Ha Long Bay (Vietnamese: Vịnh Hạ Long,, literally: “descending dragon bay”) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a popular travel destination, located in Quang Ninh province, Vietnam. Administratively, the bay belongs to Hạ Long City, Cẩm Phảtown, and part of Van Don district. The bay features thousands of limestone karsts and isles in various sizes and shapes. Ha Long Bay is a center of a larger zone which includes Bái Tử Long bay to the northeast, and Cát Bà islands to the southwest. These larger zones share similar geological, geographical, geomorphological, climate, and cultural characters.
Ha Long Bay has an area of around 1,553 km2, including 1,960–2,000 islets, most of which are limestone. The core of the bay has an area of 334 km2 with a high density of 775 islets. The limestone in this bay has gone through 500 million years of formation in different conditions and environments. The evolution of the karst in this bay has taken 20 million years under the impact of the tropical wet climate. The geo-diversity of the environment in the area has created biodiversity, including a tropical evergreenbiosystem, oceanic and sea shore biosystem. Ha Long Bay is home to 14 endemic floral species and 60 endemic faunal species.
Historical research surveys have shown the presence of prehistorical human beings in this area tens of thousands years ago. The successive ancient cultures are the Soi Nhụ culture around 18,000–7000 BC, the Cái Bèo culture 7000–5000 BC and the Hạ Long culture 5,000–3,500 years ago. Hạ Long Bay also marked important events in the history of Vietnam with many artifacts found in Bài Thơ Mout, Đầu Gỗ Cave, Bãi Cháy.
500 years ago, Nguyen Trai praised the beauty of Hạ Long Bay in his verse Lộ nhập Vân Đồn, in which he called it “rock wonder in the sky”. In 1962, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Vietnam listed Hạ Long Bay in the National Relics and Landscapes publication. In 1994, the core zone of Hạ Long Bay was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site according to criterion vii, and listed for a second time according to criterion viii.
“Ha Long” means “Bay of Descending Dragons” (Chinese: 下龙湾; Xiàlóngwān), though prior to the 19th century this name was not recorded in any document or archive. When mentioning the present-day Quang Ninh Sea or Ha Long Bay, old historical books often referred to them by the names of An Bang, Luc Thuy orVan Don. Not until the late 19th century did the name of Ha Long Bay appear on a French Marine Map. The Hai Phong News, a French newspaper of the time, had an article, Dragon appears on Ha Long Bay, reporting the following story: In 1898 a sub-lieutenant named Lagredin, captaining the Avalanse reported seeing a huge sea snake on Ha Long Bay. This was also witnessed by many of the crews. Thus emerged the European image of the Asian dragon. Whether this appearance of a strange animal looking like a dragon resulted the name of Ha Long Bay is not known.
The Ha Long Bay archipelago is made up of 1969 islands, both settled and uninhabited. These can be accessed from various ports, though in the special case of Cat Ba you can also arrive either by car, motorbike or bus (via Haiphong) or combined bus/boat (from Hanoi via Halong City).
There are a huge number of domestic connections, particularly to the ports of Halong City and Haiphong.
From Hanoi, you can take a mini bus from Gia Lam bus station. Tickets bought at ticket counter for 90,000VND. The ride is approximately 4 hours long, and the bus will stop to pick up passengers along the way. Air-conditioning is minimal, so be prepared to break a sweat in summer. Larger sized tourists will not find it to be a pleasant ride, but it is a nice authentic Vietnamese experience.
From Nanning in China’s Guangxi province, the Nanning International Tourist Distribution Center (有爱南路10号(中华路口); Yǒuàinánlù shí hào (zhōnghuá lùkǒu); #10 You’ai Nanlu on the corner of Zhonghua Lu) provides daily buses to Halong City (170元, 8 hours) at 7:30AM.
There are many package tours to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi, Standards on these vary considerably: while comfortable – or even downright luxurious – boats, excellent food and knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides may be available, most are characterized by long and crowded bus rides, tourist-oriented rip-off trips on boats so slow you could swim faster (to get you to buy more food and drink on board), hard-sell ‘addons’ like brief stops for kayaking, ‘water cave’ visits, and other shady practices. So if you must visit Cat Ba, simply avoid the tourist port entirely and cross from Haiphong or another port.
The islands can be accessed from various ports.
- Haiphong, a large historic port city at the mouth of the Red River that and the fourth largest city in Vietnam
- Halong City, spanning a portion of the northern part of the archipelago. Note that there are multiple ports within this town, in that at least one port exists that is wholly distinct from that of the tourist boat piers.
- Cai Rong, a small port serving the north-easterly part of the archipelago.
Ha Long Bay Attractions
This unique UNESCO World Heritage Site is a popular place for tourists but it is good to know that large parts of Ha Long Bay are officially protected from development. The islands vary greatly in size and shape as well as structure.
Visitors should allow a few days to explore this magical bay as its attractions are extremely numerous. Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba Island is the most popular destination in the bay and every tour company offers a trip to the island. Cat Ba is full of the usual tourist scenario; hotels, restaurants, and bars; still Cat Ba’s locals have carried on doing exactly what their ancestors did for generations before – fishing.
Dau Be Island This is a very popular swimming and diving spot because of its rich coral and deep grottoes with three inland lakes. The grottoes and caves can only be visited by rowing boat at low tide, when access is possible.
Dau Go Island Dau Go Island is known for its large and colourful cave which has many stalactites and stalagmites, some of them more than 20 metres high.
Floating Villages and Fish Farms The bay’s floating villages draw a lot of attention and are one of the highlights of the trip. Locals have been living in these floating houses for many generations as fishing is still the villagers’ main income. Some communities offer reasonably priced home-stays to visitors, too. If you pass by them on your cruise, don’t be surprised if the boat’s on-board chef stops to shop for fresh seafood from one.
Hung Sung Sot Cave at Bo Hon Island Hung Sung Sot Cave is located on the same island as Virgin Cave and has a steep path lined with shady trees. There are two chambers in the cave with a square-shaped outer chamber and a ceiling about 30 metres high. The inner chamber formations look like sentries conversing with one another and another formation, resembling a general surveying his troops, lies in the middle of the chamber. The moving light reflected from the water outside seems to bring these formations to life.
Pelican Cave at Bo Hon Island Pelican Cave (Hang Bo Nau) is also popular with tourists. Many of them love to take photos of this cave and its spectacular stalactites hanging from the ceiling.
Virgin Cave at Bo Hon Island The Virgin Cave (Hang Trinh Nu) is one of the most famous caves in Halong Bay. It is probably best known for its shrine. Legend claims that a beautiful woman committed suicide in the cave, unable to return home after being forced to marry an old Mandarin. Here her body tuned into stone. Another similar legend says this girl escaped from a Mandarin that forced her to marry him because her father could not pay a debt. When fishermen found her body, they buried her here and built a small shrine inside the grotto.
What To do in Halong Bay
Bai Chay Tourist Wharf and Jetty Bai Chay Tourist Wharf. For futher halong bay travel information, . It is here that most of the travelers will arrive at before heading out on the Halong Bay Overnight Cruise. Depending on your departure time, you may or may not have time to explore the area.
For individual tourists not on a tour package from Hanoi, licensed agents will approach you upon arrival at Bai Chay Wharf to sell cruise packages to you. Starting prices (for a non-Vietnamese Asian) are 500,000VND for a 4hr cruise (for which you will receive an 80,000VND cruise ticket) and 800,000VND for a 6hr one. If you want to avoid the hassle of buying tickets yourself and not looking like a lost sheep not knowing which cruise to take, do your best to bargain. You could approach the ticket counter directly if you have a Vietnamese-speaking guide along, and the rates will be much lower (remember, it’s an 80,000VND ticket), but be prepared to pay higher than the value stated on your ticket due to other surcharges such as mandatory insurance.
If you are looking for a boat tour at minimum budget, purchase tickets only from the counter staff in full uniform at the wharf office, ignore anyone that tries to convince you that he/she is a staff when he/she does not work or speak at the counter. The price for the boat ride is at 180,000VND while the entrance ticket (separate from boat fee) is at 80,000VND. This is a four hour trip that includes only pass-by of several islands and a visit to the Thien Cung cave on an island. Touts will employ various tactics such as following you at a distance to stop you from getting tickets at the office. Note that the tour guide in this package likely speaks only Vietnamese, and is frequented by the locals young and old.
Vietnamese Coffee Try some Vietnamese Coffee the Cafe 555 opposite the Bai Chay Tourist Wharf. Well, you need to walk about 100 meters to your right if you exit Bai Chay. The cafe is located in between a row of shops by the main road. They serve some potent coffee here so if you are a coffee lover, you hit jackpot here. If you don’t drink coffee, they have other drinks there too.
Karaoke anytime of the day Try the Cafe Kinh Moi Karaoke just further down the road from Cafe 555. Start your karaoke sessions early if you must here. Singing is inside but if you so desire to do it outside, by all means.
Halong Market Take a taxi to Halong City and visit the Halong Market. This market is right in the heart of Halong City and you cannot walk there unless you have a few hours to spare. Best would be to take a taxi there. Once here, explore the dry and wet market. A number of interesting items can be seen here while it would be wise to stock up on snacks and drinks for your Halong Bay Cruise.
Vietnamese Snacks and Herbal Drinks Indulge in the local Vietnamese food and drinks at Halong City. In and around the Halong Market, there are quite a number of exotic foods available if you are up to it. One of the must-try items are the Squid Cakes which are similar to Thai Fish Cakes, these are sold in the open area behind Halong Market.
A number of stalls sell them and they are reasonably cheap and quite tasty. If you walk around the wet market area, you will come across various local foods and delicacies. One of them, the deep fried mini crabs sold cooked or raw. Also, if you have an iron stomach, try some of the local mixed rice dishes and finally wash it down with some local Vietnamese Herbal Drinks. Don’t forget to buy some local fruits for your Halong Bay Overnight Cruise trip.
Halong Bay Casino Take a walk to the Halong Bay Casino (Royal International Casino). This super small and only casino in Halong Bay can be seen just located by the main road to Bai Chay. Walking here can take you about 10-15 minutes from the wharf. Foreigners need to show your passport to enter and there is no deposit required.
A coffee lounge with slot machines on the ground floor is open to all while there are two gambling halls, one on the ground floor which is closed on weekdays while the main hall is up on the first floor. So small that I walked round it in less than two minutes. So if you’re feeling lucky, head on to the Halong Bay Casino.