Greater competition and service improvements have broadened the variety of options available at Halong Bay, providing a great experience for tourists with different tastes and expectations.
With 1,969 islets, dozens of caves and white sand beaches, Halong Bay has long been one of the most popular travel destinations in Vietnam’s north, attracting millions of visitors every year.
Over the past decade tourist services in Halong Bay and nearby Bai Tu Long Bay have become increasingly varied. The most commonly provided services, by hundreds of tour operators, are trips around the Bay on specially-designed cruises, an overnight stay on board, traditional Vietnamese cuisine, and kayaking.
Intense competition among these tour operators, though, has forced them to introduce new and more interesting services. Cruise owners are now more inclined to order a new vessel for their trips. Well-known owners such as Huong Hai, Bai Tho, Indochina Junk and Indochina Sail have constantly launched new luxury cruisers of five-star standard.
The time has passed when a company could buy an old vessel and give it an upgrade and add air conditioning. To satisfy market demand amid increasing competition, cruise owners must now have new cruisers designed and built to ensure they are comfortable and can withstand the strong winds that occasionally sweep into the Bay.
Vessels used to be built primarily of wood, but even after undergoing maintenance every year would only last between 10 and 15 years. Cruise companies now order cruisers built from steel, with only the interiors and furnishings being made from wood. Vessels are now stronger and more comfortable as a result.
But this comes, of course, at a cost. A cruiser with an average of eight bedrooms used to cost $100,000 to $150,000 but can now cost three or four times as much or even more. Many were built in north-central Ha Tinh province and then towed to Halong Bay to have the interiors fitted out.
The most important part of a cruiser is its bedrooms, followed by its dining room. Single and double bedrooms have seen great improvements over the years, increasing space from only six or seven square metres to 20 or 30 square metres. A standard room is now not only spacious but also equipped with wi-fi, air conditioning, glass bathrooms, and cabinets, lamps and artwork on the walls. Just a decade ago it was impossible to run air conditioners all day because the vessel’s electrical power came from a diesel oil combustion engine. Modern cruises, though, use batteries to provide more electrical power, which also minimises noise and diesel fumes.
It can be difficult to provide tourists with what they consider value-for-money on a $100 cruise of two days and one night. Most operators have teams that welcome tourists when they arrive at the Bay and provide the best possible services, even while they are still on land. Major tour operators arrange for special areas where visitors are provided seating and refreshments upon arrival. Some even have teams that welcome guests with traditional music and dance.
When the guests board the cruiser they are introduced to fully-prepared facilities and services. Each meal is a major event, with chefs showing off their skills. During the introduction to the Red Dragon cruise, guests were amazed at a dish presented in the shape of a twin horse-driven cart and another in the shape of a dragon with its head held high. These are among the hundreds or perhaps even thousands of creative new dishes now introduced by chefs working at Halong Bay.
As tasty as they may be, squid, shrimp, beef and black pepper sauce, lotus sprout salad, and stir-fried vegetables are now dishes of the past. Popular dishes for lunch and dinner are now more likely to include spaghetti, bacon, corn soup with cream, Singaporean-styled fried rice, or Shanghai-style shrimp.
Eating in the cool of an air conditioned dining room remains popular but many cruisers now feature meals on the sundeck, especially at night, with candlelit dinners and Champagne. The sight of the sundecks being lit by candles just before dinner is now quite common on the Bay, with chefs proudly presenting their elaborately decorated dishes before the lights are turned on so guests can admire how beautiful they are.
Some cruise owners have even leased out caves, to hold buffet parties for guests to enjoy dining in a lovely and unique space amid stalagmites and stalactites. Candles, fresh flowers and even a violinist are added to create a wonderful ambience.
Elsewhere, tables covered with white tablecloths are placed on white sand beaches and chefs cook the dishes on the cruiser before bringing them to the tables. Competition in the market and the creativity of the tour operators and staff lie behind the creation of such special touches for guests to enjoy.
After the Halong City People’s Committee moved most of the villagers on the islands of Cuu Van and Vung Vieng to the mainland, the islands have become quieter and more relaxing for tourists. Many guests enjoy kayaking from the cruiser to the calmer areas of Vung Vieng fishing village to enjoy a musical performance or a traditional wedding ceremony arranged by Halong Bay Heritage Management. This form of tourism, friendly on the environment and close to traditional culture, has contributed to larger numbers of visitors coming to Halong Bay year after year.
While Vietnamese tourists usually visit Sung Sot Cave and Thien Cung Cave and love stalagmites and stalactites lit up by coloured lights, international tourists are more interested in caves and sandy beaches that remain largely untouched by human presence.
Some tour operators have therefore leased coastal areas and set up kayaking camps to welcome guests after they finish sightseeing around the Bay on big cruisers. The kayaks allow tourists to go further in shallow waters.
The thousands of islets in the Bay create thousands of beautiful features. The routes around them are like a maze while their cliffs and caves can amaze adventurous tourists.
Such is Halong Bay, which can offer both luxury tourist services and a great experience among nature, making visits to the Bay even exciting and relaxing. Efforts at diversifying services, however, must be ongoing.