A dazzling unspoilt seascape distinguished by clusters of verdant islands, craggy islets, limestone karsts, and schist outcrops that dramatically rise out of jade coloured waters, beguiling Halong Bay in northeast Vietnam is one of those enigmatic places that captures the imagination and doesn’t let go.
Halong Bay has been immortalized in poetry, folk tales, myths, legends, and on the cinematic screen, and I had wanted to go since I first saw the 1992 French epic Indochine in which Halong Bay temporarily steals the limelight from the beautiful French star Catherine Deneuve.
Halong Bay or Vịnh Hạ Long translates in Vietnamese to “descending dragon bay” or, more accurately, “where the dragon descends into the sea”, and on each of the four Halong Bay cruises that we tested out for stories, our guide told us the legend of how Halong Bay was created.
It seems a giant dragon came down from heaven, its colossal thrashing tail carving out valleys and peaks along the way, and the rocky pinnacles formed after he plunged into the sea, creating the hundreds of islands of Halong Bay.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 and located in Quang Ninh province, Halong Bay – and its adjoining yet more off-the-beaten-track Bái Tử Long Bay – with which it shares geographical and geological characteristics, extends along 120 kilometres of Vietnam’s coastline, from the Chinese border in the north to the Gulf of Tonkin to the southeast, and Cát Bà island in the southwest.
Halong Bay is often compared to two similar areas that have also been stunningly sculpted by nature (or dragons, depending on your beliefs), Guilin in China and Krabi in Thailand. But I think Halong Bay is more stupendous.
For starters, it is vast. The whole area covers a massive 1,553 km² with around 2,000 islands and islets, although the actual area designated by UNESCO stretches only some 434 km² and contains some 1,600 islands, islets and karsts. Local guides claim it is more like 3,000.
There is also more to see at Halong Bay than at Guilin and Krabi. The area has taken shape over 500 million years, as it has adapted to different events, conditions and environments, with the limestone karsts developing over 20 million years in response to the extremes of the tropical climate and repeated regression and transgression of the sea.
The karsts make for a striking sight as a result, coming in all shapes and sizes. Some resemble stone icebergs, others conical peaks, while some are towering pillars. The more developed shapes have earned them the not-so-creative monikers such as Ga Choi Islet or Fighting Cock Islet, which, if you use your imagination looks like a fighting cock, and Voi Islet or Elephant Islet, which sort of looks like an elephant. Tour guides on all cruises take great joy in pointing these things out.
What also makes Halong Bay special is its rich biodiversity, with tropical evergreen, seashore and oceanic bio-systems, some 14 endemic species of flora, 60 endemic species of fauna, 200 species of fish and 450 different kinds of molluscs. Blanketed in luxuriant vegetation, some islands secret away hidden grottoes and monumental caves, while others are dotted with slender sandy beaches.
Taking in jaw-dropping panoramas of the islands from a sun-lounger on the rooftop deck of a boat is how visitors to Halong Bay spend most of their time. See our reviews of four 2-3 day boat cruises we tested out below.
Many of the schist and limestone islets are so small they are little more than enormous rocks or conical peaks, while larger islets have no shore, with only sheer limestone cliffs rising vertically out of the water. Due to their precipitous nature, the vast majority of islands are uninhabited, despite a history of human use dating back to prehistoric times, and cannot be visited.
Bigger limestone islands, boasting grottoes, arches and tunnels, can be kayaked through, revealing hidden crater-like lakes. Dau Be Island, for example, has six lakes, enclosed by high walls blanketed with vegetation. Other larger islands have purpose-built boardwalks that skirt the rock and stairs that take visitors up into spectacularly illuminated caves.
Sung Sôt or Surprising Cave, on Bo Hòn Island, is one such cave with over a hundred steps leading up to Halong Bay’s most monumental and most magnificent grotto, covering some 10,000 m², with a 30-metre high roof, two immense chambers featuring thousands of stalactites and stalagmites, and at its deepest point a pond and garden. Just as spectacular are the panoramic views of the bay from the top of the stairs, but then I’m not really a cave person.
Only Cát Bà Island, home to Cát Bà National Park, is a properly inhabited island with villages and schools that can be visited, and roads and walking tracks that can be cycled or hiked, and, at Lan Ha Bay, dozens of stretches of sandy beach.
The Park is home to over one thousand plant and tree species and some 30-odd mammals, including the langur – the world’s most endangered primate; sadly, only around 60 remain – along with macaques, deer, civets, wild boar, squirrel, and over 70 species of birds, including hawks, hornbills and waterfowl. Most cruise boat itineraries include a stop on the island for several hours of cycling or walking.
Aside from Cát Bà Island, the rest of the Bay’s residents live on the water itself, with some 1,600 people inhabiting the four floating fishing villages of Vông Viêng, Cửa Vạn, Ba Hang, and Cống Tàu.
Living in colourful ramshackle wooden houses that float upon the sea, the people sustain their communities through fishing, fish farming and tourism, offering sightseeing excursions around the villages on small narrow wooden boats, or selling souvenirs, snacks and drinks to tourists.
While the dilapidated shacks are simply furnished and facilities are rustic, most homes contain a television and stereo, and there are floating schools, community centres and even souvenir shops.
For many tourists, a visit to one of the floating fishing villages, included on most cruise itineraries, will be one of their most enjoyable experiences on the bay. It was certainly ours – after gazing at the limestone karsts illuminated by moonlight on a magical starry night of course.
Our pick of the cruises
The vast majority of tourists experience Halong Bay on an officially registered cruise boat, from traditional-style wooden junks to sleek white modern vessels.
Don’t expect to see the dark-brown teak wood junks with red sails you see in the ads and on the websites. They have all been painted painted white, sadly. While stories varied wildly about the reason behind the order, the official reason is for safety.
Choice of cruises range from day-tripper boats – usually crammed with backpackers and package tourists – to one- or two-night cruises, which are by far the best options for getting the most out of the bay.
Bear in mind that Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s most popular destinations, so cruises often fill during high season so make sure you book in advance.
These are the cruises we tested out:
The gleaming white Au Co boats (they currently have two in operation) are hands down Halong Bay’s most luxurious with 32 spacious, beautifully decorated, light-filled cabins that wouldn’t be out of place in a five-star resort.
Each cabin boasts big bathrooms, comfy beds and romantic balconies. There are plenty of public spaces to relax in, including rattan sofas in the bar area, an enormous and very elegant restaurant, and a wonderful expansive sundeck offering sweeping vistas.
The service and cuisine – served a la carte-style with a choice of dishes – are unrivalled on the bay. Cruise itineraries include Cát Bà Island, Sung Sot Cave and a floating fishing village, as well as the ubiquitous cooking class.
This was definitely the most luxurious of the three cruises we tested out and is the best if you usually stay in five star stars.
Favoured by dot.com billionaires and celebrities for their privacy and personal attention, the delightful Bhaya Legend fleet is dedicated to customized private charters.
There are eight different vessels offering one, two, three or four en-suite cabins that can be configured for double or twin accommodation, plus a spacious dining room and deck areas with seats and sun beds. Rates include all meals (set menus) and non-alcoholic drinks.
My only complaint was that there was no interior sitting area with sofas – a must during the winter months when it’s too cold to be on deck.
I loved the privacy and intimacy of our little Bhaya Legend – the experience is akin to staying in a private villa with staff compared to a hotel, I just wished there was more room comfy sofas to curl up in with a book.
Heritage Line: Jasmine
There are two classes of rooms on the Jasmine and it pays to pay that bit extra for the premium room, as the difference between the two is that between a four- and five-star hotel room.
In the style of a traditional wooden junk, the Jasmine offers something between the Au Co and Bhaya Classic in terms of quality of amenities, service, and cuisine.
While meals are served buffet-style, the quality of food was a notch above the Bhaya Classic, yet the latter boat has considerable more ‘Oriental’ charm.
The Jasmine, however, offers more space with a buzzy bar area attached to the restaurant and two expansive deck areas that were a real delight to kick back on and take in the spectacular scenery.
The boat visits Cát Bà Island, Tien Ong Cave and Cua Van Fishing Village. Overall, I think the Jasmine has the best combination of character, charm and comfort – as long as you book the best rooms.
Generally on par with Heritage Line’s Jasmine boat in terms of the overall experience, service and quality of the cuisine, the Bhaya Classic is a cut above the rest if you book the wonderful Royal Suite, which we were lucky to have.
We had a private balcony and the teak interiors were lovely, especially the wooden bathroom. One evening they organized a romantic dinner under the stars for us. We almost felt like we weren’t working.
While the Bhaya Classic is smaller than the Jasmine and when full to capacity the public spaces can sometimes feel cramped, it makes up for it by oozing an abundance of Oriental charm.
If you don’t dine in, meals are served buffet style. The itinerary includes visits to Vung Vieng fishing village by rowing boat, cycling on Cát Bà Island, and a visit to Sung Sot Cave.
This would be my pick of experiences if you book the suite with private deck.
Visas: You’ll need a visa for Vietnam, best organized in advance of your trip through a Vietnam Embassy. A visa-upon-arrival can be arranged online and armed with the paperwork you obtain the visa at Hanoi’s airport, however, in our experience lines are often long, rules change regularly, and travellers have reported being turned away.
Currency: Vietnam’s currency is the Vietnamese Dong (VND). ATMs are everywhere in Hanoi, however, there are no ATMS on the bay. Cruise boats accept payment for extras with major credit cards, but take plenty of Vietnamese Dong for souvenirs and tips and US$ in case of emergency.
How to get there: The gateway to Halong Bay is Hạ Long City, however, there’s no reason to stay there. Boat cruise companies offer direct transfers covering the 165-kilometre (3-4 hour) journey from Hanoi by mini-bus or private vehicle (significantly more comfortable), with a snack/shopping stop on the way.
When to go: Promoted as a year-round destination, Halong Bay has a steady stream of tourists throughout the year, however, winter (December-February) gets cold and misty with grey skies, while summer (June-August) is hot and humid with occasional topical storms. The best times to visit are spring and autumn, when skies are blue and temperatures comfortable.
What to take: Cool cotton/linen clothes and swimsuit for warmer months; lightweight wet-weather jacket and winter woollens for cooler months; walking shoes and travel sandals or flip-flops; t-shirt and shorts for kayaking; mosquito repellent, sunscreen, and a hat; small daypack for excursions; and smart casual-wear for evenings.