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Halong Bay, with 2,000 limestone outcrops emerging dramatically from the water, is a breathtaking must-see for any visitor to Hanoi. The UNESCO world Heritage Site is featured in the James Bond film, “Tomorrow Never Dies”, with Michelle Yeoh. An overnight cruise is much preferable to a day trip if you have time, because it takes 3 hours to travel the 65 km of narrow roads from Hanoi, plus a short boat ride to the cruiser.
The Alova Gold (overnight) Cruise deserves its excellent reviews here. The boat turned out to be charming, spotlessly clean with dark wooden interiors and 11 comfortable cabins that each sleep 2-3 people, and ensuite bathrooms with a shower and hot running water.
It came as part of our Calypso Legend Hotel’s 6 day-7 night package. I’m so glad I had decided against a travel agent’s recommendation to upgrade to a luxury cruise, because that was quite unnecessary.
We were blessed with unseasonably warm (perfect!) weather in winter on Feb. 3, 2013 and water so calm that it didn’t bother my seasick-prone cousin at all. The views from Titop Island and Surprising Cave were spectacular. We had fun kayaking as promised, and the water didn’t seem polluted, as some reviewers had complained about. Our guide, Vuong a.k.a. Lucky, helped to enhance the experience with his care, humor and stories delivered in an unexpectedly Australian accent acquired from working 11 months in Sydney.
The food quality was moderate but reasonable for a package tour, and beautifully presented with flowers carved from carrots and cucumbers. One of the crew members (with a big Viet-fro hairdo) showed us how to make those veggie flowers on the ride back to the shore. The prawns on the cruise tasted surprisingly bland — a sign that they are farm-raised rather than from the sea. (FOODNOTE: Throughout our 6-day Vietnam trip, sauteed chicken was consistently tough, perhaps because the poultry is free-range rather than cooped up in cages.)
SUGGESTION: To fill time more productively on the mostly boring 3-hour drive from Hanoi, the buses could be fitted with TV screens to show video travelogues, dance or puppet shows — or even just audio recordings — to help tourists learn more about Vietnam.