Fortune smiled on me -- I was lucky enough to see Halong Bay at its very finest -- on the good ship Jasmine.
This incredible voyage that I went on recently was actually my virgin cruise and my first organized tour as well. Alarmingly, after nearly 16 years in Vietnam, I had never made it to Halong Bay.
What a trip it was.
The Jasmine is a handsome, handcrafted wooden ship, with a hull stretching 55 meters long and 11 meters wide. She carries 23 rooms over three floors, each level luxuriously appointed. Finely detailed and well-thought-out, the builders obviously took great care in the design and production of the Jasmine, with a keen eye for comfort. The ship houses a deeply stocked bar, replete with Cuban cigars, a spacious, elegant dining room, and generous decks on which to sprawl and relax.
Perhaps one of the best parts of the cruise was that there were only 4 other couples on this huge floating wooden hotel, which made the experience much more intimate and relaxing.
There was Michael and Dorit from NYC -- he an interior surface designer; she an actress who has appeared in numerous feature films. I bonded with them immediately. They both were well-traveled, witty and engaging conversationalists.
A warm and content pair from Mallorca, Spain, Lone and Miquel, were on board. Both worked in the tourism industry -- ironically, taking a tour away from their own tour business.
Rochelle and Robert, also from New York City, actually Brooklyn (yes, there is a difference), were an intriguing couple in their symmetry. He is a banker and she is a fitness specialist (together they earn money and health).
Finally, the group was rounded out with a charming and lively couple of Irish Texans, David and Kay, who had lovely accents that were a melodic blend of the dry dusty prairie and the lush green rolling hills of Derry.
In this case, the crew outnumbered the passengers, and though a rare occurrence, it worked out well.
The service on the Jasmine each and every 22 blessed hours we were on board was impeccable. The attitude and helpfulness of the staff (the bartender, the maids, the waiters, the cooks, the guide, the manager, the captain and his first mate) could not have possibly been better. Some of the staff even had double roles. For example, Anh's job was not only to be an experienced waiter, but a skilled masseuse as well. To be gracious and accommodating, this was the central focus of the service staff during the entire cruise, and they succeeded by any measure.
Being on the Jasmine was the very definition of a luxury cruise. All our needs were constantly attended to, and the most demanding requirement for us "cruisers" was to make the herculean effort to get to the meals on time.
There were glowing white tablecloths, colorful tropical flowers and sweet presentations of savory dishes.
The constant delivery of freshly made cocktails punctuated the afternoon and early evening. That wonderful swooshing sound of a martini being shaken high in the air by the bartender was all we heard for hours. Tranquil and happily sequestered out on the bay, we floated and floated and floated along in bliss.
We made a few stops that day. We ventured to the requisite local floating village, which was perhaps more disturbing than enlightening, as the poverty there visibly shook some of my fellow passengers. Still, it is a bona fide example of what "real life" is like for the fishermen who live in the bay.
It was fascinating to witness daily life taking place on the water -- the villagers seldom walk but rather paddle boats of various styles and shapes for transportation. Moreover, they often use their feet for propelling the oars and start as young as 4 years old; we saw tiny tots sporting around by themselves in waterproofed woven baskets.
We also went to the fabled caves. That was truly impressive. While it is a well-worn and slickly organized tourist trail, it is understandable why so many people demand to see this natural wonder.
The caves are majestic and eerie at the same time. They have strategically placed spotlights to illuminate some of the more suggestive rock formations. The guide continually pointed out formations that resembled animals or people (i.e. roaring lion, swimming turtle, a couple hugging, etc.). It was enjoyed by all and was welcomed hyper-kitsch that worked well as a break from the sumptuous-lounge lifestyle we were experiencing on board.
Mercifully, the activities were kept to a minimum, as the real point of the cruise was to relax and, in the end, not to be too active.
Anytime you are thrown together with a group of strangers, the exciting thing is that anything can happen. It is, by design, unpredictable and uncontrollable.
What happens between people happens and that's that -- for our cruise the mix was good. We had nine people on board, a fortuitous number according to Eastern ways, and maybe that's why it worked out so well. What we did mostly was just talk among ourselves and catch a glimpse, brief as it was, into one another's lives.
What was the most crucial part of the cruise on the good ship Jasmine? Floating.
It was the process of learning to suspend, to drift, to release the need to do, to learn just to be. We lingered amid the massive boulders, miniature inlets and endless wee islands of Halong Bay.
It didn't feel like we went anywhere. We just floated, immersed in an ocean of calmness and serenity. We communed, shared stories, broke bread, laughed out loud and glided along so slowly and gently that we didn't even know we were moving. Both in mind and body, we simply floated along.
The author, Bradford Edwards, is an American artist living in Hanoi.