This post on our Lan Ha & Halong Bay cruise is part of a partnership with Bhaya Cruises. They hosted us on The Au Co cruise in exchange for an honest review, but all opinions are my own.
There are only a handful of occasions I’d board a cruise ship for. As an independent traveler with a tendency towards seasickness, cruising has never been my thing. But Halong Bay is a notable exception. The cluster of 2,000 islets in the Gulf of Tonkin is basically impossible to explore without a boat. And if you’re going to do a cruise, you might as well do it right. Get yourself on a stylish Halong Bay cruise and you’ll enjoy your time on the boat as much as you do the off-boat activities.
Last time I was in Vietnam, we explored the lesser-known Bai Tu Long Bay. The reason I opted for the trip with Bhaya this time was that in addition to Halong Bay, they have the only boats with permission to cruise both on Lan Ha Bay & Halong Bay. Lan Ha Bay is yet another Halong Bay alternative that sits southeast of Cat Ba Island with its own cluster of over 300 karsts and far fewer boats than you’ll find on Halong Bay.
Interested in planning your own overnight on Lan Ha & Halong Bay? Here’s everything you need to know about getting on the water with Bhaya Cruises.
Aboard The Au Co with Bhaya Cruise
Bhaya Cruises is one of the best-reviewed operators running cruises on Halong Bay. This says A LOT once you realize just how many scammy operators are running the trip. Bhaya Classic is their most affordable cruise aboard a wooden junk boat shared with 30-40 other passengers. Their Bhaya Premium cruise runs in a smaller wooden junk boat with capacity for just 6-14 passengers. Our cruise was on The Au Co which is their most luxury Halong Bay cruise that emphasizes comfort and cultural experience. It’s a steel ship with first-class facilities and space for up to 66 passengers. All the rooms are incredible, the excursions are exclusive, and the cuisine is seriously impressive. And most interestingly, it’s the boat that will get you to both Halong & Lan Ha Bay without ever having to switch rooms.
Rooms: The Au Co has five room types: Deluxe Cabins, Grand Deluxe Cabins, Executive Cabins, Long Quan Suites, & Au Co Suites. But, look. You’re on a very nice ship! You’ll find that you’re comfy regardless of what room type you end up in. Each cabin has an en suite bathroom, private balcony, sea views, tasteful furnishings, and somewhat constant turndown service. The main difference between room types is where they’re located on the boat and how big they are. We spent the night in the Au Co Suite (holy upgrade!) located on the bow of the ship. The absolute best part of this room was that our balcony wrapped around the front of the boat. I guess I don’t have to sell you on why that was awesome.
Value: Bhaya Classic is Bhaya’s most affordable cruise aboard a wooden junk boat with 2D/1N trips starting from $135 per person. Bhaya Premium cruises in a smaller wooden junk boat with capacity for just 6-14 passengers, so you’ll have a quieter onboard. These 2D/1N trips start from $235 per person. Our cruise was on The Au Co. The prices are inclusive of round-trip transfer from Hanoi, room, board, and all activities. Their shortest itinerary aboard The Au Co is 3D/2N and prices range from $468-$950 per person. Bhaya has offered an exclusive discount for anyone who comes through Travel Outlandish. Use the code “TOL20″ at checkout to get 20% off cruise-only & flexible rate bookings (valid through 12/20/2019). You can check prices or read more reviews here.
DINING & SERVICE
Every meal on The Au Co is a five-course experience. We’re talking dishes like “Dragon Fruit Salad with Scallop” and “Grilled Prawn Thermidor served with Wasabi Mashed Sweet Potatoes”. The menu falls somewhere between Vietnamese and modern, with plenty of seafood (some of which is plucked right out of the Gulf of Tonkin). All meals are included but drinks come at an extra charge. Prices for drinks are quite high by Vietnamese standards (probably on par with what you’d expect at home), but there is a daily happy hour where drinks are two-for-one.
You can expect similarly excellent table service in the dining room and excellent service in general. The staff is really the best part of this trip. There’s an incredible amount of staff onboard, so you’ll have your doors opened and turndown service between meals. The timing of everything was seriously precise and the transitions seamless. But to be honest, I’m not quite used to such a high level of service! I was most comfortable when the staff threw on t-shirts and joined us for biking or kayaking excursions. Most of them are young Vietnamese people who spend most of their weeks living and working on this boat, and the informal setting made it more fun to have a chat with them.
It’s pretty ridiculous to go to Halong Bay without getting out on a kayak. While the views from the boat are nice (I mean, of course they are), there’s nothing quite like getting down at level with the water and paddling into little coves. The water is perfectly still so no real experience or fitness is required. There were two opportunities for kayaking during our three-day cruise. These were awesome, and I only wish there were more!
The highlight of the cruise with Bhaya is that it sails around Lan Ha Bay and docks on the quieter south side of Cat Ba Island. Cat Ba is the largest island in Halong Bay and one of the few inhabitable ones. It’s an absolutely beautiful island with similar geology to Halong Bay, only with land beneath your feet. Bhaya sponsors projects in the remote Viet Hai village which also gives them nearly-exclusive access to the area. Probably the best part of the whole trip was the bike ride along a well-defined path to Viet Hai. It’s a chance to experience a small Vietnamese community that hasn’t been so impacted by tourism. I especially liked walking past the newly constructed school and community-managed farm. Cultural tourism can go wrong really quickly, but the experience in Viet Hai felt completely authentic.
We were more focused on the adventure side of things, but there was a ton going on on the boat worth noting. There are some pretty nice onboard amenities like a spa, jacuzzi, and sun deck. Bhaya also organizes on boat activities, typically when the boat is anchored for the night. The ones that stood out for me were the fruit carving demo and spring roll rolling contest. After you see how incredible the meals they prepare on the boat are, it’s interesting to get a behind-the-scenes look at how much work actually goes into preparation. I mean, how quickly could you carve a watermelon into a flower?
The main reasons you’d choose The Au Co cruise over others is if you value comfort. It was my second experience cruising on Halong Bay, and the boat and standard of service on The Au Co next to my last trip is incomparable. The boat is spacious, the rooms are clean, the meals are excellent, and the staff is super nice. Also, The Au Co has the only boat that can tour both Halong & Lan Ha Bay without changing boats, meaning you can settle in more than you can on some of the Bai Tu Long Bay cruises where you have to switch boats on your second day.
The biggest drawbacks of luxury are that the trip is more expensive and lighter on adventure activities. It’s also worth noting the crowd skews a bit older (which I personally enjoyed), but it might not be your thing if you’re looking for a party cruise.
WANNA BOOK A LAN HA & HALONG BAY CRUISE ON THE AU CO?
Phone: +84 24 3944 6777