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View of Ha Long Bay from a Tourist Boat
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.
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 the artistic – any Vietnam traveler can book a Ha Long Bay cruise... to experience the descending dragons for themselves.
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, being 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.Continue to 2 of 12 below.
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Entrance to Bai Chay Wharf, Ha Long Bay
Bai Chay Tourist Wharf (Google Maps) is your gateway to Ha Long Bay – over 300 tourist boats are docked here, ready to take you away for anywhere between four hours to multiple nights sailing amidst the islands.
Although the system is set up to favor group bookings by tour companies, individual walk-in travelers can also book a boat ride, although such visitors have to arrive before 1pm, when the last tourist boat leaves the wharf. If you want to cut out the middleman, read our article on booking a Do It Yourself Tour to Ha Long Bay.Continue to 3 of 12 below.
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Boarding a Ha Long Bay “Junk”
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’re coming from Hanoi, tour groups generally pick up travelers at 8am to make it to Ha Long Bay by noontime. For a list of travel agencies you can call (as well as guidelines on how to avoid being cheated by them), read this article: Dos and Don’ts of Hiring a Hanoi Travel Agency.Continue to 4 of 12 below.
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Inside a Ha Long Bay Tourist Junk
The interior of a tourist junk is generally comfortable; junks designed for day trips have nothing more than a galley, a passenger compartment, and a top deck. A pearl vendor is visible in the foreground, although real pearl aficionados would do well to stay away from these overpriced souvenirs.
The kind of comfort and activities you get on your Ha Long Bay trip absolutely depends on how much you’re willing to pay; high-rollers can afford kayaking trips and excursions to Cat Ba Island, while budget travelers should feel lucky to get an edible seafood meal and a drink.Continue to 5 of 12 below.
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Docking at Dau Go Island, Ha Long Bay
The bay is almost 600 square miles of sea punctuated by over 3,000 limestone islands. Many islands are uninhabited, but the larger islands (Cat Ba among them) have beaches and resorts for guests.
Other islands feature grottoes and caves, from which Vietnamese PR people have cooked up a variety of legends of varying levels of provenance. Every tour features a stopover at one of Ha Long’s caves.Continue to 6 of 12 below.
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Interior of Thien Cung Cave, Ha Long Bay
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.Continue to 7 of 12 below.
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Candy Wonderland Inside Thien Cung Cave
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.Continue to 8 of 12 below.
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Visiting a Floating Village on Ha Long Bay.
Tours of Ha Long Bay always include a visit to one of the floating villages in the area. On these floating platforms, local fishermen fish for clams, shrimp and crabs. For most travelers, this is less an exercise in seeing how the locals live, more of a retail stop where the fishermen try to interest you in their catch.Continue to 9 of 12 below.
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Ga Choi Islet and Other Animal-Shaped Islands, Ha Long Bay.
The limestone formations in Ha Long Bay have been weathered into interesting shapes. Some of the islands recall shapes of animals or famous statesmen, prompting the guides to attach legends (again, of questionable provenance) regarding their origin.
Pictured here: Ga Choi Islet, named after the fighting cocks they resemble.Continue to 10 of 12 below.
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Kayaking in Ha Long Bay
Kayaking is a popular activity in Ha Long Bay; the islands hold a number of grottoes that can be explored by kayakers.
Luon Grotto is one such cave – travelers can arrange to paddle from Titov Beach to the grotto in Bo Hon Island. Just within the arched entrance, kayakers enter a round lake walled off by limestone cliffs and rimmed with trees.Continue to 11 of 12 below.
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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 (pictured above) 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 Beach is a little more distant, but is more natural and unspoiled, with white sand and wild pines.Continue to 12 of 12 below.
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Summer Months in Ha Long Bay
The months of July and August are the best time to visit Ha Long Bay, as these warm months bring clear views of the islands and pleasant swimming temperatures for beachgoers.
The low season happens from November to March, as the weather turns cold and visibility takes a turn for the worse.