Located in the Gulf of Tonkin, about 100 miles east of the Northern Capital of Hanoi, lies the mystical and captivating waters of Hạ Long Bay. Comprising of over 1,600 islands and islets, this spectacular seascape was first made famous by the 1992 French film Indochine. Towering limestone pillars topped with mini-forests rise from an emerald green sea and are said to be the remnants of a great mountain dragon that charged through the landscape, gouging out valleys and caves before plunging into the sea. The wake of the dragon caused a flood and the surrounding area filled with water leaving only the tops of the limestone pinnacles still visible.
Designated a World Heritage site in 1994, Hạ Long Bay’s uniquely formed seascape and ethereal beauty has brought in droves of travelers wanting to explore its waters. From kayaking and cruising to hiking and biking, there are a million ways to see Hạ Long Bay, so make sure that you get the most out of this bucket list destination and take a gander at our handy little guide.
Top Things to Do in Hạ Long Bay
Take a Cruise on a Traditional Junk Boat Through the Mystical Waters of Hạ Long Bay One of the best ways to experience this other-worldly paradise is by jumping onto a junk boat and sailing through the serene waters from the comfort of a sunlounger. Most junks are well appointed and you can cruise all the way from the city of Hanoi or jump on at the beautiful Cát Bà Island.
Explore the Sung Sot Cave of Surprises In the heart of Hạ Long Bay’s heritage zone lies the impressive Sung Sot cave. Rediscovered by French colonialists in 1901, the cave became known as the grotte des surprises (or the cave of surprises), stalagmites and stalactites protrude and hang from the cave’s surface, whilst a mess of smashed rocks and miniature lakes give the appearance of an epic battleground.
Discover the Hidden Secrets of the Bay on a Guided Kayaking Tour Kayaks can go where bigger boats cannot, making this the best way to explore the breathtaking beauty of the region. Take your time to paddle around the little islets and visit the hidden caves, unspoiled beaches and famous floating villages of the area.
Check out the Remnants of the World’s Longest Wedding in Dong Thien Cung (Celestial Palace Cave) Local legend has it that in the walls of Dong Thien Cung the Dragon King married the Cloud Princess and then partied for so long that some of the guests fossilized and turned into stalagmites. The cathedral-like domed ceiling lit up by an eerie light show certainly makes this tale seem a little more plausible; don’t miss out on your chance to be part of this celestial rave.
Visit the Romantic Ti Top Island Named by President Ho Chi Min after the Russian astronaut German Titop visited the bay in 1962. Ti Top Island is said to be one of the most picturesque spots in the bay and is a must for both loved-up honeymooners and rekindling couples alike.
Get to Know the Local Way of Living at Cua Van Floating Village Made up of over 176 different households, Cua Van is the largest of the floating villages with a population of 733. It’s the best kept off the floating villages and the most affluent in the area. Seeing the village first-hand gives you a unique insight into the day to day lives of the local people and a better understanding of their history and the land.
Take a Hike into Cát Bà National Park Designated a World Heritage site and biosphere reserve, Cát Bà national park has over 32 different species of mammal and most of the world’s remaining 65 golden-headed langurs. There are plenty of different hiking trails for all fitness levels but for the hardcore there’s a brutal 18km climb up to the mountain’s summit with breathtaking views across the park.
Where to Stay
High-End For unabashed decadence, check out the Vinpearl Ha Long Bay Resort; with all the amenities you could throw a stick at, you’ll want for nothing in this 5-star gem. The resort is located close by to most of the bay’s top tourist destinations and boasts its own private beach. Rooms start from $150/night.
Mid-Range Sitting atop a private hill in the Xuan Dam village, the Cát Bà Eco Lodge is an oasis of calm and the most secluded resort on Cát Bà island. Nestled in amongst mountainous terrain, your private bungalows will lookout over lush primeval forests. Rooms start from $70 USD/night.
Budget For a cheaper lodging option check out Halong Happy Hostel, the friendly staff are eager to please and is happy to help book you into any of the tours that take your fancy. The rooms are clean, fairly spacious and equipped with a good shower and aircon. Private rooms start from $12 USD.
Where to Eat
The local economy of the area is mostly centered around fishing, so expect to find a lot of seafood restaurants with buckets of freshly caught lobster, crab, shrimp, and fish. You can take boats out to floating restaurants but be wary, as they tend to overcharge for the pleasure.
Vien Duong Restaurant is one of the most popular seafood spots lining Ð Nui Ngoc and is often heaving with tourists clammering to tables to feast on local crab, squid and steaming seafood hotpots. It’s a fun and buzzy night out with good chow; just don’t come here if you’re looking for peace and quiet.
Green Mango is a great little spot for some tidy international fare. The menu ranges from steaks and seafood to pizza and pasta with a few Asian-centric dishes thrown in for good measure. It’s got a chilled-out vibe and is a nice space to relax with a cold beer or a cocktail.
Buddha Belly is located next door to Cát Bà market and is an excellent choice for both traveling vegetarians and vegans. The bamboo shack serves up scrummy plates full of vegetable and tofu goodness.
Where to Drink
A visit to Hạ Long Bay is more about tranquility, adventure, and seafood, however, if you do find yourself in the mood for a pint and a bit of a party then you can head on over to the Yolo Beer Club on Tuan Chau Island. The beer is cold, the food is good and they have a DJ that plays into the night. Sold.
Local Customs/Insider Tips
Be Careful When Kayaking A lot of travelers have reported strong currents, a lack of safety equipment and unattentive guides. There are some hidden dangers lurking in the calm waters of Hạ Long Bay, so it’s best to steer clear of the limestone cliff edges and unknown caves, as some travelers report being sucked into them and have found it very difficult to get back out.
Albeit Fun, Stay Away from Water- and Jet-Skiing in Hạ Long Bay’s Protected Zones Although still available, the UN have called for a ban on all water and jet skiing in the fragile World Heritage site, for fears of irreversible damage to the unique landscape.
If You’re Not Staying on a Boat, Then Get Off the Main Land as Quickly as Possible If you’ve not sailed into the bay then being dropped in the main harbor can be a little underwhelming. Full of crumbling facades of ’80s-inspired high rises, it’s best to grab a taxi or a ferry and head over to the beautiful Cát Bà national park or one of the many island resorts instead.
Take in the Truly Awesome Landscape of the Bay via a Seaplane Tour If you thought it looked epic on the ground, wait till you see this beauty from a bird’s-eye view, scenic tours usually last around 15 minutes and will include a cruise of the bay after. If you’ve got some extra budget laying around then this is well worth the splurge.
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