Ha Long bay in the northeast of Vietnam is one of the world’s most awe inspiring places. There’s really nothing quite like wayfaring by boat through the vast network of karst rock formations which rise out of the water like the spines of slumbering dragons.
In fact, the name itself means descending dragon: As Vietnamese legend has it, the people prayed for a miracle when under attack from the north, and in response the Emperor Jade sent down a family of dragons to protect them. Ha Long Bay is where the mother dragon was said to have come to rest when the battle was done.
Most Ha Long Bay cruises last 2 days, and in truth, you’ll be at the mercy of your tour organiser in terms of what activities you’ll be getting up to, but here’s a quick run down through the main things you can expect to get up to in 48 hours in Ha Long Bay.
Checking out Cat Ba island
Your Ha Long Bay cruise may well begin here, again depending on your tour organizer, but don’t just view Cat Ba Island as a gateway to Ha Long Bay, it’s a lush jungle island with a national park, beautiful seafront and myriad sheltered coves and beaches. Take a hike through the national park if you have the time, all the way to the secluded Viet Hai Fishing Village, or just lay on the beach and enjoy the distant view of limestone karst mountains on the horizon. These aren’t a part of Ha Long Bay FYI, rather it’s Lan Ha Bay, Ha Long’s neighbor.
For a fix of history, make a quick visit to the Cat Ba Hospital Cave, which is exactly what the name suggests -- a hospital built into a cave, where wounded soldiers were cared for during the Vietnam War. After, head up to the canon and Cat Ba Fort, built by the ascendant Japanese during WWII. Even if you’re not a history buff, the view out over the bay is something else.
Sung Sot Cave
Naturally, Ha Long Bay is home to around 60 official caves, but Sung Sot Cave, officially discovered by the French in 1901 is the biggest and most jaw dropping of the lot. You climb around 100 steps up the exterior of the rock face with exceptional views over the bay before descending into the echoey chambers of the cave. A smaller amphitheatre leads to a magnificent hall fit to hold a thousand people, where stalactites and stalagmites crawl out from the rock face.
It’s located on Bo Hon Island right in the middle of Ha Long Bay, and is a staggering 10,000m2 in size (that’s about 2 football fields), while the ceiling of the cave is an average of 30m high. While in Sung Sot Cave, you’ll likely hear a number of legends and fanciful tales of horses, swords and mammoths that have become immortalized in the rocks.
Kayaking in Ha Long Bay
This is a part of pretty much every Ha Long Bay tour. Hop off your cruiser and into a kayak to do some more intimate exploring of the area. The waters vary in depth, so the bigger boats can’t access all areas. You’ll see oyster farms in the shallow waters, visit caves and secret lagoons hidden inside rock formations and only accessible via human sized breaks in the rock.
Visiting the floating Fishing Villages
Popular lore has it that the residents of Ha Long bay are born on the water, live their lives on the water, and die on the water, making their living by fishing and farming oysters, and rarely setting foot on dry land.
It’s a story that becomes a little easier to believe when you catch a glimpse of the residences they’ve built. While docked along a network of boardwalks, their boats serve as houses and even shop fronts, which can of course take to the waters at any moment to go fishing. It’s a true example of a circular economy.
Ha Long Bay is home to three major floating villages, and any Ha Long Bay tour ought to prioritize a visit to one of these characteristic places.
There are plenty of islands to stop at for a while on Ha Long Bay, but Monkey Island might be the most memorable, and makes for a great place to catch the sunset from the beach. The island is what its name suggests - home to hundreds of monkeys who frolic around on the branches behind the beach. You’d do well not to get to close as they’re used to getting their way, and a monkey bite would be a great way to ruin your day - just leave them to their own devices and laugh at their antics from a distance! If you’re not one for laying on the beach the whole time, take a hike up to the lookout at the peak of the island and catch yet another photogenic view.
Cooking Class & Karaoke
Most Ha Long Bay tour cruises will include a touch of local flavour in their itinerary while on board. You’ll learn how to create a number of simple, delicious Vietnamese dishes including rice paper spring rolls, which of course you can indulge in after! You might also be offered a spot of karaoke, which seems to be something of a national past time. Spend an hour almost anywhere in Vietnam and you’re bound to hear the echoes of backing track supported wailing! A speaker is wheeled out and mic'd up, music blares, and no voice is considered too tonedeaf or screeching!
Night Swimming with the Luminescent Plankton
One of the most enchanting feelings on the planet is that of taking a night time dip, and seeing the water around you light up like stardust as you paddle. Some lagoons around Ha Long and its neighbouring bays are lesser known hot spots for bioluminescent waters. It’s not the water itself that’s glowing by the way, rather it’s the millions of plankton floating around that react to your movements.
Make sure before booking your Ha Long Bay Tour to ask if you’ll be allowed a spot of night swimming so as not to miss such a magical experience.