It’s almost midnight, and Ha Long Bay is ink-black and still. Her ancient limestone pillars have me surrounded. I can’t see them now, but I can feel them, watching me like silent sentinels. All I can hear is the boat creaking, singing its nautical lullaby as gentle waves lap at the wooded hull. This is beautiful. Perfect. Just how a Ha Long Bay cruise should be.
But I am getting a little ahead of myself as this Ha Long Bay cruise began much earlier in the day. The L’Azalee Renee was ship-shape and ready to sail by the time I arrived at the dock straight from my seaplane landing, taking the early flight in from Hanoi.
The L’Azalee Renee is a one cabin private junk staffed by a crew of five. Butler Din was on hand to welcome me on board and generally make a fuss of me while the crew got ready to set sail for my two day one night voyage around the beautiful bays and islets of Ha Long Bay.
Din shows me around my cabin below deck, a pretty room dominated by a king bed, the crisp fresh linen decorated with pink rose petals. I say to Din, “Let’s keep this one up our sleeve to surprise Mrs Mossack” who had forgone the tour for the welcoming embrace of one of the sun beds on deck. Din looks at me with a knowing smile and then hurries across to show me the ensuite bathroom, an area surprisingly spacious with a pristine shower, toilet and sink. Back in the main room, Din points out the flat screen TV and a library of DVD movies, something to fall back on if all the excitement of sailing around 2,000 islands gets too much for us.
“Mr. Andy” says Din, “what time would you and Mrs.Andy like lunch served?”
“what is Mrs. Andy doing now?”
“Sleeping on deck”
“Better make it a late lunch then”
I spare Din a frightening encounter of Mrs. Andy being woken from her nap.
In no time, The Renee is well underway, and the wonders of Ha Long Bay uncover themselves; nearly 2,000 UNESCO protected natural limestone karsts and islets dotted around an emerald green sea. It is a breathtaking sight, made all the more special because we’re not sharing this with anyone else. Just us, our boat and crew and Mother Nature.
We sail (actually we chug, as The Renee swapped its sails many years ago for an engine) for an hour or so before stopping by a small inlet as Din serves up our al fresco lunch. We could have spent some time kayaking but frankly, why bother spoiling a good appetite? Our on board chef is a very talented Vietnamese who goes by the name of Chef; a young man whose culinary talents are impressive. Working in a tiny space with just one burner he manages to conjure up an array of delicious dishes, each one accompanied by its own tantalising smell. A cucumber and carrot salad is quickly followed by a piping hot chicken and coriander soup, spring rolls, barbecued beef and chicken skewers and rice.
As Din delivers each course, Chef waits in the wings for our approval. A pointless exercise, as each one is simple, fresh and delectable fare. As he knows full well.
After a dessert of Logan berry and lychees in Lotus water, we up anchor and cruise on sipping some green tea, followed by a well deserved brandy to end a perfect lunch. A little extravagant perhaps, particularly as spirits are classes as extras while beers and soft drinks are unlimited, but let’s face it, it’s not everyday you get to be in such a magical spot.
Having had Ha Long Bay to ourselves for a good part of the day, we catch up with some other boats; a few much bigger cruisers, full to the brim with passengers, some on a day trip, others like us, taking an overnight cruise. I can’t help feeling again how much more special this feels, particularly as Din materialises with a cold beer for me.
As evening approaches, the skipper finds another little bay to anchor for the night. We have to share some of our sea with other boats tonight, as UNESCO regulations are very strict about the areas in Ha Long Bay allotted for overnight shipping. Still, they are far enough away from us, their lights twinkling in the distance are more than bearable.
Dinner under a canopy of stars is a perfect end to a day of discovery. Chef once again casts some more culinary spells from his Mary Poppins bag of goodies and Din pours a very agreeable red wine as Mrs Andy and I discuss our day on the Bay. Before long, it is just the two of us, the crew disappearing to a small space up at the front somewhere and the ancient karst pillars fade to black as we make our way to our cabin.
The old boat creaks old boat sounds, and I feel sleepy but also a little spiritual. I am, most definitely, under Ha Long’s spell. And I dream I am climbing ancient limestone pillars.
Morning sun greets me after a night of peaceful slumber. Up on deck things are happening. The crew have bought a large fish from a passing trader, something for Chef to cook for them later and it’s flapping about in a big bucket of water. Of course, nothing so basic for us at breakfast as Din and Chef concoct a traditional Vietnamese Pho and some scrambled eggs and toast a balance of east definitely meeting west.
This morning we are visiting Hang Sung Sot which in Vietnamese means Cave of Surprises which is not far from the truth; a gigantic limestone cave system discovered by Vietnam’s French colonists in the 19th century. Din is our personal guide as we take a small craft from our junk across to the steep steps up to the cave entrance. Inside, subtle coloured lighting creates a dramatic limestone landscape where nature has carved a cast of characters into the rock resembling all manner of forms. It is an extraordinary place, perhaps made even more so as I’m caught up by the whole Ha Long Bay experience. I emerge back into daylight more than a little humbled by how Mother Nature manages to outdo the best of us..
By 11am we are slowly gliding back into port just in time to watch our sea plane arriving back from Hanoi and making a dramatic water landing not far away. “That’s our ride” I say to Mrs. Andy, who once again has taken to her sun bed after her Hang Sung Sot exertions.
We bid a fond farewell to our crew, while Chef and Din form a guard of honour as we leave. Our private Ha Long Bay cruise is over far too quickly for my liking, although there is a two night option. But that will have to wait for another trip.
Images of Renee, food and caves (c) Andy Mossack
I want to know more about this Ha Long Bay cruise
L’Azalesee Daily Cruises
L’Azalee cruises offers 1 and 2 night cruises on Ha Long Bay on either private one bedroom junks or 12 berth cruisers.
L’Azalée 01 night cruise: $310 – $ 680
L’Azalée 02 nights cruise: $ 640 – $1,380
Tel: +84 333 842 218
Hai Au Aviation runs daily flights to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi from $275 each way. The airline also operates regular flights to Ninh Binh from Hanoi and Ha Long Bay.
Getting to Vietnam
The bespoke travel experts Experience Travel Group (+44 203468 6268) offer a 10-day tour of Vietnam from £2,567 per person, including flights, transport, accommodation and selected excursions.
Vietnam Airlines offers the UK’s only nonstop flights to Vietnam, with six flights per week from Heathrow to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City on new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners – and excellent onward connections via its comprehensive network of over 40 destinations in Asia, including 23 within Vietnam and Indochina. Return fares to Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi currently start from £391 or £425 per person respectively, inclusive of taxes.
UK Airport car parking: I Love meet and greet offers valet parking at Gatwick, Stansted and Heathrow airports. Costs vary throughout the year with a week’s parking at Gatwick starting from £78. Book atwww.ilovemeetandgreet.co.uk