Hạ Long Bay, in northeast Vietnam, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and popular travel destination in the Quang Ninh Province. It is the center of a larger zone which includes Bai Tu Long Bay to the northeast and Cat Ba Island to the southwest. It’s known for its emerald waters and thousands of towering limestone islands topped by rainforests. Boat tours and sea kayak expeditions take visitors past islands named for their shapes, including Stone Dog and Teapot islets. The region is popular for scuba diving, rock climbing and hiking, particularly in mountainous Cát Bà National Park.
The bay is vast, each way you look there are huge formations topped with lush greenery and as you move along, even more are unveiled through the sea air. It’s hard to comprehend but Ha Long Bay has an area of around 1,553 km2, including 1,960–2,000 islets, most of which are limestone. The core of the bay has an area of 334 km2 with a high density of 775 islets.The limestone in this bay has gone through 500 million years of formation in different conditions and environments. The evolution of the karst in this bay has taken 20 million years under the impact of the tropical wet climate. The bay consists of a dense cluster of some 1,600 limestone monolithic islands each topped with thick jungle vegetation, rising spectacularly from the ocean.
Several of the islands are hollow, with enormous caves. Hang Dau Go (Wooden stakes cave) is the largest grotto in the Ha Long area. French tourists visited in the late 19th century, and named the cave Grotte des Merveilles. Its three large chambers contain large numerous stalactites and stalagmites (as well as 19th-century French graffiti). There are two bigger islands, Tuan Chau and Cat Ba, that have permanent inhabitants, as well as tourist facilities including hotels and beaches with a number of beautiful beaches on the smaller islands too.
How to avoid the crowds at Halong Bay
There are multiple places to depart from and many have hundreds of tour operators which leads to a huge race out to the bay a little like the Australian Day Ferry race through Sydney Harbour. Sounds like fun but it creates that feeling of being in peak hour traffic on water. The smarter option is to look for cruises that depart from Dinh Vu Port. The trip from Hanoi is much shorter and there are less boats too.
The trick is to also look at the tour routes through the bay, many will stick to the northern part, but some will venture down and closer to the island of Cat Ba which is further south. Don’t be fooled by the glossy websites and brochures though, being such a popular destination will mean you are crossing paths with other boats at some stage. If you want to immerse yourself a little more into the local way of life then spending a night or two on one of the tours typically means you visit villages and get off the boat.
What they may not explain is the cruises may have a mix of 1 night and 2 night travellers. So this means the following morning some of the people have to be taken back to the mainland. So those on a 2 night stay will jump onto a ‘day boat’ for a while & get back to the main boat when it returns later in the day. It means that for a large portion of your trip you are without the luxuries of your room, luggage etc.
Tough. Imagine living your life on a boat or a small shanty on a floating bed of plastic barrels. Many will spend time on the islands or live in the villages but for many it is boat life everyday. Fishing is obviously the main source of income as well as tourism and rubbish collecting. The chiselled lines on the father’s face below tells it all.
The best time to go to Halong Bay?
In April Halong Bay weather is warmer and nicer. There may have occasionally strong winds, however, the climate is not as harsh as in say January, therefore you can enjoy the most days of spring. April is one of the most ideal times to cruise in Halong Bay as the weather is not as hot as summer nor as bitterly cold as winter. Thats why April kicks off the tourist season with temperatures from 18 – 36C. The humidity is about 75%.