Today there are some exceptional vessels plying the waters of the unique world heritage site that is Halong Bay, but it can be difficult to keep up with the various new boats with so many launches each year. The Hanuman team looks at the leading cruise operators and the best of their boats.
Hanuman prefers to promote 3-day, 2-night stays on the bay and many of the leading luxury cruises now offer this option. This is a great way to get off the cruise tourist trail and explore some beautiful and less-visited areas within this vast world heritage site. Some cruises now venture into beautiful Bai Tu Long Bay, every bit the equal of Halong Bay, only without all the other boats. And some boats are now heading southeast to Lan Ha Bay and Cat Ba Island, another stunning area of karsts with some sandy bays. While the majority of people still opt for 2-day, 1-night cruises, the drawback is that most of the cruise companies follow the same itineraries to the same places at the same time. This can really ruin the atmosphere of such a magical place and ensures you are queuing to climb Titop Mountain or to explore Hang Sung Sot during busy times of year.
Au Co Cruise
Part of the Bhaya Cruise family, the Au Co Cruise, launched in April 2012, is a modern cruise boat that plies the waters of Halong Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay, near Cat Ba Island. Larger than the average boat around Halong Bay, this allows for a greater sense of space. The deluxe cabins are all 20 sq metres and the suites offer a generous 40 sq m. We have yet to experience the luxury of this new boat, but we are drawn to the idea of 3-day, 2-night cruises on the water to avoid the crowds and see more of the outstanding beauty of this incredible area. The chance to include less-visited Lan Ha Bay and the stunning karst formations of Bai Tu Long Bay fits perfectly with the Hanuman philosophy of avoiding the crowds and spending more time in such a signature spot.
Launched in 2007, Bhaya Cruise has quickly established a name for itself as a pioneer in luxury vessels. Hanuman Travel chartered the original Bhaya Classic for the Top Gear Vietnam Special, filmed in October 2008, so we have long been familiar with the stylish service on these boats. Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May had an enjoyable night onboard. There are four Bhaya Classic boats offering 15 or 20 cabin configurations and these work well for groups. The Bhaya Legend range includes smaller vessels for a more intimate and tailor-made exploration of Halong Bay or nearby Bai Tu Long Bay. There are four boats with a range of cabins from one to four. These are perfect for honeymoons, family groups or close friends.
The Halong Ginger was the one of the first of the more luxurious junks to explore the bay. It has since been joined by sister boats the Halong Jasmine and the Halong Violet. All are attractive vessels offering distinctive configurations. The original Ginger has 10 cabins, the Jasmine is the largest boat with 24 cabins and the more intimate Violet has just 6 cabins. The Hanuman team would recommend the Jasmine for larger groups or events and the Violet for smaller groups seeking a higher level of comfort, as the majority of cabins are suites. No longer the smartest cruises on the water, they still offer a very impressive product. 3-day, 2-night cruises are available for those seeking to escape the crowds.
Emeraude Classic Cruise
The first and only replica paddle steamer to cruise the waters of Halong Bay, Emeraude Classic Cruise remains a popular choice for European tourists. The impressive vessel includes 34 superior and deluxe cabins, plus three signature suites. In keeping with the large boat, there is lots of deck space for passengers where activities such as Tai Chi are offered. The main drawback to the Emeraude experience is the size of the superior and deluxe cabins, which are fairly small and standard when compared with some of the newer luxury junks cruising the bay.
One of our favourite companies operating around Halong Bay, Indochina Junk provide a boutique boat experience. Their diverse fleet of junks include four romantic Princess boats with just one cabin for honeymooners or those seeking seclusion. The Prince line of boats offers slightly more space for family or close friends with a mix of two to four cabins. The original Indochina Junk boats were the Lagoon Explorers and these were the first craft to explore the bay with real sails. These four-cabin boats are still pushing the boundaries of exploration around Bai Tu Long Bay with a strong wind behind them and have four cabins. Finishing off the fleet are the Dragon boats. The five-cabin Red Dragon boats are ideal for a small group of 8-10 people, while the larger Dragon’s Pearl boats offer 11 cabins and can be chartered for larger groups. Many of the Indochina Junk itineraries are 3-day, 2-night adventures which allows guests to see that much more of the bay. Indochina Junk also come highly recommended thanks to their environmentally-friendly credentials and their affordable tariffs.
One of the longest running luxury operators on Halong Bay, the Indochina Sails fleet now comprises of six boats with overnight cabins. The original fleet of Indochina Sails I, II and III, all with 14 or 15 cabins, have now been supplemented by the smaller Valentine boats and more luxurious Indochina Premium. The original Valentine has just five cabins and is an intimate option for small groups or extended families. The newer Valentine Premium has just two cabins so offers exclusivity for two couples or a small family. The newest Indochina Premium is one of the most impressive boats on the water, with spacious cabins, private balconies and bathrooms that are almost the same size as three-star cabins. Our Hanuman team stayed on it as recently as Spring 2012 and it was an extremely comfortable experience. The only negative from the trip was that all the Indochina Sails boats follow each other around the bay in convoy and that means large crowds at every stop along the way.
One of the newer cruise companies operating on Halong Bay, Paradise also offers some of the smarter boats currently available. The Luxury range includes four boats with 17 cabins, which work well for high-end groups wishing to explore the bay or for larger MICE groups that need a uniformity of boats and cabin configurations. The Privilege brand of boats are much smaller with just three cabins for a maximum of six guests. These are good option for larger families or small groups of friends or relatives travelling together. The newest Peak boat is an all suite craft and offers possibly the most luxurious option for smaller groups, with a total of eight cabins.
The Hanuman Overview
So how to navigate these complicated waters and choose the right boat for the right client? Our solution is not to recommend any one company but to recommend specific boats if they are available. Here are some of our main recommendations below:
Honeymooners and Anniversaries: Bhaya Legend I, Indochina Junk Princess and Prince
Families or Friends seeking privacy: Indochina Junk Prince or Lagoon Explorer, Paradise Privilege, Bhaya Legend
Couples or small groups joining a larger cruise: Indochina Sails Premium, Bhaya Classic, Au Co Cruise, Paradise Cruise Luxury, Cruise Halong Jasmine
Small Groups: Indochina Junk Lagoon Explorer and Red Dragon, Bhaya Legend IV, Indochina Sails Valentine Premium, Cruise Halong Violet
Medium Groups: Indochina Sails I, II and III, Indochina Junk Dragon’s Pearl, Cruise Halong Ginger
Big Groups: Indochina Sails Premium, Bhaya Classic, Au Co Cruise, Paradise Cruise Luxury, Emeraude Classic Cruise, Cruise Halong Jasmine
MICE Events: Indochina Sails Premium, Bhaya Classic, Au Co Cruise, Paradise Cruise Luxury, Emeraude Classic Cruise, Cruise Halong Jasmine