According to a footage filmed by a passenger, people snatched life jackets on the vessel in a chaotic scene.
“People are crazily scrambling for life jackets,” the passenger said.
The Tsui Wah Ferry was sailing from Ma Liu Shui in Tai Po to the easternmost outlying island of Hong Kong at around 10am. A fire broke out during the trip and was put out at 1pm.
A total of 318 passengers and two crew members have been evacuated to Tung Ping Chau before they are taken back to Ma Liu Shui. No one was injured.
Upon their return to Ma Liu Shui, passengers told reporters how they felt clueless without instructions from crew members.
A passenger Mrs Chow recalled: “The ship was quite full... passengers on the lower floor went upstairs after seeing smoke. We started putting on life jackets half an hour later. The crew members didn't ask us to do so.”
Putting on life jackets was passengers' spontaneous effort, as they started to feel they could be in danger, she said.
A child who sat on the upper deck said three police vessels arrived about half an hour after the fire broke out.
“It smelled like burned plastic,” he described.
His mother said the police should have allowed children to be evacuated first.
Fire services said the fire was started by short-circuiting of wires inside the vessel's engine room.