Situated in the Gulf of Tonkin, the bay spreads over around 150,000 hectares and includes close to 2,000 limestone islands and karsts emerging from pristine waters. Most islands are uninhabited and covered by dense, green foliage, giving the area a feeling of pure serenity. There are countless places to see and explore here and just as many ways to do it. For more details about what to see and do, which cruise to book and how to get to Ha Long Bay, keep reading!
A Short History of Ha Long Bay
Developed over millions of years, Vinh Ha Long or the Bay of the Descending Dragon, as it is known in Vietnamese, has been inhabited for nearly 20,000 thousand years, most notably by the Soi Nhụ (16,000–5000 BC) and Cái Bèo (5000–3000 BC) culture. Today several archeological sites show evidence of their lives, habits, and cultures, giving insights into how early peoples survived and thrived in this area.
In the Middle Ages, Ha Long Bay was an important naval defense base. Several invasion attempts were successfully fought off, including those by Chinese fleets. Local generals used their intimate knowledge of the bay and its countless islands to outwit and defeat their opponents in creative ways. The most notable is General Trần Hưng Đạo who had steel-tipped poles placed underwater and thereby damaged and sank a large number of Mongol leader Kublai Khan’s ships in 1288.
During the American-Vietnamese War, the United States Navy placed mines in some areas of the bay to ward off attacks. To this day, this causes issues with shipping, however, all areas accessed by tourists are completely safe.
When to go to Ha Long Bay
The climate in Ha Long Bay is tropical with two main seasons: a hot, wet summer and a dry, cool winter. Average temperatures go from 15 °C – 25°C.
The best time to visit this area is from March to May and from September to November. During these months, the weather is largely dry and quite pleasant, especially if you are not used to heat and humidity. At this time, you’ll also find the largest variety of interesting activities available, so if you’re planning on spending a few days and trying plenty of different things, this is the time to go.
The low season in Ha Long Bay is from May to September. It can get pretty hot during this time which is why fewer people travel then. If you’re on a budget, you might want to consider these months as you will likely get a good deal from most cruise companies.
Going early in the year, from January to March, will assure you cool weather but you risk having a lot of fog. While this can create a beautiful, eerie atmosphere, you might find that you would have preferred November’s clear blue skies for better views and nicer photos.
July and August should be avoided as they can be quite stormy and rainy. At best you will face a lot of mist and low visibility, and at worst, your cruise or other activities might be canceled (or extremely uncomfortable) due to turbulent weather, strong winds and waves.
How to Get to Ha Long Bay
When you’re planning your trip to Ha Long Bay, there’s a lot to be aware of. It’s a very popular destination for visitors, both local and international, so of course, the scammers are never far. This is why we recommend you go to Hai Phong City first, then to Cat Ba Island and start your trip from there. You’ll be less likely to fall prey to some kind of trick and have an easier time finding tours and activities you enjoy.
To get to Hai Phong and then Cat Ba, there are several options:
Bus line: Hoang Long Bus/Boat/Bus Combination. (You can book it here!)
Price: 170,000 – 250,000 VND (may fluctuate seasonally)
Duration: 4.5 hours (Hanoi to Cat Ba Town)
From Cat Bi airport – Hai Phong city
Take a taxi (100,000 VND on the meter) or motorbike taxi (80,000 VND) to Ben Binh Harbor from the airport. From there, take either the Hydrofoil or the Hadeco boat. The fastest from Ben Binh is Hoang Yen Hydrofoil.
Price: 180,000 VND
Duration: 45 minutes – 1 hour
For more details on how to get to Ha Long Bay quickly and safely, check out our article dedicated to this topic. There we’ve collected all the latest information about transportation options and costs to help you make the best choice.
What to See and Do in Ha Long Bay
Whether you want a relaxing trip to enjoy time with your family and friends or prefer the occasional adrenalin rush and exciting outdoor activities, Ha Long Bay offers something for everyone.
While some cruises offer the chance to relax on spacious decks and take in the amazing views, others will let you take a kayak to explore your surroundings more closely. Tired from all the paddling? Make sure your cruise includes a stop at a quiet beach where you can relax and enjoy the sun. Or maybe you prefer a crazy party with fellow backpackers from around the world? This too can be arranged!
Whatever it is and however much you can/want to spend, you’re sure to find something that will work for you. To get a good idea about all the different options there are, see this article on how to best explore Ha Long Bay, whether you want to chill out, have adventures, party or take your family on the trip of a lifetime.
Which Islands to Visit in Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay is home to countless islands, which can make it feel a bit overwhelming to choose which ones you want to include on your trip. Depending on your cruise packages, you will be stopping at some of the most popular islands, but if you feel like you’re missing out, you can always catch a boat on your own to get to the places you really want to see.
Here’s a brief overview:
Cat Ba Island
The largest island in the area, Cat Ba is where many visitors start their tour of Ha Long Bay. But there’s a bunch to see on the island itself as well, such as the national park which covers most of the island and some interesting remnants of the Vietnam War. While the main town is nothing special, you can enjoy the pristine nature, untouched jungle and beautiful beaches here. The wonderful and rather quiet Lan Ha Bay can also be reached from Cat Ba, so if you have some extra time, this is something you should add to your itinerary.
Dao Ti Top
If beaches are your thing, this place is for you. Plan a stop here to spend some time on the famed Ti Top beach with its fine white sands and crystal-clear water. Lay out in the sun, sip a cocktail and enjoy the views of the bay and the lush, green landscape surrounding you. And even if beaches are not so much your thing, Dao Ti Top is worth a visit to discover the tropical forests and enjoy delicious local cuisine.
Dau Be Island
Another beautiful destination to include in your itinerary is Dau Be island. It’s known for its stunning landscape and rock formations, complete with lakes and caves. The adventurous traveler will find their joy here while exploring hidden nooks and crannies and leaving the crowds behind.
Ban Mun Island
Another larger island in Ha Long Bay is Ban Mun Island. Stop here if you are looking for beach less frequented than Ti Top but with equally beautiful tropical greenery and breathtaking landscapes.
Cong Tay Island
If you’re venturing out of Ha Long Bay into the neighboring Bai Tu Long, make sure this island is on your list. It’s not nearly as well known as some of the others and therefore offers quiet beaches perfect for a relaxing afternoon. Hotels and hostels here are very simple and basic, so if you’re a budget-minded traveler, this is your paradise.
Cong Do Island
Also located in Bai Tu Long, Cong Do is a fun place with several things to see. It features one of the highest mountains in the bay, a salt lake home to plenty of local plants and wildlife and an interesting old port that has played an important role in sea trade for many years.
Of course, there are plenty more islands to see! To make the choice easier for you, we’ve created a more detailed guide on Ha Long Bay’s many islands for you, which will be released soon. Check it out to find the best destinations for your trip, learn how to get there and find your way around.
Outdoor Activities in Ha Long Bay
With the many wonderful islands and pristine waters, it comes as no surprise that there are tons of activities to take part in while you are exploring Ha Long Bay. While booking your cruise, be sure to check what they include and pick the one with the things that most interest you. Also, be aware of what is inclusive in the price and what you will have to pay extra to avoid any unpleasant surprises.
The most common activities by far are kayaking, swimming, and beach games. The bay’s gentle waves and countless beaches pretty much make these past-times a must. You can also get tours of the many caves, most notably Hang Sung Sot or Thein Cung. It’s like stepping into another world full of eerie yet enchanting sights and sounds.
Many visitors also enjoy treks on some of the islands’ hills and through the tropical forests. That way you get a great feel for the local flora and fauna and see an unforgettable close-up of Ha Long that you’d miss if you stayed on the boat. And if you want to end the experience with a thrill, there are great places for some cliff jumping too. Be sure to have a good guide show you where though so you are safe.
To get some more details on things to do in and around Ha Long Bay, check out our more detailed article (for ideas on what to do where, how much it should cost etc. Then get started planning your trip!
All-inclusive Tours in Ha Long Bay
The way to explore Ha Long Bay is by boat so you can get out into the bay and see the beautiful limestone formations and their lush greenery up close. But the sheer volume of tour boats and cruises available can make it hard to know which one is the right one. There are many operators offering tours for all kinds of different budgets so do some careful research and read past visitor’s reviews to avoid falling prey to the numerous scams.
The great thing is that there are so many different options. Whether you are looking for a trip with great value for money, a luxurious junk with elegant rooms or an option that includes entertainment for kids and families, you will find a match. One that I recommend for travelers who are strapped for time is the one day Ha Long Bay Adventure offered by Onetrip. The spotlight of the tour is that Onetrip keeps you away from the crowds of tourists and takes you to a pristine destination in the south of Ha Long Bay, Lan Ha Bay. Comprised of over 2,000 limestone karsts jutting out of the emerald waters, Lan Ha Bay has an unspoiled and magnificent natural beauty. You will board a private wood cruise boat around the many limestone karsts, visit floating fishing villages, caves, and islands, and have your own lunch prepared and served on the boat. There are also opportunities to go kayaking, swimming, and bask in the warm sunlight. Not to mention that the Onetrip guides are dedicated to making you laugh and taking photos of you while they do it. You will definitely have the best photos after the tour! Book Ha Long Bay Adventure for your next amazing trip in Vietnam.
There are several ways to explore Ha Long Bay, and one of my personal favorites is taking a boat through the watery landscape. Choose between staying on your own private boat or sharing the cabin with other guests, either way this will be an unforgettable experience. All of the operators below offer tours covering three options: one full day, two days, and three days.
V’Spirit Cruises: This is a mid-range Ha Long Bay cruise that comes with great service and awesome tour guides. Actually, the tour guides are the stars of the tour! They’re very hospitable and helpful with in-depth knowledge about Ha Long.
Contact: +84 4 3247 4488
Price range: from 69 USD
Swan Cruise: Similar to V’Spirit Cruise, Swan offers budget-friendly tours with good quality. You will stay in a clean and spacious cabin cared for by an enthusiastic crew. They also have kayaking and onboard entertainment activities included in the trip!
Contact: +84 9 8587 3537
Price range: from 60 USD
Azalea Cruises: If you’re looking for a luxury boat trip in Ha Long Bay that takes you to pristine destinations, try this cruise. Premium facilities together with a professional team to assist you make this trip a winner. Also, you can enjoy a whole lot of interesting activities on board such as cooking, squid fishing, or even tai chi and musical performances!
Contact: +84 09 3663 8069
Price range: from 160 USD
Alisa Premier Cruise: This is considered the “five-star” cruise of Ha Long Bay. Their suites are superb with fine wooden furniture and high-quality amenities. Opened in 2017, it’s also quite new compared to other lines.
Contact: +84 024 3689 5999 / +84 024 3868 5666
Price range: from 255 USD
Halong Bay Tours: This boat and cruise service is offered by Blue Dragon Tours, a decent tour operator that organizes trips in this area. They partner with many famous cruise lines in Ha Long Bay: Indochina Junk, Paradise Cruises, Aphrodite Cruises, etc. so you can have a better price. They also have a great variety of information on cruise types, ranging from honeymoon to family cruise. This website is perfect for those who want to make price comparisons among Ha Long cruises.
Contact: +84 946 505 505
Price range: from 50 USD
For more tour options that you can pick from, click here. We outline some great, trustworthy operators that have an excellent track record. Have a look and you might just find the ideal tour for you!
Local Foods to Try in Ha Long Bay
Do you love seafood? Then you’ve come to the right place! If you’ve already been traveling around Vietnam for a while you will probably have tasted great dishes already, but Ha Long Bay takes this to a whole new level. Here you are right at the source for some of the country’s most popular dishes, so be sure to try the following specialties and the many dishes made with them.
This mollusk is similar to clams but quite different in its flavor. While you can find it along most of Vietnam’s coast, Ha Long and the surrounding area is where it gets its fame. There are many ways you can enjoy Ngan. Depending on the chef and which dish he’s preparing, Ngan will be steamed, boiled or grilled and be served with rice or other vegetables. If you’re up for it, you can even have it for breakfast with some porridge. For the really courageous, there is Ngan blood wine, a liquor mixed with the juice of the mollusk. Interested?
Ha Long Snails
The variety of snails in Ha Long Bay is close to endless. And the supply is so rich that there are entire restaurants that dedicate themselves to serving this delicious seafood. Take the time and try the snails in different restaurants and you’ll see some of the beautiful varieties. Typically, they serve this with a tangy sauce made of fish sauce, rice vinegar, chili, sugar, and ginger. The snails come in all shapes and sizes, so if you wash and clean a few of them after your meal they will make a beautiful souvenir of your trip.
Ha Long Prawn
Ha Long Bay is home to a rich variety of shrimp but the most popular, among both locals and foreign visitors are the prawns and lobsters. Local preparations of these exclusive specialties include breading and frying them or steaming them together with a combination of herbs and spices to bring out the light natural flavor. Whether or not you consider yourself a serious foodie or gourmand, this is something you don’t want to miss out on.
In the Area: Hanoi
If northern Vietnam is your first stop, you are likely flying into Hanoi and heading to Ha Long Bay from there. This city is rich in cultural, religious and architectural heritage, so be sure to spend at least one or two days discovering its sights, traditional neighborhoods as well as tasting the famed local cuisine.
A busy city, Hanoi welcomes you with a plethora of sights, sounds and smells to take in. It’s a great place to start your trip to Vietnam and offers you a wonderful look at how modernity meets tradition. Go for a stroll through Hoan Kiem District, the city’s old town and marvel at the tiny streets where everything imaginable is sold in family-run shops, from push-carts, and on sidewalks.
Wandering through this maze you’ll come across some of the city’s delicious specialties such as bun cha, a yummy noodle dish with pork strips and cha ca, a seafood dish prepared like a hot pot. Wash it all down with a cool cha da (iced tea) or for some extra energy, get the local iced coffee, ca phe sua da. Do it like the locals and grab a small plastic stool and just do some people watching… it never gets boring.
Hanoi is also a great place to start trips to other cities. From the two main bus stations, you can reach pretty much any place in the country in a matter of hours. Have some extra time on your hands? Head out to Ha Giang, Sapa or Ninh Binh. They are all worth it!
In the Area: Ninh Binh Province
If you have some time to spare after exploring Ha Long Bay, Ninh Binh Province deserves to be on your itinerary. It’s about 200km south of Hanoi and can be reached in about three hours from the capital. Getting there is easy as there are several trains and buses. You can also rent your own motorbike if you have a license and feel comfortable riding for such a long distance.
So why should you visit Ninh Binh? It’s a beautiful area, full of verdant mountains, hidden pagodas, and other breathtaking natural sights. If getting out into the green and spending time away from the hustle and bustle of big cities is your thing, Ninh Binh’s incomparable landscape of hills, mountains and lush forests are ideal for you. Travelers and locals alike are so impressed with it that many people actually call it the Ha Long Bay on land.
The area has tons to offer, but to explore it well you should rent your own motorbike once you’re there. It will make it that much easier to travel around the area and get to those tucked-away spots. You can also rent a bicycle but know that the noteworthy places are quite scattered so you might get tired before you’ve seen them all.
Head to Trang An to see mystical grottoes and the beautiful Hoa Lu Temple and Bai Dinh Pagoda. If you’re an animal lover, you might enjoy Thung Nham Bird Garden. In neighboring Tam Coc you can go for a scenic bike ride through expansive rice fields or take a boat around the area to see if from a different perspective. If you feel like you can take another temple, visit Bich Dong Pagoda and Hang Mua Temple. Close by Van Long and Cuc Phuong have wonderful nature reserves where you can go for long walks and treks in the tropical forest and immerse yourself in the abundant greenery. To cool off and relax, stop by Dich Long Cave and the adjacent pagoda as well as Phat Diem Cathedral, which is well worth seeing thanks to its blend of European and Vietnamese architectural styles.
While it might seem like a lot to research and plan, a trip to Ha Long Bay is more than worth the effort. Do your homework to make sure you have an unforgettable experience in one of nature’s seven new wonders of the world. Cruising around the countless islands and karsts is an incomparable experience you will remember and cherish for a lifetime.
If you enjoyed reading this article and would like some more fun info about what to see, do, and eat (and a bunch of interesting cafes!) in Vietnam, follow us at the Christina’s Blog!