A cruise on Ha Long Bay -- or the Bay of the Descending Dragon -- for many represents the pinnacle of their experience in Vietnam. easily one of the most popular destinations in the country, UNESCO World Heritage-listed Ha Long Bay is both mystical and magnificent, an incredible feat of nature that almost never fails to impress.
Yes, it really is that good.
Last time we counted, UNESCO had picked out 830 World Heritage sites around the world, chosen for their cultural and historical importance, and also for their geological uniqueness. Ha Long Bay offers a little of all three.
It's not the cliffs themselves that make Ha Long Bay unique, but rather their sheer number. A huge bay, dotted with nearly 2,000 mostly uninhabited limestone cliffs, the breathtaking scenery is very similar to that of the Andaman coast of Thailand, Vang Vieng in Laos and Guilin in China.
Created over millions of years, tectonic forces slowly thrust the limestone above the water-line. During this process waves lapping against the stone carved out a number of vast, striking caverns, as well as other geologically interesting formations, such as tunnel caves and uniquely shaped massifs.
Over the ages, Vietnamese fishermen with too much time on their hands began to see shapes in the stone massifs atop many of the islands, and named the islands accordingly -- Turtle Island, Human Head Island, Chicken Island and so on.
In what constitutes one of the most fascinating cultural features of the area, some of these fisherman still live on the bay today -- on floating fishing villages, where houses are set atop barges year round, the inhabitants catching and cultivating fish throughout.
Ha Long Bay cruises mostly run out of Hanoi or the coastal town of Halong City (which faces out and over the bay). There are hundreds of agencies selling tours on the bay, but very few actually run their own boats -- instead most are consolidators or resellers. Organising a tour is very much a buyer beware scenario -- talk to other travellers and shop around -- if you're paying $15 a head for a two day tour of Ha Long Bay rest assured it will be pretty dodgy. Try to include a stay on Cat Ba Island if you can.
We've put aseries of stories together concerning trying to pick the right tour, and there's also some good threads on the Travelfish Forum, including:
Ha Long Bay tours (long)
Bad Ha Long trip
Ha Long Bay tours
Ha Long Bay daytrip
The only part of Ha Long City most visitors see is Bai Chay harbour, the embarkation point for boat tours of Ha Long Bay that begin and end in Hanoi. However, with its small beach and given recent upgrades to the city -- including the construction of a wide promenade and the planting of gardens along the coast -- Ha Long City isn't a bad place to spend a night or two en route to one of the outlying islands or a boat tour of the Bay.
The provincial capital of Quang Ninh province, Ha Long City is actually comprised of two towns, Bai Chay and Hon Gai, which are connected by a bridge. The former is the tourist town part of Ha Long City, while the latter is home to more of a local scene. Bai Chay is packed with hotels and hosts the pier from which the Ha Long Bay tour boats leave -- chances are, if you're overnighting in Ha Long City, you'll find yourself in Bai Chay.
While there are some luxury hotels with decent swimming pools and high-altitude rooms with fantastic views over the bay, Ha Long Bay is known for its mini-hotels -- scads of them, all clustered together in and around Vuon Dao Street (which means "Peach Garden").
These hotels fill up with Vietnamese in the summer and occupancy in Ha Long can reach capacity during festivals and holidays, so if you're travelling during these periods, be sure to book ahead. The rest of the year, the mini-hotels are more or less empty, or closed.
Vuon Dao Street is about two kilometres west of the tour boat pier along Ha Long Road, which follows the bay. The post office is at the base of Vuon Dao Street, where it meets Ha Long Road (open Mon-Sat 07:00-11:30 and 13:00-17:00, Sun 08:00-10:00 and 14:00-16:00).
ATMs are scattered liberally around the city. You'll find a couple near the post office and more along Ha Long Road.
Free WiFi is available at all hotels and most cafes but if you don't have your own computer or mobile device you'll have trouble finding somewhere with internet. The Quanh Ninh tourist information office on Ha Long Road offers 30 minutes free internet so is your best bet.
Bai Chai Hospital is about two kilometres from the junction of Vuon Dao Street and Ha Long Road, inland pier (T: (033) 384 6557), and the provincial hospital is in Hon Gai (T: (033) 382 5482). For anything serious, head to Hanoi.
By Sarah Turner.