Last March, one of my friends named Thibault, returned to Vietnam for his second visit since the 1990 movie, L’indochine. He is an art enthusiast, and he had just seen the news about the newly released the Hollywood blockbuster, Kong – Skull Island. The movie was filmed in multiple locations throughout Vietnam, and it inspired him to rediscover the country and places such as Ninh Binh, Quang Binh, and Halong Bay.
We booked the trip through a luxury cruise company for a 2-night escape into Bai Tu Long Bay. We ordered a private car from Hanoi, although a shuttle limousine is provided if needed. We had a special request which was to climb to the top of Bai Tho Mountain and to see the Dragon’s Eye Islands, and take an expedition to experience the places in the Kong movie.
Thibault wanted to cruise on Bai Tu Long Bay which is adjacent to, but smaller and quieter than its more famous neighbor, Halong Bay. Bai Tu Long is a hidden gem, and its beauty surpasses that of Halong in my opinion. The name means ‘the place where the dragon children descended.’
Rich in biodiversity, and blessed with a spectacular landscape, the Bay is dominated by thousands of limestone karsts and islets which rise out of the water. Dotted with floating villages, unspoiled beaches, caves, grottoes and tiny coves, here you can hide and be Robinson Crusoe for a day.
Our private chauffeur picked us up at our hotel in Hanoi to travel to Halong Bay. The ride was comfortable and included a 30-minute stop en route for refreshments. We arrived at the Emperor Cruises Harbor around noon on what was fast becoming a beautiful sunny day. Here, we were greeted by the Experience Manager, Richard Park.
The beats of drums warmly welcomed us on board, and Thibault was immediately impressed by the elegance and ornate style of the junk. He particularly enjoyed the artistic inspiration behind the boat’s design, and the stunning paintings by famous Vietnamese artist, Pham Luc.
Richard explained the safety regulations along with a brief history of the Emperor Cruises vessel. Inspired by the lavish lifestyle of Emperor Bao Dai, the last Emperor of Vietnam, it is designed to reflect the style of the 1930s and is the perfect choice for travelers who wish to enjoy Vietnamese culture, history, and gourmet cuisine.
Cruise among the many beautiful islets (where scenes from the film L‘Indochine’ were filmed) through the wild beauty of Bai Tu Long Bay, and the panoramic views from the boat are unforgettable. A set lunch is served at the Can Chanh Palace Royal Restaurant on the main deck.
Following lunch, we visited Vung Vieng Fishing Village, a famous pearl-growing town, to view the fishing practices of the local people. We had time to observe the process of feeding pearls as well as learning a little about the life of the local inhabitants. We then boarded bamboo boats, and the local fishermen rowed us around their village and oyster pearl farming plots.
Our butler Tim explained that these pearls are considered to be some of the best in the world. Despite changes throughout history, today, the pearl farming village is famous and known as ‘The Kingdom of Pearls.
The cruise continued through the labyrinth of karst islands from Vung Vieng Fishing Village to Cong Do (sleeping area). Here, we enjoyed the magnificent beauty of Bai Tu Long Bay at sunset, admired the islands and islets, all the while savoring the peaceful atmosphere found only in this unique place.
As active travelers, we did some kayaking and then took afternoon tea, watching the sky change color as the sun set over the Bay. We partook in some wine tasting and were given a masterclass by the chef as he demonstrated how to cook a traditional Vietnamese dish.
FOOD FIT FOR A KING
Dining is available at any time, and our butler suggested that we indulge in the 5-course ‘a la carte’ menu.’ The Food in Vietnam is exquisite, and we wore the traditional clothes of Emperor Bao Dai, while our Butler changed his uniform to the charming ‘ao ngu than’ clothing of the period. In a relaxed atmosphere accompanied by musicians, we honestly felt like royalty, and others passengers took photos as we sipped on fine wines and pretended to be from the aristocracy.
Evening activities on offer included playing board games, indulging in a massage and spa service or even going squid fishing. The 1945 bar is located on the lower deck, and we selected the first movie filmed in Halong Bay – l’Indochine. Despite being on a traditional boat, the rooms are fitted with modern 49-inch Smart TV’s, and with popcorn and drinks in hand, we enjoyed the movie immensely.
Craft your own exploration
We selected a film tour to Cong La – Ba Hang and Cua Van Floating Village (the setting of ‘The Vertical Rays of Summer). The fairly-like setting at Cong La has two small beautiful lakes surrounded by dramatic karst islands. Another lake is accessible by climbing a cliff, while the kayak allows you to paddle through the low tides and into the three lagoons.
Ba Hang is the frontier between Halong Bay and the Cat Ba Islands, 30 km from Tuan Chau Island and 20 km from Hon Gai Harbor. We boarded around 10 km from our anchored sleeping area in Cong Do.
We made a small detour to the beautiful floating village of Cua Van before returning to Cong Do sleeping area. We discovered an island called Bái Đông (also known as Dragon Eye Island), located on the southern edge of Hạ Long Bay. The island, untouched by humans, is far from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Dragon Eye is a small island, shaped like an octopus, with a big head and long tentacles that twist and turn. It contains a lake that is round like an eyeball, and the middle of the island resembles an octopus’s head.
We awoke to the gentle lapping of the water against the boat, as the first rays of sunshine announced a new day. Before enjoying breakfast followed by cookies and tea, we tried a VOVINAM class (Vietnamese Martial Arts) on the sundeck. Exploring the area of Hon Co Island and Co Cave (Grass Cave, also known as Thien Canh Son), we reveled in the breathtaking view of Bai Tu Long Bay as well as the glorious white sandy beach at Hon Co Island.
Afterward, we relaxed on the beach and swam in the crystal clear waters. Returning by speedboat, we arranged our luggage and begrudgingly checked out. As we arrived back at the dock to disembark, a driver was waiting to take us on the next leg of our adventure.
The experience manager told us before leaving the boat, “I do hope you go and explore Vietnam, fall in love with the landscapes, the people, the culture, and the food. I trust you have enjoyed our Emperor Hideaway Experience, and that we have given you a trip that you will remember fondly for many years.”
We certainly will, and I will personally never forget the moment Richard and his team waved their hands to bid us a fond farewell.