Out of Hanoi-Halong Bay, Hanoi
First of all, Halong Bay is not at all off the beaten path - there's just no category in VT so far which it fits in. Never mind that, Halong Bay is a must-visit when in Vietnam and therefore one of the places visited by countless tourists. It's also a world heritage site of the UNESCO and definitely deserves this honour. In one word: it's paradise!
What is it that makes Halong Bay so special? First, it's the legend: a dragon which hit the ground with its tail, thus creating more than 3000 islands in a turquoise sea... Second, it's Halong Bay's unique character. There may well be a similar landscape on the Philippines or in Thailand, but if you haven't seen them, you'll be stunned by Halong Bay's beauty.
It is one of the natural wonders of the world and the best way to explore it is by ship. You can either rent boats on your own or - what most people do - join an organised tour from Hanoi. On my first tour in 2004, some friends and I stayed on the boat overnight, and as it was a warm night slept on deck beneath a starry sky. The only sounds to be heard were the lullaby of the waves and the wind. On my second tour in 2008, I was a bit less lucky. We had chosen a tour in Hanoi's old town, but unfortunately picked a very stingy tour operator which became particularly apparent when there was hardly anything for breakfast and we had to share 2 tiny packs of butter among some twelve tourists! Moreover, nobody spoke English and nobody felt responsible. It's therefore worth checking out several tour operators in advance - you can be very lucky or you can have a terrible trip. However, no matter how awful the tour operators will be, I'm sure that Halong Bay will enchant you as well.
Halong Bay is not only a natural wonder, it's also a good place for sports. You can go trekking on Cat Ba Island, do some amateur speleology in Sung Sot Cave, enjoy yourselves while kayaking in the warm sea, and much more. Many tour offices offer special sports tours to Halong Bay - check out the offers in Hanoi's old town.
Sung Sot Cave, in English "The Amazing Cave", is a huge cave on one of Halong Bay's 3000 islands. A large number of organised tours stop there anyway, but if not, try to go there on your own. The cave is full of stalactites and stalagmites, as well as other interesting rock formations. The bigger ones of them are said to be part of legends. For instance, there's a rock that resembles a giant tortoise (like the one in Ho Hoan Kiem, Hanoi) and another one looks like a woman wearing the traditional dress Ao Dai.
Cat Ba Island is not only good for trekking, it's also the major beach spot in Halong Bay. The best place to go to if you want to enjoy beach life is Cat Ba Town. There are two beautiful sandy beaches with tub-warm water close to central Cat Ba. Both of them are rather small, but not overcrowded. Mostly foreigners flock to the beaches during the day, but in the late afternoon when the sun is not burning as fiercely anymore the Vietnamese will invade them.
We had a good time comparing the western and eastern way of beach life. Westerners will lay down their towels in the sun, basking in the sun for the rest of the day to get a good suntan (or rather sunburn) while easterners will come when the sun is already setting, having fun in the water. Westerners will come alone or in pairs, easterners will take their whole family. Westerners will enjoy the sun quietly, while easterners will scream and laugh loudly.
Perhaps this will change in the coming years. Cat Ba Town wants to become the major tourism point in Halong Bay and is thus building numerous new hotels and even a completely new beach. Right now, it is still relatively calm.
Cat Ba Town is the only town on Cat Ba Island, and simultaneously the tourism capital. While the town's numerous hotels, bars and karaoke parlours are probably the same as everywhere else, Cat Ba Town is something special because of its harbour. The harbour promenade makes for a wonderful walk, e.g. after you've trekked the hills of the hinterland or spent your time at the beach. Walking around there in the golden evening sun is marvellous. Hundreds of tiny rowing boats fill the harbour, kids sit in silence close to the water trying to catch fish for dinner, couples kiss secretly under one of the palm trees... It's a really romantic scenery and a must-visit.
Dau Go Cave is the greatest cave I've ever seen in my life. It's gigantic, it's full of the most incredible stalagmites and stalactites, it's different every second step you take. And: It's a popular stop for many of the tourist boats. Unfortunately, the latter makes it also very full and crowded so that you don't really have the needed time to enjoy it properly. As many of the guides will usher you to rush through the cave without seeing everything, you should stop once in a while to listen to somebody telling the story about a specific detail. For instance, there is a rock combination which strongly resembles an eagle and a lion - but our guide didn't even find it noteworthy.
Next to Dau Go Cave, on the way back down to the ship, is another great cave called Thien Cung. It is even bigger than Dau Go, but not as spectacular due to much fewer stalagmites and stalactites. However, it is almost empty - hardly any tourists take the 30min round trip. I did, and it was also worth it.
In summary, it again all depends on your guide. If he or she is good, well prepared and fluent in English, you'll have a great experience. If he or she is bad, lazy, hardly understandable and hectic, you'll have to look after your experience yourself. In both cases, you shouldn't miss experiencing the two caves in your own tempo.
We are family of 05 persons chose the Charter White Dolphin Cruise for the trip to Bai Tu Long Bay for 03 days 02 nights. All was over expectation! We had a great time kayaking & swimming on our private beach “ Pig’s head beach”. Especially we could join fishing trip with local fisherman that was exciting and interesting! Thank you so much White Dolphin Cruise’s staff, our children had an inestimable lesson after the trip. We will come back!
Family of Kristen
On the Tour I did, we were given the option of taking a small side trip with a local man in his rowboat.
The cost was very little, so I decided to do it, most people did.
BE WARNED, the Rowboat only just sits out of the water, and there are NO LIFE JACKETS, so don't go if you are scared of something happening.
He just took us through a low cave entrance into a big, open area which was very nice. On coming out, you get some nice shots, and then you go past a Floating Primary school back to your Junk.
If you can, the front of the Boat is the best position.
It was worth doing, so if you have the chance, do it!
Halong Bay is one of those unmissable natural wonder places that should be on everyone’s list when in Vietnam. The Bay has an area of around 1,553 sq km, including 1,960 islets, most of which are limestone, that form what is called a Karst. Meaning "Bay of the Descending Dragon", it's become a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its geological uniqueness as well as cultural and historical importance - it has been mentioned in poems and verses for centuries. Home to 14 endemic floral species and 60 endemic faunal species, it features cave systems, striking caverns, as well as other geologically interesting formations, such as uniquely shaped massifs.
I took my 3 day/2 night Halong Bay tour with ODC Travel who are based in the Old Quarter in Hanoi. They first picked me up from my hotel in the Old Quarter and we made our way out of the city over the Red River. We arrived at the tourist port in Halong City and then transferred onto a small boat which took us to our wooden junk boat called the Sun Cruise. It was a very nice boat and my cabin had two single beds, a/c and a nice modern bathroom complete with WC, shower and hand basin. We first had lunch which was very luxurious of small prawns, potato croquettes, butterfish etc and then set sail past Halong City for Halong Bay in order to visit the so-called "Amazing Caves" (Hang Sung Sot) which were pretty spectacular but not quite as good as ones I'd seen in Guilin in China. We then got back onto the boat and made our way to Ti-Top Island which features a small sandy beach and a small pavilion at its peak which we climbed to for some good views even though it was still overcast and the light was fading fast. We then transferred back onto the junk and had dinner of stuffed crabs, large fresh prawns hanging off the side of a wine glass, edible flower-shaped vegetables and fresh spring rolls on cocktail sticks stuffed in a pineapple. We were then entertained by a father and daughter duo who sang traditional Vietnamese songs and instruments.
Day 2 started with breakfast on the junk with eggs, loads of toast, fresh fruit, coffee after I slept very well in my cabin. Myself and two Dutch women then transferred to the Cat Ba Prince 3 and we made our way to Cat Ba Island to do some trekking and canoeing and to stay on the island overnight. We reached the island and walked to a village called Viet Hai which featured old wooden houses alongside piles of modern bricks that were ready to build new houses. We stopped by a family who were making square 'cakes' for Tet (the Vietnamese lunar New Year celebration) which included pork, rice and egg shaped into a square and wrapped in banana leaves. We then visited some old style wooden buildings that looked like temples but were in fact a community centre that some French guy had brought over from the mainland and built here. However, they weren't finished because the government had created the National Park whilst they were being built and so didn't give him permission to finish building them! We then had lunch served to us by a 70-year old woman in the village and headed back to the boat in order to do our canoeing. We transferred into canoes and made our way into a small lagoon that you entered under a natural stone bridge where we heard the rustling of trees by monkeys that we couldn't see. We then paddled past floating fishing communities complete with barking dogs back to the boat and then set off for Cat Ba Town and our overnight stay at the Princes Hotel. All-in-all it was a good trip on a lovely boat with some fantastic food and a nice cabin made even more special by the wonderful scenery. I had already seen Karst landscapes along the Li River in China, in Vang Vieng and along the Andaman coast of Thailand but Halong Bay beats them all!
Halong Bay is riddled with many caves and grottoes throughout the stone islands. The formation developed through various forms of erosion over thousands of years.
The most famous are concentrated in the central zone of the World Heritage area, these being.....Heavenly Palace Grotto, Driftwood Grotto, Surprise Grotto, Pelican Grotto and Three Shelter Lake. There are also other caves and grottoes situated far from Ha Long’s coast.
Make sure you get to visit at least one cave when visiting Halong Bay, it is worth it.
The one on our tour was Thien Cung Grotto (Heavenly Palace) which was amazing.
It was quite a big cave, made extremely pretty with the strategically placed coloured lighting.
Not really sure this is off the beaten path - Halong Bay seems to be one of the major tourist destinations around Hanoi. Anyhow, the scenery is very pretty (although it does wear off). If the option is available, take a kayak out for an hour or so.
Thien Cung caves is a spectacular cave with many mystical formations of giant stalagmites and stalactites. You should engage a tour guide to explain to you the many stories in the caves. The cave chamber is huge and beautiful, illuminated with different colors of lighting.
Stalactites and stalagmites resembling dragon, lion, elephants goddess and humans are found here. My favorite is a pond with formations resembling fairies bathing in the pool. Legend has it the fairies have defied orders from the heaven and descended to earth to bathe. As a result they were punished and turned into stone formations! To make matters worse, 'evidence' of a fleeing fairy was caught by a formation resembling the bare back of a fairy climbing up the cave. Unfortunately, a formation resembling that of a man staring at her was seen nearby!
There are three openings to the cave chamber. Two for the entrance and exit. Another one is known as the Gate of Heaven as it opens to the sky. At 4pm, the sunlight is said to align with the Gate of Heaven to illuminate the entire cave chamber, thus its name!
Titop island is one of the islands in Ha Long bay. The island has a beach where you can take a dip and even a bar where you can just rest and relax as you enjoy the beautiful sea breeze.
Climb up the hill just behind the beach and you reach a small pavilion on its peak. From there you can enjoy a 360 degree view of Ha Long bay. The walk up takes about 20 minutes.
Entrance fee applies for access to the beach and hill! Can't remember how much.
A trip to Hanoi would be incomplete without a visit to Ha Long Bay, a world heritage site. The bay is beautiful and is dotted with thousands of limestone islands and islets jutting out of the tranquil sea.
Ha Long is about 3 hours away from Hanoi. It is easier to book a tour (can easily be arranged from the hotel) rather than travelling on your own. There is option for a half-day cruise around Ha Long bay which takes about 4 hours or you may even want to stay overnight on one of the boats. Packages usually include seafood lunch/dinner on board the ship.
The rock formations sometime resemble dogs, turtles an even a famous formation known as the fighting cock formation. It may take days to actually see all the features of the bay but for most visitors a half day cruise suffice. But do take note that the long travelling time between Hanoi and Ha Long may mean you would like to spend more time here!
Or alternatively you may spend some time along the tourist strip of Bai Chay (where the jetty on the mainland is) after the cruise. There is an amusement park, the usual touristic stuff like cafes, bars and even a casino. Or you can do some shopping at the night market.
Cat Ba Island is the biggest island in Halong Bay. This makes it an ideal spot for a visit, especially if you want to know how all these limestone rocks look from above. I'm talking about trekking on Cat Ba Island.
A trekking tour is usually included in a 3-day-trip to Halong Bay. If you've got good footwear and the will and strength to climb up steep, muddy and incredibly slippery trails, you shouldn't miss doing that. It's a lifetime experience. Narrow paths meander through the dense jungle, numerous trees grow rampant, lianae hang directly above your heads - and if you touch them, some tree meters away from you will start to shake strongly. Finally, after a long climb on rusty ladders and rotten roots, you'll reach the top. Turning around 360°, you see green, green and more green. For me, this was a truly magical experience. Jungle itself is great, but seeing it from above is hard to top.
If you plan to trek on Cat Ba Island, don't forget good footwear (water-proof!), a lot to drink and of course your camera.