Our cruise adventure started at 6am when we got picked up in central Hanoi by Ambassador Cruise bus for the transfer trip to Halong Bay. The vehicle was a 10 seater super luxurious van, all black, with leather reclinable seats larger than those on an airplane. The driver wore Ambassador Cruise black uniform and looked very professional, as did the girl who checked the names in the booking list. We finally left for the journey, and let me tell you, forget about those trips where you want to scream at every overtaking, with a driver who pushes the vehicle engine as if he was on a race, or as if delivering passengers to destination was a matter of life and death. I have had plenty of those in my traveling life. This driver drove gently, and never over 80 km per hour on the not so busy motorway that runs from the capital Hanoi to Halong.
The landscape quickly changed from urban, cemented, polluted and high-rise Hanoi, to a land of scattered quaint villages with plenty of pagodas and rice fields. What a paradise. Leonardo looked out of the windows mesmerised, and at some point he turned to me and said: “Papà, this is so beautiful, thanks for bringing me here”. I was touched. The driver did the customary 30 minutes pit stop at a refreshment area where we found food, drinks and toilets, then off we were again, reaching Halong at about 8.30am. We drove straight to the Halong International Cruise Port, got dropped off and walked to the Ambassador Cruise II, an amazing ship by the look of it.
After the ticket formalities at the ship reception, we were given our identification bracelets to be worn for the day, a key to our room, and off we went to relax and enjoy our room and balcony while the ship sailed off and passed dozens of majestic limestone islets in Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay. Leonardo and I had the time for a good swim in the big open air jacuzzi pool on the 3rd floor deck before we were summoned by the staff for the boat trip to Sung Sot Cave.
There were a few speedboats towed by the ship, and one of those took us to the cave site in a matter of 5 minutes; at the entrance booth, we showed our blue bracelets and were directed to a flight of steps that took us to the largest and most magnificent cave in the bay. Sung Sot Cave features marvellous and mysterious thousand-year-old stalactites in a variety of unique forms. Both Leonardo and I were speechless, and so were the hundreds of people who walked the long path inside the massive interior of the cave. It is a circular walk, so we ended up to another end of the islet, after having walked what must have been hundreds of steps. We were exhausted but happy.
Back on the speedboat, the next destination was Titov Island, a marvel outcrop sided by a crescent moon-shaped sandy beach. There we swam in the turquoise waters; the staff asked us if we wished to climb to the top of the Island to enjoy a breathtaking 360 degrees view of the bay, but we gently declined as we were too tired and, in truth, quite hungry too.
Well, our bellies did not need to wait long: as soon as we got back to the Ambassador Cruise ship, what awaited us was a sumptuous buffet lunch comprising asian soups, asian noodle and rice dishes, sushi of all types freshly prepared in front of our eyes by well-trained kitchen staff, sashimi, sea snails, prawns, squid and other seafood, as well as meat. On the outside deck, three uniformed chefs worked on a flat grill, roasting chunks of tuna and beef steaks on the spot, all accompanied by roasted potatoes and mushrooms.
Staff kept passing with drink carts refilling our need to wash down all those delicacies. The food was premium, and we went back several times to get more servings of the so many choices available. I had not seen Leonardo eat like that for a long time. At 1 o’clock a Filipino duo, voice and piano, started their performance playing contemporary and classic songs so professionally that they caught all diners’ attention. Vietnamese coffe prepared to perfection and a good choice of desserts completed the culinary experience.
It was at that point that I decreed: What a well-organised cruise. I had promised myself to wait until the end of the day before giving my judgement, but at 2pm I was ready for it. Professional staff, a well-timed program, amazing food, and a spacious room that has nothing to envy to one in a 5 star hotel. The guests seemed to be quite a lot, about 500 I was later told, yet there was lots of space in the corridors, in the dining area and on the upper decks to move around freely.
Our bellies were so full and we both felt sleepy, so we retired to our room, had a shower and planned a rest, but the day had more surprises. The loudspeakers on the boat announced the program of the afternoon, which I did not want to miss of course. At 2,30 pm we went for an amazing boat trip to Luon Cave, one of the most unique caves in Halong Bay, as it features a self- contained lake inside a closed arch-shaped mountain. For the tour of the lagoon, there was the option of either kayaking or sitting on a traditional raft rowed by a local. The day was steaming hot and, considering I was with Leonardo, I decided to opt for the latter. Luon Cave lagoon turned out to be an amazing place indeed, and the sight of Vietnamese rowers propelling rafts full of customers by energetically pushing their long rows was quite suggestive.
Back on the ship, we listened to the live band at the restaurant on the 3rd floor, and later went to look at an interesting cooking class at the 4th-floor bar. We strolled a bit more; Leonardo was offered an ice cream by the ship manager, and we had the last pool dip of the day. It is worth mentioning that all these activities are not compulsory, and guests who prefer to stay onboard can get pampered at the ship’s Atelier de Beauté Spa.
At 5pm the cruise reached its end. I saw happy faces around me, and we both had happy faces too! Most customers looked disappointed that the experience was over and that the cruise had reached the harbour. We checked out at the boat reception and disembarked.
Reflecting on the day we had, I admit I had been a bit worried that this cruise was something more for adults and that my kid would get a bit bored, but I had to change my mind: Leonardo was happier than me, as he unweariedly roamed around the boat the whole day, socialising with the staff, eating and enjoying the various activities. He was not bored at all. And soon after we disembarked, he threw to me another of his surprise sentences: “Papà, this boat is amazing, I wish I could stay on it for a million days!”. Thanks Ambassador Cruise.
How to get there
If you are staying in Hanoi, take advantage of Ambassador Cruise transfer service. That is at 23 Phan Dinh Phung in central Hanoi, at Korean restaurant Sajang BBQ. You will be informed of this at the time of booking. If you are staying at Halong or you are making your way there, you need to follow directions to Halong International Cruise Port. Ambassador Cruise’s Check-in Lounge is located on the 1st floor of the terminal.