Halong Bay is the jewel in Vietnam’s crown. There are many amazing scenic places in the country, and Halong Bay takes the top spot. It is an astonishing place of special historical, cultural and scientific interest. Covering 600 square miles it contains at least 1,960 islands, ranging from tiny islets to large well inhabited ones. Five hundred million years in the making, the islands take the form of limestone karsts that jut imperiously out of the Gulf of Tonkin, 100 miles to the east of the country’s capital, Hanoi. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994, it achieved further recognition in 2000 when the World Heritage Committee recognised the bay for its outstanding geological and geomorphological value. In 2012 The New 7 Wonders Foundation named it as one of The Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Sadly it has to be said that tourism is having a negative effect on the bay. The waters in some of the busiest spots are polluted with diesel spill and rubbish. It is something that needs addressing.
Halong Bay means “The Bay of the Descending Dragon”. Local legend tells of a time early in Vietnam’s development when it was trying to fight off invaders. The gods sent a family of dragons to protect the local people. The dragons spat out jade and other jewels which turned into the islands. The islands attacked the invaders sinking their ships. The dragons decided to live in the bay and descended into the waters.
This really is one of the most scenically stunning places on earth. Everyone will have their own reasons for visiting Halong Bay, here are just some of the best ones.
Take a Cruise in Halong Bay
The only way to see Halong Bay of course is on the water. There are hundreds of tour boats plying their trade here now. Most of the boats are extremely well equipped, well run and offer sumptuous accommodation and superb dining. It is a lovely way to spend a few days. Sitting on the deck, drinking a cocktail while the boat slips between the amazing rock karsts as the sun goes down is one of life’s truly great experiences.
The Early Morning Mist
Whilst enjoying your holiday in Halong Bay on your cruise boat, take the opportunity to rise early. The boats often have Thai Chi lessons at 6 a.m., but even if you don’t want to take part, get out of bed and enjoy the spectacular early morning view. More often than not the mornings in Halong Bay are shrouded in mist, so much so that you can be moored just a few feet from a giant karst but may not know it. As the mist starts to clear the islands loom eerily into view.
Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba Island is the largest island in the whole of the bay. It covers 100 square miles. It is part of the Cat Ba Archipelago, which comprises of 366 islands to the southeast of Halong Bay. Half of the island is given over to the Cat Ba National Park, home to an abundance of flora and fauna. Cat Ba is also home to 13,000 residents on land and a further 4,000 living in floating villages just off the coast. Amongst the amazing wildlife here is the Cat Ba Langur. This delightful primate is one of the most endangered species in the world. A colony that used to be 2,700 strong was down to a mere 53 animals by the year 2000. Careful monitoring by various protection agencies numbers have risen to about 70 animals (as of April 2015), but it remains severely at risk.
The Fabulous Floating Villages
The floating villages of Halong Bay are a throwback to a time centuries ago. People have lived lives unchanged for generations here. Children learn to swim before they can walk and in many cases have their own small boats by the age of four. The houseboats that make up the villages are all fastened together to form the community. In addition to dwellings there are schools, shops, a community centre and a police station.
Also in the Cat Ba Archipelago just off the main island is Monkey Island, a privately owned island with one of the best beaches in the bay. The resort here caters for all tastes and offers swimming, kayaking, football, volleyball and billiards. Most people though, tend to just hit the gorgeous beach and relax.
The Surprise Cave
Sung Sot or the Surprise Cave is situated on Bo Hon Island. The entrance is 25 metres above the water, but the climb is well worth it. This is a huge cave by any measure, it covers 12,200 square metres and the ceiling, at its highest, is over 30 metres. Enormous stalagmites, stalactites and columns impress. The guides go to great pains to point out the resemblance of every rock to a horse, a lion or an elephant. Some of these are tenuous to say the least but it all adds to the fun. The cave is artificially lit in different colours as is the Vietnamese want, but in this case it works pretty well.
If late night drinking parties are your thing, this is the place for you. The island has become the one place in Halong Bay that isn’t about tranquility and natural beauty. Booze cruise boats pull in here packed with young backpackers who spend the day rock climbing, tubing and kayaking and the night drinking and annoying anyone who isn’t part of the group. The trips here do not come cheap and the reviews consistently mention rude staff.
Halong Bay Pearl Farms
Pearl farms are developing swiftly here as the local people search for alternative economic opportunities. The Cruise boats in Halong Bay stop off so passengers can see the fascinating work of the technicians who culture the pearls. It makes for an interesting hour or so and then you get the chance to purchase pearls at a discounted rate. The farms themselves are out in the bay with the technical workshops and salesrooms all floating on the water.
Kayaking Through the Lagoons
Virtually all the Halong Bay cruises offer the chance to do some kayaking. This really is fun for all ages. Guides show you the way to go and you get to enter some of the hidden lagoons through small tunnels. It’s great fun amidst amazing scenery. It’s all done at a leisurely pace and is well worth the effort.
Whatever you do in Vietnam you should not pass up on the chance to visit this truly awesome wonder of nature. It is special, of that there is no doubt. From its early development all those millions of years ago to its demise at some point in the future, Halong Bay is undertaking of a journey of its own. We are here at precisely the right moment in time to enjoy it at its peak.
Want to read more from this author? Keith is a travelling writer and lover of all things Southeast Asian. Check out his other articles for more of his travelling tales.