After spending two relatively hectic days in Hanoi, we were all set to relax and unwind on a cruise on Ha Long Bay.
As a fan of the TV show Cosmos, I was extremely fascinated by the formation of limestone pillars in Ha Long Bay. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Ha Long Bay consists of over 1,600 islands and islets that form a perfect example of a mature karst landscape. The limestone pillars of these islands and islets have taken over a million years to form and display features of sea corrosion such as caves (both underwater and on the islands) and arches. Another amazing feature is the existence of lakes and lagoons within some of the limestone islands. Altogether, these karst landscapes create a spectacular and scenic journey through Ha Long Bay.
Unfortunately, our journey didn’t exactly get off to the right start. Signature Cruise, our cruise organisers, had overbooked the boat and informed us of this mishap less than 24 hours before our check-in. Fortunately, they came through with a compromise solution for us – spend one night in the Family Suite (an upgrade) and the other in the Junior Suite (a downgrade). We took them up on the offer.
Hanoi to Ha Long Bay
The drive from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay was quite smooth. The 190 km journey took us just over 3 hours to complete and was fairly comfortable in the shuttle bus provided by Signature Cruise. Once we reached the Ha Long Bay pier, where all the various cruise ships depart, the check-in process was fairly straightforward. The 30 mins that we had to wait to get onto our cruise vessel couldn’t end sooner.
My Signature Ha Long Bay Cruise Review
Our cruise boat wasn’t too shabby at all. In fact, it was quite luxurious with all the modern features and amenities, including WiFi and a masseuse. The staff were extremely friendly and helpful, and the vessel was well maintained and clean.
The Family Suite room quite literally spoiled us. The room was massive and on the same floor (third floor) as the dining area. Which also meant that the deck was only one floor away. But if you have the Family Suite, you’d rather enjoy your own personal balcony than share a deck, right?
The Junior Suite wasn’t much of a downgrade in my opinion. We were expecting a much smaller room but were pleasantly surprised at its size. Apparently, all rooms on Signature Cruise come with a hot tub and one of those fancy ass-warming/washing toilets. My only complaint with the Junior Suite – as the room is on the ground floor it can get a little noisy at times with the vibrations of the engine room. Also, I had to climb up 3 floors to get to the deck. As I said, the Family Suite spoiled me.
Day 1 Itinerary
By the time we boarded our cruise vessel, it was time for lunch. During lunch, we were briefed about our itinerary for the next 2 days. Those who were spending only one night on the cruise had a much smaller itinerary which only included a visit to the floating village and the cave.
As the vessel began cruising into the deeper waters of Ha Long Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay, we prepared for our first activity.
Visiting A Floating Village
The visit to the floating village was a fairly relaxing activity. Once at the village, we were broken up into groups of 6 and put on row boats which then took us for a tour of the floating village. Apparently, people live in these floating houses far removed from the main city. Their source of income includes fishing, pearl farming and tourism. Tourists like us who came to visit their floating village provide employment to the villagers as rowers. Personally, I felt that the houses were located in a very scenic area but too far away from civilisation. Apparently, the government had helped move some of the people from nearby villages to these floating villages.
The trip to the floating village also included a visit to the oyster farm. As a source of income, villagers farmed various species of oysters for the pearls. Not only were we shown the farm, but also the process of how an oyster is inseminated (is that the right word) with a pearl to produce another pearl, and how a pearl was extracted from an oyster after the gestation period. Quite fascinating.
Once we returned to our main vessel, the crew organised a cooking lesson (which took place every evening). This evening they showed up how to assemble Vietnamese spring rolls. Of course, we were allowed to eat during the happy hours. Yup, the cruise also has a happy hour (one hour only), which is a perfect way to grab two drinks and head to the deck to enjoy the sunset as the boat drops anchor for the night.
The overnight docking area was common for all cruise vessels. I guess the area is relatively sheltered from big waves and also offers great views of the sunset on Ha Long Bay.
Day 2 Itinerary
If you do decide to spend only one night on the cruise, then skip to day 3. The activities on day 2 are the ones that you’ll miss out on.
I personally felt that the second day gave us a better opportunity to discover Ha Long Bay and its inner nooks. Also, given that it was only 7 of us who spent the extra day, the level of service felt far more personal and intimate.
On the morning of the second day, we were transferred onto a slightly smaller “day boat”. We’d have to spend our morning and afternoon on this boat, while the main vessel dropped off the other passengers, refueled, and cleaned up. We’d join back with the rest of the crew at the floating village at the end of our day.
Anyway, once on the day boat, we were taken an hour away to a slightly secluded part of Ha Long Bay for our first activity.
Kayaking In Ha Long Bay
Definitely the highlight of my stay in Ha Long Bay. We kayaked in relatively calm waters for over an hour! We kayaked through caves, arches and into a lake behind the karst landscapes. The hidden lake was the most amazing experience. For a moment it felt like we were the only people on Earth on our kayaks. The waters were absolutely still and every word we spoke echoed through the limestone pillars. Quite surreal.
After our gruelling kayaking session, we headed back to our day boat to grab lunch and enjoy the rest of the afternoon relaxing on a private beach.
An Afternoon On A Private Beach
For a few precious hours, before we headed back to our main cruise vessel, we had one more item planned – an afternoon on our own private beach. The beach was located on one of the many secluded islands in Ha Long/Bai Tu Long Bay. Other than the fact that it felt too short, it was very zen, indeed.
We finally headed back to our main cruise vessel and met up with the people who had just boarded. From that point on, it was a repeat of the previous evening – cooking class (we learned how to make Vietnamese fried spring rolls), happy hour, sunset and docking.
Day 3 Itinerary
A Visit To The Caves
The last activity before we headed back to the city was to explore a limestone cave. To be honest, I don’t remember the name of the cave but apparently, it was the second-largest cave in Ha Long Bay. The cave was magnificent with its stalactites and stalagmites features, but it was hard to not get overwhelmed by the crowds. After the caves, we were presented with two options to return to our main vessel: take the same boat we came in or kayak back. Of course, I chose the latter!
Food On The Signature Cruise
Dinner and lunch were served as a 5-course meal with impeccable service, which really made it feel like we were on a luxury cruise. We also liked the way that each course in each meal was different all through our 3 days and 2 nights.
On the first day, we felt that a few dishes were a miss. However, on our second night, we were delightfully surprised with dinner. The cha ca la vong was quite the treat!
At breakfast, I thoroughly enjoyed the pho which was better than the pho that I had eaten in some of the fancy restaurants in Hanoi.
Overall, I’d say the food was well-presented and delicious. After all, you’re in Vietnam and expect the best in terms of food.
Timelapse Of Ha Long Bay
And finally, to finish it up here is a timelapse that I shot of Ha Long Bay at different points in time. The video includes clips shot from the top deck, while on smaller boats and during our visit to the floating village.
An Appeal To Keep Ha Long Bay Clean
Although we thoroughly enjoyed our cruise experience in Ha Long Bay, the amount of garbage floating in the bay really put us off. We were told that the cleaners were on holiday because it was the Vietnamese New Year. Nonetheless, it was shocking to see so much trash. If you’re planning a trip to Ha Long Bay, please refrain from throwing your garbage into the sea.