The 9 Best Things to Do in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Ha Long Bay from a cave
Ha Long Bay from a cave.

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The limestone (karst) islands scattered around Ha Long Bay are a significant part of any Vietnam tourist itinerary for a good reason. Located a few hours’ drive or boat cruise from the capital Hanoi, Ha Long Bay offers plenty of things to do and see, depending on your budget or time available, all with the beautiful “dragon’s back” islets as a backdrop. 

We’ve put together a list of on- and off-the-beaten path adventures for visitors making a DIY trip to Ha Long Bay. There’s certainly a lot to cover around the area, so it’s best to come prepared!

01 of 09

Take a Ha Long Bay Cruise

Junk on Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
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This is the classic “all-in” Ha Long Bay experience: a cruise experience that allows visitors to observe the karst seascape in comfort from the top deck or their staterooms. These range in length and budget, from day-trip “junk boat” cruises to multi-day cruises on modern ships departing from Hanoi.

Take note of the inclusions before you go. Short day-long cruises visit the caves and floating villages; longer cruises may include hotel pick-up, kayaking and snorkeling, and even an overnight stay at Cat Ba Island.

The cruise experience is excellent if you’d instead delegate the travel planning process, but not so much if you like to plan your own trips.

Getting there: Multi-day cruises offer pick-up from your hotel in Hanoi. Day cruises can be booked on the Ha Long Bay pier, which is ideal for budget or last-minute travelers.

02 of 09

Explore Bai Tu Long Bay by Kayak

Kayaking on Ha Long Bay

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Bai Tu Long Bay, Quảng Ninh, Vietnam

Bai Tu Long Bay is some 13 miles east of Ha Long Bay, with far less of the cruise boat traffic that Ha Long Bay gets daily. The relative calm makes these waters much more conducive to kayaking—although, to guarantee safety, the government has set strict limits on where tourists can paddle in Bai Tu Long Bay!

Accessible areas include Luon Cave, which can be explored without getting out of one’s kayak, and Cap La Island, a scenic limestone island with a beach and an adjoining fishing village.

Kayaking in Ha Long Bay can be done all year round but can get a little nippy in wintertime, with temperatures going down as low as 63 degrees F.

Getting there: Kayaking tours can be arranged at most Hanoi and Ha Long Bay tour agencies.

03 of 09

Contemplate Nirvana at Cai Bau Pagoda

Cai Bau Pagoda

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Thôn 1, Vân Đồn, Quảng Ninh 200000, Vietnam

A Buddhist pagoda has stood here, on the side of a mountain overlooking Bai Tu Long Bay, for over 700 years. Known today as Cai Bau Pagoda, this 20-hectare temple is surrounded by gardens and viewpoints from which one can admire the views.

The present pagoda dates from 2007 and was built thanks to a $1 million donation raised by local Buddhist groups. Tourists are free to come in and meditate, eat vegetarian meals, or stay overnight without fees (though donations are quite welcome). Touts and hawkers aren’t permitted on the pagoda grounds, completing the zen feel of the place.

Getting there: Take a private vehicle or bus from Ha Long City; the trip takes 90 minutes to complete one way.

04 of 09

Stay Overnight at Cat Ba Island

Cat Ba Island

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Cát Bà Island, Trân Châu, Cát Hải, Hai Phong, Vietnam

Cat Ba is the largest island on Ha Long Bay, an essential stop for cruises and multi-day area tours. You can get a lot done on the island by way of adventure: hiking through the Cat Ba National Park, which makes up a third of the island; rock climbing on one of Cat Ba’s many limestone cliffs, or exploring the island by bicycle.

The hotels on Cat Ba Island range from budget stays to four-star resorts. Stay overnight to get the whole island experience, including Cat Ba’s beaches and historical relics like the Hospital Caves and the Cannon Fort lookout.

Getting there: Ferries from Ha Long City travel to the northern side of Cat Ba three times a day, taking an hour to cross the distance.

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05 of 09

Meet Fishermen at a Floating Village

Kid on floating village, Ha Long Bay

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Fishing has long been a key livelihood for locals around Ha Long Bay. To stay close to their fishing stocks, generations of fishermen have built large floating villages on the bay’s waters; cruises often stop by the largest towns to buy souvenirs and provide guests with a face-to-face encounter with the locals’ way of life.

Two of the biggest—and most tourist-friendly—include the more touristy Cua Van, famous for its handicrafts and floating cultural center; and Vung Vieng in nearby Bai Tu Long Bay, the most authentic of the area’s villages (it still pulls most of its income from fishing, not so much from tourism).

Wherever you stop, you’ll make the most of your visit by talking to the locals and supporting their livelihoods by buying from their shops.

Getting there: Make arrangements with a Ha Long Bay tour to visit a floating village.

06 of 09

Frolic on Ti Top Island

Ti Top Beach on Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
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Ti Top Island

This beach island on Ha Long Bay was named after the Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov. His statue peers down sternly on beachgoers to his namesake destination, who come for the white sand beach and relatively calm waters.

The crescent-shaped Vang Trang Beach is Ti Top Island's key attraction; it's well-developed as Vietnam's beaches go, with water-sports facilities, swim gear rental, and a bar. You can go kayaking and parasailing around the island or climb 400 steps up to the top of Ti Top Mountain (some 360 feet above sea level) to enjoy the stunning view of the bay.

Ti Top island is great to visit in the summer months between May and September (and is usually crowded as a result); the winter months are too cold for an enjoyable visit.

Getting there: Ti Top Island is a key part of tourist cruises around Ha Long Bay; make sure a stop here is included in your tour.

07 of 09

Stop by the Quang Ninh Museum

Quang Ninh Museum

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Trần Quốc Nghiễn, Hồng Gai, Thành phố Hạ Long, Quảng Ninh, Vietnam
Phone +84 203 3825 031

“Museum” label aside, it’s better to think of the Quang Ninh Museum as a learning hub, library, and exhibition space rolled into one.

Enclosed in a modern building on the promenade, the obsidian-like structure is supposed to recall the local coal industry. Inside, the building contains three floors that cover regional science, industry, and history—from the nearby minority tribes to the resistance against French colonizers.

Other facilities include an on-site screening room, coffee shop, theater, and bookstore. Come to explore Ha Long’s scientific, artistic and patriotic context, or just come to take a breather from the regular tourist run-around.

Getting there: Quang Ninh Museum is easily accessible by taxi or rented car from Ha Long City. The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

08 of 09

Explore the Bay’s Caves

Thien Cung Cave, Ha Long Bay

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Put karst through millions of years of erosion, and scenic caves will result. The same goes for Ha Long Bay, where over 50 known caves and caverns run through the islands and eyelets like so many holes in Swiss cheese.

The two most famous caves on Dau Go (Driftwood) Island are Thien Cung Cave and Dau Go grotto.

Thien Cung Cave literally can’t be missed, as it’s a common destination in many Ha Long Bay package tours. Colorful lights light the interiors, all the better to set the mood for the guide’s fantastic stories about legendary gods and goddesses in the cave (despite the cave’s discovery only in the 90s). On the other hand, Dau Go Grotto amazes visitors with its 80-foot-high ceiling decorated with stalactites.

Getting there: Make arrangements with a Ha Long Bay tour to see the area’s caves at your leisure.

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09 of 09

Climb to the Summit of “Poem Mountain”

View from Bai Tho Mountain, Ha Long Bay

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W3XH+794, Hàng Nồi, P, Thành phố Hạ Long, Quảng Ninh, Vietnam
Phone +84 96 313 86 66

Five hundred years ago, King Le Thanh Tong stopped by the limestone outcrop overlooking Ha Long bay. Moved by the gorgeous landscape, the king wrote a poem commemorating the area’s beauty and had its verses carved into the rock of what is Bai Tho (Poem) Mountain today.

The gorgeous views motivate tourists to brave the tricky climb up Bai Tho; the views from the summit, at a 600-foot height, have inspired generations of poets and patriots to both verse and action. The climb starts easy but can get quite steep as one approaches the top; time your trip for sunrise, as the temperatures are much more tolerable in the mornings (but you’ll need a flashlight to guide your way up as you go).

Getting there: Ask your taxi driver to drop you off at the Bai Tho entrance; they’ll drop you off at Hang Noi Street, where you can start your climb. The mountain is located right in Ha Long City, so you won’t need to catch a boat coming here.

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The 9 Best Things to Do in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam