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.
Every Hanoi tour agent offers Ha Long Bay excursions, which work out easier – and usually cheaper – than doing the same thing yourself. There are a wide variety of trips available, including day-tours, though since the bay is a 6hr round trip from Hanoi these can feel very rushed. Most opt for a two-day, one-night tour, with the night spent at sea – this can be a delightful experience. Others go for a three-day, two-night trip, with the second night spent on wonderful Cat Ba Island.
There’s also the option of getting to Cat Ba by public transport – you’ll miss out on a night at sea and a few caves, but from your hydrofoil seat you’ll see the bay on the way (albeit in fast-forward).
Competition among Hanoi tour operators is incredibly fierce, meaning that you can get an overnight trip for next to nothing – sometimes as low as $30. However, at this price range you really could be running the gauntlet, and many travellers encounter difficulties which sour their appreciation of the bay: vessels can be dirty, have poor facilities or be horribly overcrowded – it’s always best to ask operators if they have a maximum group size (sixteen is the usual upper limit), though such promises are often broken. Some junks are also simply unsafe, though regulations have been tightened up since a boat went down in early 2011, killing eleven tourists and their local guide. Do also note that if your trip is cancelled – due to bad weather, for example – you are entitled to a full refund under Vietnamese law.
Compounding the confusion is the fact that very few operators have their own vessels – travellers tend to be shunted on to whichever junk has room. As such, you may find yourself sharing a vessel with people who have paid far more or less for the same thing. In short, it’s almost impossible to give concrete recommendations for budget tour operators, but there are some good mid-range choices:
This outfit pride themselves on low-impact tours, and have a superb reputation. Some of their tours head to lesser-visited Bai Tu Long Bay; a three-day trip also including Ha Long Bay goes from $178 per person.
This hostel has been running hugely popular budget tours for years – these typically involve a bit of kayaking and swimming, and a lot of alcohol.
This Aussie-owned outfit refuses to cut corners, and deserves its great reputation. In addition, the on-board meals are nothing short of superb.
The sky’s the limit on Ha Long Bay. The following are all reputable operators offering distinctive tours.
Impeccable tours on one of the best junks around – the Jewel of the Bay. The seafood is as delectable as you’ll get on the bay, the wine list none too shabby and kayaking is included in the cost of the trip.
A replica of a nineteenth-century paddle-steamer, the five-star Emeraude is one of the most luxurious vessels on the bay. Facilities include a restaurant, two bars, beauty salon and massage rooms and spacious sundecks where you can indulge in sunrise tai chi classes.
Reliable operator with excellent vessels and a range of tours; perhaps of most interest is the trip around the less-visited Bai Tu Long Bay, which eschews the usual caves for excursions to fish farms and local schools.
Fancy your own luxury vessel? On these tours it’s just you and the crew – popular with honeymooners, for obvious reasons.
Sumptuously decorated cabins hint at high luxury – this is the only operator that expects guests to dress for dinner. Tai Chi sessions come as part of the package.
Most foreign tourists visit the bay on tours starting in Hanoi, but it’s just about possible to do the same thing independently – however, it must be said that these are still tours, and not likely to save you much money when all is added up. Get to Ha Long City, then head to the Bai Chay tourist wharf, 2km west of town along Ha Long Avenue. From one booth here it’s possible to take one of several day-trips, taking either 4, 6 or 8hr. However, these boats can get rather crowded and are not really recommended; if you go down this route, you’ll also need to buy an entry ticket for the bay, as well as tickets to the caves.
If you’re travelling in a group or want greater independence, you can always charter your own boat. Meals on board cost extra, but can be excellent. Drinks tend to be pricey – it’s best to take your own.
Top image: Cruising in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam © aksenovden/Shutterstock