Search This Blog

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Northern Vietnam: Indochina Sails Luxury Cruise at Halong Bay

Halong Bay is a UNESCO world heritage site at Quang Ninh Province.

Initially, one of my travel buddy wasn't up to the idea of staying overnight because of unfortunate recent events of tourists drowning due to a sinking junk and suggested to do a day trip instead. A day trip to Halong Bay is possible but might be too taxing since it takes more than 2 hours (per way) to get there from Hanoi.  As for me, a trip to Vietnam isn't complete without an overnight stay in a junk in Halong Bay so I had to convince my peer and spent hours to google for options, read reviews, and checked the age of the junk!

Tripadvisor's top picks are the Red Dragon Junk and Paloma Cruise while travel blogger Ironwulf suggests the Aloha Junk through Handspan Travel Adventure.  Handspan is a reputable travel agency in Hanoi and they offer bookings in several types of junk. It is recommended to take packaged or guided tours if you are going to visit Halong Bay. Doing it on your own would be more costly and you would run a risk of encountering some frauds.

For $167 per person, we arranged with Handspan to be booked with luxury cruise Indochina Sails for 2D/1N.

Included in the package:
• Accommodation on Indochina Sails Junk
• Welcome drinks
• Meals as specified in the program:  lunch buffet, plated dinner, morning tea, brunch; (beverage excluded)
• Travel in an appropriate air-conditioned vehicle with an experienced driver to/from Handspan Office in Hanoi  (they do not offer hotel pick-up)
• The services of an experienced English-speaking guide (or French upon request)
• Entrance fees
• VAT and other taxes


8:00 We were running late after breakfast in our hotel in Hanoi.  We hurriedly went to Handspan Adventure Travel via taxi with our overnight bags.  After passport check, we were taken to board a coaster along with other travelers. There were several young backpackers and an old couple.  The guide was entertaining.  We were asked to introduce ourselves.  We somehow received a knowing look from the guide after knowing we were from the Philippines, young and taking a luxury cruise!  I'm sure he can't believe it and asked if we worked in some international companies.  In all modesty, we didn't have to brag about anything, a smile is enough, we just want to experience luxury this time.

9:30 Stop at a factory for pee break.

11:30  Arrive at Bai Chay/Halong pier.  The young backpackers were dropped off in different junk terminals  while we, along with the old couple, were dropped off at Indochina Sails waiting lounge.

12:15 Shortly, we were transferred by tender to the Indochina Sails boat, got some welcome drink and receive cruise briefing and so the cruise began.  We were in awe how spacious the junk was and it was perfectly neat and comfortable.
two twin bed room

the sun deck of Indochina sails
13:00  Lunch - deluxe Vietnamese and International buffet.  The clams was superb!

Massage service is available beginning after lunch and throughout the cruise but we had to pass on this, we just had one at Hoi An.
a picturesque view of the karst on a hazy day
14.30  Arrived at Titop Island. "Enjoy swimming, relaxing on the beach and climbing the steps to the top of the mountain on the island for fantastic views and photo opportunities." was our itinerary.  The weather in Halong Bay in late March was cool, 18 degrees, the ice cold water wasn't inviting at all. The junks were perfectly anchored with their false sail up for a picture perfect view of Halong Bay's karst and junks.
view of Halong Bay on top of Titop Island 

looked like an orchestrated entertainment since they left on an Indochina sail tender when we did

15.15 Transferred back to the boat and sail for approximately 45 minutes to our second destination - the Bat Cave area.
afternoon coffee at the deck
16.15 Arrived at the Bat Cave area. There are two programs to choose from at this time. One option is a 40 minute kayaking program to the nearby Bat Cave and lagoon and surrounding waters. Kayaking is $10 per person unless already booked as part of your package. Water is supplied.
sampan ride at the fishing village was not a must
The second option is to visit the largest floating fishing village in Halong Bay. We will travel to the village on the tender and tour the village for approximately 20 minutes.

At this weather, option one wasn't an option. :)
18:30  Arrived at Luon Bo area and anchored overnight.
19:00  Dinner - deluxe Vietnamese & Western Buffet or Set Menu Dinner.
20:30  Evening activities include: film entertainment in the dining room at approximately 9:15, night fishing, board games and playing cards are available.
playing scrabble for the first time!  didn't realize that is was part of the itinerary haha

21:00 – 23:00  Happy Hour! Buy one drink - get one free (wine excluded).
dine and wine!  too bad my taste of wine wasn't on promo

23.00  End of program for Day One

6:45  Coffee, tea and breakfast pastries served in the dining room.
Taichi in the morning with such a pretty view
7:00  Arrive at the Surprise Cave area, there is a small fishing village here. Relax onboard. You may join Tai Chi instruction on the sundeck at 7:00, duraion about 30 minutes.
halong bay vendor

8:00  Transfer by tender to the Surprise Cave. Walk up the 100 steps to the entrance of the cave and tour on foot for approximately 45 minutes.

9:00  Upon return to the boat, we had a short time to freshen up.  We had to put our luggage outside the cabins already (staff will transfer to the pier). Depart for Bai Chay/Halong pier.
9:30 Breakfast buffet (or should I say brunch) was served in the dining room. Settled bills in the dining room after breakfast.
tasty Pho!  had two servings of this :)
10:00  "Relaxed on the sundeck or in the dining room and enjoy the bay scenery as we approach the pier."  We opted to... play scrabble again! This must be our new past time.
10:45  Arrive at Bai Chay/Halong pier.
11:00  Transfer by tender to the pier, relax inside the pier building while waiting for return transportation.
view of the rice fields from Halong to Hanoi

20:30 Arrived in Hanoi.

We had an excellent stay at the Indochina Sail and taking the luxury cruise Indochina sail was worth every penny.  These pictures tells the story.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Explore Vietnam: Central Vietnam - Hue to Hoi An via Danang

Previous: Exploring Ho Chi Minh

We took the budget airline Jetstar from Ho Chi Minh to Hue;  the fare was just a third compared to their flagship airline Vietnam Airlines.  However, these two airlines share the same terminal.  Passengers go through a long line of security check in most terminals across Vietnam.

On this leg, we prebooked a two day tour with Handspan that will take us from Hue to Hoi An via Danang for $161 per person with superior accommodation. Handspan was recommended by blogger ironwulf. They had a pre-arrange itinerary for Hue to Hoi An, however, it was customized according to our schedule and preference.  Details were arranged through email communication.  Maybe because of language barrier, it took a couple of exchanges before they could get it right.  When details were ironed out, they asked for credit card information and sent us a link to prepay the tour online.  It is their policy that prepayment is required before they can guarantee the booking.

[Day 1] Hue Arrival
Meals: lunch | Accommodation: hotel

sampan ride down the perfume river
Thien Mu Pagoda
 We were met at Hue Airport by our guide, Huang.  It was drizzling.  The morning started with a motorized sampan ride down the Perfume River to Thien Mu Pagoda, considered to be the finest pagoda in Hue, and an icon throughout Vietnam.  While we took the sampan ride, our van driver drove to the other side to meet us.  Looking back, taking the van would probably be faster and better.

the entrance to the Citadel

Afterwhich, we toured the Imperial Citadel. This site enclosed the land of eight villages and covers 6km2 - sufficient area to house the Emperor and his family, courtiers, officials, concubines, bodyguards, and servants. There are ten gates through the four massive walls of the citadel, the place was impressively huge, but in poor condition.  The complex has been recognized as a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage site and is undergoing rehabilitation.  I don't know how it is like to go around this place without a guide, there were countless doors  leading to different areas.
one of the many gates around Citadel
The rain has not stopped and it was pretty cold in Hue.  After more than an hour walk around the Citadel, we were taken to a set lunch of Vietnamese Cuisine at Y Thao Garden.  The place was quaint, the food was good and obviously catered exclusively to tourists.

Y Thao Garden
03 Thach Han St., Hue City
Tel 84-54-3523018
spring rolls at Y Thao Garden
We were also brought to the Dong Ba market, it was a wet and dry market pretty much like what we have but sans a foul smell.

On the road,  we all fell asleep.  Sleeping on the road is a very normal thing to us, but our guide was surprised and cannot fathom the thought how we could sleep on bumpy roads... we told him, it's like being lulled to sleep on a rocking chair! We later realized that the locals do not actually have the luxury to experience riding a car or van, the motorcycle is their usual mode of transportation, surely you can't sleep on it.

Last stop was the tomb of emperor Ming Mang, it reminded me of Beijing's Ming Tomb with a courtyard guarded by statues of mandarins, horses and elephants, but in a much smaller scale.  The resting place was carefully planned by the emperor himself and built shortly after his death in formal Chinese style, it's opulent and exotic, and a good example of classic Sino-Vietnamese architecture.  The place was kinda deserted and felt eerie.
Camellia Hotel, Hue
Just before the sun sets, we checked-in at Camellia Hotel, a four-star Hotel in Hue.  The room size was just right, the bed and facilities were comfortable, and the receptionist was highly initiative, all praises to her!  The only flaw about this hotel was the elevator, breakfast was served at the 11th floor and it seemed to stop at each floor and at very slow pace;  some Amerasian guests inside the elevator were commenting "this is the slowest elevator in the world".

Wifi is free at the hotel room, when I checked my email, I received a notice that our onward flight from Danang to Hanoi was moved 10 hours later the following day.  At midnight, I had to call Jetstar to confirm, calls from the hotel room was inexpensive, twas around 3,000 dong/minute.

For dinner, we took the taxi to Confetti Boutique Restaurant as recommended by trip advisor.  The place had ambience, the food was great, the vietnamese pancake was a hit.

[Day 2] Hue – Hoi An
Meals: breakfast | Accommodation: N/A

After breakfast, our van heads to Hoi An via Hai Van pass. There was a panoramic view of the coastline, with the city of Da Nang spread out before you to the south.  It was a two hour drive from Hue to Da Nang and another hour from Da Nang to Hoi An.

We stopped at Cham Museum in Da Nang which claimed to house the largest displays of Cham art anywhere in the world.  The visual display wasn't very impressive maybe because of the lack of space.
Pho at Ba Nam

Before heading to Marble Mountain, we stopped by for lunch (on our account) at a small eatery called Ba Nam that serves nothing else but noodles.  We were not sure how sanitary the place was, disposable chopsticks were not available and mighty mouse was freely roaming around.  Inspite of these, we've appreciated how tasty the spicy Pho was!

It was a long climb up those hundreds of huge steps to Marble Mountain.   At the top, you'll see an overview of five limestone peaks with marble outcrops known for their beauty and their cave network. At the foot of Marble Mountain, is an important religious site since the time of the Chams, you can see many artisans crafting fine marble objects.  We went in a temple carved inside a cave - that was impressive.  We also walked and climbed up and down further to see the Pagoda.  Here, we found an elevator; but it was still under construction, i guess we came too soon.

Around the area was a number of marble factories, we were brought into one (for pee break),  the marble statues were well crafted, if only I have a mansion with a wide enough courtyard to house it, I'd certainly pick one of those larger than life statues.  One thing about Vietnam's mandatory factory stops, they were not at all pushy to sell their products.

Da Nang appears to be a more progressive city, with a long stretch of beach.  I don't know if they're prettier than our beaches here, but one thing for sure, they are way ahead of us in terms of development, tourism and attracting investors. Mile and miles along the coastline were cordon off to make way for massive development by several five star resorts of international brands.  Two to three years from now, they'll definitely make a name.  I'm in awe yet envious for our country.

From Da Nang, we arrived an hour later to Hoi An, around 4 in the afternoon.  Our package tour ends when they dropped us off in our chosen hotel in Hoi An.