Halong Bay in northeast Vietnam is 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.

Immortalised in poetry, folk tales, myths, legends, and on the cinematic screen, beguiling Halong Bay in northeast Vietnam is one of those enigmatic places that captures the imagination and doesn’t let go.

I had wanted to go to Halong Bay since I first saw the 1992 French epic Indochine in which Halong Bay temporarily steals the limelight from the beautiful French star Catherine Deneuve.

I was glad I went and I’d return in a heartbeat. Here’s why you need to go to Halong Bay.

UPDATE February 2017: We’ll be punctuating our 3-week Vietnam Culinary Tour with a 2-night/3-day Halong Bay cruise in July. Why don’t you join us? 

Halong Bay in Northern Vietnam, a Beguiling Seascape of Limestone Karsts

Halong Bay or Vịnh Hạ Long translates in Vietnamese to “descending dragon bay” or, more accurately, “where the dragon descends into the sea”. On each of the four Halong Bay cruise boats that we tested out while doing research 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. The rocky pinnacles formed after the dragon plunged into the sea, creating the hundreds of islands of Halong Bay.

As a result, Halong Bay is 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. At least dragons are good for something.

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 the Krabi area 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.

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.

If you’re heading to Northern Vietnam and considering a cruise on Halong Bay do see our guide to the best Halong Bay cruise boats. We tested out four 2-3 day boat cruises over eight nights and ten days.

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