CATCH OF THE DAY: Hạ Long prawns with garlic and chilli, fresh from the sea. VNS Photos Mỹ Hà
by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà
Among my family's favourite holiday destinations, Hạ Long Bay remains one of the top spots loved by everyone, and it's a place we never have to fight about!
January is always the busiest time of year due to hectic work schedules and children's exams.
Then you add Tết (Lunar New Year festival) preparations including making the house spotless, filling the fridge with festive food, cooking the big family dinner, getting children new clothes and offering food to your ancestors once a day for three days.
I’m overwhelmingly excited just thinking about all the things myself and my family have to do for Tết!
Some families decide to get all traditional duties done on the first day of the Lunar New Year so they can take a trip together, perhaps to a beach in the south.
When we can't do the same, a short getaway before the holiday is just what we need to get prepared for the festive season.
Right before I booked two rooms with the magnificent President Cruises, which began operating in Hạ Long Bay's waters just last year, the first opposing voice spoke up: "I cannot go! I’m not comfortable having a vacation when everyone in my club is busy practising and rehearsing for the biggest challenge of the year!”
Our teenage daughter has been working very hard to take part in the Highschool Best Dance Crew contest in Hà Nội. I made it clear to her that she can polish her movements on the boat so that when she comes back, she'll get be just as prepared as the rest of the team.
We took a limousine coach service from Hà Nội to Hạ Long which took two and a half hours. The boat also offers a coach service with pick up and drop off in the Old Quarter, but we chose one which took us from our home. This service was very reliable, punctual and the drivers knew the roads well.
The cruise staff greeted us at the meeting point then brought us to the big ship at anchor. After safety instructions, we got a little time to relax in our room before lunch was served.
Having been on quite a few boats cruising the bay over the years, we were used to the sights and felt at home right away. We took the trip for some "we" time, not for sightseeing, so we just gazed at the beautiful scenery from our balconies. There was no need to see Hang Sửng Sốt (Surprise Cave) because we had been surprised so many times before.
The lunch buffet counters were full with an international section and local food section. The food was great, well cooked and filling. Before we finished lunch, we were requested to choose our dinner meals.
The dining room was almost full of families from Việt Nam and some other Asian countries. A few elderly couples were dining quietly and enjoying their time contemplating the scenery.
RUSTIC DELIGHT: Mi-cuit of vanilla salmon with paysanne of vegetables and crispy basil leaf, recommended by celebrity chef John Burton-Race. VNS Photo Mỹ Hà
As for Asian families, you know what I'm about to say: when we feel happy, we have to say it out loud, and sometimes several people talk at the same time and no one listens to each other.
"Oh my God," I thought to myself, "We wanted a peaceful vacation when we all turned off our mobile phones and spent time talking, teasing even fighting with each other."
But life can never be what you had in mind, or even prepared for. There was an urgent work that I had to follow then. For the rest of the afternoon, there was no talking let alone teasing or fighting, only staring at a mobile phone screen!
Dinner came in no time and we wanted to dress our best for the candlelit dinner on board. I decided to put on my best velvet dress tailored by my favourite designer with pearls on the collar, only to find out that all waitresses were wearing the same material with pearl necklaces that night!
For starter, we had Hạ Long prawns with garlic and chilli, two ocean sushi and sashimi plates, and I chose a three in one Vietnamese option: squid cake, prawns on lemongrass and crispy spring rolls.
The Hạ Long prawns were fresh and flavourful. The sushi and sashimi plate was also fresh and it pleased our dancer so much that she was content, stopped worrying about rehearsals and the dance battle the next weekend.
For soup, my younger kid decided that she loved the pumpkin soup from lunchtime so much, she'd have room for another bowl of it for dinner.
The rest of us chose salmon consommé, beansprout and water chestnuts, Miso soup with seaweed and tofu, while I opted for the duck wonton broth.
GOOEY DELIGHT: The eggs Benedict, which are hard to perfect.
For mains, our family's non-fish eater branched out and decided to try out the mi-cuit (French for half-cooked) of vanilla salmon with paysanne (French for country vegetables) of vegetables and crispy basil leaf; our dancer chose stir-fried Hạ Long prawns, salted egg emulsion and grilled potato, spring onion salsa.
The prawns and salmon had a note on the menu to say they were recommended by the celebrity chef John Burton-Race.
I simply chose crispy seafood tempura, ginger jam, honey soy, diced cucumber, while the pumpkin soup fan decided to have a fillet of beef, crispy shallots, sourdough croutons, olive oil butter and beef marrow jus.
The rest of my crew laughed at my choice of such a simple dish of plain shrimp and squid tempura.
My intention was to taste the freshest possible prawns and squid and not to be deceived by strong flavours. I found the prawn delicious, but the squid a bit chunky.
Everyone was content with their choices and just as we finally had time to chat, the lights went off and two waiters came in holding cakes with candles in their hands.
Everyone in the dining hall started to sing "Happy Birthday!" It made my pumpkin feel on top of the clouds because her birthday was just the day before and it was one of the reasons we took the trip.
When we walked to our rooms, some other guests wished her happy birthday, so she felt special and cherished.
The next morning, we went on the upper deck early, trying to catch some early sunlight for a family photo during a cloudy weekend. Then we went down for breakfast, thinking we'd be happy just with toast and coffee.
The breakfast counter was once again full of choices, international and Vietnamese, with hot dishes served at the table. So we chose a phở gà (Vietnamese chicken noodle soup) and an omelette with everything in it.
My dancer and I share the same passion for eggs Benedict, which was a little overdone as the yolk did not melt on the toast. But the Hollandaise sauce tasted fine to me.
We were all happy that the trip was completed in peace with no fighting. Everyone posed for a family photo that's going to be hung in our living room. VNS