Like Guilin in China and Phang Nga Bay in Thailand, Ha Long Bay is a vast region of towering limestone islands that rise dramatically from the tranquil, jade-coloured waters of the bay. Designated a World Heritage Site in 1994, it is quite simply one of the most breath-taking sights on this planet and for many visitors to Vietnam holds the number one spot on their list of ‘must-see’ places.
Most people visit Ha Long Bay on an organised one or two-day tour from Hanoi. The advantage of this approach over going it alone is that you don’t have to keep forking out for transport, national park fees, boat hire and food. There is an amazing variety of tour options, from a quick whiz round the nearby caves in overcrowded hulks to private charters in photogenic junks that cruise gently round the island-studded bay for a few days. As usual, what you pay is what you get.
One unpredictable aspect of the Ha Long Bay experience is the weather – on a sunny day with fluffy clouds in the sky it can look spectacular, but on days of low cloud and drizzle you may not even see the peaks of the outcrops, and the whole scene is rendered colourless. The best chance of clear weather is from May to June, but it can never be truly relied on.
The great majority of tourists boats heading out into the bay do so from the Bai Chay tourist wharf in Ha Long City, though some leave from Cat Ba Island around 50kms south at the other end of the bay. Since there are over 2,000 islands in an area covering around 1,500 square-kilometres, you might think that tour companies would hunt out different routes. But in reality most of them follow a similar route around the bay, stopping off at a few huge caves that are lit up like Christmas trees inside, as well as a few islands connected with local legends.
The most visited and nearest cave to Bai Chay is Hang Dau Go, or Grotto of the Wooden Stakes in commemoration of a victory over invading Chinese forces by General Ngo Quyen in 938. Having embedded iron-tipped bamboo stakes in the bed of the estuary, he goaded the Chinese fleet to chase him upstream at high tide, then counter-attacked as the tide turned and drove the Chinese to their doom on the now-exposed spears. The stakes were stored in this cave before being embedded in the river.
Another popular cave for tour companies is Hang Sung Sot, or Surprise Cave. This consists of three large chambers and several rock formations that have been fancifully named by the Vietnamese guides, such as Turtle Rock and the Happy Buddha. One vast pillar is less fancifully-named ‘Cock Rock’ by tour leaders, and it takes little imagination to envisage an enormous phallus.
The lack of any strong current in the bay makes it ideal for both swimming and kayaking, and many tours include a stop for one or both of these activities. Diving into the deep, clear waters of the bay can be a very refreshing experience on a sunny day, though on a windswept, rainy day it is not quite so appealing.
Given the fact that most islands rise sheer from the water, there are few beaches here, though some tours find a spot facing a stretch of sand to drop anchor for lunch. Some islands enclose hidden lagoons, which can be accessed by kayak at low tide, and most kayakers are thrilled to enter a pristine, silent world apart.
Ultimately, however, Ha Long Bay is all about the views, and there are a few islands with trails leading to the summit where you can get a 360 degree view of the islands stretching out to the horizon. Some tours include such a visit, though it’s difficult to fit in everything on a one-day trip.
Perhaps the only thing that beats clambering up to such a view is to sit gazing at the sunset or sunrise from the deck of a boat while overnighting in the bay. The ever-changing views inevitably look more dramatic in the low light of morning and evening than in the harsh light of midday, which is all you get on a day tour.
Cat Ba Island
Situated to the south of Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Island is home to a national park and a bustling fishing port, which is rapidly re-defining itself as a tourist town as ever more tours of Ha Long Bay head out from here. There’s a well-developed hotel and restaurant scene here, and a few reasonable beaches (Cat Co 1, Cat Co 2 and Cat Co 3) a short walk east of town.
Cat Co 2 is generally the best of the three, though they can all get overrun with Vietnamese tourists in summer. Cat Ba is particularly popular with independent travellers as there is much more on offer here than boat trips round the bay or basking on the beach. Other options include rock climbing, mountain biking and hiking through Cat Ba National Park.
Where to stay in Ha Long Bay
If you sign up with a two-day tour from Hanoi, you will spend the night either on a boat in the bay (definitely the most appealing option) or at a hotel of their choosing in Ha Long City or Cat Ba. Most hotels in Bai Chay (Ha Long City) are of the monolithic, characterless variety, though good deals can be found out of season. Hotels and guesthouses in Cat Ba tend to be on a smaller, friendlier scale and fierce competition means rates are very competitive. More on Ha Long Bay hotels.