Halong Bay, Vietnam, is a place of mystical beauty, befitting its name – Halong is the place where dragons descended to rest, ‘ha’ means to descend in Vietnamese, and ‘long’ is dragon. Legend has it that the mythical dragons came down from the heavens to protect Vietnam and its people during a period of aggression. Afterwards, the magical creatures chose to live in Halong Bay instead of returning home, as they were attracted to the area’s incomparable magnificence and loveliness.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong Bay sits on the Gulf of Tokin, 160 kilometres away from capital city Hanoi. The 1600 islands and islets that rise out of waters, with picturesque limestone mountains, wondrous caves, sandy beaches, and wide tropical biodiversity, characterises the seascape. It is no wonder that the Halong Bay area is one of the most popular destinations in Vietnam. Rich in history, Halong Bay was a busy seaport in the 12th century, and the setting of many naval battles against foreign invaders of the Chinese and Mongol variety. If you are imagining what it must be like to sail amongst the rock formations and explore this awe-inspiring landscape, look no further – here are 15 must do things when visiting Halong Bay.
1. Take A Cruise Trip Around the Bay
The best way to explore Halong Bay is by taking a boat cruise across the waters. Like the traders, merchants, and explorers before you, take in the stunning beauty of Halong Bay from the deck of a boat.
There is a large variety of Halong Bay cruises, one will be sure to fit your needs.
Length of Time
There are half-day boat rides to two-night cruises available. If you are in a rush, a day trip from Hanoi combined with a short boat ride is within the realms of possibility. However, to truly experience the splendour of the area, overnight cruises are the way to go. These overnight cruise ships will take you on activity excursions to visit top attractions in Halong Bay, as well as visits to lesser-known areas and less touristy sites.
Choose Your Route
There are 3 general zones of travel - the three neighbouring bays of Halong Bay, Lan Ha Bay, and Bai Tu Long Bay. Halong Bay is clearly the most famous bay, it is the most accessible and the most developed and hence, the most visited. The other two are geologically similar bays, but more remote and less touristy. Lan Ha Bay is a smaller area than Halong Bay and sits on the south of Halong Bay. Bai Tu Long Bay is massive, taking up three quarters of the world heritage site, and is to the east of Halong Bay. The shorter cruises will sail around just one area, and even the longer cruises will often focus on one main zone, with only a short detour to the others.
Type of Boat and Style of Travel
Decide if you prefer to sail in a traditional looking junk or a modern yacht. Some boats are small and intimate, with around 5 bedrooms, perfect if you are travelling with a small group of friends or family. Other cruises have up to 200 rooms available and may offer luxury amenities such as an on-deck pool, cocktail bars, restaurants, and even a spacious bathtub with majestic views. Some cruises are family-friendly, some are party boats, and some are for honeymooners. There is a cruise trip for everyone.
2. Visit Cat Ba National Park
The Cat Ba National Park should be on the top of the list for first-time visitors to the bay. Almost 300 square kilometres in area, Cat Ba Island is the largest island in the region. Rugged, craggy, it showcases all the dramatic features of Halong Bay.
A fascinating area with unique flora and fauna, almost half of the landmass in Cat Ba Island and its surrounding waters have been designated as the Cat Ba National Park to protect its diverse ecosystems. It is home to 23 endangered species of animals, including all the world's remaining golden-headed langurs, the world's most critically endangered primate.
UNESCO has also recognised Cat Ba National Park as a world biosphere reserve, as its ecosystems include tropical jungles, wetlands, mangroves, and coral reefs. There are good hiking trails in the park, including the hike to Ngu Lam Peak or the hike to Viet Hai village. The hikes are relatively challenging and require proper walking/ hiking shoes. Get ready to spot deer, macaques, civet cats, hawks, hornbills, cuckoos, and more.
3. Spend Time at Cat Ba Island
Apart from exploring the forest of the national park, it is worth spending some time exploring Cat Ba Island itself, as it boasts plenty more activities.
While in Cat Ba Town, check out the seafood market and scarf down a local specialty, dried squid. Visit the Cat Ba Town Harbour during the evening for some beer. Bia Hoi (draught beer) stalls line the harbour, they are the makings of an affordable and cheerful night out. Sit at one of the open-air stalls, get a pint in hand, and enjoy the night lights of the harbour.
During the day, visit the three beaches on Cat Ba Island called the Cat Co beach cluster. The pretty white sand beaches are all within walking distance of each other. There is also plenty of swimming, caving, cycling, rock climbing, and snorkelling to do. Sun loungers, umbrellas, or activity equipment can be rented at the beaches.
You are also a short hike away from Cannon Fort, which is atop a hill of 177 metres. Cannon Fort was built during the Japanese occupation and used by the French and the Vietnamese during more recent conflicts. Currently, there are two artillery gun emplacements preserved and a little museum. Cannon Fort also offers panoramic view of Lan Ha Bay.
Cat Ba Island is the starting point for many adventures, tours, and cruises; with a laidback atmosphere, it is a nice place to relax and spend some time before zooming off to see the rest of the bay.
4. Explore Caves
Part of its unique geology, among the karst formations, are hidden picturesque caves waiting to be explored. Here are 3 famous caves in Halong Bay that you would want to visit:
Hospital Cave, Cat Ba Island
Hospital Cave was used as a secret, bomb-proof hospital during the Vietnam War by the North Vietnamese Army to treat the wounded and as a place of shelter. A three-story cave, it was used as a field hospital from 1963 to 1965. Now a museum of sorts, Hospital Cave allows you a glimpse into its past function and the unique role it played during the war.
Sung Sot Cave, Bo Hon Island
One of the largest caves in Halong Bay and a thing of such wonderment, the French named it the ‘Grottes des Surprises’. Sung Sot Cave consists of two chambers, the first, known as the ‘Waiting Room’ is full of stalagmites and stalactites. The second chamber in Sung Sot Cave is called the ‘Serene Castle’, a massive space with fascinating rock formations and that could hold thousands of people.
Thien Cung Cave, north of Dau Go Island
4 kilometres away from Halong City, Thien Cung Cave is also known as Heaven Cave. Lost for ages, the cave was rediscovered in 1993, when fishermen chanced upon the cave while they were seeking shelter from a large storm. Heaven Cave, over 10,000 square metres large, has four gigantic pillars that hold up the ‘roof of heaven’, and is the wedding site of a mythical king and queen.
5. Visit the Floating Villages
Fishing the waters of the majestic bay and navigating around its limestone mountains have long been a way of life for the locals. Visit the floating villages of Halong Bay to understand this unique culture of the people living within a marvel of the world.
Cua Van Floating Village
A floating village that married two ancient fishing villages, Cua Van Floating Village continue to preserve a traditional way of life. It has over 700 villagers and about 170 families, most of whom rely on fishing.
A tranquil and peaceful area, Cua Van Fishing Village allows you to experience local life for yourself. Get on one of the fishing boats with the local fishermen, and try your hand at night squid fishing, dragging fishing nets, and prawning.
Vung Vieng Floating Village
Vung Vieng Floating Village is located in the centre of Bai Tu Long Bay, and is about 40 km from Halong City. Bai Tu Long Bay was a trade gateway between Vietnam and China, a hotspot for traders and merchants. Vung Vieng was a wealthy village along this trade route, known for fishing and pearl cultivation. It is a little off the beaten path, and worth a trip to enjoy the idyllic floating village set against green limestone islands.
6. Snorkel at Lan Ha Bay
A geological extension of Halong Bay, Lan Ha Bay has over 300 islets and limestone karst formations. Less touristy than Halong Bay, it is more pristine and less polluted, making it an ideal place to snorkel.
Turtle Island, Monkey Island and Nam Cat Island are some of the popular spots for snorkelling. Calm, serene waters bursting with marine life await your exploration. Many hotels and boat cruises in the area offer snorkelling excursions.
7. Scuba Dive at Cong Do Island
Cong Do Island is a small island located in Bai Tu Long Bay, about 3 hours boat trip away from the Halong Bay harbour. Compared to Halong Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay is a little more remote, and thus, more secluded and pristine, making Cong Do Island a prime destination for scuba diving.
Cong Do Island has beautiful white sandy beaches, and boasts a coral reef that is 7 kilometres long and 300 metres wide. It also has its own system of five lakes spread among the limestone peaks.
The vibrant marine ecosystem gives divers a chance to mingle with shellfish, prawns, crabs, fishes, in an amazing underwater world.
8. Kayak through the Dark and Light Cave
If you are feeling particularly up for adventure and fancy combining two activities, consider going kayaking through the Dark and Light Cave.
The Dark and Light Cave is two separate caves located at the end of Halong Bay near Cat Ba Island. The Dark Cave is a hundred metre stretch with little light, requiring you to bring a torchlight, while the Light Cave is flooded with natural light peeping in through gaps in the ceiling. This journey starts on a sweet note, at a giant lake with tall trees and exotic orchids.
The only way to explore this cave system is via sea-kayaking – a great opportunity for thrill-seekers.
9. Sunbathe at the Disappearing Beach of Ba Trai Dao
Ba Trai Dao or the Three Peaches Islets are three small limestone formations that look like peaches when seen from afar.
Located at the southeast area of Halong Bay, emerald, clear and shallow waters surround the three peaks, making it an especially safe place to swim.
The main attraction of Ba Trai Dao is its bow shaped beach that embraces the three mountains. Fine, white sand covers the beach, perfect for sunbathing and relaxing. The unique allure of the beach is that it is only exposed and usable for about two to three hours every day. Ensure you visit during low tide to enjoy this treat.
10. Attend A Cooking Class
Many cruises offer cooking classes as part of their itineraries. Be sure not to miss out on this special experience of cooking onboard a boat!
Learn more about Vietnamese culinary cuisine and put your own chef skills to the test at creating Halong Bay specialities. These could include grilling clams, steaming horseshoe crabs, or even making a dish from sand worms, (sa sung), which can only be found in the bay. Digging into your own creation at the end is well worth the journey.
Cooking onboard your cruise is a delightful way to spend a few hours, and unlike most other activities, it’s a skill you can take home and impress your future dinner guest with.
11. Visit Tuan Chau Island
Tuan Chau Island is the most developed resort destination of Halong Bay, located just off Halong City. It is connected to the city via both sea-links and by a two-kilometre-long road.
The island is not for those seeking a secluded getaway, but rather for the traveller who wants comfort and amenities close by. There are plenty of beachside resorts to choose from along the two beaches of the island, known for their white, soft sand.
Formally, the island was a holiday destination for President Ho Chi Minh with other political leaders. The octagonal house he used to vacation in is now a memorial site.
Tuan Chau Island will continue to be a prime tourist attraction. Currently under development is a mega marina on the southwest of Tuan Chau Island, which will hold 600 to 800 luxury yachts.
12. Take a Seaplane
Take in views of Halong Bay in the most exhilarating way – via seaplane! A truly special way to enjoy the seascape of the area is from the seat of a seaplane. Swooping between the karst formations, gliding over the lush green islands, looking down at the pristine beaches – taking in the sights from a seaplane is simply unbeatable.
There are daily scheduled sightseeing flights offered by Vietnam’s only seaplane service Hai Au Aviation. Taking off and landing are dramatic highlights, as the seaplane does a water take-off and landing from Tuan Chuan Island Marina.
The seaplanes have only 12 seats, which makes the experience more personal, and the pilots often share insights and titbits of information with the passengers as they fly over the wondrous bay.
There is even an option to take the seaplane from Hanoi to Halong Bay, cutting down the journey from about 2.5 hours to 45 minutes.
If you feel like splashing out, indulging in a seaplane ride offers you a vastly different perspective of Halong Bay compared to taking a cruise. Seat back and take in the undulating mountains aerially.
13. Take A Picture of Halong Bay from the Top of Titop Island
Titop Island is a small island in Halong Bay only accessible by boat. With pristine white sand beaches, Titop is a charming islet to pass some time in. It was named by President Ho Chi Minh after Gherman Stepanovich Titov, Russian cosmonaut, after the latter's visit to Halong Bay in 1962.
Titop Island is not meant for overnight guest but has a small shop that acts as a café and rents out beach loungers, and equipment for snorkelling.
Cruises will often stop by this island only for a few hours. For the adventurer who wants to climb up the peak, rent your own boat to Titop Island so that you can spend more time there. It is an effortful climb that will take about 2 hours and you will have to be relatively fit to make it to the top.
The panoramic views of Halong Bay are well worth the hike, this is probably the best place to see and photograph the majestic bay from an island.
14. Spend Some Time at Quang Ninh Museum
Located in Halong City, Quang Ninh Museum is an architectural sight. Designed by Spanish architect Salvador Perez Arroyo, its dark exterior is inspired by coal, a mineral vital to the Quang Ninh Province.
The building complex, a museum, library, and convention centre, is connected by an overhead bridge, and assembled with 14,000 square metres of glass. It is intended to look like a massive mirror reflecting the beauty of the bay.
The Quang Ninh Musuem highlights the region’s past from prehistory and proto-history to the modern era. It also showcases the different ethnic groups of the province and their distinct cultural identities.
15. Visit Sun World Halong Park
Of all the Halong Bay attractions on offer, Sun World Halong Park is of a completely different variety. A mega theme park covering 214 hectares, it is the largest theme park in Southeast Asia. Sun World Halong Park's two major areas are Dragon Park and Typhoon Water Park.
The area is connected by a large cable car ride which is easily the highlight of this excursion. The cable ride car takes you high above the waters and the karst formation, offering two kilometres of unparalleled views. At the cable car terminal, you will find a large Ferris wheel that takes 20 minutes to complete a full cycle, which also offers aerial views of the seascape.
Often touted as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Halong Bay is an astonishingly breath-taking place. Whether you are a nature-lover, a beach bum, a thrill-seeker, or a habitual cruiser-taker, there is something for you at Halong Bay.
Visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with its sisters Lan Ha Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay, should be on every one’s bucket list. While the number of tourist attractions and activities to do at Halong Bay are endless, we leave you with 15 highlights that are must-dos. Regardless of when you are visiting, pack sunblock and a light waterproof jacket. Both will serve you well during your adventures. Have fun!