Descending Dragon, Oblivious Tourist?
How to make the best of Halong Bay and NOT be an oblivious tourist
Even the legend of Halong Bay is quite magical. It is said that during ancient times (let’s say 3rd century BCE, according to Wikipedia), when Vietnam was just established, the Viet people were fighting fierce invaders from the north. Seeing their plight, the gods sent the Mother Dragon and her children to protect the country by spraying the area with turquoise and jade, which turned into a defensive wall of limestone karsts. Unable to pass, the enemy turned around defeated. After the war, the dragons stayed on earth, and as the water rose, they became a part of the landscape. Halong literally means “descending dragon”, while Bai Tu Long (one of the bays that forms the larger area which is referred to as Halong Bay) – means “thanks to the dragon children”.
Wait, there’s more than one bay??
So as you may have already gathered there is more than one bay. Although Halong get’s all the attention, there are actually two other bays – Bai Tu Long Bay (yes, the dragon children) and Lan Ha Bay. And there may be good reason to get to know the other two. Bai Tu Long Bay is the least developed by the local tourism industry. The vibe here is more local, especially if you head to some of the fishing villages, there are fewer boats and smaller crowds at the main stops (more on those in the section below). Lan Ha has already seen some tourism, so less secluded, but it’s good for kayaking as well as for access to Cat Ba Island where you can hike and cycle.
-Halong Bay – 3.5-4 hours from Hanoi (146km); ships depart from Tuan Chau Marina
-Bai Tu Long Bay – 3-3.5 hours from Hanoi (136km); ships depart from Hon Gai Port
-Lan Ha Bay – 2 hours (153km); ships depart from Got Ferry Terminal (it takes less time to cover more distance here because of the new highway which has been built with better road conditions)
NB: Be informed that many cruise companies which offer transfer from Hanoi Old Quarter to the ports, will stop for a 15-30 minute shopping trip along the way. You are not required to buy anything, but this is not always a fun surprise that you are forced to waste time rather than get to your destination. Some of the nicer cruise companies will no do that.
The best way to see Halong Bay…and the other two
The classic way to see Halong Bay is by taking an overnight cruise. There are 1-day cruise options, but given the 3-4 hour journey from Hanoi, it makes for a very rushed trip. It’s best to enjoy a more leisurely pace and an evening of sipping a cocktail on deck rather than fighting evening traffic. During the cruise, the staff arrange for a few activities – kayaking, short treks or cave explorations and happy hours, cooking demonstrations or even deck parties in the evenings. You should ask the cruise company or the agent for the itinerary before you book. Here are some of the main points of interest in Halong Bay, where many of the cruise companies go to:
-Titov Island – named after a Russian cosmonaut who visited the island, this place is good for a short yet steep hike (400 steps worth) and some spectacular view from the top. This one is very popular.
-Song Sot (Surprise) cave – an impressive sized cave with many stalactites of several chambers. However this is the most popular cave, which can mean extensive queues.
-Trong (Drum) cave – this one is not that impressive in it self, but cruise companies typically set up kayaking spots around here.
-Bồ Nâu cave – not too deep, but an impressive amount of stalactites and stalagmites
Bai Tu Long Bay
-Cap La Island – near the island is a fishing village which you can kayak around.
-Thie Canh Son cave - a rather extensive cave that can be walked through, but as it is the only cave in Bai Tu Long Bay, it can get crowded
-Vung Vieng fishing village – sectioned off in a hidden bay, you have to kayak to get to the floating village where locals sell fruit from their boats.
Lan Ha Bay
-Cat Ba Island – the largest island in the area where you can cycle, climb up to Fort Canning for a good view or visit fishing villages
-Viet Hai village – this one is actually on a remote part of Cat Ba Island, if you come at the right time you can see the villagers at work plowing their fields by ox
Aside from taking a cruise, the other option is to stay on Cat Ba. Here you can book a hotel and stay on shore for a few days to enjoy the views of Halong Bay from Cannon Fort (on top of a 177 meter hill, a look out point built during the French colonial times), head to Monkey Island, explore Hospital Cave or just cruise around on a motorbike exploring the different beaches and small fishing villages.
I’ve heard this place is for tourists…
No two ways about it – Halong Bay is definitely one of the most popular destinations in South East Asia. Given the UNESCO Heritage Site title and spectacularly unique nature, it makes sense. Of course this means that you will get to see a lot of other travellers in between the limestone karts. And the by-product of “other travellers” such as rubbish in the water. There are increasingly more efforts by various cruise companies to clean up the area. Some are even starting to use clean fuels. You can do your part by choosing a company that is trying to improve the situation.
You can also avoids the main crowds by heading to Bai Tu Long Bay, which is much bigger than the other bays (it takes up about two thirds of the area composed of the three bays) and is frequented by less people. A few of the companies that operate from there are Swan and Garden Bay.
In our opinion it’s a MUST see. It’s like going to Paris for the first time and not seeing the Eiffel Tower.
The recommended way to get there is by private transport, which is arranged by the cruise company and takes about 2-4 hours (depending on which bay you are headed to). Make sure to check if the transfer is included in the price of the cruise (sometimes it may not be, and will run an additional US$10-20 return).
Of course there are options by public transport as well. You may want to take the bus, if you are not going on a cruise and rather heading to Cat Ba to stay on shore. You can catch a mini bus from Gia Lam. Price is around VND 120K and the journey will take 4-5 hours. The bus will drop you off at Bai Chay. Another option is a more comfortable bus from My Dinh Bus Station (tickets are VND 100K) with the same drop off point as the mini bus. From there you can take a ferry to Cat Ba (be mindful of the ferry schedule as you could miss the last one for the day if you leave Hanoi too late). If you are taking a cruise from Tuan Chau Port, you can hire a motorbike taxi, which should run you about VND 40K. Similar pricing for the other two cruise terminals.