Ha Long Bay (also "Halong Bay") is in northern Vietnam, 170 km (105 mi) east of Hanoi. The bay is famous for its scenic ocean karst topography and is often included on lists of natural wonders of the world, including the UNESCO World Heritage list.
The Ha Long Bay archipelago is made up of 1,969 islands, both inhabited and uninhabited. These can be accessed from various ports, though in the special case of Cat Ba you can also arrive either by car, motorbike or bus (via Haiphong) or combined bus/boat (from Hanoi via Halong City).
- Ban Sen, a thickly forested, almost uninhabited island reachable by ferries to Quan Lan from Cai Rong.
- Cat Ba, the home of the endangered Cat Ba langur, a national park, numerous caves and the most popular destination in Ha Long Bay for tourists. It can either accessed by local bus and ferry from Hanoi's Lương Yên bus station (recommended), by tourist boat from Halong City (a five hour "hard sell" ordeal; this is what the hordes of Hanoi package tourists do), or by local bus or ferry from Haiphong (less scenic).
- Quan Lạn, a historically significant outlying island with the beginnings of some tourism infrastructure and some beautiful beaches. Reachable by ferry from Cai Rong or also (reportedly) from Halong City.
- Van Don, a large island that is well inhabited, little visited by tourists and connected by road to the mainland near Cửa Ông.
"Ha Long" means "Bay of Descending Dragons" (Chinese: 下龙湾; Xiàlóngwān), though prior to the 19th century this name was not recorded in any document or archive. When mentioning the present-day Quang Ninh Sea or Ha Long Bay, old histories often referred to them by the names of An Bang, Luc Thuy or Van Don. Not until the late-19th century did the name of Ha Long Bay appear on a French maritime chart. The Hai Phong News, a French newspaper of the time, had an article, Dragon appears on Ha Long Bay, reporting the following story: In 1898 a sub-lieutenant named Lagredin, skipper of the Avalanse, reported seeing a huge sea snake in Ha Long Bay. This was also witnessed by many of the crew. Thus emerged the European image of the Asian dragon. Whether this appearance of a strange animal resembling a dragon resulted in the name of Ha Long Bay is unknown.
From Hanoi, you can take a minibus from Gia Lam bus station. Tickets are 90,000 dong, takes approximately 4 hours and the bus will pick up passengers along the way. Air conditioning is minimal, so be prepared to sweat in summer. Larger-sized tourists will not find it to be a pleasant journey, but it is a authentic Vietnamese experience.
You can also hire a private car from Noi bai airport or Hanoi city centre to Halong Bay. There are many providers.
As a mass tourist bound for Cat Ba Island
The vast majority of tourists take a 'tour'. This consists of a morning shuttle bus from their hotel or an agent in central Hanoi to a Halong Port controlled by a mafia that basically only ships people to Cat Ba Island. This gives you the least possible options but can be an easy alternative for time-short tourists. If you do choose this option, standards vary considerably: while comfortable (or even luxurious) boats, excellent food and knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides may be available, most are characterised by long and crowded bus journies, rip-off trips on boats so slow you could swim faster (to get you to buy more food and drink on board), hard-sell add-ons such as brief stops for kayaking, water cave visits and other shady practices. If you must visit Cat Ba, then you can avoid the tourist port entirely by crossing from Haiphong.
- From Nanning in China's Guangxi province, the Nanning International Tourist Distribution Center (有爱南路10号(中华路口); Yǒuàinánlù shí hào (zhōnghuá lùkǒu); #10 You'ai Nanlu on the corner of Zhonghua Lu) provides daily buses to Halong City (170元, 8 hours) at 07:30.
- You can cross the border to Mong Cai and take a taxi from there to Halong Bai. Check the border crossing operation from Mong Cai pages.
The islands can be accessed from various ports:
- Cai Rong, a small port serving the northeastern archipelago.
- Halong City, spanning a portion of the northern part of the archipelago. There are several ports here; at least one port exists that is wholly distinct from the tourist boat piers.
- Haiphong, a large historic port city at the mouth of the Red River.
See and Do
It is best to avoid beaches and swimming until you get to the islands: Depending on the winds, the beach water can be a varying combination between a garbage dump and crystal clear water.
- Tu hài is an expensive gourmet shellfish associated with the Van Don Island district, sometimes called 'snail spout'. It is reputed to have a particularly unique and unforgettable taste. It can be prepared in soup or salads, steamed or baked. Steamed tu hài is sweet and cool, and sometimes mixed with spices.