Monday, May 21, 2012

Halong Bay with The Au Co

Hoan Kiem Lake by day

I had been looking forward to the trip for months. I wanted to give Hanoi a second chance because my first visit was a disaster. It was the result of bad luck and poor planning. I scheduled the trip in July when Hanoi was searing hot. I had nothing on my itinerary but Hoan Kiem Lake and a bit of shopping. Having done both, I had nothing better to do so I made a hasty booking for a tour to Perfume Pagoda. Bad decision, as the last leg of travel was a one and half hour (one-way) canoe ride under the blazing sun. I had one big migraine upon return, lasting till the next day, which made me forego another hastily booked tour.

I regretted not making time for the big-ticket item among Hanoi visitors – the much-exalted cruise along Halong Bay. I was fazed by the four-hour travel time just going. But the idea of plying the waters of Halong Bay in a wooden junk kept haunting me for years. I finally decided to put the voices to rest.

Halong Bay sunrise

For this trip, I searched Tripadvisor for the best Halong Bay cruise provider and found top of the class Bhaya. I knew that a day tour would kill me and an overnight tour would be shamefully short. So I opted for a 3-day, 2-night package.

Hotel de L'Opera’s lobby

Upon arrival at my hotel in Hanoi (Hotel de L’Opera, great choice), I received an email from Bhaya informing me that they were offering me an upgrade to their newest boat, the Au Co. I knew about the Au Co from my extensive research online so I was aware of their top-dollar price. This was much too good an opportunity to pass up so I kissed my wooden junk cruise idea goodbye (great decision, you’ll know why later). Traveling to Halong Bay on board the Au Co turned out to be one of the most unforgettable travel experiences of my life!


The Au Co

My deluxe suite…

…With a view

There were about 18 of us on the boat, if I recall correctly, so it was easy enough to get to know some of the people on board. The Au Co was resplendent as expected, unblemished after its launch in the first week of April. My cabin had a queen bed, private toilet and bath, and a balcony, good news to someone mildly claustrophobic like me.

Vietnamese drip coffee

A soft bed, down comforter, fluffy pillows and towels, warm water, a welcome drink of orange juice, an unlimited supply of Vietnamese coffee and a sweeping view of Halong Bay’s limestone karsts, and I was a happy girl.

But the gods must have known that I needed more coddling than usual. For the next three days, I was treated to some of the most delectable food  I’ve ever tasted anywhere in the world.




We were all eager to meet the chef because of his stellar creations and we finally did at a cooking demo. Our jaws dropped when we found out he was just 25 years old, a virtual baby in the culinary world but with undeniable talent. He will put many experienced chefs to shame.

Me with the young chef

Chef prepares to share with us the secrets to his delectable spring rolls

Every day for the next three days, our group of 18 explored quiet lagoons on kayak, communed with locals in a floating village, marveled at unusual rock formations at Sung Sot cave, fished for squid before bedtime. While the rest rode their pedal bikes, I rode a motorbike with a Vietnamese road warrior princess in Cat Ba island. Even the weather cooperated with gentle winds, a considerate sun, enough blue skies and a fair respite of clouds.

Squid fishing


Biking on Cat Ba Island

Canoe ride to a fishing village

Nothing could go wrong on a trip like this, I thought, until on the last night, the boat started rocking hard just as dinner was about to conclude. The lamps had to be unplugged and secured to keep them from falling. Bottles of wine were sliding off the cabinets and had to be pushed back in place. Still, nothing could prevent some glasses from breaking. I hugged my shawl a little tighter to keep off the blustery wind until we all decided it would be best to retire for the night. I met the captain at the stairwell, going up to check on the status of the boat during the unanticipated storm. I felt so completely secure in the able hands of the captain that it even occurred to me to open my curtains to see what the view was like. Alas, the view was that of a white boat coming straight at us—no, at me! I jumped to the bed and expected the worst. Icebergs flashed across my mind. Thankfully, I felt nothing more than a thud (I learned later that our boat was made of steel) but I heard splitting wood from the other boat, its nose taking some beating. Shortly, the voice of the captain was in the PA system. He was reassuring (although the PA system had a pre-recorded message saying that passengers should prepare to evacuate) and instructed us to stay in our rooms. I couldn’t, however, simply oblige so I intermittently stepped into the hallway where the staff were busy checking up on every one and the boat. We were told to don the life jacket in our closet for security (I wanted to wear it to bed). Sometime later, another wooden boat was swept beside us and got entangled with our anchor. The Au Co and the other boat’s staff worked together to free them up. When finally the storm subsided, Constance, our cruise director, came to the hallway where many of us were milling around to explain to us what happened and reassure us that the Au Co was the safest boat on Halong Bay because of its design and make.  


Amidst the ruckus and the storm, I manage a pose with my life vest on.

And when the worst was over, I managed another pose, this time in my pjs

Inside Sung Sot Cave

View from the cave

The next day, the show went on as usual. We proceeded to the last stop in our itinerary, Sung Sot cave. It was like nothing happened, as every one was in high spirits, raring to share their experience of the night.

 As we made our way back to the marina to disembark, we were treated once more to Au Co’s fine cuisine for brunch. At the end of it all, I was so completely blissed out that even as I shared stories with newfound friends on our way back to Hanoi, I would space out, my mind wandering back to the epic journey we all shared.

Au Co: Hanoi Head Office
Address: 47 Phan Chu Trinh Str., Hoan Kiem Dist., Hanoi, Vietnam
Phone: + 84-4-3933 4545 Fax: + 84-4-3944 6776
Hotline: +84 (0) 933 44 6542 
E-mail: sales@aucocruises.com

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