Paradise Discovered in Halong Bay
by Olivia Balsinger
Halong Bay is by no means unchartered territory by tourists in Vietnam, unlike other areas of her pristine coastline where crossing paths with another visitor is few and far between. In fact, over three million tourists flock to this bay each year – compare that to Vietnam’s stark coastline such as Ha Giang, which, due to its geographic location in the highlands of the country, hardly sees tourists.
Halong Bay, on the other hand, is a comfortable and efficient two-hour drive on the newly-renovated highway from the bustle and chaos of the country’s capital, Hanoi. With this congestion of tourism and the saturation of competition, how do cruising companies differentiate themselves and attract guests?
For Paradise Cruises, that answer lies in the company’s commitment to delivering unparalleled luxury service. With a total fleet of about a dozen ships and more in the pipeline, Paradise Cruises prides itself on creating the optimal balance of relaxation and adventure, flexibility and scheduling, opulence and simplicity. The brand has established a longtime respected reputation in the country – in fact, Paradise Group Vietnam currently owns and operates four other fleets as well as the 156-room Paradise Suites and Paradise Trend hotels, the first and only boutique luxury hotels in Halong Bay.
I recently was privileged to sail Paradise Elegance throughout northeast Vietnam’s magical topography. Here we meandered through the Gulf of Tonkin, where limestone pillar islands adorned with emerald forests create a surreal scene, a real-life cross between Avatar and Jurassic Park sets.
While all Paradise Cruises share similarities in the caliber of service and itinerary variation, they still differ in many ways. I urge you to research the Paradise ships individually before booking, to decide which itinerary is most agreeable for you. For me, the answer was Paradise Elegance.
Paradise Elegance, with 31 spacious cabins and five-star amenities, flawlessly exemplifies the company’s vision. Grand in stature, this 200-ton steel craft ship is the most extensive overnight option to ever sail through Halong Bay, measuring 61 meters long and 13 meters wide. The precision and time it took to decorate the vessel’s interior is unmistakable – not a thread is out of place. Vietnamese and eastern Asian design concepts are fused with modern Western twists, seamlessly meshing the two worlds.
The piano bar on Elegance is just that: elegant. The primary social gathering space onboard, this charming and spacious room is connected to the restaurant, luring guests for a cocktail or cigar following dinner. Between the dark wood paneling, the ornate paintings, and the musty leather-bound chairs, the room’s ambiance is reminiscent of a refined nineteenth-century English parlor, where the gentlemen sip top-shelf whiskey and talk politics. The ship’s primary evening entertainment is a live band, which readily takes requests from the audience and encourages dancing until wee morning hours.
Of course, if you have two left feet, you can enjoy Elegance’s other evening activity offering: squid fishing from the stern of the boat (and if you’re lucky enough to catch one, the cook will fry it for breakfast the next morning!)
The top deck of Elegance is where all the action throughout the day is centered. With striking 360 degree views of the surrounding landscape, the capability to hold up to 70 people at once, and a circular, shaded bar serving snacks and happy hour specials, it’s obvious why guests flock to the top.
By late afternoon the sun melts into the skyline. It provides a stunning background for the traditional Vietnamese cooking class, where the ship’s chef demonstrates how to delicately produce a classic spring roll and invites brave guests to try themselves.
For a boutique cruise line, Paradise Elegance boasts a surprising variety in its 31 suites. The ship has 27 Deluxe Balcony Cabins and four Terrace Suite cabins. No matter the category, all rooms include a bed, a telephone, a spacious bathroom with a shower, sink and toilet, a walk-in closet, and – most importantly – a balcony with two deck chairs. The bathrooms are fitted with their high-end amenities and are much less claustrophobic than traditionally thought of a cruise.
Each guest room is assigned a butler who serves as the liaison between guests and management for the duration of the journey. The butler’s primary responsibility is to inform guests about the scheduling and serve dishes during dinner (and more informal duties include giving local advice about must – explore hidden gems in the area!)
Speaking of hidden gems, the greatest draw to any cruise through the UNESCO-protected Halong Bay is the ability to experience nature at her most extreme – she lures in guests from around the world with her dramatic limestone islands contrasting the vibrancy of the turquoise Gulf of Tonkin. Paradise Elegance goes far beyond the standard cruising itinerary; however, allowing guests more bespoke experiences, should they choose.
Paradise Elegance provides a relatively condensed schedule for guests, whether they choose the “one night-two day” or “two night-three day” program. A one-night itinerary usually includes an afternoon visit to Sung Sot Cave, the largest and arguably most serene cave in Halong Bay. An intrepid adventurer’s dream, the ancient cave is composed of 1,969 sunken limestone towers submerged in the indigo waters of the bay and many still remain rugged and unexplored.
Weather permitting, the next optional excursion is a visit to The Tung Sau Pearl Farm, notable for growing pearls and practicing a handmade technique based on Vietnamese tradition and Japanese technology. This is also an extraordinary inlet here to kayak and experience the untouched nature more intimately, guests can rent a two-person kayak for an additional USD 20. The following morning begins bright and early, with a visit to the famous Ti Top Island, the ideal stop to for a brisk a.m. swim or an arduous hike culminating in panoramic views at the top.
The first 24 hours of Paradise Elegance’s “two night-three day” program is identical to that of the “one night” itinerary. However, guests who wish to experience Halong Bay even more in-depth will continue the second day onwards and deeper into the bay aboard the Paradise Explorer tender boat. Throughout this multi-hour journey, the ship stops at Trong Cave on Bo Hon Island, where your mouth may be left agape observing the sheer amount of stalactites dangling from the cave’s ceiling.
Of course, Vietnam is famous for its hidden floating villages. Cua Van Floating Village, the largest of the five remaining floating fishing villages in the bay, is no exception. Elegance guests will reach this hidden gem the most local way possible, traditional bamboo boats. Those up for the adventure may decide to kayak instead.
There is a reason why Paradise cruises have withstood the test of time and competition sailing in one of Vietnam’s most touristic areas: they prioritize comfort, luxury, and an authentic feeling of adventure.