If you’re looking for rejuvenation, cultural immersion and double the natural beauty of Halong Bay, take a two-night cruise in Lan Ha…
If you’re looking for rejuvenation, cultural immersion and double the natural beauty of Halong Bay, take a two-night cruise in Lan Ha, which has it all. Set just south of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Halong Bay, Lan Ha is relatively new to travellers given that the province was totally against commercial cruising until 2017. Now, there are only about 25 cruise ships in the bay, compared to over 100 in Halong, which makes it so much quieter.
Lan Ha is idyllic, scattered with thousands of limestone karsts home to beaches and sea caves with unpolluted, clear turquoise water. Set three and a half hours from the mainland, Lan Ha’s remote beauty is preserved by the local government, which is developing tourism sustainably and awarding limited cruising permits. Heritage Line is one of the first companies to operate in the bay and our brand-new flagship Ylang boat just launched in August 2019, so it’s high spec and eco-friendly.
Ylang is pure luxury, like a floating art gallery, and is dedicated to two-night cruises. This is perfect because the clock isn’t ticking, you get time to enjoy all the activities, see the untouched southern area of the bay and sit on the deck and watch the world go by. Most people who take the one-night cruise say they had no idea how amazing it would be and wish they’d stayed longer. There are 10 private cabins, as well as a spa, pool and restaurant specialising in delicious seafood. All staff are from the surrounding provinces and run onboard activities like tea tasting, Tai Chi and singing bowl meditation, an ancient Tibetan ritual.
On the first day, we take a cycling trip on Cat Ba, which is the second-largest island in Vietnam, yet most of the population is based in the main town, so it’s very unspoiled. The landscape is covered in forest, so it almost feels like Switzerland or Austria. For many visitors, it’s the most off-the-beaten-track destination on their Vietnam itinerary. We spend about half an hour walking around Viet Hai Village in Cat Ba National Park (which we take a hike in the following day), surrounded by mountains and rainforests.
Not much has changed in Viet Hai over the centuries and villagers still make a living from farming and fishing. You’ll get to visit a family house and see the school, although we don’t go inside as we don’t want to disturb the kids. We support the village and visit multiple houses to make sure wealth is distributed evenly and no-one gets overwhelmed with visitors. It’s a very high-quality cultural experience and you’ll get to learn about village life and try some homemade liqueurs.
In Lan Ha, there are still around 10,000 people living a traditional life in floating villages, which have largely been cleared from Halong Bay. Guests love to visit Ben Beo, where several thousand people live. We sail around in a tender boat early one morning when there’s lots going on, the morning catch is coming back in and people are unloading and sorting the fish, it’s a hive of activity and visually amazing. You’ll see fishermen wearing conical hats, not for tourists but to keep the sun off, so it’s all very natural. It’s just business as usual and doesn’t feel like a human zoo.
My personal Lan Ha tour highlight was kayaking in southern Lan Ha Bay. Our captain found an area with no other boats and several of us just took the kayaks out and spent hours exploring the sea caves and jagged karsts, visiting golden-sand beaches. Meanwhile, others in our group took the tender boat to a deserted beach for a picnic and to swim or kayak for a while. It was only when the sun started to set that we went back to the boat, we were the last people in the bay.