Out of Hanoi-Halong Bay, Hanoi
Well, Halong Bay is not exactly off the beaten path as many people go to Hanoi JUST to visit the famous World Heritage Site but is far from Hanoi and for the short term visitor, it just may become a non-must see. But for those with the time and not minding a hording of tourists, it is certainly one of the great sights of Vietnam. Set in the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, the stand out feature is a series of tiny islands with mountainous terrain. The scenery is storybook stuff and as an added interest, there are numerous illuminated caves you can explore as well. Though it can be visited as an independent traveler, it is much easier and perhaps even cheaper to do it on a group tour from Hanoi. Just remember it is a 3.5 hour trip one way so a day trip is not really worth it unless very pressed for time. You can arrange multi-day trips and we did one where you can stay right on the boat in the bay. Details for such trips are in my accommodations guide of this page so check it out if interested. It’s cheap and well worth it. And this comes from someone that had awful weather. Remember also that Halong Bay is famous for bad weather. The summers are stormy and the winters drizzly. Go in spring if you can arrange it and good luck.
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.
You'll see countless of these little ratten boats once you're in halong bay. Lightweight and strangely sea-worthy, this boats can carry up to three locals at once.
A man paddles on a boat woven like a basket, slowly and silently across the green waters
Where:Somewhere in the depths of Ha Long Bay
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.
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!
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.
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.
If you are in Hanoi, and have at least 2 days to spare, do make your way to Halong Bay. I highly recommend it, because Halong is simply beautiful.
For more information, please check out my Halong Bay pages.
Halong is only 180 km away, but due to poor road conditions, your coach will take at least 3 hours to get to Hanoi. Ours took about 4.5 hours and I had a lot of irritated people on my hands, especially when it turned dark. The journey was made longer due to one of those shopping / coffee breaks at one of those "humanity" centres.
OVERNIGHT STAY ON A BOAT-HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Since the coach journey is quite long, please plan to spend at least 1-2 nights on board a boat at the Bay. Those who take the 3-hour drive here and then just do the day-cruise (approx 6-hours on board), will not have a good time. This is because, 6 hours on board is simply not enough time for you to wind down and relax sufficiently to appreciate all that the World Heritage Site of Halong Bay has to offer. Please trust me on this!
Halong Bay, located on the east coast of northern Vietnam. Our driver got us there in less than 3 1/2 hour by weaving thru pedestrians (some of them walking their cows), trucks and buses.
Outside of Hanoi, we hit two lanes highway. We passed many cemeteries. Historically, family members were buried in the fields where the family grew crops. Today, bodies are placed in concentrated cemeteries. Bodies are first buried in the ground; after 3 years, the bones are dug up and reburied. These "villages of the dead" are found among rice paddies and fields. I was also shocked to see restaurant signs indicating their specialty - dog meat (thit cho)!
When the junk started sailing, it was kind of misty. I was worried that my trip was spoiled because it was so foggy. Even though I've seen many pictures of Halong Bay, nothing had prepared me to actually seeing it. It looked like something out of the South Pacific movie. It was so breathtakingly beautiful. Imagine the junk sailing, you are standing on the deck, on the edge overlooking the blue-green water. With the wind blowing in your face, the junk sailed in between massive limestone formations. It took my breath away!
We spent the day exploring limestone caves and stayed over night on the boat. There are over 3000 of these rock / limestone formations (called grottos) in Halong Bay, of course we only saw maybe 5% of that. Legend has it that Ha Long was formed when a dragon flew through the region dragging its tail which carved the earth thus forming the grottos. There are even people who live around these rocks on floating houses and cities built into the walls of the mountains. We even saw a pack of wild dogs on one of the small islands without any other inhabitants.
That night we spent the night in the open sea on the junk. That long twilight on the deck as the islands turned grey and then black, stars overhead, and the quiet lapping of water on the wooden hull made it a night to remember.
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.
Cruising among more then 3000 of tiny dramatic islands sprinkled across awesome Ha Long Bay is well worth it. You will spot "floating villages" in the Gulf of Tonkin. Don't look surprised if you see women cooking, men repairing fish nets and children playing on the deck. The image is like seeing the pirates who are believed to be roaming theese waters even now. If possible stay one night on the boat on the open sea.
While you are in Hanoi make sure you take a day trip out to Halong Bay. Better yet plan to spend a night there . No wonder Halong is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site ! The tranquil jade/aqua colored water and the surrounding landscape of majestic limestone peaks is breath taking! You can even charter your very own Junk with crew and lunch for around $30 for a 5 hr sail .
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.
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.
Halong Bay is a "Must Visit" if you're visiting Hanoi/Vietnam.
The folk tale has it that the dragons descended from heaven to help locals by spitting jewels and jade to the sea, forming a natural fortress against invading beasts from China.
More Ha Long pics/tips are featured in my Halong Bay page.