Halong Ginger -- For a stellar experience on the water, look no further than the Halong Ginger. Unlike the Emeraude, Halong Ginger is a small, intimate affair, equipped with only 10 cabins all pushed to either side of a central deck to ensure each room has a private, unobstructed view of the ocean. Deluxe rooms come with three large windows, letting in plenty of light and ocean sounds. Rooms have huge bathrooms, especially for a boat, and marble countertops.
Halong Ginger's cruising route moves away from the traffic of Halong Bay, and unlike other junks in the bay, it doesn't retrace its path. Passengers board the boat between 11:30am and noon, with staff on hand to carry suitcases to your cabin so that you can enjoy a welcome drink on deck. The boat sets off at 12:30pm and a set menu of local seafood is served for lunch half an hour later. The boat docks at Soi Sim, an island in the heart of Halong Bay, where you either take a dip or go for a trek. Then it's off to Lan Ha Bay, south of Halong Bay, where you are taken into a traditional fishing village. If you opt for kayaking, you can kayak yourself through the village. From here, it's time to board bamboo boats to maneuver through narrow waterways into a secluded cave.
Dinner aboard the boat is a sumptuous set seafood menu. Finish your evening with drinks on the upper deck. Then it's a dreamy sleep in your luxe cabin before the early morning tai chi class. The second day is a simple, relaxing cruise back to the hectic pace of land life. The price of Halong Ginger's overnight cruise is hefty, ranging from $419 to $493. Book through their website at www.cruisehalong.com or call their offices at tel. 04/3984-5085 (fax 04/3984-4538). Look out for their junks, the Halong Jasmine and the Halong Violet, both of which will be smaller, more exclusive, and (incredibly enough) more expensive than the Halong Ginger.
The Emeraude -- For a unique high-end experience, book passage aboard the Emeraude -- a copy of a French steamer that once plied these waters in the early 20th century. Certainly the largest boat, at 55m (180 ft.), the elegant Emeraude has 38 cabins, a fine-dining outlet, and plenty of room to stretch your legs. The luxury trip comes with a price tag, of course, but the 2-day, 1-night cruise is well worth it.
Leaving Hanoi at 8am, you'll check in at the private Emeraude pier and be walked to the boat. Compact, as ship cabins always are, onboard rooms are decked out in hardwood, with nice fixtures such as air-conditioning, a private reading lamp, slippers for shuffling about the decks, and a tidy, compact bathroom area with toilet, shower, and a separate room for a small sink stand. Everything on board is retro, which means pleasing hardwood, brass, and fine linens. The oversize wicker chairs on the top deck are cozy, and you'll find shaded areas as well as sun-worshiping space. A casual, friendly atmosphere pervades, especially when the corks start popping.
Dining on board is a delicious buffet, and most guests find themselves sharing a meal with new friends. Lunch on day 1 is followed by a stop at the Surprise Cave, then an afternoon of cruising and great views of the islands. The boat docks in a quiet harbor, and guests have an opportunity to, on their own or with a guide, explore nearby Trinh Nu and Hang Trong, the Virgin Cave and the Cave of the Winds, or take a dip in the bay. Dinner is a sumptuous affair of fine local cuisine (heavy on seafood) and good Western options. Enjoy drinks on the upper deck as you watch the moonlight glisten off the bay.
Day 2 starts with tai chi classes on the sun deck as a brilliant sunrise paints its colors on the arching canvas of high limestone peaks jutting from the glassy waters. Blissful. After your exercise, tuck in to a hearty Western-style breakfast. The boat returns to the dock by 9:30am, and a direct transfer finds you back in Hanoi by lunchtime. The trip is quite memorable, and a ride on this retro ship, outfitted to the nines, is unique to Halong Bay. The price for the overnight cruise is $281 for a luxury cabin for two and $479 for the one-suite room, but discounts for larger groups are available. Shuttle bus transfer from Hanoi costs $35. Check the website at www.emeraude-cruises.com or call the offices at the Press Club in Hanoi (tel. 04/3934-0888; fax 04/3825-5342).
The Jewel of the Bay -- Another highly recommended luxury boat (just a step down from the Emeraude), the Jewel of the Bay runs overnight trips concentrating on eco-tourism that include kayaking, touring, and fine dining. For more information or to book a trip, contact the helpful folks at Buffalo Tours (tel. 04/3828-0702; www.buffalotours.com/jewel). The company runs varying itineraries, including a trip that loops out as far as Cat Ba. Buffalo's boat now has a companion vessel.
The Dragon's Pearl -- Run by the people at Handspan (tel. 04/3926-2828; www.handspan.com), the very popular Dragon's Pearl has a high standard comparable to the Jewel of the Bay, and the focus is similarly on hearty eco-tourism and getting away from the crowds.