REVIEW: PALOMA CRUISE
A cruise on Halong Bay is a highlight of any trip to Hanoi. The area is an UNESCO listed heritage site and is deservedly popular with visitors. Dramatic limestone karsts rise and fall in calm turqouise waters. In the early morning, mist obscures the distant islands and the imagination sees fantastical shapes – dragons, turtles, and eagles. Halong Bay itself means “Descending Dragon,” and the creation myth of its beginning tells tale of a celestial dragon making her home in the waters of the bay.
There are many choices when it comes to choosing a Halong bay cruise and in most cases you get what you pay for. We were after a comfortable experience, with an interesting itinerary, towards the higher end of the scale that offered enough entertainment without the rowdiness of a party boat. After some extensive research, I went with Paloma Cruise, choosing the 3 day 2 night itinerary.
Review: Paloma Cruise | Transit to Ha Long Bay City
Pick up from the hotel was scheduled for between 7:30 to 8:10 AM and we were then taken to Paloma Cruise’s office to pay for our trip. The drive to Ha Long Bay city took almost 4 hours, with a toilet break in between. The stop is at a giant tourist souvenir shop, where you can pick up silk products, lacquerware, postcards, local foods and other gifts. There was no pressure to buy when we visited. The van we were in was relatively comfortable, but for such a long trip, the break and the chance to stretch our legs was most welcome.
Review: Paloma Cruise | Boarding the Paloma
The ship itself is moored away from the harbour. To get there, we boarded a transfer boat. A short 15 minute ride later, and we were welcomed aboard with a cold towel and a refreshing welcome drink. The manager then took us through the itinerary and lunch was served.
Review: Paloma Cruise | The boat itself
A traditional wooden Chinese junk, the Paloma is quite spacious, with 4 decks and 20 cabins. Her lines are clean and when her sails are up, she’s actually quite a beauty. She accommodates 40 guests and 20 crew but it never felt crowded on board due to the split itinerary and amount of space available on board.
There are lovely couches and chairs set up on the upper decks where you can while away the hours watching the landscape go by. The common areas are the most popular spots on the Paloma – breakfast outdoors or a cold drink while lazing on the wicker chairs is the perfect way to enjoy Halong Bay. There is also a spa, a bar, and television area onboard.
Review: Paloma Cruise | The rooms
We booked the deluxe double room, which meant that we were on the 2nd deck. Our room was was quite large and kept very clean. The room had an ensuite with, what I thought was a luxuriously sized shower for a cruise ship! Bathrooms on any ship are always tiny! As there was only one copy of the key, if you wanted your beds remade, you had to turn in your key to the manager in the morning, so that the crew could enter and turn over the linen. There was a tiny bar fridge and a study desk and chair in our room.
Review: Paloma Cruise | Food & drink
There was a good mix of Western and Vietnamese food served. Some were a little hit and miss – I enjoyed the Vietnamese cuisine the most. The food was always fresh; on our disembarkation we watched the crew stow a shipment of fresh foods from the mainland – the manager informed us that they receive fresh food each day for the guests.
Dietary requirements are catered for, if communicated in advance and the portions are generous – there is more than enough for everyone to eat. I was most impressed by breakfast where there was an omelette station, as well as hot, fresh pho – it reminded me of breakfast offerings by luxury hotels. There was some bananas in the room when we first checked in, but these are not replenished daily.
Drinks are not included in the price of the cruise – this is standard practice and consistent with my experience on other cruises. You get two small bottles of mineral water on your first day on board, and that’s it. There’s plenty of options to purchase on board, from fresh juices to beer to cocktails. Drink prices (as at October 2013) were: VND30,000 for soda, VND20,000 for water, VND60,000 for fresh juice, VND95.000 for a rum & coke. Beers were priced at about VND80,000 if memory serves correctly. Drink orders are added to your tab, and the bill tallied when you check out on your last day.
Review: Paloma Cruise | The itinerary
There are two options on the Paloma – the 2 day 1 night, and the 3 day 2 night. The latter gives you mroe time to see Ha Long Bay itself. These itineraries are very rigid – attendance at each of the events, at the time set, is pretty much expected! So it’s not quite as relaxing as I thought it would be and you don’t get much time to just sit and veg out. There are places to go and things to see!
The main sights and things to do on offer are a local fishing village at Vang Vieng, a beach on one of the islands, kayaking, caves to explore. a daily sunset party with free sangria and fresh fruit, a cooking demonstration, and at night, squid fishing – though no one caught anything on the 2 nights we were onboard.
For those on the 3 day 2 night itinerary, the second, full day on the cruise is actually spent away from the main ship. We packed a day bag and was put on a smaller cruise ship, also called the Paloma. This took us to a quiet beach on Soi Sim Island (which later turned crowded as a day trip boat filled with Koreans arrived), where we had a chance to sit in the sun and swim in the calm waters of Ha Long Bay. We took a short hike to the top of the island – the views from there was spectacular.
Our next stop was Lan Ha Bay, where we had the chance to kayak around another floating village, through and out some caves and just generally laze around and enjoy the time outdoors. The itinerary mentioned lunch on the beach, but we ate on the boat instead – not a big deal, but there are some minor deviations from the itinerary given.
The last day of the cruise was spent packing, then exploring Sung Sot (Amazing) Cave – chockful of tourists, but it’s well worth a visit as the inside is filled with interesting limestone formations. After the visit, it’s a quick dash to get your stuff sorted, have lunch, pay the tab and disembark the ship.
Review: Paloma Cruise | Overall
We loved the Paloma – it’s not the cheapest option to cruise Ha Long Bay, but for what we paid we felt like we got good value. The staff worked really hard to make our experience a pleasant one, and the ship is kept in tip top shape. The itinerary was a little rigid, but it did pack a lot in and I felt like the 3D2N was the best option if you really want to experience Ha Long Bay. The Paloma does seem to take a different route from most other boats, though she moors in the same spot as hundreds of other Ha Long Bay cruise ships – during breakfast on both days, we saw dozens on dozens of white ships flying orange sails. Overall an excellent experience, one I would highly recommend!