Ha Long Bay
"Ha Long" means "Bay of Descending Dragons" (Chinese: 下龍灣; Xiàlóngwān,Haa4 Lung4 Waan1), though prior to the 19th century this name was not recorded in any document or archive. When mentioning the present-day Quang Ninh Sea or Ha Long Bay, old historical books often referred to them by the names of An Bang, Luc Thuy or Van Don. Not until the late 19th century did the name of Ha Long Bay appear on a French Marine Map. The Hai Phong News, a French newspaper of the time, had an article, Dragon appears on Ha Long Bay, reporting the following story: In 1898 a sub-lieutenant named Lagredin, captaining the Avalanse reported seeing a huge sea snake on Ha Long Bay. This was also witnessed by many of the crews. Thus emerged the European image of the Asian dragon. Whether this appearance of a strange animal looking like a dragon resulted the name of Ha Long Bay is not known.
The Ha Long Bay archipelago is made up of 1,969 islands, both settled and uninhabited. These can be accessed from various ports, though in the special case of Cat Ba you can also arrive either by car, motorbike or bus (via Haiphong) or combined bus/boat (from Hanoi via Halong City).
This unique UNESCO World Heritage Site is a popular place for tourists and it is good to know that large parts of Ha Long Bay are officially protected from development. The islands vary greatly in size and shape as well as structure.
Visitors might want to allow a few days to explore this magical bay as its attractions are extremely numerous.
The official organization which promote Halong Bay and provide help and info on the destination is Discover Halong, the team can be found at .
Independently from Hanoi
There are a few different ways to transfer from Hanoi to Halong Bay:
Organised tours from Hanoi
There are many package tours to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi, Standards on these vary considerably: while comfortable - or even downright luxurious - boats, excellent food and knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides may be available, most are characterised by long and crowded bus journies, tourist-oriented rip-off trips on boats so slow you could swim faster (to get you to buy more food and drink on board), hard-sell 'add-ons' like brief stops for kayaking, 'water cave' visits and other shady practices. So if you must visit Cat Ba, simply avoid the tourist port entirely and cross from Haiphong or another port.
Cat Bi International Airport in Haiphong is roughly 2.5 hours away from Ha Long city by road. The metered taxi fare is approximately 850,000 VND but you should be able to negotiate a taxi for under 800,000 VND as there are likely to be more than one taxi operator competing for your business.
If you ask around HaiPhong how to take a bus to Ha Long you will most likely receive two answers: Lac Long and Ben Binh. Lac Long is cheaper and a local bus station; Ben Binh is the next to the ferry and are only tourist buses. They are down the road from each other. If at Ben Binh, simply follow the curve closest to the ferry docks. Lac Long is a 5 minute walk away on the right hand (west side) of the street.
A local bus from HaiPhong to Ha Long at Lac Long bus station is about 70,000 VND per person. This bus will drop you off 2km away from the tourist area. Moto operators will be waiting there and will try to be very aggressive for they are connected with certain hotels. Walking to the tourist area is a matter of following the main road perpendicular to the highway. A moto should cost 15,000 VND per person from the bus stop to the tourist hotel strip, though they will try to charge you 5 to 10 USD.
A tourist bus from HaiPhong to Ha Long at the Ben Binh station next to the ferry to Cat Ba also exists. They try to start at 300,000 VND per person. They should settle for 220,000 VND. It may be cheaper if you wait until the bus arrives and the bus is nowhere near full. The bus to Ha Long is busiest on weekends. A cheaper bus (70,000 VND per person) exists at Lac Long Station 1 km from Ben Binh.
From Nanning, Guangxi, China
From Nanning in China's Guangxi province, the Nanning International Tourist Distribution Centre (有爱南路10号(中华路口); Yǒuàinánlù shí hào (zhōnghuá lùkǒu); #10 You'ai Nanlu on the corner of Zhonghua Lu) provides daily buses to Halong City (170元, 11 hours) at 08:20.
The islands can be accessed from various ports:
The Halong Bay can be accessed from Ninh Binh.
Halong Bay Cruise Tips
Although you can visit Ha Long Bay all year round, you'd better plan your cruise carefully. Bad weather affects the visibility and can even spoil your trip. The best time to visit Ha Long Bay is from March to June; however, avoid crowded public holidays (30 April and 1 May). June to September is low season so you can get better deals but pay attention to storm forecasts. October and November is high season again and it is still sunny. December is cool, cloudy but dry while January and February are cold, foggy and drizzly. The showers will hide the splendor of the bay.
A day cruise will show you a glimpse of Ha Long Bay, yet if you want to get the most out of your trip, allow at least two days. You will be able to see the most stunning moments on Ha Long Bay or it's greatest wonder: the sunset, sunrise, and a starry or moonlit night. If this is out of your budget, take a scenic one hour ferry and explore the bay by Kayak from Cat Ba.
Booking a Ha Long Bay tour/cruise from Hanoi is easy: you can deal with travel agent or the cruise line operator at your hotel in Hanoi. It is advisable to shop around and ask clearly for what is included (and, just as importantly, excluded) in the package (e.g: kayaking & transfers). If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Also, when you book through an agent or hotel, make sure you get a hotline number to contact in an emergency (e.g.: canceled cruises due to storm warnings.) If you book a tour/cruise in Bai Chay you will be in the same boat of people booking from Hanoi.
The huge array of slow 'junk' tour boats for package tourists from Hanoi depart from here for Cat Ba Island. As most people taking these boats are on pre-booked tours, the piers are not set up for independent travel (Correction: The pier set up for independent travelling is the ferry pier, 3km away. April 2016). You will be approached by hawkers wanting to make a quick buck by selling you tickets for a premium: avoid these guys. What you want to do is get yourself a ticket from the row of counters inside of a building near the waterfront. Tickets are 80,000 VND for 'route 1' which is the standard way to get over the Cat Ba. Wait around there with the locals until something happens. For individual tourists not on a tour package from Hanoi, "licensed" agents will approach you upon arrival at Bai Chay Wharf to sell cruise packages to you. Starting prices (for a non-Vietnamese Asian) are 500,000 VND for a four hour cruise (for which you will receive an 80,000 VND cruise ticket) and 800,000 VND for a six hour one. If you want to avoid the hassle of buying tickets yourself and not looking like a lost sheep not knowing which cruise to take, do your best to bargain. You could approach the ticket counter directly if you have a Vietnamese-speaking guide along, and the rates will be much lower (remember, it's an 80,000 VND ticket), but be prepared to pay higher than the value stated on your ticket due to other surcharges such as mandatory insurance. The tourist boats just stop at an island with two poorly preserved caves, and passengers are hit up for overpriced beers and kayaking ("the water cave") along the way; the whole ordeal takes four or five hours and is really best avoided unless you've never seen a cave before. You can talk with the guide, who takes a tourist group on the pier, buying cruise or transfer to Cat Ba with him directly. If they have empty rooms on the boat, they will happy to take you. 2 day 1 night all inclusive cruise is less than 40 USD. An old report claims "There is another government-run ferry leaving the tourist wharf at 12:00 daily costing 100,000 VND per person and takes five hours.
A medium quality, 3 day / 2 night cruise including one night on a boat (they may say it is air-conditioned but the air-conditioning is not likely to work) and one night on Cat Ba island in a 2 star hotel including bus transfers to and from Hanoi, all other transfers, admission to a cave, kayaking, admission to Cat Ba national park and all meals (which are decent in quality but nothing special) should cost around 135 USD when booked from a reputable travel agent in Hanoi (or you could try book through your hotel in Hanoi). There are options for cheaper than 100 USD but most appear to be shady/outright scams. Do not book organized tours from Ha Long Bay as they will overcharge you as there is not much competition. When catching a taxi to Bay Chai Wharf at Ha Long Bay many of the taxi drivers will try drop you off at an entrance away from the main terminal where they have friends waiting to try sell you overpriced tours or transfers (be wary if the taxi driver makes a call on his mobile as soon as you are in the taxi). Touts may be wearing identification around their necks to make themselves look official but they are not to be trusted - you are likely to end up on a cheap tour with nothing included (e.g. no admissions, no transfers on Cat Ba) despite the touts insisting that everything is included. The touts at Ha Long Bay pier will say anything to get your money and should be avoided if you don't want to be scammed. Booking in Hanoi or Halong City may be the exact same service (excluding transfer).
Halong Bay cruises
It is said that the perfect way to discover and enjoy the world natural wonder is to jump onto a traditional junk sailing to the far-most corners where there are hidden lagoons, unexploited beaches and exotic grottoes that can be found nowhere else in the world. Reality is a bit different. Ha Long Bay is near the major port of Haiphong and therefore suffers from severe water pollution. It is not uncommon to see piles of rubbish floating in the water and the quality of the water can be dubious for swimming. Added there are no naturally occurring sand beaches where the tours tend to go, you will be told the water is safe for swimming regardless of the fact that ships dump raw human waste into the water and diesel fuel is everywhere. Pregnant women, children or people with weak immune systems should stay out of the water. However, the views and the food on board are reasons alone to venture out.
There are two popular kinds of cruise itineraries in Halong Bay, day cruise and overnight cruise. Day cruises are created for travellers who just have enough time to soak up the atmosphere and take short glimpse over the must-sees of Halong Bay. Though they are quite short, they include visits to tourist attractions and well-cooked seafood dinner, swimming in the emerald water, kayaking to lagoons of the bay. Overnight cruises which are referred to both one night cruises and two night cruise are designed for travellers who have more time. A typical, one night Halong Bay Cruise includes activities such as visits to cave, Islands, Kayaking, funny team building games on beaches, sunset watching with a cocktail party, and night actitvities on board. A two night cruise consists of all the activities of one night cruise and an extra day of further visits the far, untouched corner of the bay on smaller boat with a beach barbecue. Both one night cruise and two night cruise are inclusive apart from drinks.
Trips can be bought at the port (2 or 3km down west from the tourist strip on Ha Long Road).
The port has fixed prices for all the kinds of typically sold by the agencies. These tickets exclude food and fare to and from the station. It does not seem as if any independent operators have boats on the water beyond proper cruise ships. The supposed 'companies' that sell tours are not selling anything more than a ticket on a boat that is not theirs. Agencies (with Vietnamese and foreigners working there alike) will tell you that the boat is theirs as well as that each boat has an English speaking guide. This does not appear to be true.
Cruises VS independent travelling
If you are into organized tours you will have plenty to choose from, you can kayak swim see the fantastic scenery, treck etc - all in one tour. But be aware, when you do everything in the end you don't have time for anything. Logistics are VERY inneficient, you will wait to start any activity the double of its duration - always! More than half of the time you will be waiting for something - buses boats kayaks, a new guide, people from different tour etc. It is possible that you will end up paying thing that should be included (transfer back to Halong City) and miss some promised highlights (sunset at the boat, water caves, spend part of the short scenic boat trip having lunch inside a closed room...).
If you prefer to go alone you can, in a cheaper and much more efficient way. Take the ferry to cat ba for 70k Dongs (you pay more to take a motorbike), making a trip AS SCENIC AS the cruises reaching the same port. After arriving to the port, if you want to go to Cat Ba center follow the locals to the public bus. You can reach the ferry terminal in Halong City by a 15k bus in Bai Chay.
In the island you can kayak (head to ben beo port for 10k moto taxi, kayak for 2 - 200k for 1 day. Its easy, waiting free and cheap.
Head to ben beo port for 10k moto taxi, kayak for 2 - 200k for 1 day - this way you can explore the landscape, reach monkey island easily and explore a nearby floating village [go to the right]).
Over the past several years, a number of tours labeled "Castaways" or "Castaway" have popped up as an alternative to the standard-format Halong Bay cruises. These target backpackers and combine a Halong Bay excursion with quite a lot of partying. Do your research before choosing a tour. While they all have similar names, they vary in quality.
Ngan (Vietnamese: Ngán)/ŋaːn1/ (you must say the word in high tone, if you say "ngan" that means one kind of duck). You can find this bivalve molluscs only in Quang Ninh province. It looks like a clam but much bigger, and is claimed to be good for a person's circulatory system. The locals drink it with wine, or cook in porridge or soup.
Steamed “Tu Hai”
Tu Hai (Vietnamese: Tu Hài) is the speciality of Van Don Island district, some other places call it snail spout. It is a type of shellfish, but it is rare and valuable. You can cook soup or salad with “tu hai” or you can steam or bake it. Steamed “tu hai” is sweet and cool, and is meat mixed with spice. This is the recipe:
“Gat Gu” (Vietnamese: Gật gù) cake is similar with steamed rolled rice pancake. It is made from rice flour. When making this kind of cake, the maker have a secret to make it more delicious by adding cold rice.
In Viet Nam, “gat gu” means nodding repeatedly, so that the name of this cake is “gat gu”. There is a custom that when eating Gat Gu cake, each one will nod repeatedly three time before eating to greet their visitors, and visitor also repeat it to show their thanks. “Gat gu” cake is quite special and delicious.
Sa sung, also known as sandworm, is a typical seafood in Halong. Fresh sandworm stir-fried with celery and leek creates delicious dish. Dried sandworm, turned to dark color, will be grilled or fried. It tastes crunchy and buttery. It is used when drinking alcohol, especially used as seasoning for noodle broth. Sandworm is quite rare and of course really expensive, nearly 4 million VND/1kg
Another fascinating specialty of Halong is Sam - an Arthropod Crustacean. Sam can be used to make a lot of delicious and strange food. Tiết Canh Sam , Gỏi Sam, Sweet and sour stir-fried, sam egg fried with guise leaves, steamed sam, breaded fried sam, grilled cartilage sam, sam fried with vermicelli... Location: If you want to enjoy delicious sam, Gieng Don or Cao Xanh are good choices.
Ha belong to the same family with oysters but they are smaller and have scabrous, sharp shells living on the cliffs. Therefore, we must use pointed beak hammer to remove them from the rock, and then break the shell to get the core. Although this step is hard, dishes from Ha are really delicious, especially Ha soup in the hot summer meals, Just 2-3 ounces of Ha with tomatoes, green onions, tamarind of pineapple, you can make a perfect Ha soup bowl without spending too much time. You can also order this dish at the restaurant near Bai Chay.