Story and photographs by Veronica Inveen
Jan 6, 2020
MY FIRST GLIMPSES OF THE GIANT Lan Ha karsts are between the comically orange lifevests of my fellow passengers on a tender boat. We’re on our way from Tuan Chau Marina, just south of Halong City, to spend two nights aboard a new vessel from Heritage Line, Ylang.
I had never been to this part of Vietnam, despite having studied near Hanoi in college and having taken many trips to the country since then. That wasn’t entirely accidental, thanks to my built-in aversion to the booze cruises that made Halong Bay a party destination for others in my age cohort. But the past several years have seen a growth in the number of high-end ships sailing around this dreamy UNESCO-protected seascape, and the cruise I’m headed for is billed as the opposite of a raucous tourist trap, due to both its destination and the theme of its journey.
The 10-berth Ylang has a distinct focus on wellness, from the daily sunrise tai chi on the top deck to the plant-based choices on the dining menu. There’s also a pool up top and a wellness studio equipped with yoga mats and exercise bands. Impressive effort has been put into the onboard spa, where treatments like the bamboo massage—which uses heated bamboo sticks to release muscle tension—are given in cabins with British tearoom–worthy wallpaper and floor-to-ceiling windows. Mindfulness is built into the DNA of this trip, and it’s enhanced by our itinerary to the far less–traveled Lan Ha Bay, a geographical extension of Halong Bay, southeast of Cat Ba Island.
Crouching my head down to be level with the tender’s window, the world-famous moss-cloaked karsts immediately stun me into humility. Glad I’ve finally made it to this sweeping limestone sea, I’m already awash with purposefulness.
To get to Lan Ha, boats must cruise farther into the labyrinth of 2,000 karsts. The longer itinerary and distance from Halong City means you get all the majestic goodness of Halong Bay sans crowds. There were only a few other ships in the bay where cruises depart for Lan Han: a handful of old junkers (one aptly named The Tourist), a Miami-style yacht, and Heritage Line’s other new boat, Ginger. Not a booze cruise in sight.
“Welcome to Ylang!” the crew yells jubilantly as we shed our orange vests and board our home for the next three days. Leading the way is Layla, the 20-something sweet-faced crew member who had met us at the pier. My first impression of the boat is of awe. Though physically smaller than a 43-cabin vessel I once sailed on down Burma’s Irrawaddy River, Ylang somehow feels much larger—in fact, with its opulent trimmings, tall ceilings and wide windows, the first thing that springs to mind is, improbably, ah, titanic.
Like the rest of Heritage Line’s fleet, Ylang emulates the bygone era of the region. The ship, like most of its touristic predecessors in these waters, is built to resemble a traditional junk, but unlike those dark-wood, stuffy schooners of yesteryear, it’s a flash boutique-hotel version in which everything is bright and shiny-new. My eyes are immediately drawn to the floral patterns that plaster the walls. The leitmotif, Layla tells me, is inspired by local poetry and Vietnam’s seasonal blooms, each suite themed around a different flower. My room is dedicated to peach blossoms, a sakura-resembling bud that I remember being toted around on the back of motorbikes when I was last in Hanoi. “During Tet, Vietnamese Lunar New Year, most families in the north decorate their homes with branches from peach blossom trees to bring good fortune,” she says. “I think you’re lucky to get this room.”
I can’t argue with her. In fact, I find myself doing a happy dance once I’m alone. At 45 square meters, the place is bigger than my Bangkok apartment and incomparably more luxe, with teakwood flooring, lacquer wall-panel art, and a glorious clawfoot tub that sits next to a floor-to-ceiling window in the bathroom. It’d be all too easy to spend most of the trip here, especially on the spacious balcony, but lunch is waiting.
We’re briefed on the schedule for the next two days over a multi-course meal of done-up Vietnamese classics, including my favorite northern specialty, cha ca (pan-fried fish with turmeric and dill). The weekend will be a balanced mix of relaxing and exploring. The ecologically diverse Cat Ba Island is the largest in this archipelago of some 370, and half of its total area—and some 90 square kilometers of its waters—constitute protected national park. On board, there are lots of options for communing with the place, whether it be trekking through the national park or just zoning out in one of the rattan chairs in the bar, though there is a blessedly distinct lack of any structured course. Whenever I want to pop to the spa, it’s likely to be available, since it takes up half of the second floor and encompasses three private treatment rooms, a sauna and a steam bath. This is the type of wellness journey I can sink into.
Anchor up, we begin sailing to our first stop, a small lagoon where we will hop on bikes to an inland village. By the time we arrive at the dock, the air has cooled down and is prime for a ride. Two other cruise boats are parked in the bay, but there are no other tourists in sight. In fact, besides me and my friend Wa, only Louise and Mark, the soft-spoken British couple celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, choose to join the excursion.
Layla trades her Ylang cap for a traditional conical hat and sets off down the newly paved path on a bicycle. The only people we come across are workers—one installing a roadside garden, one helping to build a lighted arch. We ride at a leisurely pace through the countryside, crossing bridges and passing through tunnels until we reach Viet Hai village, population 200. Here, Layla explains the loss of the native Cat Ba langur—whose population dropped from more than 3,000 in the 1960s to less than 70 by the year 2000, having been hunted for their supposed medicinal properties. Locals believe “monkey balm” helps with erectile dysfunction and other health issues.
She also clears up any confusion the four of us might have about where exactly we are. “Lan Ha shares the same area and landscape as Halong Bay. Most people only know of Halong Bay because it is the biggest and closest attraction to Halong City, but just a bit farther in these waters,” she says of the southern coast of the Cat Ba Island, “Lan Ha is much quieter and with more vegetation, beaches, and smaller bays for kayaking.”
I wait for her to explain what the catch is, but the moment never comes. I immediately feel for all the people I know who have returned from Halong Bay praising its beauty but chiding its hoardes of tourists.
We ride past the local school, where children are indifferent to our gaze, and through a garden where we can get a better view of the valley squeezed between two big hills. “The next village is four hours from here by motorcycle. You’d have to conquer the hills and unmarked trails,” Layla says with the satisfied smile of a guide who’s taken you to the edge of the map, “and I don’t think these bikes could handle it.” Louise looks relieved.
The sun is setting between the limestone pillars and reflecting tangerine hues on the inlet waters as we ride back to the dock. Onboard Ylang, Wa and I sit in complete silence in our suite’s deck chairs and enjoy the rest of Mother Nature’s show.
It’s pitch-black by the time we realize it’s time to head up for another multi-course dinner. We are puzzled by the randomly placed Jell-o garnish in our prawn salad, but leave with happy tummies. Options for winding down include meditation or a movie on the deck, but I beeline it to the spa for a deep-tissue cupping massage. Afterwards, I wander back to my room in a blissfully sleepy daze, remembering to keep the blinds open before I crawl into bed so that I can wake up to views of the bay.
A solid sleep later, I welcome the morning light that fills my cabin. It’s nearly 6 a.m. and the skies are blue and the air crisp with the emptiness of a new day. We try the sunrise tai chi, which I’m surprised to see is being led by none other than Layla, who is this time dressed in tai chi pajamas. The slow pace of the time-honored practice isn’t for me, and I find myself giggling with Wa for most of the session. “Tomorrow you’ll be better,” Layla assures us.
It’s still before 9 a.m. when we board the tender for the day’s excursion. We cruise through a floating village on our way to Ben Beo Pier where we hop in a car to Cat Ba National Park. The jungle-like forest is designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, boasting more than 1,500 plant species and all sorts of wildlife—though, we’re soberly assured there will be little chance of meeting a Cat Ba langur. The itinerary marks this expedition as a “mindfulness walk through the park,” but since it’s only three of us, Wa and I spend most of the stroll chatting with Layla about her favorite Thai celebrities and what she’d eat for her last meal on earth (Nadech Kugimiya and a bowl of beef pho, for the record).
After lunch onboard, I bounce from cabin lounger to deck lounger to a plush sofa in the library until I hear the anchor lower. We’re deeper into the stony labyrinth of Lan Ha Bay and have stopped in a small cove to kayak and swim. It’s late enough in the day that the sun throws a long shadow on the small stretch of beach we paddle to where the crew has set up towels and snacks. The air is chilly, but that doesn’t stop me from taking a dip. Swimming always has the power to put me into a state of reflection, and this humbling setting ensures that today is no different. I wonder if I would feel as overwhelmed if I were in Halong Bay, where I’d be undoubtedly sharing this moment with at least a dozen other tourists.
The sand onshore is pristine and powdery. Before kayaking back to Ylang, Wa and I get on our hands and knees with the staff and dig around for tiny clams that they’ll use to flavor the soup for tonight’s dinner.
I feel like I’ve earned a pre-meal glass of wine, taking in the final golden hour with deep breaths of sea air, and a book in-hand. I decide to live my best wellness life by joining the singing-bowl meditation after dinner.
Again, it’s Layla who is waiting for us in the dimly lit studio, this time sporting a different colored tai chi getup. The fact that this informative and helpful young staff member has literally worn so many different hats throughout the trip has finally struck us as hilarious. Wa and I joke that we wouldn’t be surprised if she walked out of the captain’s cabin with a yachting cap at the end of the cruise. Naturally, Layla’s singing-bowl skills are stellar and drown out my almost-constant inner blabbering.
The next morning, Ylang moors in a quiet lagoon where we can hop on kayaks or take an awakening plunge. While the bay beckons, I end up savoring my last moments in Lan Ha with a cup of coffee on my balcony.
I hadn’t drunk any green juice all weekend, wasn’t forced into a down-dog once, and I buttered my bread every meal. The power of this wellness sojourn is in the sea breeze. It’s in the hundreds of towering karsts. It’s in the perennial stillness of the bay that I’m knocking myself for not giving a chance earlier.
Some nationalities require visas to enter Vietnam; check with the embassy in your country before booking. Fly into Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport with Vietnam Airlines, Thai Airways, Singapore Airlines and others. It is a 21/2-hour drive to Tuan Chau Island Marina, where Heritage Line’s Lan Ha Bay cruises embark.
Ylang’s two-night, three-day Sense of Lan Ha journey is dedicated to promoting wellness through insight into the Bay’s natural beauty and a bevy of approachable activities. Low-season rates start at US$546 for a Signature suite and US$704 for a Regency suite, both per person based on double occupancy, including shore excursions, onboard activities and all meals. Departure dates for 2020 are found on Heritage Line’s website.