Times are changing in UNESCO World Heritage – Halong Bay. Throughout 2011 many new safety procedures were implemented by the local government authorities. These changes applied to around 150 different cruise operators and some four hundred cruise vessels. Overall, it’s about building on travel trends to North Vietnam and ensuring Halong Bay is moving with the times.
For many years, since international doors opened to Vietnam, a fleet of some 400 older style timber hulled boats departed daily from the Bay Chay boat station, taking visitors out into the Bay to experience the established iconic locations such as Surprise Cave, Soi Sim and Titop Island.
In more recent times a new era of cruising has emerged. Last year, two leading cruise companies launched their new four star fleets to meet growing demand for ‘floating resort’ style travel experiences. Both located at fashionable Tuan Chau Island, Life Heritage Resort Halong Bay and Paradise Cruises are now leading the way for entertaining discerning travelers.
Tuan Chau Island is destined to become the ‘Antibes’ or ‘Fort Lauderdale’ of cruising North Vietnam waters. There are even plans for hosting exclusive ‘Super Yachts’ in the near future. When planning your visit to Halong Bay, consider Hai Phong airport, only 90 minutes drive to the Bay. A new Vietnam Airlines service has commenced daily from Danang – an easy and comfortable transfer time both by air and road. In comparison, Hanoi airport & city is a leisurely 4 hour drive to Halong Bay.
The island of Tuan Chau is bridged to the mainland by a two lane causeway. From its marina base, boats depart daily and within ten minutes of cruising, visitors enter the islands of Halong Bay. This compares to a 45 minute transfer time from Bay Chai.
On Tuan Chau Island there are small Vietnamese style boutique hotels such as Viethouse Lodge for overnight onshore stopovers and beach resorts such as Holiday Villa. All are only a five minute golf buggy drive to the marina and the Life Heritage Resort Halong Bay or Paradise Cruises fleet of boats.
The Bay has a 120km long coastline and is approximately 1,553 square kms in size. Several of the islands are hollow, with enormous caves and grottos inside to explore.
Historically the peak season for European visitors is during North Vietnam’s Winter months. That’s December through to the end of April where air temperatures can be as low as 10 degrees. The best times to cruise Halong Bay waters is actually Spring and Autumn. (April, May, June or October, November). During these months you’ll experience clear skies, perfect air & water temperatures, longer daylight hours, sunsets…and balmy nights.
The government Port Authority overseas all cruise movements and registers every visitor to Halong Bay. This must be done in advance of your arrival. Your passport or Vietnamese Identity card details need to be submitted for permits the day prior to your intended date of cruise. The cruise companies then process your permits for either Day Cruising or Overnight Accommodated Cruising, on the day of intended cruising.
Each day the Port Authority assesses the weather conditions and then decide to issue cruise permits, or not. Day Cruises are issued between 7.00am – 7.30am and overnight permits are only issued between 11.00-11.30am. Most visitors plan their road transfers from Hanoi to coincide with the issuance of their overnight permits which means departing your Hanoi hotel at 8.00am to arrive Tuan Chau Island around 11.30am – midday. A weather check is advised from Hanoi to forecast the likelihood of permits being issued, or not. If you book two nights afloat with any cruise company, then each day the Captains need to apply for your permits day by day. If permits are not issued on the second day then boats are occasionally instructed to return to port.
Your routes & itineraries
There are some 1969 islands within the UNESCO boundaries and some 3000 islands in the region. For many years the islands closest to the mainland have been used as daily cruise routes as the Port Authority designates four specific anchorages to overnight. These are within the vicinity of Surprise Cave, Titop Island and Soi Sim beach.
For the more discerning traveler and those wanting to steer clear of the mainstream tourist fleet, there are two more remote anchorages. One is located at Cong Do Island in the East and the other South West towards Cat Ba Island. Since 11/2011, the only cruise operator regularly using these remote anchorages is Life Heritage Resort Halong Bay. Life Resorts Vietnam launched their fleet of 22 Asian style heritage cruising-junks last year whereby guests charter their own private boat with personal crew of captain, mechanic, host and select from three distinctly different cruise routes and itineraries.
This brand new operation presents three cruise itineraries defined as Eastern Isles, Central Isles and Western Isles. There are also four and six hour day cruises for those visitors limited by travel time or wanting to do a same day return Hanoi to Halong Bay journey.
For those families or small groups traveling together, then Paradise Cruises offers a variety of stylish boats and innovative cruise itineraries. Both cruise operators depart from Tuan Chau marina daily.
Your travel plans
A combination of spending one or two nights with onshore accommodation combined with one or two nights cruising is ideal and recommended to satisfy your ‘once in a lifetime experience’ Halong Bay travels. A reason to “stay a little longer”, is to explore Cat Ba Island, the largest island and itself a designated National Park. There are nearby local villages such as Cai Dam (famous for Foot Massage) and Hon Cai where the local fish markets show an array of seafood caught out in the bay and sold to locals each day. These mainland villages are certainly not touristed so you’ll see a genuine, friendly and local way of life in Northern Vietnam.
The future Halong Bay
“The spectacular seascape of Halong Bay is one of the great treasures of our natural world. The extraordinary scenic beauty of this site and its unique, dramatic rock formations emerging out of the mirror-like calm ocean water in the bay makes it a worthy Wonder of Nature” ~ (Bernard Weber, Founder-President of ‘New7Wonders of Nature)
Halong Bay was recently acclaimed as one of the ‘New7Wonders of Nature’. Combined with its existing UNESCO World Heritage status and the surrounding National Parks, this region is fast becoming an even greater international icon destination, increasingly conscious of environmental impacts from the charter boat fleets, increasing visitor numbers and the local resident populations living in and around Halong Bay. Local authorities are steadily adopting more international initiatives to protect and conserve the islands and waterways.
For further information of Halong Bay or Life Resort and Paradise Cruises, please visit websites: buffalotrip.com