Discovering Vietnam’s hidden treasures in style on board the Au Co Cruise.
Renowned for its distinctive beauty, the UNESCO Heritage listed Halong Bay is the jewel of Vietnam and one of Asia’s true treasures. Only a few hours outside of Hanoi, the glass-like bay feels a world away from the bustling city streets. Travellers flock to this mythical place for it’s unique landscape, which according to Vietnamese folklore was formed thousands of years ago by fire-breathing dragons. Halong Bay literally translates to ‘Bay of Dragons’. Once you’ve been enchanted by the striking monoliths that majestically soar from the depths of the emerald waters – the legend of the dragons comes to life.
Why choose the Au Co Cruise?
The only way to explore Halong Bay is by cruising the jewel-green waters on board a boat, whether it’s a day-trip or an overnight sojourn. Whilst there are plenty of cruise tour companies to choose from, for its level of luxury and focus on sustainable tourism the Au Co Cruise was an obvious choice. It’s unique three-day itinerary around Halong Bay, Cat Ba Island and The Gulf of Tonkin is a draw-card for travellers who want to make the most of their visit to this once-in-a-life destination.
One of the advantages to take into consideration when deciding upon which Halong Bay cruise is right for you is that the Au Co is the only three-day, two-night voyage. All the other cruises are required to return to shore after a fleeting one-night itinerary. It’s worth paying that little bit extra for time to uncover the true magic of the place.
After a delightful stay at The Sofitel Metropole I was whisked away on an early morning pick-up outside the hotel. The Metropole and Au Co Cruise offer a luxury package, so many Au Co passengers begin their journey at The Metropole.
Our small group is escorted on a well-appointed mini bus (there’s WiFi). It’s a 3 ½ hour journey to the Bhyaya Group Office located at Tuan Chau Marina Port in Halong City.
We are escorted to a comfortable waiting lounge, where guests are offered refreshing welcome drinks of green tea and cucumber juice. We settle in with a view over the two-story, wedding-cake white vessel. The boutique cruise ship is modern, yet retains a certain charm. The Au Co glimmers in the sunshine, clearly standing out as the real luxury option amongst battered junk boats that scarcely seem to float.
Day 1 – Checking In
By 2pm we had boarded the boat to the rhythmic beat of Vietnamese drums. Before long we were gliding through the water, swiftly navigating between the towering monoliths that are shrouded in mist. The sky is gloomy and clouds roll in overhead creating the effect of amplifying the already dramatic scenery.
My companion and I are shown to our Grand Deluxe Cabin that’s situated in the quiet, lower deck of the boat. The suite is surprisingly spacious with plush twin beds. There’s an en-suite bathroom with a private, warm water shower. The best feature has to be the adjoining balcony where you can sit and watch the unique landscape float by from the privacy of your own room.
We are invited upstairs to the dining deck. Here we are promptly served a three-course lunch. This sets the standard of lavish dining for the next few days. The meal is a mix of Vietnamese and European cuisine and is served in the formal dining room with views over the show-stopping surrounds.
That evening guests are treated to a cooking demonstration on the top deck. The resident chef prepares traditional rice paper rolls and we are encouraged to try making them for ourselves. Afterwards everyone mingles at happy hour at the bar –a pre-dinner drink of two-for-one cocktails are hard to resist. It’s a still, moonlit evening as we are anchored in a quiet cove. After dinner eager passengers dabble in the squid fishing activity whilst others watch a film projected onto the back of the boat.
Day 2 – ‘Surprise Cave’ and cycling Cat Ba Island
Sunrise was well worth waking up for. An enthusiastic group of early-risers practice Tai Chi on the top deck and the late-sleepers gradually appear to join everyone over breakfast. The breakfast spread consists of made-to-order eggs and buffet selection of toast, cereal, yoghurt and exquisitely carved fruit platters.
For the next three days we are set to explore the hidden treasures of Halong Bay using the cruise as our base. Smaller boats are arranged to ferry guests between activities each day, as there are a series of carefully tailored experiences that fit into a relaxed yet orderly schedule.
Our first adventure is a visit to the ‘surprise cave’ – prior to departure a veil of mystery is well maintained by the cruise staff when inevitably questioned on what to expect on this expedition.
As it turns out that the ‘Surprise Cave’ found on Bo Hon Island (accessed by a small boat) is one of the most magnificent caves in Vietnam. We are taken on a private tour that winds deep into a cave that turns out to be so much more, well, cavernous that expected. In fact, at approximately 10,000 square metres it’s the largest grotto in Halong Bay. The vaulting ceiling is dripping in crystal-like stalactites and stalagmites illuminated by shards of light streaming from crevices in the rocks. It’s safe to say everyone was pleasantly surprised.
After lunch on board, the afternoon is spent visiting Viet Hau. It’s a small village in the midst of the jungles of Cat Ba Island. Bicycles are arranged for those who wish to ride to the village. It’s the perfect way to burn some energy after lazing around on deck chairs and indulging in multi-course meals. For those wanting a slower pace, a small open-air vehicle is provided. The cycle route only takes half an hour to reach the agricultural village, with a few bends and moderate inclines.
Our last evening is convivial; by now all the passengers are swapping South East Asia traveller tales over ‘happy hour’ cocktails. We are treated to a sumptuous buffet dinner spread of BBQ seafood, meats and salads in place of formal dining. This creates a relaxed atmosphere and everyone chats well into the evening. For those who are still keen for activities, there’s fruit carving or another bout of squid fishing on offer.
Day 3 – Kayaking the Dark & Bright Caves
It’s our last morning and we’re floating on the pristine waters of a secluded part of Halong Bay, considering it’s a major tourist destination I’m pleased to see that we are the only boat in sight. Most guests take a small bamboo boat tour of the ‘Dark and Bright Caves’. For the slightly more adventurous, the kayaking along the glass-like waters is incredibly serene. We paddle` underneath a rock formation in the shape of a low-lying tunnel only to emerge into a truly picturesque cove. The inlet is lush green with trees where the elusive howler monkeys are said to reside.
Back on board, we are treated to a traditional Vietnamese tea ceremony as we slowly glide through the dreamlike setting back to the inevitable reality of life on land.
The carefully crafted three-day, two-night itinerary was the ultimate way to make the most of the bucket list experience. Although we had a full schedule, it was completed at a leisurely pace, keeping a good balance between activities and relaxation. At Au Co the activities run like clockwork and the opt-in or opt-out nature of the cruise means you can experience Halong Bay at a pace that suits you. With so many hidden gems to see around Halong Bay, I did wonder how the other cruises manage to cram it all in over two days. I highly recommend the two-night itinerary for a truly memorable experience.
The price point is higher than most cruises (approx. US$476) but you do get what you pay for. The Au Co Cruise boat was in excellent condition, safety was a priority, the food exceeded expectations and the suites are spacious, comfortable and well appointed with ensuite bathrooms, hot water showers, air conditioning and a private balcony.
The Au Co Cruise caters to a clientele who want a luxurious and unforgettable experience in Halong Bay – couples, honeymooners, a girl’s getaway and travellers who prefer to see the sights in style. The ‘Three Day Luxury Cruise Halong Bay and Gulf of Tonkin Discovery’ is certainly the luxe way to visit Halong Bay.
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The writer was a guest of Au Co Cruises. My opinion is, and will always be, my own. The Portmanteau Press only includes content that aligns with the aesthetic, standard and values of the brand.