Exploring Asia From Seabourn Ovation: Da Nang and Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

As gateways to UNESCO World Heritage SitesDa Nang in central Vietnam and Ha Long Bay in northern Vietnam entice cruise travelers with heritage, culture and authentic experiences.

I recently returned from a five-week Asia trip, spending nearly a week in Vietnam while sailing on Seabourn Ovation's two-week “Thailand and Vietnam” itinerary. 

Here's a look at my exploration ashore in both  Da Nang and Ha Long Bay. (Also, check out our 41 original photos in the slide show above.)  

Da Nang to Hoi An

Since I’d stayed in Da Nang on a previous trip, I opted for Seabourn’s five-hour “Hoa Chau & Ancient Hoi An, a UNESCO partner tour,” priced at $79 per person.

Departing the pier at 8:45 a.m., we traveled by motorcoach through the outer suburbs of Da Nang with views of the river, bridges and the city skyline. That gave way to more rural country scenery -- rice paddies, a market and small towns with a slower pace of life.

Our first stop was at Hoa Chau, a farming village between Da Nang and Hoi An. Actually, this was my favorite part of this tour, as it was an authentic look at life in a local village.

First up was a stroll through the village's kindergarten. Let’s just say this encounter with the youngest Vietnamese residents could be described in one word -- “cute” -- from the bunny statues decorating one of the entrances to the kids themselves.

These kids (three years to five years mostly) were no different than children of that age anywhere in the world. Filled with enthusiasm and energy, they also loved showing off for the visitors.  

It was fun to watch a small girl with a microphone directing her co-students in a performance and to hear all the chatter and laughter from the small kids.

Around the complex, open lockers secured colorful backpacks for each child, and the entire school had a sense of order amid the chaos of kindergarteners. I noticed a small rack with washcloths held by cloth pins – all neatly in a row.

Next we visited the village’s small Buddhist temple complex, austere yet pretty and well-kept. After previously touring Bangkok with its humongous golden Buddhas, this was a simpler, much more down-to-earth experience, a representation of typical village life.

Then we headed to a family’s private compound with a home and gardens. We strolled along a path through gardens of trees and flowers to meet the owners (both shown in the slide show above). The woman came out of her garden and proudly pronounced: "I’m 80. How old are all of you?”

Wearing a traditional Vietnamese cone hat, her complexion seemed decades younger, clearly the result of staying out of the sun with that type of hat. One Seabourn guest said to her husband, “I hope I look like that when I’m 80.”

All around us on our walk toward the home were gorgeous flowers and fruit trees. We then spent a bit of time in the main, open-air living area of the house; the adjacent courtyard also led to another part of the home complex with the kitchen, bedrooms and bathroom.

Inside, my eyes were immediately drawn to the old photos and family photos atop one cupboard, showcasing a couple from many decades ago. I asked if these were the photos of the man and woman we’d just met. The answer was “yes.”

After about a half hour or so strolling through the garden, sitting in the home and just exploring, it was time to reboard the bus for the main event – the visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hoi An.

Hoi An, A UNESCO Treasure

Located along the north bank of the Thu Ban River, Hoi An survived the Vietnam War virtually intact. The trading port's 1,100-plus timber frame buildings with brick or wooden walls date from the 15th to 19th century.

Representing a fusion of indigenous and foreign cultures (Chinese, Japanese and European), Hoi An's "Old City" buildings include shops, temples, an open market, homes, commercial buildings and pagodas. Some homes have beautiful tiles, others wood carvings.

One symbolic highlight is the 18th century wooden Japanese Bridge (see slide show). Today, the Old Town's basic look and its structures are similar to what people would see in the 17th and 18th centuries, it’s just that the trade port and commercial center is today focused on tourism as its prime business.

Our tour included admission to the Hoi An Ceramic Museum, a former home that today displays centuries-old ceramics. Most impressive for me was Fujian Assembly Hall with its temple built in honor of Thien Hau, goddess of the sea.

Constructed in 1690, the temple was filled with gorgeous statues of Buddhist deities, bronze bell drums, and lacquered artwork. Centuries ago, local residents who hailed from Fujian, China, socialized and worshipped in this compound.

What did Seabourn's guests think of Hoi An? Most I talked with liked the tour and their time ashore. That said, clients who go should be prepared for tourists – and lots of them. It was very crowded when we visited, and in fact, the bus couldn’t even park in the normal spot given the number of coaches.

Tourism is clearly big business. The entrepreneurial vendors strolling the streets were very creative. I snapped one photo (see slide show above) of a woman on a motorbike built with an "aft" structure to hold an array of hats.  

Be prepared for vendors to ask repeatedly if you’d like to buy this or that. One thing I did like was that when people did buy something, many vendors thanked the visitors and then chatted about their own lives or asked questions about the visitors' trips. 

Hoi An is certainly appealing with its French colonial architecture, Japanese lanterns, wooden shop houses, temples, museums in historic buildings and so on. Many buildings were constructed so that the family could have their commercial shop downstairs and living quarters (often with an upstairs exterior balcony) upstairs. Some of those are now restaurants. 

Given the amount of walking, I opted to leave the tour about three-quarters of the way through, as did a few others. We stopped for a break at a local café. Then it was back to the motorcoach for the drive back to the ship, past the famed Marble Mountains and lovely white sand beaches. 

Seabourn's Hoi An Options

I felt the $79 tour price for the “Hoa Chau & Ancient Hoi An, a UNESCO Partner Tour,” as described above, was a bargain. It was a five-and-one-half hour guided tour to two different destinations, entry fees in Hoi An, and the motorcoach transportation.

Seabourn also offered a $54 per person, “Hoi An On Your Own” option, including motorcoach transport to a drop-off point and back. Guests depart at 9 a.m. and return to the ship seven hours later. Guests pay their own entry fees to Hoi An attractions. 

For active travelers, a five-hour “Discover Hoi An by Bike: A UNESCO Partners Tour,” was offered at $159 per person. The line also offered private car visits to Hoi An, a half day for $559, a full day for $729. Higher priced mini-van and minibus tours were also offered. 

Ha Long Bay

Two days after departing Da Nang, Seabourn Ovation docked in Ha Long Bay, the port for Hanoi along the Gulf of Tonkin. I headed down the gangway and right onto a traditional junk-like boat for the “Magnificent Halong Bay by Junk, A UNESCO Partner Tour.”

Priced at $79 per person, this three-and-one-half-hour tour provided up-close views of the dramatic rock formations within Ha Long Bay. Skies were overcast, and while tour goers wished the weather was a bit sunnier, they were also happy it wasn’t raining.

The overcast skies gave the limestone rock formations looming in the distance an almost mystical quality. Frankly, I liked it.  It all seemed a bit more eerie and dream-like at the same time.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, Ha Long Bay off northeastern Vietnam’s coast is known for its emerald-colored waters and 1,969 islands or islets spread amid 900 square miles.

Our Vietnamese guide onboard pointed out the bay's highlights as we made our way through a channel and the boat began sailing closer to the isles and islets, which rose from the sea. 

Some guests climbed to the top of the boat for unobstructed viewing. At times, we viewed rock formations, both big and small, on all four sides of the boat, offering stunning 360-degree views.

Two small rock islets known as the Kissing Rocks attracted a slew of boats. As our captain jockeyed for a clear position to give us the best views (and safety too), the guide said the rocks resembled a rooster and a hen kissing each other. That said, my best advice is to "use your imagination." But it was fun, nevertheless. See our photo in the slide show above.

Next it was on to Hang Co Cave, where guests could walk upward to enter the cave and view its many stalagmite and stalactite formations. Others who couldn't do the climb were invited to stay on the boat. 

This tour offered stunning views, was easy for those who desired to stay on the boat at the caves, and yet, it also had an active element: 120 steps to reach the cave, plus the walk through the cave and the hike back down to the boat.

Back on Seabourn Ovation, I could look out and see Ba Deo Hill, which has a large observation wheel giving visitors bay views. Ha Long has become a destination unto itself – beyond the focus on Hanoi trips. Seabourn offered a shuttle for guests wishing to go into town to explore.  

Seabourn had several other excursion options from Ha Long Bay, including a kayaking adventure in Ha Long Bay at $149, a Ha Long Countryside tour at $89, a longer Ha Long Bay tour with more inclusions such as a fishing village visit at $159, and “Hanoi Highlights,” an 11.5-hour tour to see the sites of the Vietnamese capital city.

More in Southeast Asia

Seabourn Ovation will continue to sail Southeast Asia's waters next winter, offering many itineraries, among them the same "Thailand and Vietnam" itinerary I took, from Singapore to Hong Kong on January 18 and February 15, and on the reverse, from Hong Kong to Singapore on January 4.

For more on that itinerary and our coverage, check out these links to stories that have previously been posted:   

In our next Exploring Asia story, we’ll focus on our departure from the ship and our four-night stay at the Kerry Hotel Hong Kong. We’ll also look at the myriad activities in Hong Kong awaiting cruisers including new options this year. Stay tuned.  

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