeks later, we were boarding one of the rather lush boats from Orchid Cruises.
Checking into a Suite Cabin
We never imagined ourselves to be cruise-goers, so that first step onto the Orchid Cruises boat, as nice as it looked from the outside, was still a tentative one. That initial sinking feeling from the thought of being stuck there for the next three days soon faded away as we were welcomed by the ever so smiley staff, a cocktail, and the sight of our rooms. A certain someone and I were actually lucky to get any room at all; what we hadn’t contemplated was how quickly the rooms on these flashier cruises get booked up… and I suspect we probably got the last available one on this boat.
It might have been a standard room, but it set the standard high. I was relieved to find that it looked exactly as expected after my thorough scrutiny of the website’s photos and pleasantly surprised to find it felt a lot more spacious. We had everything you would expect from a hotel room – comfy king size bed with good quality linens, wardrobe space, a lovely window seat from where we could gaze out at the view. However the two highlights, and major contributing factors to us booking this, were the balcony and the bathtub. Whenever we had free time in the schedule, we rushed back to our balcony and sat, feet up with a drink in hand, or I ran myself a bath… there’s something quite romantic and surreal about sitting in a hot bath, whilst being gently rocked along the sea.
Activities and Facilities on Orchid Cruises
Though billed as a Halong Bay cruise, Orchid Cruises technically takes their boats on a route past Cat Ba Island which is a lot quieter than the traditional course. We still encountered plenty of boats as we were setting out and coming back in, but for the rest of the time we might have past only a handful, mostly other boats from Orchid Cruises or their sister company Azalea Cruises. What will likely be the same among the companies of this calibre are the activities – almost all that I researched offered similar itineraries. You will likely find yourself with the opportunity to practice tai chi at the crack of dawn (unsurprisingly neither a certain someone nor I ever made it up in time), a bit of kayaking round the bays (we opted for the couples kayak which was both fun, hilarious, and tense at times), and cooking demonstrations.
Our cruise itinerary also took us onshore an island where we explored the local terrain and some even sampled some questionable delicacies, then on another day we visited some fishing villages and took a small boat ride into some caves. To say that the itineraries were action-packed would be an understatement. Having so much of our time planned for us is definitely not our usual mode of travel and it was at times a little overwhelming… we would have happily spent a couple more hours hanging on our balcony with a glass of wine or lounging on the sundeck, but alas, it wasn’t to be and we knew this when we booked.
Food and Drink on the Cruise
The food onboard was plentiful and exceeded our expectations in terms of taste and quality. I’ll confess that I hadn’t set the bar particularly high – we were eating on a cruise ship after all, but given the surroundings and circumstances, it was more than acceptable. We had a couple of buffet-style lunches which were your typical mish-mash of appetising but less exciting east meets west offerings, but the multi-course set menu meals were the highlight. We indulged in lots of fresh seafood and local flavours, but the chefs tried to elevate the dishes to give guests a more special dining experience. The bar onboard was also popular during happy hour and meal times!
Would I Recommend a Halong Bay Cruise?
Halong Bay was every bit as beautiful as I had hoped, and particularly ethereal when we went in March. The skies were often grey and moody which added to a sense of peace and mystique. If you’re thinking of visiting, I would wholeheartedly recommend booking a two night cruise with Orchid Cruises instead of the more common single night. The longer cruise and more luxurious boat meant that there was still some time to relax and enjoy the surroundings. However, with the positives come the negatives… unfortunately Halong Bay is also every bit as damaged by over-tourism as I had feared. Seeing all the rubbish floating around was fairly confronting and left us very conflicted about whether or not we would recommend this destination.
This stunning scenery deserves to be seen and experienced, but the government, cruise companies, and we tourists need to work out how it can be done so more sustainably. I assume there hasn’t been much regulation up to this point, but after speaking to our cruise leader about ways to protect the environment, it seems like there are pockets of the industry who see the need for drastic change. So would I recommend a cruise through Halong Bay? Yes, but be prepared for less than pristine waters and perhaps talk to companies about ways to reduce their environmental impact!
Have you been to Halong Bay? Did you opt for the casual ‘party boat’ experience or something more luxurious…?