His and Her Way to Explore the Bay

There are many ways to explore Ha Long Bay and we chose two……. Jim’s way and Alisa’s way.


We saw everything from old Chinese junk boats to sea planes leaving from the dock of Tuan Chau. We wanted to see the bay and visit Cat Ba to hike to the top of the National Park, Ngu Lam. For $2.40 a person, the public ferry chugs slowly along the bay, the same route taken by luxury cruises. The ride lasts about 50 minutes and is notoriously late. Our 0900 departure was 45 minutes late, pushing into our hiking time and the last return ferry at 1500. 

Soon we were sailing by those famous limestone formations dodging boats and barges. That’s when I noticed the ramp in the front was still in the water, no wonder we were going so slow. There were so many times in Vietnam I just shook my head. This was just one of many. However the views were impressive and the ferry was mostly clean. 

The public bus was packed when we finally made it off the ferry. The bus follows the ferry's schedule and a ride costs $2.40 to Cat Ba Town, on the other side of the island, double the distance to the park in the middle. 

My advice, if you're taking the ferry go to the front and be one of the first to get off. Yes this means dodging scooters, cars and buses also getting off, but your chances of getting a seat or a standing spot on the bus increases. We however negotiated a taxi down to $10 for the 20 minute ride to Cat Ba National Park. Entrance tickets were $3.15 each. 

The hike starts with stone stairs and ends with a little rock climbing. The hike was strenuous to say the least. However we were under the canopy of the jungle and shaded by the massive ancient trees. 

Make sure to take a picture of the map at the entrance, the signs along the way are very confusing and we found people at all intersections looking as lost as we were.

We were now deep inside the Kim Giao forest. The Kim Giao is a rare and valuable medium sized conifer prized for its timber for use in chopsticks. There are many legends surrounding the origins of the story, but apparently the wood changes color if it comes into contact with toxins. 

Cat Ba is also home to the rare, endangered Cat Ba langur, or golden headed langur. Estimates are as low as 70 left, making it one of the most endangered monkeys in the world. We didn't see one. 

The last part of the hike is an almost vertical wall with strategic foot holes to place your shoe. We made it to the top, plopped down, split a kiwi and caught our breath. At the top there was a tower with a small platform filled with young backpackers. The views were incredible and the breeze was welcoming. The hike up took less than an hour and had a 550’ gain in elevation. 

We had to rush back down to catch the ferry or risk being stuck in the jungle at night. We made it down in 25 minutes completely exhausted and drenched with sweat. Looking back we probably didn't need to hike down so quickly, but something about hiking on a schedule caused some worry. We caught a metered taxi back to the ferry for $8.

As we sat in the ferry waiting area with our warm beers, a mom brought her little girl to the restroom behind us, but instead of going in the girl just squatted as her mother held her and peed on the floor. The mother went back to her car and got the .12 it cost to use the restroom and went in. Another head shake. 

That little girl wasn't the only one to leave her mark in Cat Ba. 

We made the 1330 ferry which we bought tickets for earlier for $3.16 each. All in all the ferry/hike cost around $35. If you want a cheap Ha Long cruise and a strenuous hike this is by far the cheapest version. Even cheaper if we could have caught the bus.

But like I said, there are many ways to see Ha Long Bay, Alisa chose quite a different way. One that doesn't require a full day of rest to recoup. 


The first night as we finally got settled at a hotel in Ha Long after an Airbnb fiasco we started searching for things to do. Unfortunately there wasn't much considering we arrived in the off season. It was like a ghost town. Then we found a cruise on the Alisa. Since neither of us have been on a cruise and it was called Alisa, I took that as a sign. However after looking at the price we decided it probably was not a smart decision considering we were out money for all the changes of plans that we had just made.

The next morning after a sleepless night due to a typhoon, along with the possibility of starvation because few establishments were open, we booked. I think at this point Jim would have agreed to pay anything to avoid a possible meltdown or a hangry Alisa.

I reached out on Whatsapp to Tony, the sales representative. After many texts back and forth he helped us book a senior suite with a balcony and a limousine bus ride back to Hanoi. The cruise was only 24 hours but it had great reviews boasting wonderful food, fun activities and a beautiful sunset. At this point I had no problem rationalizing the extra cost considering all that we had been through in the past 24 hours. It seemed totally worth the $300.00.

James, the cruise director on the ship Alisa, (bizarre right) informed us that my name means princess and that is exactly how I felt from the moment I stepped aboard and sadly ended immediately after I stepped off. 

My Crown!

Back to reality!

It was a small ship with 23 cabins and about 30 passengers. The pampering started as soon as we boarded the ship. During lunch we were introduced to Daniel, our butler, who was awesome. As we were talking he asked if he could peel my shrimp for me, feeling like he had better things to do with his time, I said I was fine. He insisted, putting on a pair of gloves he began peeling my shrimp. All I had to do was just sit back and enjoy without the mess…bless him. 

After lunch we were given the key to our room. As Jim opened the door he quickly looked back at me with a look. Oh no, what, what is wrong? As I got closer to peek in, I caught a sweet smelling fragrance coming from the room, which let me just say, has not always been the case on this trip. There were two huge towel swans sitting on the bed that was covered in rose petals. The bathroom had a jacuzzi tub with windows that faced the bay and a large walk in shower on the opposite side. The sink was filled with water and rose petals and Alisa was everywhere I looked.…so freaking cool. 

We sat outside on the balcony enjoying the spectacular views of the bay with our feet propped up while sipping on a cold beverage. After about an hour of admiring the views we changed into our suits and went to explore the ship. 

Over the loudspeaker James informed us it was time to get ready for our first activity. We met at reception and boarded the small Alisa transport boat, put on our Alisa life jackets and off Alisa went.

Hang Sung Sot Caves

The caves were spectacular. We followed James around as he gave us the history of the cave, pointing out the rock formations that resembled different things. Han Sung Sot means surprise caves. One formation that stuck out in my mind resembled a penis that points the way out. Toward the end of the cave was a formation that looks like a turtle, which is said to bring good luck if you rub his head. We rubbed the head, the turtle's head, and off we went to our next activity.

Pointing the way out, if you get lost.

Titop Island

On the island we had two options; hiking to the top or lounging and swimming on the small beach. The weather was overcast and the beach was packed with people and since I was the princess I chose no hike, no beach but a seat with a beer to people watch.

When we got back to the ship we returned to our room to relax before getting ready for happy hour and a cooking class before dinner. Living out of a backpack doesn't give me many options for what I would consider dinner attire for a cruise. I did the best I could. I threw on a black dress that's main purpose up until this point has been my comfy moo moo. The one I slip into when I get home after a long day, the one I curl up in while watching movies and munching on chips. I wiped off the lint and chip residue with a damp cloth, grabbed my fake Louis Vuitton scarf and off we went to the top deck.

We watched as James demonstrated how to make spring rolls. We took turns making our own for appetizers. We ordered fancy drinks, with names like Alisa's Memories that were artistically prepared and enjoyed until dinner. 

At dinner we were served a five course meal, starting with a pumpkin soup, an appetizer of baked sauteed oysters and a shrimp mango salad, followed by sushi, tiger prawns and octopus. The main course was baked salmon with a sweet sauce on top of creamy potatoes with broccoli. Dessert was a chocolate mango cake. Everything was absolutely delicious and welcoming after a week of limited choices which mainly consisted of rice and noodles. 

Just as everyone was finishing dinner the lights went out and the song Marry You by Bruno Mars came on. Two of the waiters, each carrying a tray of two drinks and candles, with the rest of the wait staff following, danced around the tables. I look over to Jim and excitedly say I bet someone is proposing. I watched as the first waiter stopped at a young couple’s table behind me, all eyes on this couple. I wasn’t able to see what happened next because I was distracted by the second waiter who stopped at our table. WTF. 

As all eyes shifted to us now. I gave Jim the glare that says what the hell did you do? He shakes his head and looks just as confused. Not knowing what to do, I whisper to the waiter what's this for? When he didn't answer, I looked to Jim for help to end the stares. Jim quickly got up, came over and gave me a kiss. That seemed to satisfy the looks and everyone clapped as the candles and drinks were placed on our table. Like I said earlier, I felt like a princess. 

Earlier in the day when we were at the beach we sat and talked with a guy from the cruise. He was a Vietnamese man who grew up in Vietnam and now lives in Paris. He was on holiday with his family, showing his daughters where he was from. 

On the boat ride back to the ship he asked if we were going to karaoke later tonight. We both shook our heads and said no. He laughed and said I will find you and we will sing YMCA. What? How did he know that song is my kryptonite! It doesn't matter when or where, we could be walking down the street or sitting in a restaurant and if that song comes on something takes over me. When we got married it was our wedding party song. Literally, I hear it and I get the sudden urge to get my YMCA on. What can I say, it's my feel good jam. And yes, Jim has many embarrassing videos to prove it. So after dinner when a woman started karaoking, I made a bee line out of the room avoiding our new friend. I knew if it came on I wouldn't be able to control myself. 

We stopped on the second floor for Jim to try his luck at squid fishing. Unfortunately the water and weather were not cooperating for the master baiter and we headed back to our room. We started the jacuzzi tub, threw in all the rose petals and took the first bath in over three years. It was a little cramped but amazing nonetheless.

We planned to be up at 0530 to watch the sunrise. However at 0500 I was awoken to thunder and lightning. I got up and watched from the room as the lightning lit up the whole bay. I opened the blinds trying to entice Jim out of bed but all I got was ummm that's nice. I decided to get dressed and get some coffee. The ship was dark, quiet and no one was around. I headed to the back of the ship, up to the third deck and instead of watching the sunrise, I watched a beautiful lightning storm.

I got back to the room about 0615 and woke Jim. We went to breakfast and then met at reception for our last excursion, kayaking Luon Cave. Jim did most of the paddling, while I continued being a princess. Mainly because when we go kayaking together I can't get into the rhythm with Jim and just end up causing more work for him while drenching him with water. 

As we…he paddled back, the worker with the giant hook grabbed us and pulled us closer to the dock. Jim jumped out first. As I started to get out I heard a loud thud and one of the guys said, be careful it's slippery. As I carefully exited the kayak I looked back to see Jim slowly picking himself up off the dock. Once I was safely out I asked him if he was okay, his reply was, why do they always say be careful after you fall. 

(Insert picture in your mind of Jim laying on the dock! Thankfully the only thing really hurt was his pride.)

We returned to the ship, packed up, had lunch and said our goodbyes to the crew. It was an amazing maiden voyage, seeing the bay on the beautiful Alisa. And just like that I was a princess no more. 

Well that's not entirely true. With our booking they offered bus transportation back to Hanoi. We took advantage of this offer and actually rearranged our plans, leaving Ha Long Bay three days earlier. I had 2.5 more hours of being a princess on the most comfortable, amazing bus of all our travels.

Like we said, there are many ways to explore Ha Long Bay and I highly recommend Alisa’s way. Farewell princess Alisa and so long Ha Long!

Side note....I received a text from Tony asking if we could meet each other while in Hanoi. We met Tony the next day at his office where he gave me a special gift. Like I’ve said so many times before….our travels connect us with some of the most beautiful, kind people. Thank you Tony and Alisa Cruises for making this an unforgettable experience. 

Jim's Way....

Alisa's Way....


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