You can be forgiven for thinking that Halong Bay couldn’t possibly be a real place. After all, beauty like this only exists in movies, where high-tech equipment can create a landscape that is mesmerizing, awe-inspiring and perfect. Not only is Halong Bay real, however, but it’s a convenient side trip from fast-paced Hanoi that should be on the itinerary of any traveler passing through North Vietnam.
Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the seven New Wonders of Nature, Halong Bay contains over 1,900 islands and jagged limestone islets. Cruise in silence on a traditional junk through the morning Halong Bay mists, and watch as vertical karst formations appear and then fade from view. In addition to the islands and turquoise waters, Halong Bay is riddled with grottoes that feel like hidden lairs. Dock the boat at Bo Hòn Island and descend into Sung Sot Cave, a 130,000-square-foot chamber that drips in dozens of stalactites. Or, trade with floating Vietnamese fruit merchants as they paddle right up to your boat, their simple rowboats serving as their storefront as well as their floating home. On Cat Ba Island, walk the length of some of North Vietam’s only white sand beaches, or go hiking in search of endangered langurs in Cat Ba National Park.
Halong Bay is 103 miles and three-to-four hours from Hanoi. Many visitors choose to spend either one or two nights cruising on a traditional junk, which not only allows more time for exploring, but also allows for the unforgettable spectacle of limestone islets piercing the mists as the sun rises over the bay. While it’s technically possible to visit Halong Bay independently, the bay’s popularity makes a guided tour a more convenient and economical option.
The winter weather is another factor to bear in mind; from November to March there can be chilly days of drizzly weather when the splendour and romance of the bay are harder to appreciate.
Bar a clutch of gorgeous caves, conventional sights may be few on the ground, but even if you tire of the scenery there’s a lot to do in the bay – kayaking across the tranquil waters, swimming amidst the twinkles of phosphorescent plankton, or even climbing up a rocky cliff with your bare hands. The vast majority of visitors come on organized tours from Hanoi, travelling by road to Ha Long City, on the bay’s northern shore, then transferring to cruise the bay on a replica wooden junk – it’s not really any cheaper to do it by yourself. However, if you can do without the night on board, it’s possible to hit Cat Ba – the largest and most beautiful island in the bay – from Hanoi using public transport.