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Cruising in Style Through Halong Bay


A luxury cruise offers top-flight treatment aboard the biggest vessel to launch in Halong Bay. ELOISE BASUKI embarks on a voyage in northern Vietnam that proves to be like no other, all from the comfort of her oversized suite. Photographed by LEIGH GRIFFITHS.

Published on May 3, 2019

 

NIGHT HAS FALLEN ON THE CALM WATERS THAT
LAP THE SHORES OF TI TOP ISLAND,
IN THE HEART OF HALONG BAY.

Tonight the bay's spectacular karsts are just black shadows in the distance. In the place that launched a thousand ships, my partner, Leigh, and I are squatting on the stern of the biggest-in-the-bay President Cruises vessel, trying to catch a squid with the boat's jolly crew. After half an hour of watching passing jellyfish undulate through the water and flying fish leap over our bamboo rods, a baby squid tugs on Leigh's line.

"Breakfast for tomorrow!" shout the crew, and, as if retaliating with a cephalopod version of the middle finger, the flailing squid showers us in a squirt of black ink.

Lounging around on the sun-soaked deck of the President Cruises ship in Halong Bay.
Lounging around on the sun-soaked deck of the President Cruises ship in Halong Bay.

I didn't think I would be getting abused by calamari when I stepped aboard this luxury cruise in Vietnam's most famous bay. Then again, this was my first time here, and I didn't really know what to expect. Leigh had shared debauched tales of his backpacker days in Halong Bay aboard a party boat manned by alcoholic Brits. My parents went on (and on) about their recent voyage on one of the high-end wooden junks that ply these waters. But I've always been a little cynical about joining the hoards of tourists who descend on these karsts, not to mention being stuck with them in close quarters. So, spending the night fishing off the back of the boat, in the company of only the local crew, was way more fun than what I'd pictured. It was surprisingly real, and certainly unique.

Officially launched in January 2019, President Cruises maintains a local focus amid their ante-upping luxury—fine-dining meals, butler service, the full-treatment Kaia Spa and an on-deck pool with built-in Jacuzzi. Offering more space than any other ship here, this 86-meter-long, 14-meter-wide, five-deck craft impressively towers over those smaller, homey wooden junks that my parents sailed on, and is a world away from any backpacker boat.

President Cruises is the only ship in Halong to have its own pool on deck, complete with jacuzzi jets for when the nights get cold.
President Cruises is the only ship in Halong to have its own pool on deck, complete with jacuzzi jets for when the nights get cold.

Obviously there's a reason this bay is so continually packed—it's beautiful. My mom's report that her visit wasn't as crowded as anticipated along with assurances from friends that the bay's UNESCO status has kept authorities managing the area tightly helped change my apathy into excitement. As it turned out, our two-night sailing wasn't just upscale, but also would end with a bang for a tale that was worth telling over (and over) again.

 

HALONG BAY IS HOME to many legends. This sprawling jade-green cove speckled with more than a thousand jungle-cloaked limestone karsts is said to have been created by a divine dragon mother. Defending the region from invaders from the north, the dragon and her children hurled a fury of fire and emeralds on the marine battlefield, destroying the attackers and creating the scatter of jagged islets and caves we see today.

Karst-views from the elegant Treasury suite.
Karst-views from the elegant Treasury suite.

This story also baptized the bay—ha long means descending dragon—and many Vietnamese people consider themselves descendants of this sacred creature. Whether you believe the fable or veer toward the more scientific origin story of 500-million-year-old geologic evolution, the beauty of Halong Bay feels pretty magical.

Considering itself the legend in town, President boasts the highest capacity in Halong—46 cabins for up to 120 guests—though with five decks (most ships top out at four), it hardly feels cramped. Before I can drape myself on the pillow-piled nest loungers scattered across the top two sundecks, we're introduced to the main crew for a safety briefing over oysters and tea. We meet cruise manager Mr. Lee; bartender Jimmy; Tracy, our butler, on hand for meal times, room service and excursions; and Hayden, the joyful assistant manager.

Tracy, one of President's butlers.
Tracy, one of President's butlers.

Mr. Lee guides us to one of two Treasury suites at the front, our 38-square-meter home for the next two nights. If only my actual home looked like this: dark-wood parquet floors and chocolate-brown leather furnishings offer refinement; woven bamboo accents add a modern Vietnamese influence. But the spot you really want to be is in the claw-foot tub in the bathroom, where you can look out the floor-to-ceiling window to your private deck on the bow, and the shifting karst-scape beyond.

While all of the cabins have their own balconies, including a full front terrace for the 130-square-meter Presidential suite, ours affords us almost exclusive use of the very cool glass-bottomed bow. "You can have your 'Jack and Rose' moment here," says Mr. Lee of the perfect Titanic-style tip. Above the see-through floor, my feet seemingly drift above the emerald waters, and with the wind blowing through my hair and the karsts gliding in the distance, I can't stop myself shouting out a terrible impression of Kate Winslet's, "Jack, I'm flying!" I've got Mr. Lee and my Leigh, but, unfortunately, neither is Leo.

The President's glass-bottom bow.
The President's glass-bottom bow.

 

AS LUXE AS THE ROOMS ARE, we don't really spend that much time in them, because there is so much to see. The first day we dock at the Tung Sau oyster farm to see the pearling process (and, of course, the floating jewelry shop). We gladly take up the option to hire a kayak to get closer to the coves. (Tip: avoid splashing water into your kayak, or you'll sink like some of our fellow paddlers—and get even closer than you intended. Their rescue involves a fishing boat, some heavy lifting, and thanking the tech gods for waterproof phones.)

Getting schooled on the pearling process at Tung Sau oyster farm.
Getting schooled on the pearling process at Tung Sau oyster farm.

We climb to Sung Sot Cave, known as Surprising Cave for its vast 10,000-square-meter chamber. The largest cave in Halong, it's also filled with legends, including a stalagmite in the shape of a forlorn abandoned wife, still waiting for her good-for-nothing fisherman husband to return; and a turtle-shaped rock that's supposedly lucky, thus has had a lot of dong thrown at it over the years.

I'll admit that the "newly wed, nearly dead" cruise stereotype feels accurate on this trip—we fall in with a pair of bubbly Californian honeymooners and a gray- haired but impressively adventurous group from Borneo who make me think maybe sharing a deck with strangers isn't so bad. Still, the many private nooks make it easy to have alone time. At dinner you're not forced to share tables with the other guests (or the space, in fact, as you can opt for in-cabin dining, too). The butler service and creatively plated a la carte menu makes the communal area feel like an intimate fine-dining restaurant.

Exploring the ancient chamber of Surprising Cave.
Exploring the ancient chamber of Surprising Cave.

Tracy tells me I can choose as many dishes as I like from the East-and-West menu. Tracy didn't know that I would take her literally, but is very gracious when I order two appetizers, two mains and dessert. The traditional spiced Halong sea bass was a standout. In January 2019, the menu finalized with input from Michelin-starred British chef John Burton-Race.

 

THE NEXT DAY, we wake to blue skies and golden sunshine, and I feel sorry for the one-night guests disembarking this morning. I sleep in, so miss the sunrise tai chi on the top deck, but find my Zen during a late-morning swim in the sunlit pool. I have the water to myself, with a clear backdrop of Ti Top Island, the nearby karsts and other moored boats—an unforgettable scene. What had been wrong with me? My mom was right to go on; if this is cruise life, I want more of it.

We two-nighters transfer onto the Paradise Explorer day boat for our second day excursion. We huff and puff with what feels like hundreds of other tourists climbing to Ti Top's peak—worth it for the postcard panorama of the surrounding isles—then cool off with a swim in its bay. We kayak near Trinh Nu cave, and feed sweet potatoes and cucumbers to some visiting mountain monkeys. After lunch we dock at Cua Van floating village, and row past the fishermen's seabound houses.

Cooling off at the beach on Ti Top Island.
Cooling off at the beach on Ti Top Island.

Unlike Cua Van, which is protected from typhoons by neighboring islands, our floating home, it turns out, is in for a rough night. Back on the President we learn that the government has issued a strong wind warning, and every boat in Halong is to return to the harbor by 6 p.m. I look out at the still-blue sky, and feel a little indignant. Instead of packing, I head straight to the spa. If it's going to rain on my parade, I’m getting a massage while it happens.

By the time my 90-minute hot-stone treatment is over, the sky has grown black, the storm has hit, and we are inundated with such hard sheets of rain that it's almost impossible to leave the boat. I am glad we've safely pulled into harbor and are not in the middle of the choppy sea.

Happy hour with President bartender Jimmy.
Happy hour with President bartender Jimmy.

Mr. Lee hands out umbrellas and plastic ponchos, but these aren't enough to keep us dry on the open-air buggy ride through flooded streets and sideways rain. Some of our fellow travelers shriek for their lives in the lashing squall. I don't know whether to laugh or join in. It's like an alternate madcap-caper ending to Titanic, in which Rose just gets totally, soaking wet, Jack's biggest concern is damaging his camera equipment, and the beautiful boat survives unscathed, wondering why its occupants abandoned her. When we arrive, drenched, at Paradise's hotel, it proves to be comfortable but heartbreakingly incomparable to my suite and that (never-used!) bathtub. It seems sort of poetic that this spectacular bay created by a hail of dragon's breath has now also poured its heavens on me, another invader. Sure, our stormy exit probably wasn't due to the will of an ancient beast, but at least it makes for another good story.

 


presidentcruiseshalong.com; one-night cruise from US$420 per double; two-night cruise from US$840 per double.

 

 

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