Ha Long Bay in Vietnam is a picturesque body of water that offers the perfect convergence of water, rock, and sky (when the season is right): an amazing view of over 3,000 undulating karst outcrops and islands that reminded last century's Vietnamese of the backs of dragons emerging from the sea. (Read this definition of karst.)
Ha Long's topography is entirely the result of natural processes, but you can't shake the feeling that it looks absolutely out of this world.
The bay is located about 100 miles from Hanoi, in the northern Vietnam province of Quang Ninh bordering China. If you get the timing and the weather right, the view you'll get of Ha Long Bay from the deck of your tourist boat will be absolutely worth the three-hour drive it took to get there.
Travelers can book anywhere from a four-hour joyride around the bay to a multiple-night cruise on one of a number of sleepaboard boats. These craft may be chartered through one of a number of tour companies based in Hanoi, or directly at the Bai Chay Tourist Wharf (Google Maps) where these tourist boats dock.
Ha Long Bay offers more than breathtaking ocean views. Visitors can explore the caves or grottoes lurking on the sides of the many islands dotting the bay, or spend a night at one of the hotels at the nearby Ha Long City or on the biggest island on Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Island. The latter offers plenty of outdoor activities for the adventure-hungry traveler; read this article for more about trekking, kayaking, and rock climbing around Ha Long Bay: Three Fun Adventure Activities around Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.
To see Ha Long Bay in pictures, visit this gallery of Images of Ha Long Bay.
Topography of Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay is characterized by almost 600 square miles of seascape dotted with over 3,000 limestone islands. (The figure you'll get from most official sources - "1,969 islands" - is just propaganda to coincide with the year that Ho Chi Minh passed away.)
The islands and islets in Ha Long Bay stand between 160 to 300 feet high. Most of the islands on Ha Long Bay are uninhabited; in fact, many of them are inaccessible to human visitors, due to their sheer limestone cliffs.
The waters of Ha Long Bay are not entirely devoid of residents. Local fishermen eke a living from the bay, residing on floating houses where they cultivate clams and fish for the local shrimp and crabs. Tour boats often make a stop at a floating house where visitors can see how the fishermen live (and hopefully buy some of the day's catch).
Eons of weathering have sculpted the limestone outcrops into fantastic shapes. Some islands get their names from the animals they supposedly resemble: Ga Choi Islet, for instance, is supposed to resemble two fighting roosters (see an image of Ga Choi Islet here).
The larger islands feature caves and beaches that have become tourist attractions in their own right. The biggest island on Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba, features a diverse landscape and has become the unofficial adventure tourism capital of Vietnam.
Tourists wishing to spend the night next to the Bay (but not on it) may check into a number of Ha Long Bay hotels in the vicinity. For accommodations on Cat Ba Island, read our list of Cat Ba hotels and resorts.
Ha Long Bay is internationally recognized as a world-class tourist destination. Unesco granted it Heritage Site status in 1994 (more info here: Unesco World Heritage List - Ha Long Bay, offsite), and the locale was also recognized in an online poll as one of the "New Seven Natural Wonders of the World" in 2011.
Cruising on Ha Long Bay's Tourist Boats - "Chinese Junks"
Over 300 tourist boats serve the tourists flocking to the Bai Chay Tourist Wharf. The majority of Ha Long Bay's boats serve the mercy of tour agencies in Hanoi, although walk-in tourists can also negotiate a ride from one of the touts hanging out dockside.
These boats are modern, diesel-fed contraptions made up to look like traditional Chinese junks. (For the real thing, read this article: Ride a Traditional Chinese Junk in Hong Kong.) At the very minimum, Ha Long boats have a bathroom, a galley that cooks up meals for guests, and access to a top deck that provides 360-degree views of Ha Long Bay.
Fancier boats have staterooms for guests booking overnight or multiple-night cruises.
A ride in one of Ha Long Bay's boats usually includes a stopover at one of the caves bored into the islands in the bay. Multiple-night bookings may include a night at a resort at Cat Ba Island and a selection of outdoor activities. Such inclusions vary depending on the package, so ask your travel agent about the specifics.
If you want to book your own cruise on the bay, refer to this list of Luxury Cruises in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.
Getting to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi
There are two main ways to get to Ha Long Bay –the easy way (by package tour) or the do-it-yourself way (by bus to Bai Chay Tourist Wharf, then by booking your own tour on the spot).
Book a Package Tour to Ha Long Bay: Most tourists get to Ha Long Bay by booking a tour from one of the tour services in Hanoi, which are mostly clustered around Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter. For accommodations close to these Hanoi tourist hotspots, read our lists of the Old Quarter’s hotels and hotels near Nha Tho & Hoan Kiem, Hanoi.
Reputable tour agencies will be glad to book you a package tour for as low as $30 with the following inclusions:
- A round trip ride via minibus or bus between Hanoi and Ha Long Bay;
- A four-hour tour via tourist boat ride around Ha Long Bay;
- Lunch aboard the tourist boat; and
- Detours to a fishing village and/or a cave on an island in Ha Long Bay.
The cost depends entirely on the inclusions – the three- to four-hour day cruise is the cheapest option for Ha Long Bay, but tour agencies also sell 1-, 2-, or 3-night cruises that give you a view of the Bay in the evening and in the early morning haze.
Do It Yourself: You can catch a ride to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi from one of the tourist open buses around Hoan Kiem Lake (these cost $8 each way), or by riding at a Hanoi bus station to Bai Chay. Tickets to Bai Chay cost about $2.50, or VND 50,000 each way. The bus will pass by Bai Chay Tourist Wharf (Google Maps) where you can buy a ticket to board a tourist boat and view the bay.
More details in this article: A Do-It-Yourself Tour of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.
Best Time to Visit Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay's high season occurs between July and August; during these sunny months, visitors come to enjoy the clear view of the islands and the beaches along Cat Ba and Bai Chay. Rain, cold temperatures, and reduced visibility contribute to the lack of visitors in the low season from November to March.