Vietnam’s ‘other’ Ha Long Bay is one of Earth’s most stunning seascapes

Travel News from Stuff - 25-12-2023
news image

Not long into my cruise around Lan Ha Bay I’m in a state of repose. OK, I admit I’ve been speed-napping inside my teak-panelled stateroom, when I’m startled by the sudden and sharp blast of the ship’s horn.

news image

Several times louder than a footy match’s full-time hooter, I leap up and part the bedroom’s sheer curtains, peering outside to establish what on earth, I mean, water, is happening.

news image

I soon see that the captain of our luxury junk, Ylang, named after a flower, is negotiating the cruise boat through an almost absurdly narrow, take-no-chances, rocky entrance that seems to lead to the main, showstopper section of the bay.

news image

Moreover, this slender passage more or less separates Vietnam’s heavily visited Ha Long Bay to the far-less-visited Lan Ha Bay (that’d be 500 tour boats versus 60, but more of that later).

get quote or book now in New Zealand

With that horn reverberating through this dramatic Unesco World Heritage-listed natural amphitheatre, the skipper – with a few more blasts of the horn to warn away any of the other 59 lingering tour boats – navigates the vessel unmolested through the passage.

Clearly he’s done this before, thank goodness, though as we go through, a towering limestone wall looms straight out that same bedroom window, so close to the side of our vessel that I could literally reach out and pat it.

Lan Ha Bay, roughly meaning “elegant orchid”, instantly reveals itself as a seemingly endless waterborne wonderland composed of hundreds of weather-hewn limestone karsts straight out of central karsting.

Each of these craggy protuberances rear haphazardly, yet somehow purposefully, directly from the sea around us like some kind of weird reverse icebergs.

I’m here aboard Ylang as part of a two-night Senses of Lan Ha cruise, operated by the Vietnamese-owned Heritage Line, having travelled the two hours or so by road from Hanoi to the departure point of the cruise at a dedicated wharf near the burgeoning Ha Long City.

It was a decade or so ago that I was last in this high-profile part of Northern Vietnam when I took another two-night cruise around Ha Long Bay with Heritage Line, the same operator of this more recent Lan Ha Bay itinerary.

Unlike Ha Long Bay, if my memory serves me well, where the sea is far more omnipresent, here to its south-east on Lan Ha Bay, the more congregated profusion of islands and islets makes the bay feel much more like a colossal, completely sheltered harbour.

Priding itself on boutique boats like Ylang with the maximum degree of luxury but with a minimal number of passengers, Heritage Line has since expanded its operations into other parts of Southeast Asia, including the Mekong River.

While there are just 10 cabins on this cruise boat there are only three passengers on this specific cruise. That’d be me and a German medico and his wife, a nurse, and – wait for it – 25 crew.

The crew complement includes no less than five chefs, preparing superb contemporary-style Vietnamese cuisine the calibre, or better, of a five-star hotel back in Hanoi, or pretty much anywhere else for that matter and the meals compete with the scenery as a cruise highlight.

“If this was Germany and with so few passengers they would have cancelled such a cruise weeks ago,” says the incredulous but appreciative doctor.

Yes, not only are we fortunate to be aboard the Ylang and lavished with the most gracious of service, care and attention evident from the moment we board from the mainly youthful Vietnamese crew – this is also something of an auspicious time to be traversing these waters.

Earlier this year, Unesco expanded the boundaries of its declaration of Ha Long Bay as a World Heritage area back in 1994 to encompass the Cat Ba Archipelago, of which Lan Ha Bay forms an important part.

This entire coastal region, spanning two whole provinces of Vietnam, consists of as many as 2000 islands and islets, including those spectacular sentinel karsts. Together they form one of the most stunning seascapes on Earth.

Most of these precipitous outcrops are uninhabited, with Cat Ba being the largest and by far most populous island in its eponymous archipelago. All up, the archipelago, on the south-eastern reaches of Lan Ha Bay, consists of 367 islands spanning 260 kilometres.

It hosts no less than seven types of ecosystem, as well as one of the world’s most threatened primate species – the endemic Cat Ba langur, its numbers today estimated to less than 80 individuals.

After lunch, in the blessedly cooler, latter part of the first of three or so days aboard Ylang, a tender from the boat anchors at a lagoon near Viet Hai, a small, isolated fishing village where the overall access is solely from sea.

Access to ancient Viet Hai from the jetty is either by bicycle or in an electric cart. The village is gloriously sheltered by Lan Ha Bay with the lofty peaks above forming a beautifully bucolic valley.

As the road swarms with multinational backpackers on bikes, I pause not far from the entrance to the village to see a sizeable herd of water buffalo crossing the road as these languorous beasts of burden move from one lush grassy paddock to another.

From there, I pedal into the village, pausing for a cool drink before doing a circuit of the community.

As the shadows of late afternoon close in around Viet Hai, the offer from a Ylang guide of a ride back to the wharf on one of the electric carts is gratefully accepted, with our bikes left to be collected later.

By nightfall, there’s a dazzling flotilla of dozens of illuminated boats – assembled for the evening in a line across the by now inky Lan Ha Bay – an unclipped twinkling gold necklace displayed inside some darkened glass cabinet.

The next morning after a typically generous and delectable breakfast, Ylang is under way again across Lan Ha Bay, eventually anchoring near Cat Ba Island to where we’re transferred by speedboat.

From Gia Luan Pier, one of the island’s few entry points, we explore the nearby Trung Trang Caves and, later, trek for an hour or so through the sweaty jungles of Cat Ba National Park, a designed biosphere reserve hosting more than 1500 species of plant life, 78 types of birds, 20 kinds of reptiles and 32 mammals

As we stride through the forest we encounter several snakes and considerable plant life, but few if any of those stated birds and mammals, most particularly the elusive Cat Ba langur, occasionally glimpsed by Ylang passengers from kayaks.

The rest of my time on Lan Ha Bay dissolves into yet more multi-course meals, sunsets to rival a Miss Saigon billposter and, yes, extended, guilt-free naps in my stateroom, the size of a large hotel suite.

On the final morning of my Senses of Lan Ha cruise I wake early to find that the latest perfectly framed vista from my stateroom is that of a lone, peppermint-coloured, red-roofed fisherman’s shack.

It’s bobbing gently on the bay like some little Asiatic aquatic house on the prairie against the rather intimidating backdrop of a precipitous rockface that dwarfs both the dwelling and our luxury junk.

Soon enough we’ll head back to shore, the tranquillity of Lan Ha Bay momentarily disturbed again by another cautionary sounding of the skipper’s horn as we pass through that narrow passage again, back towards a more moribund mainland from where we began. It’s been a blast.

Heritage Line's two-night, three-day Lan Ha Bay cruise aboard Ylang starts from $US570 per adult. See:

Singapore Airlines operates daily flights from NZ to Hanoi, via Singapore. Hanoi is the closest major Vietnamese city to Tuan Chau Marina, the disembarkation point near Halong City, for the cruise. See:

Combine your luxury cruise by splurging on a night or two at the theatrically designed, five-star Capella Hanoi hotel with Premier rooms from $736 a night. See:

Citing “stuff”