Halong Bay, a magical world of emerald waters dotted with thousands of limestone islands, is undoubtedly Vietnam’s crown jewel. Located off Vietnam’s northern coast, Halong boasts an impressive landscape of 1969 islands topped with lush rainforests and delicately washed by the calm waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Local legend tells of a celestial dragon sent by the Jade Emperor to stop a military aggression. The dragon spat great quantities of pearls to form islands and sharp cliffs in the enemy’s path. Following the victory, the dragons made the bay their home thus acquiring the name of Ha Long or The Descending Dragon. In addition to its stunning sights and some impressive caves, there is also plenty to do in this fairy-tale water world: luxury cruising, kayaking in the tranquil waters and swimming on secluded beaches are just some of the most popular activities here.
Sung Sot cave is one of the most visited places in Halong Bay and with reason. This massive grotto is divided in three halls, all of which are open to visit. To access it, you only have to climb thirty stairs that lead directly to the entrance of the cave. Inside you will find a colorful world of stalactites, stalagmites and peculiar karst formations. One of the most revered by the locals is a rock in the shape of a turtle, to which both locals and foreign tourists leave offerings.
The largest island in Halong Bay is Cat Ba Island. Inhabited by a fishing community of some 14,000 people, the island also houses a national park of the same name. The park is home to a multitude of plant and animal species, including the langur, currently close to extinction. Cat Ba is also the de facto base to explore the less famous but equally beautiful Lan Ha Bay, off the island’s southern coast.
Most cruise ships visit one of the floating villages in Halong Bay. These villages were initially built so that fishermen could sell their fresh catch. Soon after houses, schools, shops and even a floating police station began to sprout next to the small fish farms. Its inhabitants have lived here for generations. Some of the villages even offer rudimentary over-water accommodation for the adventure travelers looking for novel experiences. You can explore the villages by boat or kayak.
Cat Dua, an island in Lan Ha Bay, just across from Cat Ba, offers some of the best panoramic views of the bay and its rock formations. The island, as its name suggests, is full of monkeys, waiting for you on the beach, ready to do anything to steal your food. It is best to avoid offering them food and to stay away from them. Once on the island, you can climb a fairly steep mountain, to enjoy the breathtaking views from the top. We recommend you wear suitable footwear.
Besides the cruise de rigueur across Halong Bay, one experience we wholeheartedly recommend is a kayak excursion. The waters of the bay are usually calm and perfect for kayaking. This will enable you to explore some parts of Halong Bay on your own and discover the corners that interest you most, such as cliffs, empty beaches and lagoons. Note that most of the cruise companies that operate in both Halong and Lan Ha Bay offer kayaking expeditions as part of their programs.