Ha Long Bay
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 in lists of natural wonders of the world.
"Ha Long" means "Bay of Descending Dragons" (Chinese: 下龍灣; Xiàlóngwān,Haa4 Lung4 Waan1), 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 historical books 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 Marine Map. 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, captaining the Avalanse reported seeing a huge sea snake on Ha Long Bay. This was also witnessed by many of the crews. Thus emerged the European image of the Asian dragon. Whether this appearance of a strange animal looking like a dragon resulted the name of Ha Long Bay is not known.
The Ha Long Bay archipelago is made up of 1969 islands, both settled 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).
This unique UNESCO World Heritage Site is a popular place for tourists and it is good to know that large parts of Ha Long Bay are officially protected from development. The islands vary greatly in size and shape as well as structure.
Visitors might want to allow a few days to explore this magical bay as its attractions are extremely numerous.
Independently from Hanoi
There are 4 main ways to transfer from Hanoi to Halong Bay:
- Mini Bus from Gia Lam (Hanoi) to Bai Chay (Ha Long). Tickets are bought at the ticket counter for 120,000 dong. The ride takes 4 to 5 hour with the bus stopping to pick up passengers along the way. If your bus departs Hanoi later then 10:00am it is unlikely that you will make it to Ha Long in time to catch the last ferry to Cat Ba at 3:00pm. Note: City bus number 34 goes to Gia Lam for 5,000 dong from the following bus stops: Van Mieu, Hai Ba Trung, Nha Hat Lon, Bac Co, Chuong Duong. Be sure to wait for the bus on the side of the road where the traffic is flowing east or north. Otherwise you may end up on a longer than intended ride around the city. Do not attempt to board bus #34 from Dien Bien Phu. The bus will run to the end of the line in the opposite direction before turning around and eventually making it to Gia Lam making what should be a short trip a two hour ordeal. [Sep 2013]
- From Bai Chay to Ha Long City/Tourist Wharf a motorbike taxi should cost 10,000 to 20,000 dong.
- From Bai Chay to Tuan Chau Wharf a motorbike taxi should cost 20,000 to 30,000 dong.
- From Ha Long City to Tuan Chau Wharf a motorbike taxi should cost 20,000 to 30,000 dong.
- A taxi to any of these locations could be more than double.
- By open bus: US$15 one way, pick up & drop off at Bus Station
- By shuttle bus: Pick up & drop off passengers in the Ha Noi old quarter. 4-6 hours pending on how many stops en route the driver makes to pick up/drop off passengers. Fare about 10 US/ way.
- By Train: take cargo train from Hanoi to Yen Vien (Gia Lam) and then to Quang Ninh. The train starts at 4.30am and arrives at 11am. The terminal at Ha Long City is near the Bai Chay bus station and about 5km away from the harbour. Expect train delays and cancellations without notice. Hard sleeper only, US$10 one way.(not recommend this transport)
- By rent a car: Email for providers ( VNAT email@example.com ) to take a car from Noibai airport to Halong,or from Hanoi center to Halong bay.
Organised tours from Hanoi
There are many package tours to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi, Standards on these vary considerably: while comfortable - or even downright luxurious - boats, excellent food and knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides may be available, most are characterized by long and crowded bus rides, tourist-oriented 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' like brief stops for kayaking, 'water cave' visits, and other shady practices. So if you must visit Cat Ba, simply avoid the tourist port entirely and cross from Haiphong or another port.
Cat Bi International Airport in Haiphong is roughly 2.5 hours away from Ha Long Bay by road. The metered taxi fare is approximately 850,000 VND but you should be able to negotiate a taxi for under 800,000 VND as there are likely to be more than one taxi operator competing for your business.
From Nanning, Guangxi, China
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, 11 hours) at 08:20.
The islands can be accessed from various ports:
- Haiphong, a large historic port city at the mouth of the Red River that and the fourth largest city in Vietnam
- Halong City, spanning a portion of the northern part of the archipelago. Note that there are multiple ports within this town, in that at least one port exists that is wholly distinct from that of the tourist boat piers.
- Cai Rong, a small port serving the north-easterly part of the archipelago.
Halong Bay Cruise Tips
Although you can visit Ha Long Bay all year round, you'd better plan your cruise carefully. Bad weather affects your vision and even spoils your trip. The best time to visit Ha Long Bay starts is from March to Jun;, avoid crowded public holidays (30 April 30 and 1 May). June through September is low season so you can get better deals but pay attention to storm forecasts. October and November is high season again and it is still sunny. December is cool, cloudy but dry while January and February are cold, foggy and drizzly. The showers will hide the splendour of the bay.
A day cruise will show you a glimpse of Ha Long Bay, yet if you want to get the most out of your trip, allow at least two days. You will be able to see the most stunning moments on Ha Long Bay or its greatest wonder: the sunset, sunrise and a starry or moonlit night.
Booking a Ha Long Bay tour/cruise from Hanoi is easy: you can deal with travel agent, the cruise line operator or at your hotel in Hanoi. It is advisable to shop around and ask clearly for what is included (and, just as importantly excluded) in the package (eg: kayaking & transfers). If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Also, when you book through an agent or hotel, make sure you get a hotline number to contact in an emergency (eg: prohibited cruises due to storm warnings.)
The huge array of slow 'junk' tour boats for package tourists out of Hanoi depart here for Cat Ba Island. As most people taking these boats are on pre-booked tours, the piers are not exactly set up for independent travel. In fact, quite the opposite; you will be approached by hawkers wanting to make a quick buck by selling you tickets for a premium: avoid these guys. What you want to do is get yourself a ticket from the row of counters inside of a building near the waterfront. Tickets are 80,000 dong for 'route 1' which is the standard way to get over the Cat Ba. Wait around there with the locals (the group easy to identify as "not lost looking western tourists") until something happens. For individual tourists not on a tour package from Hanoi, "licensed" agents will approach you upon arrival at Bai Chay Wharf to sell cruise packages to you. Starting prices (for a non-Vietnamese Asian) are 500,000VND for a 4hr cruise (for which you will receive an 80,000VND cruise ticket) and 800,000VND for a 6hr one. If you want to avoid the hassle of buying tickets yourself and not looking like a lost sheep not knowing which cruise to take, do your best to bargain. You could approach the ticket counter directly if you have a Vietnamese-speaking guide along, and the rates will be much lower (remember, it's an 80,000VND ticket), but be prepared to pay higher than the value stated on your ticket due to other surcharges such as mandatory insurance. The tourist boats just stop at an island with two poorly preserved caves, and passengers are hit up for overpriced beers and kayaking ("the water cave") along the way; the whole ordeal takes four or five hours and is really best avoided unless you've never seen a cave before or want to hang out with clueless gap-year tourists. You can talk with the quide, who takes a tourist group on the pier, buying cruise or transfer to Cat Ba with him directly. If they have empty rooms on the boat, they will happy to take you. 2 day 1 night all inclusive cruise is less than 40 USD. An old report claims "There is another government-run ferry leaving the tourist wharf at 12:00 daily costing 100,000 VND per person and takes 5 hours.
A medium quality, 3 day / 2 night cruise including one night on a boat (they may say it is airconditioned but the airconditioning is not likely to work) and one night on Cat Ba island in a 2 star hotel including bus transfers to and from Hanoi, all other transfers, admission to a cave, kayaking, admission to Cat Ba national park and all meals (which are OK in quality but nothing special) should cost around 65 USD when booked from a reputable travel agent in Hanoi (or you could try book through your hotel in Hanoi). Do not book organised tours from Ha Long Bay as they will overcharge you as there is not much competition. When catching a taxi to Bay Chai Wharf at Ha Long Bay many of the taxi drivers will try drop you off at an entrance away from the main terminal where they have friends waiting to try sell you overpriced tours or transfers (be wary if the taxi driver makes a call on his mobile as soon as you are in the taxi). Touts may be wearing identification around their necks to make themselves look official but they are not to be trusted - you are likely to end up on a cheap tour with nothing included (eg. no admissions, no transfers on Cat Ba) despite the touts insisting that everything is included. The touts at Ha Long Bay pier will say anything to get your money and should be avoided if you don't want to be scammed. Pre-booking through a travel agent or your hotel in Hanoi will be a much safer and cheaper option.
- 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.
- Dau Be Island: Visited by commercial cruises to Cat Ba. This is a very popular swimming and diving spot because of its rich coral and deep grottoes with three inland lakes. The grottoes and caves can only be visited by rowing boat at low tide, when access is possible.
- Dau Go Island: Visited by commercial cruises to Cat Ba. A large and heavily damaged cave plastered with multicoloured lights and concrete.
- Bo Hon Island: Visited by commercial cruises to Cat Ba. The Virgin Cave (Hang Trinh Nu) is one of the most famous caves in Halong Bay. It is probably best known for its shrine. Legend claims that a beautiful woman committed suicide in the cave, unable to return home after being forced to marry an old Mandarin. Here her body tuned into stone. Another similar legend says this girl escaped from a Mandarin that forced her to marry him because her father could not pay a debt. When fishermen found her body, they buried her here and built a small shrine inside the grotto. Hung Sung Sot Cave is also on this island and has a steep path lined with shady trees. There are two chambers in the cave with a square-shaped outer chamber and a ceiling about 30 metres high. The inner chamber formations look like sentries conversing with one another and another formation, resembling a general surveying his troops, lies in the middle of the chamber. The moving light reflected from the water outside seems to bring these formations to life. Pelican Cave (Hang Bo Nau) is also popular with tourists. Many of them love to take photos of this cave and its spectacular stalactites hanging from the ceiling.
Halong Bay cruises
It is said that the perfect way to discover and enjoy the world natural wonder is to jump onto a traditional junk sailing to the far-most corners where there are hidden lagoons, unexploited beaches and exotic grottoes that can be found nowhere else in the world. Please be aware that Ha Long Bay is near the major port of Haiphong and therefore suffers from water pollution. It is not uncommon to see piles of rubbish floating in the water and the quality of the water can be dubious for swimming.
There are two popular kinds of cruise itineraries in Halong Bay, day cruise and overnight cruise. Day cruises are created for travelers who just have enough time to soak up the atmosphere and take short glimpse over the must-sees of Halong Bay. Though they are quite short, they include visits to tourist attractions and well-cooked seafood dinner, swimming in the emerald water, kayaking to lagoons of the bay. Overnight cruises which are referred to both one night cruises and two night cruise are designed for travelers who have more time. A general One night Halong Bay Cruise includes activities such as visits to cave, Islands, Kayaking, funny team building games on beaches, sunset watching with a cocktail party, and night actitvities on board while a two night cruise consists of all the activities of one night cruise and an extra day of further visits the far, untouched corner of the bay on smaller boat with a beach barbecue. Both one night cruise and two night cruise include everything but drinks.
- Day Cruises, . From US$ 38/person. edit
- Amazing Halong bay Cruises, . From US$ 75/person. edit
- Budget overnight Cruises (Wooden Junk Cruises), . From US$ 79/person for one night itinerary and from US$ 175/person for two night itinerary, all include shuttle bus transfer. edit
- Luxury overnight Cruises (Violet Cruise), . From US$ 600/2 persons for one night itinerary, these may include shuttle bus transfer or private car transfer from and back to Hanoi. edit
- Wooden cruise (Wooden Cruises), . 2 days. (Their website quote at $248 PER CABIN for one night) From US$ 248/person for 2 days one night and from US$ 205/person for 3 days two night itinerary and many action on cruises. edit
- Halong FantaSea Adventures (Halong FantaSea Adventures), . 2 days. From US$ 799/person for 2 days one night and from US$ 1110/person for 3 days two night itinerary.Very good value for money.. edit
- Private Boat with Personal Crew to serve (Life Heritage Resort Halong Bay Cruises), . From US$ 450/per cabin (2 people) for 2 days one night and from US$ 45/person for 4-hour itinerary (min 4 pax). edit
- Cruise off the beaten Track Halong Bay (Dragon's Pearl Junk - Bai Tu Long Bay Cruises), . 2 days. Only US$ 249/per cabin (2 people) for 2 days one night. edit
Throw away your money
- Halong Bay Casino (Royal International Casino) located by the main road to Bai Chay. Walking here can take you about 10-15 minutes from the wharf. Foreigners need to show a passport to enter and there is no deposit required. A coffee lounge with slot machines on the ground floor is open to all while there are two gambling halls, one on the ground floor (which is closed on week days) while the main hall is up on the first floor. Small.
Eat and Drink
Ngan (Vietnamese: Ngán)/ŋaːn1/ (you must say the word in high tone, if you say "ngan" that means one kind of duck). You can find this bivalve molluscs only in Quang Ninh province. It looks like a clam but much bigger. It is believed very good for human's circulatory system. The locals drink it with wine or cook in porridge or soup. The taste is very good. You can find it in seafood restaurants.
Steamed “Tu Hai”
Tu Hai (Vietnamese: Tu Hài) is the speciality of Van Don Island district, some other places call it snail spout. It is a kind of shellfish, but it is very rare and valuable. If you have enjoyed it once time, you will never forget the special taste of it. You can cook soup or salad with “tu hai” or you can steam or bake it. Steamed “tu hai” is sweet and cool. It's meat mixed with spice and can attract any visitor when he comes here. This is the recipe:
- Choose Tu Hai of a similar size. Soak them in water at 80-90°C for about 3 min.
- Strain and wash them
- Dried onion and garlic, and fresh onion leaves are cut into small pieces, fried in vegetable oil, then mixed with the “tu hai”
- Add fish sauce, soup, monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Steam for 12-15 min.
“Gat Gu” (Vietnamese: Gật gù) cake is similar with steamed rolled rice pancake. It is made from rice flour. When making this kind of cake, the maker have a secret to make it more delicious by adding cold rice. After being done, when we take this kind of cake, it nods repeatedly.
In Viet Nam, “gat gu” means nodding repeatedly, so that the name of this cake is “gat gu”. Here, there is a custom that when eating Gat Gu cake, each one will nod repeatedly three time before eating t o greet their visitors, and visitor also do it again to show their thanks. “Gat gu” cake is quite special and delicious. If you ate it once time, you would never forget it as well as Quang Ninh.