Bhaya Cruises and Halong Bay on London Evening Standard

Geordie Greig, the editor of the London Evening Standard, Europe’s largest circulation evening newspaper, visited Vietnam and Cambodia in November 2011. There, he found “luxury, rich history and vibrant cultule”. He was also impressed by the natural beauty of Halong Bay, UNESCO heritage site as well as the charm and luxury of Bhaya Cruises. Below is what he wrote about Bhaya Cruises:

“The Bhaya, an elegant junk with 20 cabins, is sailing in Halong Bay, 100 miles east of Hanoi. It begs for Agatha Christie to set Monsieur Poirot a mystery on board. It is light, airy and comfortable but full of potential for a whodunit: a very respectable couple from Shropshire sit next to a young gay couple from Germany, while a boisterous Australian family order drinks. Some try squid-fishing from the lower deck after a fresh crab dinner served on crisp white tablecloths.

Canoes are available in the afternoon for the more adventurous, and a spa is discreetly set up by white-uniformed staff for those who want to do nothing. This is a quirky sea venture: Bing Crosby songs alternate with Russian-Scottish music at the bar; cocktails are only a couple of dollars or so a shot. Vietnam at every stage is delightful and inexpensive.”

For full article, please click this link: http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/lifestyle/esmagazine/article-24031494-eastern-promise.do

Visit our Facebook for more photos: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150583187799797.408886.193860364796&type=3

Why the whole Halong Bay scenery is going to change dramatically in the next coming months?

Tourists coming to Halong Bay from May 2012 might not recognize what they have seen on their favorite movie of Halong Bay or their travel agency brochure…

Indeed, the board of management of Halong Bay has recently announced to all cruise operators that all boats cruising the bay of the descending dragon shall be repainted in white except for the dragon heads junks, sending the image of traditional wooden junks to the past.

The reason invoked by the board of management is the necessity of creating a unique image for the boats sailing in Halong bay after the bay recently received international recognition as a new wonder of the world. The boats that wouldn’t follow this decision would lose their license.

After this decision was made official by the board of management of Halong Bay, a unanimous reaction of surprise and disagreement was felt among cruise operators in Halong Bay. Indeed, the association for Halong bay tourism boats sent a letter to the board of management to oppose the decision.

The reasons raised by the members of the association are the costs involved in such operation and the loss of Halong bay’s traditional brown wooden boats. Indeed, painting a boat in white costs between 30 and 40 million VND depending on the size of the boat, and about 500 boats in Halong Bay are concerned by this decision. The bill is even bigger as Halong Bay knows at the moment its high season for tourism and painting the boats requires stopping them at a time when most of the companies reach an occupancy rate of 70%.

In terms of image, cruise operators have been opposing the idea of losing the traditional brown wooden junks with brown sails to white boats. The brown wooden junks are a tradition of Halong bay whereas white boats refer to international yachts and big cruise ships and imposing a unique color could be misleading for the guests.

As a result to this fierce opposition from Halong bay cruise operators to create a branding image of Halong Bay boats through the white color and after a meeting organized with the association of Halong bay boats, the Quang Ninh’s people committee decided to come back on this decision and impose the use of white color for some details only.

Right after this decision, the association for Halong Bay boats has expressed its relief. Mr Doan Van Dung, chief of the association said that cruise operators in Halong bay “are now not facing the financial burden of following the authorities’ order, because it would have cost them tens of millions of dong to repaint their boats and been a time consuming process as well”.

However, a decision is still to be taken on the percentage of each boat that should be repainted in white. Many people fear that Halong Bay boats would still lose their uniqueness after this decision and that it doesn’t contribute to development of tourism in Halong Bay. John, a British tourist interviewed on Bai Chay tourism wharf explains: “people coming to Halong Bay don’t expect to see hundreds of boats painted the same way, with the same color. Taking this kind of decision helps erasing each boat’s identity in order to create a general image for Halong Bay, it’s counterproductive. We lose tradition to marketing.”

An official announcement on the exact terms of this decision is to be made in the next few days.

Bhaya Cruises got recommended on The Independent UK

The Independent

A breathless week in non-stop Vietnam

Mark Stratton embarks on a turbo-charged seven days travelling from north to south – all made possible by the first direct flights from the UK

Mark Stratton

Sunday, 15 January 2012

‘Good Morning Vietnam!” boomed the taxi driver shuttling me from the airport to breakfast in Hanoi.

His Robin Williams impersonation wasn’t great. But I’d certainly arrived early enough – on the first-ever non-stop flight from the UK to Vietnam – to witness Hanoi waking up. The city’s parks swayed to tai chi; hungry patrons breakfasted on pho noodles at pavement food-stalls. Even Hanoi’s millions of motorcyclists had not yet reached the ear-splitting pitch that marks the daily rush hour.

Vietnam Airlines has just begun flying from Gatwick to the capital, Hanoi, and the main commercial hub, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), each at opposing ends of the country. Is Vietnam, then, now within the realm of an exotic week-long break? I decided to find out during a turbo-charged trip flying “open jaw” in to Hanoi and out of Ho Chi Minh City. In between I’d experience one of Asia’s great rail journeys, plus Halong Bay: one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.

Vietnam has embraced the internet energetically, and before travelling I’d saved time booking everything online: visa, airport transfers, train ticket, day trips and accommodation. My hotel was a friendly new guesthouse called the Art Hotel in Hanoi’s atmospheric old quarter around Hoan Kiem Lake. There was no app available, however, to assist with my disorientation amid the old quarter’s frenetic maze of markets, cafés, street-restaurants and crumbling French colonial architecture.

Hanoi became Vietnam’s capital in 1010. The old quarter’s labyrinthine geography appears to have changed little since then. My survival strategy for exploring it (beyond not getting run over by scooters) involved allowing fate to deliver me hither and thither. I happened upon backstreet gems such as Bach Ma’s 18th-century temple dedicated to a white horse spirit, and a handsome 19th-century house at 87 Ma May, whose hidden courtyards and creaky wooden rooms were redolent of a forgotten age.

Besides baguettes, Hanoi’s most eloquent Francophone expression is the decadently opulent Metropole Hotel, which dates back to 1901. During the Vietnam War it played host to various anti-war celebrities, including Jane Fonda, while the hotel recently unearthed a forgotten air-raid shelter where Joan Baez part-recorded her protest ballad “Where are you now, my son?”. But the times, as her old flame Dylan noted, they are a-changin’.

Luxury outlets such as Bentley and Cartier surround the hotel, a reflection of communist Vietnam’s post-war economic liberalisation. Its reforms have mirrored China’s authoritarian capitalism. Hammer-and-sickle motifs on public buildings and visibly prominent green-uniformed soldiers are a reminder to the visitor that Vietnam’s one-party state remains a politically repressive regime, intolerant of dissent.

The arrival of top-end British motor cars and luxury French watchmakers would not have amused Vietnam’s revolutionary guiding light, Ho Chi Minh, with whom I would come face-to-face with later at his mausoleum. A short walk outside the old quarter, amid a stylish suburb of French Art Deco villas around Ba Dinh Square, and I joined a lengthy queue of Vietnamese filing into his monolithic mausoleum: a Soviet-style Parthenon. Inside, I had less than a minute to file by his waxy corpse (still with signature straggly goatee) as it lay in quiet repose inside a glass chamber flanked by expressionless soldiers with glinting bayonets. I exited at the propaganda-drenched Ho Chi Minh Museum, perhaps Hanoi’s most obvious expression of concrete neo-brutalism.

Hanoi is also responsible for some of South-east Asia’s tastiest street food, the best of which I sought with Belgian expatriate Yves from HG Travel, with whom I’d organised several excursions. Down Ngo Trang Tien near his office, we ate bun dau: tofu served with vermicelli-noodle cakes soaked in fermented squid sauce.

“Many visitors don’t like this strong taste,” said Yves. I did. The 75p dish combined hot chilli, slimy vermicelli and the pungent sauce, but somehow it worked.

Pavement eateries aren’t the limit of Hanoi’s culinary ambitions. That evening I dined at the Press Club, haunt of Hanoi’s well-heeled – a decadent whirl of white tablecloths, silver service and Asian woodwork. It may be the swankiest fine-dining eatery in town, but my three-course meal (featuring Australian tenderloin beef in green peppercorn sauce) cost just 975,000 dong (around £30).

The general manager, Kurt Walter, told me that since opening in 1997 the restaurant’s clientele has expanded from expatriates to a mix that now includes the Vietnamese nouveau riche.

Before heading south, there was time for an excursion eastwards, to the coast. After a three-hour drive from Hanoi, I was ensconced on a wooden junk marvelling at Halong Bay’s breathtaking limestone karsts: sharpened like shark-fins, or undercut to form stone toadstools, or in pitted rows resembling cavity-filled dentures.

“I’ve been here 100 times but never tire of their beauty,” said Dang Dong, my guide. During our four-hour cruise we watched foraging sea-eagles and ate squid, tiger prawns and cockles. Then it was time to shuttle back to Hanoi to catch the 11pm Reunification Express to Ho Chi Minh City.

She left on time. I boarded the rather functionally named SE3 service, which pulled out of Hanoi station with a groan of metal I’d heard before in disaster movies. I’d booked into a comfortable four-berth soft-sleeper cabin for a whopping 1.76 million dong (just £54). The 30-hour, 1,726km marathon south proved a scenic revelation.

Relaunched in 1976 after wartime partition, the rail route shadows two borders – those of Laos and Cambodia – while to the east the Gulf of Tonkin morphs into the South China Sea. My fellow passengers came and went, jumping off at exotic destinations such as Hue, the ancient imperial capital straddling the Perfume River; and Danang for Hoi An, a coastal port whose architecture has been richly augmented by centuries of foreign trade. I remained for the long haul, immersed in Graham Greene’s Vietnam classic, The Quiet American, and gazing seawards as the SE3 snaked through tunnels, along plunging coastal cliffs, past deserted beaches and rice-paddies being furrowed by buffalo.

I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City a mere 96 frenetic hours after touching down in Hanoi. During the 2002 remake of The Quiet American, Michael Caine and the rest of the cast stayed at Hotel Caravelle, which hosted journalists during the Vietnam War. Even after the hotel was bombed in 1964, they continued frequenting its Saigon Saigon Bar, which still swings away on the 9th floor. The hotel has been refurbished along with Saigon’s name: it is now Ho Chi Minh City’s most luxurious offering. I rolled in at 6am after two nights on the rails, eager for a bed that didn’t rattle.

The next morning, I learnt that Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are worlds apart. Founded in 1698, the southern city outshines its northern rival in size and population, and in the burgeoning capitalism epitomised by the designer soaked Dong Khoi Street, nicknamed locally “Champs-Elysées”. Its broader French boulevards prove even more hazardous to cross than in Hanoi – with relentless, molten streams of scooters.

There’s rivalry, too, between the cities. I was variously told the North Vietnamese were haughty, unfriendly, too serious, and obsessed by bureaucracy. Tittle tattle, maybe, but the cultural differences are still tangible between the Western-influenced south and the more communist north. There are also differing dialects and cuisine, with Ho Chi Minh City’s food influenced by its large Chinese contingency and its climate – it was a good 10C hotter than chilly Hanoi when I visited.

Many of the city’s highlights fall within administrative District 1 (the equivalent of a central business zone) including two must-sees around Tao Dan Park. Communist tanks stormed the Independence Palace on 30 April 1975, ending the war. The tanks are still mounted within this former South Vietnamese headquarters in attractive grounds of azalea and frangipani. The building itself has become the Reunification Palace, but retains its 1960s-era modernist interior that is full-on Thunderbirds retro, all curving sofas and leather-clad cocktail bars.

Nearby, the absorbing War Remnants Museum hosts sobering exhibits of Agent Orange’s lasting effects on the Vietnamese, alongside a gripping collection of wartime photography seen through the lenses of Robert Capa and his contemporaries.

Meanwhile, Ben Thanh market seduces visitors with souvenir shops, bars, spas and a nightly food market. On my last evening, I grazed there on banh xeo crêpes stuffed with bean sprouts, before migrating to Thuong Hien street to eat steamed crab claws and green mussels. But I preferred the grittier authenticity of Binh Tay market, 10km away in Cholon, established by Saigon’s sizeable Chinese community. I reached it by riding pillion on a xe-om motorbike-taxi (drivers tout for business on every street corner). It’s a handy service, but my safety helmet’s markings – “hope you are lucky” – probably said it best.

One week after leaving London, the evening timing of Vietnam Airlines’ Friday departure permitted one last excursion; 60km outside Saigon lie the remarkable Cu Chi defensive tunnels, dug on three levels by the Viet Cong in the 1960s. My guide, Dam, and I potholed through sections of the 250km complex, which survived B52 bombing, and rediscovered the surface in plenty of time for my flight.

I arrived back in London at 6am on Saturday morning weary but with the weekend to shake off jetlag. Slow travel it wasn’t. But a non-stop flight seemed tailor-made for a non-stop destination. Vietnam never pauses for breath.

The Itinerary

Friday: Depart Gatwick on flight VN0144 at noon

Saturday: Arrive Hanoi 6.40am Hanoi sightseeing

Sunday: Hanoi sightseeing

Monday: Daytrip to Ha Long Bay from 8am-6pm; board SE3 Reunification Express to Ho Chi Minh City at 11pm

Tuesday: All day on Train

Wednesday: Arrive Ho Chi Minh City at 5am. Sightseeing

Thursday: Sightseeing

Friday: Cu Chi Tunnels excursion from 8am to 2pm. Depart Ho Chi Minh City on flight VN0141 at 11.15pm

Saturday: Arrive Gatwick 6am

Travel Essentials

Getting There

Vietnam Airlines (020-3263 2062; vietnamairlines.com) flies non-stop from Gatwick to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City twice weekly; £618 return. Open-jaw fares start at £780.

Staying There

Art Hotel, Hanoi (00 84 98 234 5239; hanoiarthotel.com). Doubles start at US$38.50 (£26), including breakfast.

Hotel Metropole, Hanoi (00 84 4 3826 6919; sofitel.com). Doubles from £175, room only. Hotel Caravelle, Ho Chi Minh City (00 84 8 3823 4999; caravellehotel.com). Doubles from $200 (£133), room only.

Getting Around

For train reservations, see vietnam-trains.com. A single ticket from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in a four-berth cabin costs 1.76m dong (£54).

Visiting There

Local operator HG Travel (hgtravel.com) can arrange excursions and tours to destinations such as Cu Chi and Halong Bay (bhayacruises.com).

The Press Club, Hanoi (00 84 4 3934 0888; hanoi-pressclub.com).

More Information

British passport-holders require a visa, available for £44 from the Vietnam Embassy, 12 Victoria Road, London W8 5RD (020-7937 1912; vietnamembassy.org.uk). Authorisation letters for visas on arrival can be obtained from myvietnamvisa.com for £12.29, plus a US$25 (£16.70) stamping fee on arrival. Vietnam Tourist Board: vietnamtourism.com

Vietnam to welcome 6 million foreign visitors by year end 2011

Vietnam will welcome the 6 millionth foreign visitor by the end of this December, who would help the tourism sector surpass its target of 5.3-5.5 million foreign arrivals this year, according to the Vietnam Administration of Tourism (VNAT).

In the first 11 months, the country welcomed more than 5.4 million foreign visitors, up 17.8 percent year-on-year. The number of tourists from overseas has increased, of which China took the lead with more than 1.2 million visitors, up 49 percent.

The VNAT said the increase was attributed to local tourism agencies’ unceasing efforts to hold various promotion events, besides improving the quality of tourist services.

The National Tourism Year 2011 with focus on marine tourism in the coastal southern central provinces, and major cultural events including the international fireworks contest in central Da Nang city, the Sea Tourism Week in central Nha Trang city, Khanh Hoa province, and the Carnival Week in Tuan Chau, Quang Ninh province, contributed to attract more foreign tourists to visit Vietnam, according to the VNAT.