Travel guide to visiting Hạ Long bay in Vietnam

A sparkling natural and island landscape

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Quảng Ninh, Vietnam

GPS: 20.818836034247, 107.18252478609

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Hạ Long Bay is located in Quảng Ninh Province, in the north-east of Vietnam, not far from the city of Hanoi (160 kilometres). This natural wonder of the Gulf of Tonkin in northern Vietnam, famous for thousands of years for the best views of its iconic limestone islets or limestone islands in the bay, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. Because of its proximity to the Chinese borders, Hạ Long Bay has historically been the setting for several naval battles all won by the Vietnamese army. From the 15th to the end of the 18th centuries, this maritime area was an important base for pirates attacking merchant ships operating in South-East Asia, between China, Japan and Thailand. They were hunted by British Royal Navy ships to secure the transport of goods (including opium) in the South China Sea at an extra cost, although some acts of piracy still occur in the region.

Home to the largest marine karst in the world, Hạ Long Bay occupies a large body of water covering an area of 1,500 km². This former centre of international trade boasts a spectacular maritime landscape consisting of 120 kilometres of coastline and a natural labyrinth of almost 2,000 islets of karst nature. Renowned for its geological heritage, rocky peaks, limestone cliffs, lush forests, intimate coves and primitive caves, Hạ Long Bay is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful panoramas in the world. It has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1994. The landscape is constantly changing due to the effect of wind, currents and marine erosion. The millions of years of erosion make this one of the most famous places to go rock climbing, and even if you don’t there are plenty of activities with which to spend your time including seeing the caves and floating villages or floating cultural center which is famous for its handicrafts allowing sellers to make a small commission. It’s definitely worth also going to the cannon fort lookout or the island of Cat Ba (which originated with a fishing village in various locations) which are things to do in Ha Long bay. Cat Ba is the largest island of the many islands and islets making up the archipelago and can be reached by ferry or high speed boat to and around the island. Cat Ba’s many tourism attractions allow visitors to enjoy the best the island has to offer in terms of places to visit and a way to explore that they like to plan for. It’s best to check the 10 best things to do around Ha Long bay as it is one of Vietnam’s tourism highlights that you’ll see or you’ll find in this area, including day cruises or a trip by a seaplane. For a less crowded alternative, try Bai Tu Long bay which includes kayaking in a kayak which is a way to see this bay area. It is possible to catch a train from Hanoi to Halong for a quick or a multi-day visit to Halong city or Ha Long city and the surrounding bays, or you can travel with a car or van, visiting Cat Ba national park, Cat Ba island, Ti Top island, Sung Sot cave (a marvellously-shaped cavern with a stalactite and stalagmite display), Lan Ha bay for its private beaches, Quang Ninh museum or a resort.

Archaeological research has shown that this natural site that has been inhabited for several millennia is one of the cradles of humanity. Even today, the dwellings of fishermen who reside permanently in Hạ Long Bay are scattered over multiple floating villages, built from woven bamboo. Due to their steep relief, most of the islands are uninhabited and relatively unspoilt from human impact, although tourism activity is increasingly developing there. In recent years, this part of the world has been the subject of fierce territorial disputes between China and Vietnam over the control and exploitation of its large oil reserves.

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  • Calcareous hill rocks that emerge by the hundreds from the waters of Hạ Long Bay and which are crowned by a vast forest cover
  • Beaches of Bai Chay, Soi Sim, Ba Trai Dao, Tuần Châu, Ngoc Vung, Minh Chau and Quan Lan ; caves of Thien Cung (“Paradise Cave”), Dau Go, Bo Nau, Trinh Nu, Tam Cung and Sung Sot (“Surprise Cave”)
  • Floating fishing villages of the bay including Cong Dam, Cua Van, Vung Viêng, Ba Hang and Cape La
  • Archaeological sites of Dong Mang, Xich Tho, Soi Nhu and Thoi Gieng
  • Numerous opportunities to make mini cruises for a day or several days; Maritime activities (diving, swimming, fishing and kayaking); local seafood and fish; pho (traditional soup to be tasted all over Vietnam) and Tai chi classes on the deck of a boat in a majestic setting
  • The geological, biological and oceanographic value of the bay; a rich biodiversity including rare plant and animal species; mangrove, rainforest and coral reef ecosystems (nearly 150 different species of coral)
  • Cable-stayed Bãi Cháy Bridge; Bài Tho Mountain and Titov Island offering some of the best views of Hạ Long Bay ; the museum-library of Quang Ninh; the Quang Ninh Exhibition Center (Cung Cá Heo); The nature reserve of Dong Son – Ky Thuong Forest
  • Neighbouring bays of Bai Tu Long to the east and Lan Ha to the south are less well known but equally admirable; the archipelago of Cát Bà Island near Hạ Long Bay and little frequented by travellers: it offers wild landscapes worthy of a Jurassic Park movie set
  • Ha Long Carnival and its parade of floats (end of April); the leisure park Sun World Halong Complex
  • In ancient Vietnamese, Hạ Long means “descending dragon”. According to the legend, the Jade Emperor (Chinese god of Taoist origin) was helped by a dragon to repel invaders from the north. He would have spat emeralds and pearls to form an impenetrable wall over the bay. When the battle was won, this wall was transformed into a series of islands and islets of different shapes where the dragon now rests. Other Vietnamese myths and legends are regularly associated with Hạ Long Bay.
  • Hạ Long Bay has already been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site on two occasions: in 1994 as natural heritage and in 2000 for its geological and geomorphological value. After having approached Cát Bà Island to pool its protection and management actions, Hạ Long Bay plans to apply for a third classification for its archaeological resources.
  • The limestone formations in Hạ Long Bay are the result of a long natural process that began about 500 million years ago. Most of the islands in the bay are named according to their shape, uniqueness or historical references. There are still several hundred islets and rocky outcrops that have no official name.
  • Nearly 500 boats, junks and craft pass through Hạ Long Bay on a daily basis (just under 200 offer overnight accommodation).
  • This grandiose natural site is affected by several sources of pollution (discharges from nearby coal mines, anarchic constructions in coastal areas, over-visitation by tourists, dilapidated boats, aquaculture and over-fishing activities…). Without the implementation of protective measures for better water management, Hạ Long Bay could lose its classification on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Aware of the environmental issues at stake, the authorities have recently set up a plan of action to reduce human and industrial pollution in the bays of Hạ Long, Hải Phòng and Bai Tu Long. As a sign that things are changing, the use of single-use plastic products is now banned in Hạ Long Bay. Other operations to protect the bay’s coral reef ecosystems and habitats are underway (creation of strictly protected areas, formation of human patrols, improvement of the waste management system, new restrictions on fishing and shipping…).
  • The best time to explore Hạ Long Bay is from April to May or August to November (outside the typhoon season). Depending on the season, it may be preferable to visit its southern part or neighbouring bays to avoid the crowds.
  • If possible, avoid staying in this region on a public holiday as local accommodation providers tend to double the price of their rooms.
  • Mini day or multi-day cruises on board a junk can be a great way to visit this beautiful region. Be wary, however, of some operators who do not always respect rudimentary safety conditions (several fatal accidents have occurred in recent years).
  • Renting a kayak will allow you to reach the most peaceful parts of Hạ Long Bay.

Where to eat

  • Linh Dan Restaurant
    (fresh seafood)
  • Hana Hana
    (Japanese cuisine)
  • May Corner
    (cosy restaurant)

Where to go

  • Bai Tu Long National Park
    (less busy than Hạ Long)
  • Yen Tu Mountain
    (the Mecca of Buddhism)
  • Quang Ninh Museum
    (cultural wonder)

Where to stay

  • The Light Hotel
    (family-friendly hotel)
  • Viethouse Lodge
    (well-located guesthouse)
  • Paradise Suites Hotel
    (elegant and refined hotel)