How to see another side of Vietnam’s magical

Already one of Vietnam’s most visited destinations, a spate of recent events has brought renewed attention to mystical Halong Bay in northern Vietnam, including a blockbuster Hollywood movie and the imminent opening of a new expressway and international airport.

Inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1994, travellers have long been drawn to Halong Bay’s nearly 2000 untouched, jungle-draped limestone islands which rise from deep emerald waters. The scenic bay ranks 3rd among Vietnam’s most visited destinations, behind Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, and hosted nearly 10 million visitors in 2017.

The destination got a boost last year when its mesmerizing seascapes were featured in many of the dreamy, otherworldly scenes in “Kong: Skull Mountain.” Additionally, Halong Bay, along with the broader northern coastal province of Quang Ninh, is the focus of Vietnam’s National Tourism Year 2018, under the banner “Ha Long – Heritage, Wonder, and Friendly Destination”. More than 50 events have been planned between April 2018 and January 2019, including photo exhibitions, a massive carnival, culinary festivals, travel expo and sporting events.

To gear up for the expected increase in visitors, a new highway is expected to open later this month, cutting the travel time between Hanoi and Halong Bay from four hours down to just two. In addition, an international airport is set to open later this year in Van Don, 50 kilometres from the bay.

However, despite there being hundreds of boats to choose from, many visitors find the actual touring of Halong Bay to be quite restrictive, especially since the Vietnamese government revamped the ticketing system in 2017. There are now only 5 routes through Halong and nearby Bai Tu Long Bay, meaning cruise ships all tend to follow the same itinerary in order to hit the main attractions, leading to a somewhat “cookie cutter” experience.

Visitors with a little cash looking for a different way to experience Halong have quietly found L’Azalée Premium Cruises, the bay’s only single-cabin ship. Launched this past February, the company offers an ultra-exclusive experience aboard a luxury junk that sleeps just two passengers who are cared for by five crew members including a butler and a private chef. Guests can choose where they want to stop and the captain will devise a custom itinerary, taking care to visit spots when fewer tourists are around.

Another unique way to see the entirety of Halong Bay is from a 12-seater seaplane. From above, the individual islands come together to form rows upon rows of mountain ranges, looking very much like the undulating body of a “descending dragon”, the meaning of “Halong”. In addition to scenic flights, Hai Au Aviation is set to launch new routes in Quang Ninh within the next few months to Cat Ba Island and up-and-coming Co To Island, with its blissfully quiet beaches and clear, blue water.

By James Pham