Consider every superlative you know, such as idyllic, mysterious, magnificent, breath taking, beautiful, wonderful, etc. etc. and you are just on the cusp of almost adequately describing the splendour of Ha Long Bay, that means descending dragon bay. It’s one of those few places, for example, like Uluru (Ayres Rock) in Australia or the Grand Canyon in the United States of America, that has to be seen to be believed and cannot, no matter how well taken, be adequately captured through pictures. The 1992 Academy Award and Golden Globe winning film, Indochine, with its brilliant cinematography, comes the closest of all to portraying the mesmeric allure of this UNESCO World Heritage listed area.
Ha Long Bay is located in northeastern Vietnam, around 150 kilometres to the east of Hanoi, and encompasses an area of some 1,500 km2 of over 3,000 limestone islets bordering the Gulf of Tonkin. The most visited area of Ha Long Bay is its core of around 450 km2 that has in the vicinity of 750 limestone islets, that have been formed over the last 500 million years.
The effect is stunning with numerous grey limestone monolithic islets that displays karsts (geologic formations shaped by the dissolution of layer or layers of the soluble limestone) of various sizes and shapes appearing to have just leaped out of Ha Long Bay’s tranquil waters. Some of the islets have exposed, sheer, faces that are devoid of any flora with other islets being covered in lush tropical foliage with sea caves, grottos, beaches and vast internal caves.
Visiting Cat Ba Island, Titop Island and Tuần Châu Island is very popular, as they all rise spectacularly from the waters of Ha Long Bay with dense jungle and magnificent cave systems, which contain large stalactites and stalagmites, together with relaxing tourist facilities including hotels (Cat Ba Island) and stunning beaches.
Also arising majestically from the waters are numerous other limestone features, including “Kissing Rocks” two extraordinary shaped limestone features that are much photographed and were depicted in the 1997 James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies. Surprisingly, to many westerners, Ha Long Bay is also home to many Vietnamese who live on floating villages, where the residents cultivate fish farms and have a thriving tourist trade through the sale of snacks, souvenirs and the like, together with the hire of sea kayaks that can be used for closer exploration of the many wonders of this area.
Travelling to Ha Long Bay is easy with a variety of trips being able to be booked from any accommodation in Hanoi, that generally involve a mini bus ride to Ha Long City and then embarkation on a boat to cruise the waters. There are numerous cruises available ranging from single to multiple days and the shoreline of Ha Long City is full of pleasure craft, ranging in size, carrying capacity and standard of accommodation, just waiting for hire! Spending at least one night on Ha Long Bay is recommended as it is really the only way of seizing the moment and soaking up the atmosphere of this natural wonder, together with the joy of experiencing both dusk and dawn on the waters. Also, most cruises take the advantage of buying fresh seafood at the floating villages for their evening meals!
If your budget is able to stretch that far, you are able to charter a light aircraft from Hanoi or even charter a helicopter to experience Ha Long Bay’s beauty. However, nothing compares to cruising on one of the local craft with at least an overnight onboard stay.
Dependent upon the time of the year that you travel, the skies over Ha Long Bay will either be clear or shrouded with mist. Don’t despair, any time of the year is fantastic to cruise Ha Long Bay as even a heavy fog just adds to the ethereal nature of Ha Long Bay.
Along with spending some time in Ha Long City, it is well worthwhile visiting Hai Phong, Vietnam’s largest and busiest port which retains its considerable charm. Hai Phong possesses a township atmosphere that has some fine examples of classical French colonial architecture that belies its status as Vietnam’s third largest city. It is hard to believe that during the 1960s and 1970s Hai Phong was the heaviest defended sea port in the world. Time heals all wounds.
Without doubt, there is no other place on earth like Ha Long Bay and a visit, no matter how short or long or whatever the time of year, will provide you with enjoyable lifelong memories.