Halong Bay Destination Guide
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Vietnam’s ethereally beautiful Halong Bay puts the picture in postcard, a true must-see for visitors to the country’s north. With its spectacularly sculpted limestone islets rising from turquoise waters, it’s little wonder the bay earned World Heritage listing in 1994.
And little surprise that you won’t find yourself alone out on the briny. Tours operating everything from kayaks to traditional tangerine-sailed junks and luxury cruisers ply these waters, but with hundreds of islands, you’ll always find another rocky outcrop to hide behind.
The bay speaks for itself and the quicker you get on to it, the better. Halong City is the main gateway, offering gorgeous views of the bay and tours aplenty. They range from a few hours to several days, basic to luxury, with prices to match. Most tours include transport and meals and visits to caves and grottoes, and may offer kayaking, island hikes, on-board movies, tai chi lessons, night fishing or dinner in a candlelit cave. If you have more money than time you can take a helicopter tour from Hanoi or Halong City.
Halong Bay’s thousands of islands are dotted with caves, including the huge Hang Dau Go with three chambers of stalactites and stalagmites, and the aptly named “Surprise Cave” Hang Sung Sot, with its pink-lit phallus-shaped rock dominating the second chamber. Cat Ba Island, Halong Bay’s largest, is a centre for ecotourism and adventure sports including mountain biking, rock climbing, kayaking and hiking.
Where to Eat and Drink
Halong Bay is fittingly famous for its seafood – think crab, prawns, clams and squid. In Halong City seafood fans will find something to love on harbourside D Halong. Floating seafood restaurants cluster in Cat Ba harbour and around the bay in Ben Beo harbour, but be sure to confirm the price up front. Or try the friendly, family-run Commons on Cat Ba Town’s main drag for good local and Western food and cocktails made with care.
You can also pick up a crunchy banh mi baguette from street stalls in any town. If you take the Hanoi-to-Haiphong train, ready to transfer to Cat Ba Island, kill time waiting for the hydrofoil at the raucous, rudimentary Haiphong Brewery beer hall. Wash down chicken wings and deep-fried corn balls with a sparkling brew or two.
Where to Stay
Chances are a floating hotel will be your home on Halong Bay, but if time or circumstance dictate a bed on terra firma, Halong City or Cat Ba are your best bets. Minihotels cluster along D Vuon Dao in Halong City, with a jumble of more upmarket high-rise accommodation along D Halong on the waterfront. Cat Ba Town has a range of mid-priced accommodation, or head over the hill to the Cat Co beaches for beach bungalows.
Bargain and then bargain some more at Halong Night Market in Halong City, where you’ll find trinkets and souvenirs from conical straw hats to kirigami postcards, carved wooden junks to embroidered T-shirts. It’s open seven days a week from 6pm until midnight. You’ll find souvenirs at the daytime Halong Market (open from 6am to 6.30pm) too, along with super-fresh seafood. Try the hot squid balls.
Halong Bay like a Local
The floating villages of Halong Bay retain a unique culture, with tight-knit communities living on boats and floating houses that rise and fall with the tides. The villagers make their livelihood from fishing and aquaculture, and children as young as five can expertly cast fishing nets.
The Cua Van fisherfolk are known for their wedding singing, which you might hear if you visit their village on the 15th day of the lunar month, the traditional date for weddings. Book a tour with an itinerary that includes a visit to the floating villages.