Halong bay highlights and travel guide

Halong Bay

Halong Bay is one the iconic natural beauties of Vietnam and unsurprisingly one of the most popular destinations in the whole of the country. The crystal blue waters scattered with limestone peaks make for a vision that epitomises the wonder of Vietnam. The name translates as ‘Descending Dragon Bay’ because of the local legend of a family of dragons who descended to protect the bay from foreign invaders. This mystical origin is certainly fit for the otherworldly landscape. Set in the Bay of Tonkin, this stunning coastal area became a UNESCO World Heritage sight in 1994. It is clear to see why this unique landscape consists of clear waters with thousands of islands that seem to rise up majestically out of the ocean with thick carpets of forest covering their peaks. Northeast of Halong Bay sits Bai Tu Bay and to the south is Lan Ha Ba and Cat Ba Island, all of equal beauty and sharing a similar geological makeup.

Halong Bay
Halong Bay

It’s hard to believe that this peaceful was ever embroiled in war but in the past, there have been some vicious battles that took place here. The 120km stretch has been involved in numerous fights against Chinese invasions and was also heavily mined by the USA during the America – Vietnam war.

Today, however, the islands sit in peace, their only enemy the elements that have eroded them over thousands of years. The majority of the islands are made up of limestone and have been formed over approximately 20,000,000 years. Erosion from the sea and weather has resulted in some incredible rock formations and deep cavernous caves. The diversity of the geology has resulted in a rich biodiversity with many rare and beautiful species being found in the area. From the tropical evergreen forests to the marine ecosystems and coral reefs there are plenty of amazing environments to shelter the many species of flora and fauna.

This magnificent bay has two main seasons, Summer and Winter. The Summer is hot and moist and the perfect time to enjoy some water sports like kayaking, swimming and snorkelling. A dip in the clean sparkling water is the perfect way to cool down. The Winter, on the other hand, is cold and dry. The bay spends much of its time shrouded in a veil of mist during the winter which creates an eery and mystical atmosphere.

See and Do

One of the most popular activities in Halong Bay is a cruise around the karst islands. There are many options to suit different timeframes and budgets so it can be difficult choosing the best option!

There are also different styles of ship to choose from. Some are designed in the style of French steamers, reminiscent of the French colonial era with an air of grandness about them. Others are designed as traditional junk ships with their sails, much like dragons’ wings, hoisted high above the boat. There are many routes around the islands that stop off at different islands and caves and offer a range of activities depending on the price. Some offer kayaking trips which allow you to get closer to the islands and explore the magical caves. Others include early morning tai chi on the deck of the ship and some even include a cooking lesson.  

The islands and islets in Halong Bay are plentiful, each one extending out of the water like a mythical creature rising from the deep. One of the most popular islands for tourists is the picturesque Titop Island. This conical island meets the water at a fringe of sandy beaches with the peak being swathed in a thick forest. Here visitors can enjoy relaxing on the sandy beaches or walking to the peak to enjoy stunning panoramic views of the bay. There are also hundreds of other interesting islands to visit. Some have been named after the animals they resemble such as fighting cock island, elephant island and porcupine island.

Cruises on Halong Bay
Cruises on Halong Bay

Some of these caves are also home to fascinating cave systems which are ready and waiting to be explored. One of the most popular is Hang Sung Sot whose magnificent chambers are studded with incredible rock formations. Colourful lights and rays of sun that break in from the roof light up the intricate designs of the rocks. Also buried deep in the cavern, is a particularly surprising rock formation. In the heart of the chamber, visitors can view a large fertility symbol illuminated by red lights.

Sung Sot cave
Sung Sot cave, Halong Bay

Another fantastic cave is Hang Dau Go or Wooden Stake Cave. This remarkable cave is seated at the top of a 90 step climb. As you enter the cave a whole new world opens up before your eyes. Inside the roof and walls tower around high around the chamber, their surface weathered with varying formations. This cave takes its name from the power struggle between Vietnam and Mongolia that once took place here. The Vietnamese were able to defeat their enemy using wooden stakes to sink their boats, hence the name.

Thien Cung Cave or Heavenly Palace Cave is also very popular for its captivating stalactites and stalagmites that capture the imaginations of onlookers. After passing through a narrow entrance to the cave visitors will be treated to an ethereal world steeped in local legend. The rock formations create an organic sculpture whose surface changes from smooth undulating planes to jagged spikes.

Another unique attraction of Halong is the Halong Pearl Farm where you can see the incredibly artistry and dedication that goes into creating a single pearl. Here traditional Vietnamese techniques are used in tandem with Japanese technology to produce the finest quality pearl jewellery.

The neighbouring bays are also well worth a visit with a beauty that matches Halong Bay, but a more remote and undisturbed atmosphere. Lan Ha Bay which sits just south of Halong Bay, shares the same stunning karst islands, beautiful clear waters and climate as Halong Bay with the added bonus of more sandy, white beaches. This area is less well known and the waters aren’t cluttered with the boats and cruise ships of Halong Bay. These tranquil waters are also home to seals and dolphins which can be spotted frolicking in the still bay. The enchanting Bright and Dark Cave is another fantastic attraction in Lan Ha Bay. This is best explored by kayak as the low-lying, the dark mouth of the cave is too small for other vessels. The Dark Cave is long and mysterious with visitors needing a torch to illuminate their way through to the other side whereas the Light Cave is small and flooded with natural light accentuating the weather and sea-worn rocks.

Lan Ha Bay
Lan Ha Bay

To the east of Lan Ha Bay is the sublime Cat Ba Island. An incredible haven for explorers and lovers of outdoor adventure. This is a larger island and features a national park carpeted in thick green vegetation which is home to some amazing wildlife including the last remaining 65 golden-headed langurs. Because of the varied terrain, there is a fantastic ion of adventure sports on offer. The quiet waters make this the perfect place for guided kayaking around the islands or snorkelling in the bay looking for the plethora of ocean species inhabiting the waters. The jagged cliffs and rocky caves make many different types of climbing a possibility. There are also hikes and treks through the dense forests with great opportunities to spot the wildlife living there. Cannon Fort on the islands offers one of the best viewpoints of the island, especially at sunrise or sunset when the limestone islands are set against the dramatic skies and the water is dotted with resting fishing boats.

Kayaking on Halong Bay
Kayaking on Halong Bay

North East of Halong Bay is Bai Tu Long Bay which, like Lan Ha Bay, shares the same striking vista as Halong Bay but with a much quieter atmosphere. Here the area is far less developed and has a much more relaxed atmosphere. Although less popular as a tourist destination, there are a small number of boats that run cruises in this stunning, unspoilt bay. One popular island in Bai Tu Long Bay is Quan Lan Island. This island with a handful of sandy beaches and a humble three street town makes the perfect relaxing getaway.  

Arts and Culture

The real art of this area is the ethereal, captivating scenery that surrounds you on all sides. An incredible panorama of fascinating form and vivid colours. The unique culture of this area is best seen in one of the floating villages such as Vung Vieng which is found in Bai Tu Bay. The tiny flotilla of colouful houses sits at the foot of the limestone peaks bobbing gently on the rippling, glassy water. With a population of just 200-300 people, this peaceful community compliments the serene environment. Local fishermen with their worn nets hanging over their boat will be keen to show you the ropes, children smile as they pass by in their boats and women deftly cut through the water effortlessy working the oars of their rowboats.
Halong bay culture and arts, Halong bay highlights and travel guide

Vung Vieng fishing village
Vung Vieng fishing village

Another great place to see the culture of the area is at the market on Cat Ba Island where you can see the local gathering to socialise and sell their goods. This market, in particular, is characterised by the heaps of seafood all freshly caught from the surrounding bays some still alive. You can also sample a whole range of dried seafood and flavoursome local dishes.   

Food and Drink

Halong Bay is famous for its fresh and delicious seafood all caught locally in the clear waters. Daily feasts are prepared from fresh catches with succulent monkfish, plump shrimps, and luxurious oysters. Big, fresh lobsters can be found in many restaurants, their red, hard shells packed with sweet meat. The talented local chefs serve the lobster as a key ingredient in many different flavoursome dishes.

A Halong Bay speciality that attracts many people is squid sausage. Distinctive local squid is expertly prepared and fried into small pieces until crispy and served on a bed of fresh salad with a small dish of sweet and tangy peppered fish sauce.
A memorable dining experience in Halong Bay is enjoying a meal in the recesses of a cave overlooking the phenomenal bay.

Halong Bay also has its own take on the infamous Vietnamese rice wine, Hoanh Bo rice wine. This amber coloured spirit, whose recipe has been passed down from one generation to the next, is made from glutinous rice and special leaves from the Hoanh Bo forest. It has a distinctive sweet and sour taste and is light enough not to cause excessive drunkenness. It is even thought to aid digestion. Locals also insist that even if one does overindulge, there will be no negative side effects or hangover in the morning.  

Festivals and Events

One of the biggest festivals in Halong Bay is the Halong Carnival where local people come from all around to join the colourful and lively celebration of local culture. The festival which has a different cultural theme each year. This spectacular display takes place every year at the end of April to the beginning of May. Every carnival is an explosion of colour and light with the sparkle of the fabulous outfits, the vibrant decorations, the amazing light show, all topped off with a dramatic firework display. Here artists and performers come together to put on a magnificent show for locals and visitors with traditional singing and dancing from Vietnam and other nearby countries.

On Cat Ba, the people come together to celebrate the anniversary of the visit of the national treasure, Ho Cho Minh. On the 1st of April, people gather to celebrate aquaculture and Ho Chi Minh’s interest in the fishing communities of Cat Ba. The ceremony is started by a tense tug of war between two competing dragon boats, each beautifully painted and manned by enthusiastic and competitive locals. After this, there is an exciting race in which many colourful dragon boats compete to become the fastest boat around the course and claim the honour of first prize.  The whole day is filled with celebration and locals and visitors alike can socialise and partake in many different activities.

Quan Lan Festival, on Quan Lan Island, takes place every year from the 10th -20th of the sixth lunar month to commemorate the victory over Mongolian invaders as well as to pray for a fruitful harvest from the sea. The festival begins on the 10th with the closing of the village after which villagers are not allowed to leave the island but visitors are still welcome.  The highlight of this festival is, again, the boat racing in which teams in different uniforms take to the water in traditional dragon boats to try to take first prize. Teams will have been practising since the 13th of the month when they were divided into the two teams. The vibrant colours of the flags and skillfully decorated dragon boats, really pop against the stunning scenery.

- We highly recommend 3-day Halong and Bai Tu Long bay from Hanoi to see the highlights of Halong Bay
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