Drifting south from Vietnam’s north coast in a wooden junk, your eyes will be riveted on what, at first, appears to be a jagged wall of emerald green. After an hour or so the wall swallows you up, and you find yourself in a fairyland of otherworldly limestone peaks, jutting from the water at sheer angles – this is Ha Long Bay, one of the most spectacular places in the whole of Vietnam.

From Guilin in China to Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay, the limestone towers of the bay are by no means unique, but nowhere else are they found on such an impressive scale: an estimated 1969 islands pepper Ha Long Bay itself, with a further two thousand punctuating the coast towards China. Local legend tells of a celestial dragon and her children, sent by the Jade Emperor to stop an invasion, which spat out great quantities of pearls to form islands and razor-sharp mountain chains in the path of the enemy fleet. After the victory the dragons, enchanted by their creation, decided to stay on, giving rise to the name Ha Long (“dragon descending”), and the inevitable claimed sightings of sea monsters.

In 1469, King Le Thanh Tong paid a visit to Ha Long Bay and was so inspired by the scenery that he wrote a poem, likening the islands to pieces on a chessboard; ever since, visitors have struggled to capture the mystery of this fantasy world. Nineteenth-century Europeans compared the islands to Tuscan cathedrals, while a local tourist brochure opts for meditative “grey-haired fairies”. With so much hyperbole, some find Ha Long disappointing, especially since this stretch of coast is also one of Vietnam’s more industrialized regions – a major shipping lane cuts right across the bay. The huge influx of tourism has, of course, added to the problem, not least the litter and pollution from fume-spluttering boats, but a sizeable proportion of tourist income does at least benefit the local communities.

The winter weather is another factor to bear in mind; from November to March there can be chilly days of drizzly weather when the splendour and romance of the bay are harder to appreciate.

Bar a clutch of gorgeous caves, conventional sights may be few on the ground, but even if you tire of the scenery there’s a lot to do in the bay – kayaking across the tranquil waters, swimming amidst the twinkles of phosphorescent plankton, or even climbing up a rocky cliff with your bare hands. The vast majority of visitors come on organized tours from Hanoi, travelling by road to Ha Long City, on the bay’s northern shore, then transferring to cruise the bay on a replica wooden junk – it’s not really any cheaper to do it by yourself. However, if you can do without the night on board, it’s possible to hit Cat Ba – the largest and most beautiful island in the bay – from Hanoi using public transport.

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