I believe the best way to describe Halong bay, is not to try to. Better to just check out the many pictures you no doubt have seen, which attracted you to want to visit Vietnam in the first place! The scenery is unique and relaxing, with thousands of small limestone karst outcroppings dotting the 1500 sq km bay. Most of them small and vertical which have kept humans from ever living there, and others larger that have sustained fishing villages over the past 200 years. I love watching the locals set off to fish in their traditional wooden boats, hearing the single engine putt-putt-putt-putt pierce the quiet while docked, watching birds launch as the lush green islands glide by. And just relaxing on our boat.
There are different ways to experience Halong bay, and its neighboring Bai Tu Long Bay, and Lan Ha Bay. Both have the same beautiful experience, but Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay are less touristic and hide in it more blue lagoons, untouched beaches and caverns. There are different Junk levels from basic (2 – 3*) to luxurious top 5*. Plus, you can choose:
- An overnight, for one or two nights – if you want to relax more, not be so rushed, enjoy drinks and the sunset on your boat, and the peace of the night in a quiet bay. A clear full moon night on the deck is unforgettable, and Tai Chi on the top deck in the morning at sunrise is equally amazing. You’ll also likely have more time to become more immersed in the environment, through a variety of activities. I recommend at least one night, while two nights will allow your Junk to cruise farther from land (and to the less visited, quieter areas).
- Visit the traditional floating fishing villages – Jump onto a smaller boat, that will take you to an island in the bay where villagers lived and fished for 200 hundred years, all but isolated from mainland society until the 1990’s. You’ll transfer to a small row boat, that will guide you past the floating homes and fishing areas, with the historical story of the fishing villagers behind it. The villages are no longer active, however, as of only 2014. Heavy tourism to the villages actually caused the demise of the very villages that people came to see, causing most residents to be transferred to the mainland, where their traditional way of life lives on only in the stories you will hear along the way, the structures that remain for you to admire, and the few residents that remain to support your visits.
- Kayaking – It’s great to admire the islands from your cruise boat, but paddling your kayak up close to or around an island is great. You might get to stop at a secluded beach, paddle through small caverns, or a crystal blue lagoon. The excursion is always guided and safety is top priority. This is really worth it in my opinion, especially in the less busy areas.
- Swimming – Some cruises will stop at a beach to spend an hour in the water, which is usually warm and fun.
- Hiking – No rock formation in the bay is that high, but the view from the top of any of them is worth the climb!
- Caves – As an experienced amateur cave explorer, I was really surprised and amazed by Surprise Cave, definitely worth a stop. Other caves on the bay are Thien Cung, Dau Go, Thien Canh Son and Tien Ong Cave.
- Cat Ba is the biggest island in Ha Long Bay, around 1 hour by ferry from Tuan Chau island, or 4 hours by traditional wooden boat from Ha Long wharf. The island can also be reached by speed boat from Binh wharf in Hai Phong port city. The national park is home to the endangered Cat Ba Langur. Besides wildlife, Cat Ba island also has some good beaches for swimming (man-made), trekking, and cheap fresh seafood.
- Seaplane – you can take a 25-minute sightseeing flight, taking in all the highlights of the bay, with amazing views over the magnificent landscape of limestone pillars reaching up from the green waters. The seaplane takes off from local Tuan Chau Marina, or you can choose a full package, taking a seaplane roundtrip from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay and back, with 25 minutes of sightseeing around the bay in between.
Get in as many activities as you can! Kayaking, hiking, cave exploring, and swimming. You’ll want to stay for 2 nights if you want to feel more like you are exploring and not simply visiting with other tour groups. Cat Ba Island is also renowned for a full day trekking through its National Park, biking on a picturesque and isolated road to Viet Hai village (a remote village on the backside of the island), taking a boat trip to its surrounding solitary beaches, overnight at a bamboo hut, BBQ dinner on a “Robinson Crusoe” island and paddling (kayaking) to explore hidden caves and beaches for 2, 3 days. Hop on a motorbike and ride around Cat Ba Island, take in panorama view of the bay from cannon fort, visit the hospital cave (cement bunkers built in a cliff carved out of the mountain with different function rooms) and hear its war stories, swim on abandoned beaches and meet friendly villagers.
Stay 2 nights, or even 3, and choose one of the higher end boats for a wonderful room made from local materials, private balcony, a fantastic menu, and a relaxing pace. Some new cruises apply VIP treatment with private butler service and spacious cabins from 35m2 to 55m2, equipped with Jacuzzi and luxuriously decorated in details and theme. Or we will even book you a private charter boat with activities tailored to exactly what you enjoy. Drinks on the deck or on your own private balcony, surrounded by all the islands, clapping waves, twinkling water, gentle breeze and starlight sky.
Ha Long bay attracts families with its sea, sun and sand. Get off your boat and you can swim as much as you want on Titop beach. Approach a un-touch beach by kayaking (you can use double kayaking, mother or father with a child). You can teach your children into environmental protection activities such as collecting baggage in water, picking up plastic bags and empty bottles on beaches…
Leave your boat and climb up to a cave where your kids will be surprised with amazing formations and with imagination, they can try to guess what the formations look like--an elephant, an eagle, a wolf, a cat…
At night when the junk docks in a quiet area for overnight, your kids can join in squid fishing. They will be taught how to fish for squid by a fishing rod without hook, using only reflective plastic bait.
Biking in Cat Ba Island is also an interesting activity for children. Visit a seafood market, where your kids can see live crabs and snails, or geckos in iron cages. Take a 10 minute boat from Beo pier to Monkey Island, bring a picnic lunch and you can swim, sunbath and play with monkeys for a whole day (watch out when you eat or the monkey will pick up your food very fast!).
Fresh seafood is served in all lunches and dinners on boats. Full board meals are included in your cabin price. You will have a lunch, a dinner on 1st day, a light breakfast (tea, coffee and pastry) before a buffet brunch on 2nd day. Most boats serve buffet meals if they have over 15 clients each departure. Some 5* cruises serve Asian or Western style set menus on 1st day. But generally, food is abundant, various and delicious.
Before dinner on day 1 of the cruise, a cooking class will take place on sundeck or in dining room. You will learn some Vietnamese appetizers such as fresh springrolls, pancake…order a glass of wine and you will have a perfect sunset observation.
Cat Ba Island is half covered by the National Park, which is home to the endangered Cat Ba langur, also known as Golden-headed langur. By the end of 2000, the “Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project” was initiated. Since then, the langur is strictly protected. All wildlife activities to see this langur are not allowed. Many langur lovers came to the island and took a boat around its small islets with a hope of seeing this langur one time in their life. Yes, they may see the langur far away on top of an island if they’re lucky! Civet, deer, macaque and squirrels are often seen by trekkers during hiking route through the park. It’s recorded that there are 78 bird species, 32 species of mammals, 20 species of reptiles and amphibians, and nearly 200 species of marine fish in Cat Ba National Park.