A must-see on many tourists’ lists, Ha Long Bay (or Halong Bay) was one of the most incredible places I saw on my trip to Vietnam. Located about 2 hours 45 minutes from Hanoi, the bay is famous for its emerald green waters and the thousands of limestone islands dotted within it.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New Wonders of the World, it attracts a lot of visitors each year who flock to the bay for photo opportunities, swimming, hiking, exploring caves, and watersports.
The bay has a long history and its unique formations have been the subject of legends for many years. Halong Bay means “descending dragon” and the commonly told legend was that it was formed when a mother dragon and her children descended on the bay in ancient times to defend the Vietnamese people from invaders. Rather than return to the sky, the dragons remained in the bay, becoming its many islands. In reality, the islands were formed over thousands of years as the limestone built up and was shaped by rising and falling seas.
Once the home of floating villages, the bay is now under protection to preserve its natural beauty with many of the village communities largely being relocated to Ha Long City.
We choose to do an overnight cruise to explore the bay with Stella A-line cruises. There’s a lot of options available, usually for either one or two nights (although I’ve seen up to four nights and day trips are also available), all with quite similar itineraries. I should add that I hate the idea of cruises despite loving being near the water. I’m not someone who enjoys itineraries, places overcrowded with other cruise ship guests, set menus, etc. But after two weeks of figuring everything out ourselves, it was time to kick back and relax and enjoy our holiday. It was the easiest option for exploring the bay, and I ended up enjoying myself.
So what kind of activities can you get up to while enjoying the scenery? Here’s the things I enjoyed most about our visit:
My favourite part of our cruise itinerary was going kayaking around one of the island’s lagoon. We paddled through a cave into a secluded area and explored around, paddling up to watch a family of monkeys playing in the trees.
If you are able and given the choice between exploring by being rowed on a bamboo boat or kayaking, definitely give the kayaking a try. Those on our group that choose the bamboo boat got to the entrance of the cave and didn’t go any further, while we had about 45 minutes to explore where we wanted.
I couldn’t wait to find a high vantage point to capture the beauty of Ha Long Bay. Ti Top Island, a common stop of for cruise ships, has steps to the top of the island for a fantastic view out over the bay, but the downside is you’ll have to fight the other boatloads of tourists to get to the top. Around Ha Long City, several places offer vantage points over the bay if you decide to explore without a tour.
The calm, emerald waters are great for swimming and were the perfect temperature when we visited in October. Some islands, such as Ti Top, allow swimming from the beaches.
Many of the limestone islands are home to expansive caves just begging to be explored. One of the most well-known and a stop off on most tours is Surprise Cave (Sung Sot) inside Bo Hon Island. The caverns are incredible; vast caves with columns of stalagmites and stalactites.
Don’t forget to rub the turtle’s head for good luck on your way out.
One thing I would definitely recommend and something I wish we would have had more time for is simply sitting back and enjoying the gorgeous scenery of this captivating place. Some of my favourite moments were just relaxing on the bed in the room while the boat drifted by the islands. Cruises such as the one we were on keep a packed schedule, and so we chose to skip the morning Ta Chi just for a few moments to savour where we were. Well, until hawkers on bamboo boats started tapping at the window (couldn’t even escape people wanting to sell us something in the middle of the water).
About cruising Halong Bay
Don’t miss: Kayaking, hiking up to the vantage points, and enjoying the view from the room. Our boat had two decks of cabins and we were originally booked into a deluxe room on the bottom but were upgraded as our cruise was not even near full to a premium room with a balcony. I was delighted we were as it was better for enjoying the view.
Other activities: Some cruises, usually ones for two nights, also include activities such as: a visit to an oyster pearl farm, visit to the floating villages (although this is becoming much rarer), and biking around Cat Ba Island (the largest island)
Feel free to skip: Sunrise Tai Chi, squid fishing (I do wonder if anyone ever catches anything with this but I’m sure it was entertaining for the crew to watch us all trying), the cooking lesson if you’ve had one of these with any other day trips (I think we were spring roll and banh xeo experts by this point).
The downsides: Being on a schedule and being herded around wasn’t for me, as was being at the sights with hordes of other tourists. The food on ours was hit or miss (great buffets for some meals/mediocre set menu for others), and drinks aren’t included and are overpriced on most cruises.
Which cruise to book: My advice is to make sure you read the recent reviews of the specific tour/boat you are going on, they can vary in quality. Our cruise wasn’t the height of luxury, but it was clean and comfortable, and the boat was kept in good order/looked fairly new or refurbished. This isn’t always the case. Also be aware that some travel agencies will tell you that your first option is sold out to try to sell you something more expensive. Shop around and do your research. For example, two girls on our boat were told the premium cabins had sold out and were pressured into booking the honeymoon suite. In reality, half the cabins were empty.