Ha Long Bay (also "Halong Bay") is in northern Vietnam, 170 km (105 mi) east of Hanoi. The bay is famous for its scenic ocean karst topography and is often included in lists of natural wonders of the world.
Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin
"Ha Long" means "Bay of Descending Dragons" (Chinese: 下龙湾; Xiàlóngwān), 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 1969 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.
There are a huge number of domestic connections, particularly to the ports of Halong City and Haiphong.
Independently from Hanoi
There are 4 main ways to transfer from Hanoi to Halong Bay:
From Hanoi, you can take a mini bus from Gia Lam bus station. Tickets are bought at the ticket counter for 90,000 VND. The ride is approximately 4 hours long, and the bus will stop to pick up passengers along the way. Air-conditioning is minimal, so be prepared to break a sweat in summer. Larger sized tourists will not find it to be a pleasant ride, but it is a nice authentic Vietnamese experience.
By open bus: US$15 one way, pick up & drop off at Bus Station
By shuttle bus: Pick up & drop off passengers in the Ha Noi old quarter. 4-6 hours pending on how many stops en route the driver makes to pick up/drop off passengers. Fare about 10 US/ way.
By Train: take cargo train from Hanoi to Yenvien and then to QuangNinh. The terminal is about 50km away from the harbour. Expect train delays and cancellations without notice. Hard sleeper only, US$10 one way.
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 characterized by long and crowded bus rides, 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.
From Nanning, Guangxi, China
From Nanning in China's Guangxi province, the Nanning International Tourist Distribution Center (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:
Haiphong, a large historic port city at the mouth of the Red River that and the fourth largest city in Vietnam
Halong City, spanning a portion of the northern part of the archipelago. Note that there are multiple ports within this town, in that at least one port exists that is wholly distinct from that of the tourist boat piers.
Cai Rong, a small port serving the north-easterly part of the archipelago.
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 Jun;, avoid crowded public holidays (30 April 30 and 1 May). June through 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.)
Cat Ba, the home of the endangered cat: Ba langur, a national park, numerous caves and the most popular destination in Ha Long Bay for tourists. It can either accessed by local bus and ferry from Hanoi's Lương Yên bus station (recommended), by tourist boat from Halong City (a five hour 'hard sell' ordeal; this is what the hordes of Hanoi package tourists do), or by local bus or ferry from Haiphong (less scenic).
Quan Lạn, a historically significant outlying island with the beginnings of some tourism infrastructure and some beautiful beaches. Reachable by ferry from Cai Rong or also (reportedly) from Halong City.
Van Don, a large island that is well inhabited, little visited by tourists and connected by road to the mainland near Cửa Ông.
Dau Be Island: Visited by commercial cruises to Cat Ba. This is a very popular swimming and diving spot because of its rich coral and deep grottoes with three inland lakes. The grottoes and caves can only be visited by rowing boat at low tide, when access is possible.
Dau Go Island: Visited by commercial cruises to Cat Ba. A large and heavily damaged cave plastered with multicoloured lights and concrete.
Bo Hon Island: Visited by commercial cruises to Cat Ba. The Virgin Cave (Hang Trinh Nu) is one of the most famous caves in Halong Bay. It is probably best known for its shrine. Legend claims that a beautiful woman committed suicide in the cave, unable to return home after being forced to marry an old Mandarin. Here her body tuned into stone. Another similar legend says this girl escaped from a Mandarin that forced her to marry him because her father could not pay a debt. When fishermen found her body, they buried her here and built a small shrine inside the grotto. Hung Sung Sot Cave is also on this island and has a steep path lined with shady trees. There are two chambers in the cave with a square-shaped outer chamber and a ceiling about 30 metres high. The inner chamber formations look like sentries conversing with one another and another formation, resembling a general surveying his troops, lies in the middle of the chamber. The moving light reflected from the water outside seems to bring these formations to life. Pelican Cave (Hang Bo Nau) is also popular with tourists. Many of them love to take photos of this cave and its spectacular stalactites hanging from the ceiling.
Island cruises 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. 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. You could approach the ticket counter directly if you have a Vietnamese-speaking guide 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.
If you are looking for a boat tour at minimum budget, purchase tickets only from the counter staff in full uniform at the wharf office; ignore anyone that tries to convince you that they are staff when they do not work at the counter. Touts will employ various tactics such as following you at a distance to stop you from getting tickets at the office.
Halong Bay Casino (Royal International Casino) located by the main road to Bai Chay. Walking here can take you about 10-15 minutes from the wharf. Foreigners need to show a passport to enter and there is no deposit required. A coffee lounge with slot machines on the ground floor is open to all while there are two gambling halls, one on the ground floor (which is closed on week days) while the main hall is up on the first floor. Small.
Eat and Drink
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 kind of shellfish, but it is very rare and valuable. If you have enjoyed it once time, you will never forget the special taste of it. You can cook soup or salad with “tu hai” or you can steam or bake it. Steamed “tu hai” is sweet and cool. It's meat mixed with spice and can attract any visitor when he comes here. This is the recipe:
Choose Tu Hai of a similar size. Soak them in water at 80-90°C for about 3 min.
Strain and wash them
Dried onion and garlic, and fresh onion leaves are cut into small pieces, fried in vegetable oil, then mixed with the “tu hai”
Add fish sauce, soup, monosodium glutamate (MSG)
Steam for 12-15 min.
“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. After being done, when we take this kind of cake, it nods repeatedly.
In Viet Nam, “gat gu” means nodding repeatedly, so that the name of this cake is “gat gu”. Here, there is a custom that when eating Gat Gu cake, each one will nod repeatedly three time before eating t o greet their visitors, and visitor also do it again to show their thanks. “Gat gu” cake is quite special and delicious. If you ate it once time, you would never forget it as well as Quang Ninh.