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.
Independently from Hanoi
There are 4 main ways to transfer from Hanoi to Halong Bay:
From My Dinh Bus Station (Hanoi) there are buses travelling to Bai Chay for 100,000 dong. They are faster and more comfortable than the "mini bus" from Gia Lam. City bus 34 goes to My Dinh bus station as well. [Jan 2014]
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.
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:
Halong Bay Cruise Tips
Although you can visit Ha Long Bay all year round, you'd better plan your cruise carefully. Bad weather affects your vision and even spoils your trip. The best time to visit Ha Long Bay starts is from March to June;, avoid crowded public holidays (30 April 30 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 splendour 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 its greatest wonder: the sunset, sunrise and a starry or moonlit night.
Booking a Ha Long Bay tour/cruise from Hanoi is easy: you can deal with travel agent, the cruise line operator or 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 (eg: 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 (eg: prohibited cruises due to storm warnings.)
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; 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 (the group easy to identify as "not lost looking western tourists") 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 4 hr cruise (for which you will receive an 80,000 VND cruise ticket) and 800,000 VND for a 6 hr 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 or want to hang out with clueless gap-year tourists. You can talk with the quide, 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 5 hours.
A medium quality, 3 day / 2 night cruise including one night on a boat (they may say it is airconditioned but the airconditioning 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 OK 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 organised 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 (eg. 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. Pre-booking through a travel agent or your hotel in Hanoi will be safer and cheaper.
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 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.
Throw away your money
Eat and Drink
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.