As you drift away from Vietnam's north coast on a wooden junk, you'll be captivated by a wall of emerald green that reveals itself as Ha Long Bay after an hour or so. This world-famous tourist attraction boasts otherworldly limestone peaks jutting from the water at sheer angles. While there are few specific sights on the ground, the bay offers plenty of activities beyond cruising, such as kayaking, swimming among phosphorescent plankton, and even rock climbing.
The Magic of Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay is home to thousands of limestone karst towers, which are not unique but impressive in scale. According to local legend, the celestial dragon and her children spat out pearls to create islands and razor-sharp mountain chains to stop an invasion, giving rise to the name Ha Long, which means "dragon descending". Despite being a major shipping lane and one of Vietnam's more industrialized regions, tourism has significantly benefited the local communities, although litter and pollution from boats are a concern.
King Le Thanh Tong was inspired by Ha Long Bay's scenery during his visit in 1469 and wrote a poem comparing the islands to pieces on a chessboard. Visitors have struggled to capture the mystery of this fantasy world ever since. While some describe the islands as Tuscan cathedrals, others use more meditative descriptions such as "grey-haired fairies".
#5 Swim among phosphorescent plankton
Swimming among the twinkling of phosphorescent plankton is a magical experience in Ha Long Bay. As the sun sets, the water starts to glow with millions of tiny, luminescent organisms, creating a surreal atmosphere. Jumping into the warm water and feeling the gentle currents against your skin is a refreshing and unforgettable experience. The plankton's glow intensifies with movement, making swimming feel like a trip to an underwater galaxy.
#6 See the view from Titop Island
This island’s steep shape is unusual – like a jungle-covered Matterhorn in miniature. The best thing to do here, if you’ve got the legs for it, is march up the 400-plus steps to the 110m-high summit, for a fantastic bay view. Those in a more sedentary mood may prefer to laze on the beach; snorkelling equipment can be rented from the island bar.
#7 Swim at one of the pristine Ha Long Bay beaches
The crystal clear waters of Ha Long Bay are perfect for swimming. These empty, sandy and relatively clean beaches fringing its east coast are well worth a visit. The best time to swim is from April to November when the water is warm.
#8 Go rock climbing — one of the best things to do in Ha Long Bay
For adventurous travellers, rock climbing is a popular activity in Ha Long Bay. The towering limestone karsts and cliffs provide a thrilling challenge for climbers of all skill levels. Many tour operators offer rock climbing packages that include equipment rental and guides. Climbers can enjoy stunning views of the bay from the top and test their skills on various routes.
#9 Visit fishing villages:
The fishing villages of Ha Long Bay offer a glimpse into the traditional lifestyle of the locals who have lived off the sea for generations. Cua Van is the largest and most popular village, with floating houses, schools, shops, and even a clinic. You can take a boat ride through the village, visit a pearl farm, and observe the daily routines of the fishermen.
#10 Enjoy a seafood feast
Seafood is a must-try in Ha Long Bay due to its abundant supply of fresh and delicious seafood. Visitors can indulge in a wide variety of seafood dishes, including grilled oysters, steamed crabs, and fried squid. There are also floating seafood markets where visitors can buy fresh seafood and have it cooked on the spot
How to get here
The easiest way to get to Ha Long Bay is from Hanoi. You have dozens of options to get there via public transportation or tour agencies.
Take a guided tour
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.
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.
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.
The best tours in Ha Long Bay
When choosing a tour, it's important to do your research and select a reputable tour operator. There are many tour companies offering various packages, so it's essential to choose one that suits your budget and preferences. Here's our pick of the best tours of Ha Long Bay:
- Buffalo 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.
- Emeraude: 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, a beauty salon and massage rooms and spacious sundecks where you can indulge in sunrise tai chi classes.
- Avoid the hassle of planning and booking altogether with our tailor-made trip service. Our trips are created by local travel experts and are completely customisable. Our Vietnam Family Adventure trip takes you through Ha Long Bay and other iconic areas of Vietnam.
- Handspan: 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.
- Life Resorts: Fancy your own luxury vessel? On these tours, it’s just you and the crew. This makes it a popular choice for honeymooners.
- Paradise Cruises: 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.
Things to know before travelling here
You will want to pack appropriate clothing and gear. Comfortable clothes and shoes are a must. You also won't want to forget to bring sunscreen, a hat, and insect repellent. If you plan on kayaking or swimming, bring a waterproof bag to keep your valuables safe.
While here, be mindful of the environment. Ha Long Bay is a fragile ecosystem, and it's important to take care of it. Avoid littering and dispose of your waste properly. Choose eco-friendly tours and support local initiatives that promote sustainability.
Finally, immerse yourself in the local culture. Try the delicious seafood, interact with the friendly locals, and learn about the fascinating history and traditions of the region. Ha Long Bay is more than just a stunning natural wonder; it's also a place of rich cultural heritage and vibrant local life.
Best time to visit Ha Long Bay
The splendour and romance of Ha Long Bay are hard to appreciate in poor conditions. Days of overcast weather can occur throughout the year but are most likely from November to March. This is when winter drizzle can be compounded by an intense chill.
The best time to visit Ha Long Bay is between September and November or from March to May, when the weather is mild and dry. Avoid visiting during the summer months when it's hot and humid, and there's a high chance of rain and typhoons.
Top image: Cruising in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam © aksenovden/Shutterstock