Guide to Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Ha Long Bay (also “Halong Bay”) is in northern Vietnam, 170 km east of Hanoi. The bay is famous for its scenic rock formations.

Ha Long Bay Vietnam is a beautiful area with 1969 limestone islands jutting imposingly upon the skyline.

Unfortunately, the place is a tourist trap, and the unique panorama is spoilt by a tremendous amount of varied “junks” which are in fact slimly disguised tourist boats that bear no resemblance to the authentic Chinese sailing vessels of the same name. These diesel-powered floating money-makers careen about the bay with casual indifference to safety as they bump and crunch against each other in a frenzy to drop their fares onto the obligatory island or floating shop before depositing the harried passengers back at Ha Long Bay dock feeling like they’ve been cheated out of their Dong, even if that isn’t particularly true. The romantic setting is forever spoilt by the cattle-market mentality.

Still… awesome scenery and a must-do when visiting Vietnam. Try to book a tour to the eastern parts of the Ha Long Bay, to get away from the usual tourist routes.

About Ha Long Bay Vietnam

“Ha Long” is literally translated as “Bay of Descending Dragons.” 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 or Van 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.

How to get to Halong Bay?

Most people come to Ha Long Bay Vietnam on a tour. You’ll definitely find a Halong Bay cruise or Halong bay tour. And if you want to splash out a bit, book yourself onto a HaLong Bay luxury cruise.

Alternatively, Public buses leave from Long Bien or Gia Lam Station (other side of Red River, 2km from Hoan Kiem Lake) to Bay Chai (Halong City) every 30 minutes from 6AM to 6PM and cost 50,000 dong/person each way.

For about $50 you will get a good backpacker standard of activities and accommodation.

Highlights of a Halong Bay tour

The vast majority of tourists visit Ha Long Bay Vietnam on a pre-purchased tour from Hanoi. Prices are extremely variable depending on the quality of the boat, crew, food and additional activities. The cheaper the tour, the more basic the amenities. Virtually all hostels and hotels in Hanoi offer tours to Ha Long Bay.

You can usually judge the level of professionalism of the tour based on that of the hotel itself. As most hotels do not run their own tours, but serve as a proxy for tour companies, it will usually be cheaper to go to an actual tourist company location and deal with them directly.

As a rough guide, a two night three day tour for US$100 should get you at a minimum:

One night aboard a deluxe imperial junk (ie. better than the standard boat and much better than the el cheapo options) with decent sized amounts of food and enough lounges on the deck for everyone.

One night at a 4 star hotel on Cat Ba island, again with more than enough food.

A decent English speaking guide.

Lots of activities: cave visits, kayaking, swimming, island stopovers (to climb Titov mountain, bike ride amongst rice paddies and see monkeys).

Kayaking is great fun – find a secluded bay and soak in the amazing surroundings. The water is lovely and refreshing when the sun is out, but extremely salty. For about $50 you will get good backpacker standard of activities and accommodation. However the amount of food you are served may not be enough and snacks are highly advised. You can buy beer on board but at an inflated price (usually double) and if you bring your own beer you will be charged to open it in the restaurant. If you are discreet though you’ll get away with drinking your own beer. 

Rent a junk to visit the bay for either several hours or overnight on the bay. I can recommend you a 3 day trip with staying 2 nights on the boat, but most travelers stay 1 night on the boat and 1 night in a hotel on Cat Ba Island (which is fine if you like karaoke bars).

Or even better, try to book a tour to the eastern parts of the Ha Long Bay, to get away of the usual tourist routes.

Visitors to Ha Long Bay must purchase a ticket (30,000 dong) from the Ha Long Bay management department, which gives the option of following one of two routes:

Ha Long Bay Vietnam Destinations

A guide to the various Ha Long Bay Vietnam destinations.

CatBa Island

Cat Ba Island belongs to Cat Hai District – 50 kilometres southeast of Hai Phong City and 150 kilometres from Ha Noi Capital. The area occupies 200 square kilometres and consists of 366 small and big islands of which Cat Ba is the biggest one in almost 2,000 ones within the Ha Long Bay Community. Cat Ba – along with another community of small and big islands and caves – constitutes an imposing, charming and mysterious vision for the City.

Cat Ba is in fact a great green carpet hiding a variety of mysterious and attractive facts. Apart from the natural special potential, Cat Ba owns its Cai Beo Heritage of Ha Long Culture; their inhabitants lived here some 6475-4200 years ago. The nature in this place is wild. The forests, the hills, the mountains, the valleys, the caves and the sand of Cat Ba are mingled into one another to help constitute a surprising beauty.

Cong Do Island

On the south-east side of Ha Long Bay, about 25 km from Bai Chay Wharf, Cong Ðo is in Bai Tu Long Bay in the region which is recognized as a World Heritage site. It has an area of 23,363 sq. m, and its mountain reaches a peak of 172 m. The island features many lagoons, which are the residence of numerous species of sea life, such as shrimp, crab, fish, squid and aquatic plants. On the southwest side of the island, there is a wide coral reef displaying a myriad of colors.

The coral reef ecosystem is more than 700 m long and 300 m wide. It is preserved almost undamaged. In the future, there are plans for the development of a zone for scuba-diving. On the southeast side of the island, vestiges of the ancient commercial port of Van Ðon were discovered. This confirms beliefs that Cong Ðo Island once held an important position in terms of foreign trade.

Quan Lan Island

Quan Lan Island belongs to Bai Tu Long Bay; part of an island range on the outside of the Gulf of Tonkin. It has an area of 11 sq. km and features eight populated hamlets. Quan Lan Island stretches East-West from the foot of Van Range to the Got Mount with many high mountains to the east barring waves and winds, protecting the villages. The island is situated on an important navigation route that connects China, Japan, Thailand and the Philippines to Vietnam. Along two sides of the island are tens of kilometres of sand beaches. This is the endless resource for glass making which the sea gives to man and it is also the extremely interesting tourism.

Tuan Chau Island

On the south-west side of Ha Long City it is Tuan Chau Island, a schist island, very pretty, with a luxuriant forest. It has an area of 220 ha, and to the east and south are two beaches endowed with very white and fine sand. In 1962, Ho Chí Minh visited Ha Long Bay and made a stop here for vacation. Nowadays, Tuan Châu Island is one of the most attractive destinations in Ha Long City.

Cong Tay Island

In the Ngoc Vung – Quan Lan islands itinerary, one will visit Cong Tay Island, which lies at the Bai Tu Long Bay, 40 km away from the Bai Chay Tourist Wharf. From Cam Pha, express boats will take you 30 minutes or 90 minutes by common boats to reach Cong Tay Island.

Cong Tay Island is considered the Cinderella in a legendary tale. The Cam Pha Coal Construction and Port Company built a resort in the island to attract holidaymakers. A system of villas and restaurants lies very close to the beach. Red brick-paved, coconut-lined roads lead from the villas to the beach. Hammocks are available here and there for tourists to relax and view the sea.

Ngoc Vung Island

Ngoc Vung is one of the offshore beaches which are still kept pristine and unspool. Situated to the south of Ngoc Vung Island, some 34 km southeast of the tourist boat wharf, this beach boasts clear waters all year round. Its 3-km sandy stretch sparkles in the sunlight. Apart from swimming and sightseeing, tourists can also enjoy fresh delicious seafood supplied by local fishermen.

Ngoc Vung, or Gem Island, is a pretty site sitting between the Net Islet and Phuong Hoang (Phoenix) Island, in the Van Ðon District. From above, Ngoc Vung looks like a beautiful velvet handkerchief with exquisite white edgings; it seems to float on the water surface. On the east side of the island there is a kilometers-beach with pure white sand. At the centre is a luxuriant Benjamin fig tree; it was under this tree that Ho Chi Minh stood and conversed with the population in 1962 during a visit.

Bo Nau Cave

Some 2-3 km southeast of Trong mai Islet lays Bo Nau Grotto or Pelican Grotto. This vaulted grotto covers 200 m2. The floor of the grotto is wide and flat, but not deep, and its wall features lots of stalactites and stalagmites.

The name Bo Nau or Bo Nong is associated with the fact that pelicans often take shelter here. If Ðau Go Grotto lies completely inside the island, Bo Nau opens its mouth at the side of the island. Stalactites fall down from the roof of the grotto in different clusters. Meanwhile stalagmites grow up in different shapes and layers. Is this that the life out there is so noisy that the three fairies have to choose this tranquil place to play chess? Turning southward, Bo Nau Grotto enjoys cool wind. Standing there, one can hear the murmur of the sea all year round. Bo Nau Grotto is one of the beauty grottoes in Ha Long Bay Vietnam.

Dau Go Cave

The grotto is on Dau Go( Driftwood) Island. Seen from afar, the entrance to the grotto appears to be blue, and has a shape similar to that of a jellyfish. After 90 steps up the island, the entrance is reached. The ceiling of the grotto is about 25 m. Hundreds of stalactites falling down from the roof of the grotto look like a waterfall.

Luon Cave

Situated on Bo Hon Island, 14 km south of Bai Chay Beach is the Luon Grotto. In front of the grotto is Con Rua (Turtle) Islet, and the Sky Gate is on the right. Here the cliffs stretch vertically out of the pure blue and smooth water. At the water level, an arched entrance leads to the grotto, just at the base of the island. The cave is 90 m long and 3.5 m wide. Passing through the pretty entrance, you come across a tranquil round lake, surrounded by luxuriant trees and high dangerous stone walls. Monkeys run to and from in groups, Benjamin fig trees shade the landscape and many orchids hang their sweet-scented flowers. In the lake, many species abound: shrimp, fish, crab and cuttlefish.

Sung Sot Cave

Situated in the centre of the UNESCO World Heritage area, the Sung Sot or Surprise Grotto is on Bo Hon Island, and is one of the finest and widest grottoes of Ha Long Bay Vietnam.

At the deepest point of the grotto, a “royal garden” appears with a clear pond and a seemingly fascinating landscape of mountains. Many birds and plants (Benjamin figs, cycads and centenary banyan trees) live here. On nice days groups of monkeys might arrive in search of fruit.

Thien Cung Cave

It is situated on the south-west side of the bay, 4 km from the wharf outside of Ha Long City. The way to Thiên Cung is a perilous one, covered on both sides by thick forest. After entering a narrow gate, the grotto’s 130-meter-long girth opens up. Getting in we are more astonished in front of the very animated and splendid beauty which is made from stalactite. On the east wall of the grotto, there is a grandiose and imposing picture with characters from tales.

Hang Hanh Cave

Hang Hanh is one of the longest grottoes in Ha Long Bay Vietnam, lying 9 km west of Cam Pha Town and 20 km from Bãi Cháy Beach. It is 1,300 m long, and stretches throughout the stone mountain of Quang Hanh. That is why it was named “Le tunnel” or Tunnel Grotto.

Hang Hanh Grotto is extremely beautiful. The small boat will take you through the stone passageway by lamp-light, casting magical colors on the hanging stalactites.

Bai Tu Long National Park

Bai Tu Long National Park is situated in Bai Tu Long Bay in Van Don district, Quang Ninh province. The topography of Bai Tu Long Bay is similar to that of Ha Long bay, immediately to the south: limestone islands and islets, surrounded by marine waters. One distinctive feature of Bai Tu Long Bay is Ba Mun Island, a larger island, composed of schist, sand and gravel, not limestone. Ba Mun island consists of a narrow strip of land, 18 km long and, on average, 1 km wide. The highest point on the island is the Cai Quyt peak at 307 m. A number of streams originate on the central ridge of the island, most of which are seasonal.

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay Vietnam affords some of the country’s most spectacular scenery, including beautiful limestone formations, rock arches, gin-clear water, virtually inaccessible lagoons, sheer cliffs, peaceful coves, and eerie caves, secluded strips of white, powdery sand, and thousands of limestone islets. Like sculpted cartoon characters, these islets are fancifully named: Frog Island, Face Island, the Isle of Wonders and the Isle of Surprise. Chinese junks glide over the teal-hued bay between the grottos, which are densely carpeted in neon green ficas, mangroves and spiky cacti. Pearl oyster farms are tucked into tight channels between the towering, limestone cliffs. Primitive floating fish hatcheries are spun across the waters between the grottos like neglected spider webs. This maritime mountain range reaches a distance of more than 100 kilometres and covers an area of some 1553 square kilometres.

Kim Quy Grotto

Kim Quy Grotto or Golden Tortoise Grotto is situated on Dâm Nam Islet, with a peak 187 m above sea level. Dâm Bac Islet is in the front of the grotto and Soi Sim Islet in the back.

The grotto is 100 m long and 5 to 10 m wide, running in a north-south direction. A narrow way leads to the interior of the grotto where a stream flows. The stalactites here are snow-white and lightly hang from the ceiling.

Me Cung Grotto or Bewitching Grotto

Two kilometres south-west of Ti Top Island is the Mê Cung Grotto or Bewitching Grotto. It is formed on Lom Bò Island and seen from afar, the entrance is like the roof of a house denting the island’s side.

After a narrow crack only allowing one person through at a time, many partitions appear. These chambers are somewhat small and narrow, but very refined, and with many stalagmites and stalactites bearing beautiful forms.

Pushing into the grotto, tourists feel like walking in a palace of a Persian king. Hearing the murmur from out of nowhere, you think that Scheherazade is telling the stories of the thousand and One Nights for her king.

The Trinh Nu Grotto or Virgin Grotto

The Trinh Nu Grotto or Virgin Grotto is situated on the island range of Bo Hòn in the system comprising the Sung Sôt Grotto, Ðong Tiên Lake and Luon Grotto. It is 15 km south of Bãi Cháy Beach. For fishermen, the Virgin Grotto is their house, but for young lovers, it is considered the symbol of true love and is the romantic place for taking an oath of love.

Entering Trinh Nu Grotto, one finds in the middle of the grotto a stone statue of a lying girl with her long hair hanging down who is looking to the sea in vain hope.

Situated opposite Trinh Nu Grotto, Trong (or Male) Grotto has a stone statue of a boy who turns his face to Trinh Nu Grotto. One still hears his vain scream in tune with the wind blowing into the cliff somewhere.

Ba Ham Lake

Situated on the south-west side of Ha Long Bay Vietnam, Ba Ham Lake is found on Ðau Bê Island (Calf Head Island) in Lan Ha Bay. This island is part of the range of islands at the farthest end of HaLong Bay, bordering the immense zone Long Châu Sea. Ba Ham Lake is situated in the middle of a narrow, rectangular area, with the all four sides enclosed by vertical cliffs.

The lake is a system comprising three wide and round pits, linked together by a narrow and meandering tunnel. Stalactites hang from the ceiling in a myriad of strange, colored forms. The silence is disturbed only by the sounds of the boat’s oars. On the island are many species of plants such as orchids, Benjamin figs, banyans and cycads, which blossom throughout the year. It is also the home of yellow-haired monkeys, birds, flying squirrels and bats. Under the deep blue surface of the water are the animated lives of shrimp and fish.

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