Words can only do so much justice to Ha Long Bay in Vietnam – you need to see the sinuous curves of the limestone islands dotting the bay for yourself, either through a day tour or by staying for a night or two aboard one of the luxury tourist ships that ply the waters.
The early morning mist over the bay, the grottoes bored into the island walls, and the many activities you can pursue either on the bay or on one of the islands adjoining it – all these combine to make Ha Long Bay a highlight of any Vietnam itinerary.
But that’s quite enough – let these pictures of Ha Long Bay tell the story.
Experiencing Ha Long Bay's “Descending Dragons”
Ha Long Bay takes its name from the Vietnamese for “bay of the descending dragons”; the weathered karst limestone islands do give the impression of the back of dragons undulating through the water.
Ha Long’s otherworldly beauty has inspired poets, photographers and cinematographers for ages, but the Ha Long experience isn’t limited to artists – any Vietnam traveler can book a Ha Long Bay cruise to experience the descending dragons for themselves.
Unesco granted Ha Long Bay Heritage Site status in 1994, and the locale was also recognized in an online poll as one of the "New Seven Natural Wonders of the World" in 2011.
The bay is part of the Tonkin Gulf, a body of water that makes up the South China Sea. In fact the bay is close to the Chinese border; the city of Hanoi is the closest Vietnamese city center, about 100 miles away. Tourists commonly book a Ha Long tour from Hanoi, then take a three-hour drive by bus north to the bay.
How – and When – to Visit Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay's high season occurs between July and August; during these sunny months, visitors come to enjoy the clear view of the islands and the beaches along Cat Ba and Bai Chay. Rain, cold temperatures, and reduced visibility contribute to the lack of visitors in the low season from November to March.
To get to Ha Long Bay, you’ll need to book a package tour among the tour agencies in Hanoi. (Some travelers try to cut out the middleman by trying a do it yourself tour to Ha Long Bay, but I wouldn't recommend that for first-timers.)
It takes three to four hours to drive from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, and a few tense minutes lining up past the crowds to get into your tourist boat. Tour groups generally pick up travelers at 8am to make it to Ha Long Bay by noontime.
Riding Ha Long Bay’s “Junks” – and Other Accommodations
Travelers can book anywhere from a four-hour joyride around the bay to a multiple-night cruise on one of a number of sleepaboard boats. These craft may be chartered through one of the aforementioned tour agencies, or directly at the Bai Chay Tourist Wharf where these tourist boats dock.
Despite their intentionally vintage appearance, the tourist boats (“junks”) are diesel-powered vessels that have bathrooms, galleys for meals, and top decks that provide 360-degree views of the limestone islands. And those are just the no-star boats for day trips; fancier rigs have cabins to accommodate guests on overnight or multiple-night cruises.
If you get the timing and the weather right, the view you'll get of Ha Long Bay from the deck of your tourist boat will be absolutely worth the three-hour drive it took to get there.
Tourists wishing to spend the night next to the Bay (but not on it) may check into a number of Ha Long Bay hotels in the vicinity.
Exploring Ha Long Bay’s Islands
Ha Long Bay is characterized by almost 600 square miles of seascape dotted with over 3,000 limestone islands. (The figure you'll get from most official sources - "1,969 islands" - is just propaganda to coincide with the year that Ho Chi Minh passed away.)
The islands and islets in Ha Long Bay stand between 160 to 300 feet high. Eons of weathering have sculpted the limestone outcrops into fantastic shapes.
Most of the islands on Ha Long Bay are uninhabited; in fact, many of them are inaccessible to human visitors, due to their sheer limestone cliffs.
The larger islands feature caves and beaches that have become tourist attractions in their own right. The biggest island on Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba, features a diverse landscape and has become the unofficial adventure tourism capital of Vietnam.
The waters of Ha Long Bay are not entirely devoid of residents. Local fishermen eke a living from the bay, residing on floating houses where they cultivate clams and fish for the local shrimp and crabs. Tour boats often make a stop at a floating house where visitors can see how the fishermen live (and hopefully buy some of the day's catch).
Ha Long Bay's “Fantastic” Cave Legends
Dau Go Island has two caves most often visited by tourists to Ha Long Bay: Hang Dau Go, a graffiti-marked triple chambered-cave that counts as one of the largest in the bay, and Thien Cung Cave, known as “Heaven Palace”.
The guides generally go crazy describing the different legends associated with the cave (never mind the fact that Thien Cung was only discovered in the 1990s). Best to set your brain to neutral and nod sagely when the guide describes the supposed legends of a divine marriage that took place in the chamber, the goddess who bathed her children in a fountain, and so on.
Getting into Thien Cung Cave takes some doing – visitors need to disembark from the boat, climb dozens of steps, then enter a narrow passageway into the cave chamber. Colored lights shine brightly in several corners, giving the cave interior a candy-wonderland feel.
Adventures Around Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay’s karst-and-seawater landscape provides a playground for adventure-minded folk.
Explore the Cat Ba National Park’s hiking trails. Or go kayaking through a limestone cave into a secluded cove on the bay. With over 300 islands in Cat Ba National Park alone, there’s plenty of room for you to blaze an adventure trail of your own in Ha Long Bay.
Most of these adventure activities start and end with Cat Ba National Park, a nature reserve covering over 15,000 hectares of jungle and sea. The forests alone covers almost 10,000 hectares, sheltering over 700 species of trees and plants, with 20 mammal species and over 70 bird species living within.
The Park’s trails and beaches provide some of the most unforgettable experiences you’ll have the privilege of taking home.
Hiking Through Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba’s hiking trails can be navigated with help from rangers at the Cat Ba National Park headquarters, about 30 minutes’ ride from Cat Ba town. Most trails through Cat Ba end at Viet Hai, where a boat can be hired to return you to Cat Ba town.
Check with your hotel or tour guide if a hike through Cat Ba can be arranged; these treks are included in many Cat Ba package tours, although not all trails go through the National Park as advertised. Shorter, more pleasant hikes are also available. Costs for entrance fees and transportation may be included in package tours.
Hire a guide to see you through the winding trails, and help you spot the park’s unique flora and fauna along the way. You may spot langurs, hedgehogs, or hornbills moving amidst the forest cover.
Rock Climbing Around Ha Long Bay
Rock climbing has been mainly an expat’s pastime in Vietnam since the 1970s, but climbing walls in Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba Island have become main events for adventurous tourists in the area.
One of the more famous names in Vietnamese rock climbing is Asia Outdoors (asiaoutdoors.com.vn), a tour provider that has been primarily responsible for developing climbing sites in the Ha Long Bay area, and more importantly, persuading the local authorities to permit climbs on the area’s craggy karsts, including:
Butterfly Valley: this 160-foot-high unpolished karst wall – located near bucolic Lien Minh Village on Cat Ba Island – features about fifty individual climbing routes, with top-rope systems installed to guarantee you finish in one piece.
Tiger Beach and the Polish Pillar: Both are deepwater-solo favorites – the former is a massive crag on Lan Ha Bay accessible by kayak; the latter is a limestone spire rising out of the sea, with a worryingly slim base where the seawater erodes the limestone.
Moody Beach: a relatively easy gray limestone face rising up from the sand. Its proximity to Tiger Beach allows you to take both climbs on in the same day.
Kayaking in Ha Long Bay
To experience Ha Long Bay as nature intended it, grab a kayak and explore its hidden lagoons, secret beaches, and rustic fishing villages.
The karst landscape, with its low-ceilinged caves and tucked-away corners, seems almost designed to be explored by kayak. Luon Grotto is a fine example – a tunnel in the side of Bo Hon Island leads into a secluded, tree-lined lagoon bordered by steep limestone walls.
Ho Ba Ham Cave is another popular kayaker’s destination – set in the western face of Dau Be Island, Ho Ba Ham is an inlet that reaches into three lakes; kayakers can enter the grotto only during low tide.
Other popular kayaking destinations on Ha Long Bay are Ba Trai Dao Lagoon, Lan Ha Bay, and the “Light” and “Dark” Caves.
Most tour providers in Ha Long Bay will be happy to rent you kayaks and paddles for one-hour sessions. Package tours may include kayaking in the itinerary, but you have to ask to make sure; otherwise you may be charged a steep fee to add kayaking into an itinerary that doesn’t include it.
Beaches & Swimming in Ha Long Bay
The waters of Ha Long Bay are relatively pleasant to swim in, if one visits during the summer. Cruise guests can snorkel or swim from the boat, or soak in the waters of one of the beaches bordering Ha Long Bay.
Bai Chay Beach is an artificial beach close to Ha Long Bay, very accessible from the city. Quan Lan Island is a little more distant, but its beaches are more natural and unspoiled, with white sand and wild pines.
Ti Top Island (pictured above) offers Ha Long's most scenic highs and lows - an observation deck some 100 steps up that provides gorgeous panoramas of the islands, and a white-sand beach where swimmers can dip in the bay's clean waters.