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It is best to stay overnight when making an excursion to Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Vietnam’s most famous natural attraction. From Hanoi, the closest major city, visitors can only arrive by private car or bus — there’s no airport in Ha Long Bay — with a commute that averages four hours. Rather than spending an entire day traveling to and from Ha Long Bay, many visitors book an overnight cruise to make their visit more enjoyable, and one of the most popular choices among affluent travelers is Paradise Cruises.
Upon arrival at the main harbor on Tuan Chau Island, I was immediately welcomed by the Paradise Cruises staff. The cruise line is owned by Dao Trong Tuyen, who also owns a great deal of property around the island. Paradise Cruises debuted the Paradise Suites hotel to complement its cruise offerings in November. Since its completion, guests have the option to stay one night on the bay and one night on the cruise. Because my time was limited, I only booked the cruise, on what I discovered was the creme de la creme of all the ships in Ha Long Bay.
Out of the eight ships in Paradise Cruises’ fleet, the newest and grandest vessel is Paradise Peak. Unveiled last year, Paradise Peak is both luxurious and elegant, with wood paneling, an expansive sun deck, a dining room with an outdoor bar, a spa with Jacuzzi tubs and a quiet library. The ship has only eight suites, with the minimum suite averaging a whopping 1,150 square feet. My suite, Thien Cung, came equipped with a private sun deck at the ship’s hull, a second separate balcony, a dining nook, a comfortable double bed and an impressive, en-suite bathroom with a rain shower and a separate Jacuzzi tub.
Unlike other cruise lines, Paradise Peak offers premium wines, a fitness center and a la carte dining (no buffets, thank you very much) with fresh seafood. It is a good fit for couples, although my boat contained a mixed bag of passengers: a trio of Asian-American friends, a single traveler from France, a young couple from Barcelona and a family of four from Spain. The cruise finds a consistent target audience among society royals, CEOs, honeymooners and affluent families.
When we set sail past less-than-glamorous junkets and cruisers, I wondered with a touch of guilt: Why does anyone need all this space? Is it even worth the splurge? (Rates start at $725 per night during the low season.)
It wasn’t until we stopped at our first excursion, Surprise Cave, that I received my answer. Surprise Cave was founded as a tourist attraction in 1901 and has three stunning limestone chambers. We arrived at the cave amidst a cattle call of backpackers, traveling groups, disorder and mayhem — the cave was brimming with hundreds of tourists. When we disembarked, I paid close attention to the other boats out at bay, and discovered that many of them offered limited amenities and space. Many of the ships looked as ancient as the limestone outcrops we had just visited. I took a moment to revel in my luxurious surroundings and stopped feeling guilty right then and there.
Overall, I found the experience to be quite a treat. We took a trip to the Pearl Farm, a small floating factory where visitors can learn about pearl production in the area. The morning of our departure, we anchored near a floating village, where two kids, no more than 10 years old, were selling shells in a wooden fishing boat. I dropped them two cans of soda, which resulted in us waving to each other repeatedly from across the water. Instead of visiting the village, I stayed on the boat and cranked up my air conditioning, choosing to enjoy the luxurious offerings of the ship rather than venture off to explore the sights. It was certainly a good example of the aphorism “you get what you pay for,” and I was quite content onboard.