A visit to the north is not complete without a trip
to Halong Bay, where placid waters give way to more
than 3,000 limestone karsts and wind-sculpted
limestone formations jut from foggy lagoons. Dotting
the bay are tiny islands bordered by white sandy
coves and hidden caves, adding to the majestic
landscape of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Adding
to this naturalist's dream is the biodiversity of
islets, grottos, and Cat Ba Island national park.
The bay, however, shows tourism's impact: the
clearing of mangrove forests to make way for jetties
and piers, marine life threatened by game fishing,
and garbage from passenger boats and fishing
villages found lining the shores.
Beyond its geological uniqueness are activities like
hiking, kayaking, rock climbing, or exploring one of
the many floating villages where fishermen bring in
their daily catch. The downside to all this allure
is the mass number of unlicensed boats it draws to
the bay each day.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Not until 2013 were safety regulations somewhat
enforced on Halong Bay. In fact, most mid-range and
budget cruises still do not have lifejackets or
safety procedures in place. You get what you pay
for, so choose your cruise operator wisely,
including opting for higher-end operators that have
safety standards and that insist passengers wear
lifejackets during bay activities. Incidentally, the
increased number of boats on the water had led to an
increase in boat collisions. In late 2012, the
government issued a ruling that all Halong boats
were to be painted white in an effort to decrease
the number of accidents.
Boat safety aside, one thing to keep in mind is that
most off-cruise activities require some level of
fitness. Access to caves and coves have slippery
stone steps devoid of guardrails. Wear proper shoes
when exploring the area, especially on island trails
that are narrow and somewhat strenuous.
Top Reasons to Go to Halong Bay
Views from the water—Cruise among thousands of
limestone karsts and deserted islands where sandy
coves, hidden caves, and floating villages abound.
Exploring Cat Ba Island—At this national park the
endangered Langur monkey finds refuge among lakes,
waterfalls, and limestone cliffs.
Luxury at Sea—Overnight on a 1930s-style boat with
amazing amenities while viewing the sights by day.
CAT BA ISLAND
The largest island on Halong Bay, this top
attraction encompasses lovely beaches, freshwater
lakes, and fishing villages, as well as a town
center with shops, hotels, and restaurants lining
the shores, and Cat Ba National Park, where exotic
wildlife, including the endangered langur monkey,
live among the mangrove forests and jungle terrain.
Activities on the island include swimming, kayaking,
rock climbing, lounging on the beach, or even
joining locals in a game of soccer in the town
square. Note that the beaches are somewhat rocky and
the water can be almost too chilly for swimming; the
best beaches are on the eastern side at Lan Ha Bay.
It's best to avoid Cat Ba during summer months when
both tourists and locals flock to the island.
Getting Here: Overnight boat tours in the area
generally include day-trips to this pristine island,
or you can visit here by way of a 45-minute
hydrofoil (146,580 VND) from Haiphong City. Dozens
of tourist boats depart from Halong City to Cat Ba
for around 100,000 VND. The trip takes about five
hours and will give you a taste of what Halong Bay
has to offer. Most hotels on the island rent
motorbikes for 104,700 VND per day; it's a great way
to hit all the sites in a day.
CAT BA NATIONAL PARK
Covering about 263 square km (164 square miles) of
Cat Ba Island is this national park where 32 species
of mammals, including the endangered langur monkey,
live among the jungle terrain and freshwater lakes.
Within its tropical rain forest are 78 species of
birds and 20 species of reptiles. In addition to
impressive beaches and mangroves, within its
boundaries are two historical caves once used as
clinics during the Vietnam War. Active travelers can
tackle the reserve by hiking the demanding (yet
rewarding) 18-km (11-mile) Cang Viet Hai Trail
across the park. The best views are from the park's
observation tower, but the climb up metal ladders
and cliffs are not for the faint of heart.
Many overnight boat tours will take you to see one
or more of the four floating villages on Halong Bay,
where 1,600 locals make a living by angling the
mystical waters. If they're not fishing or fixing
their nets for the next big catch, they may be
passing the time swinging on hammocks—or even rowing
toward your cruise boat to sell you groceries and
souvenirs in a floating "store." These impressive
fishing villages have their own schools, wooden
shacks, and grocery stores that stay afloat by
Styrofoam platforms wrapped in waterproof tarps.
CO NGU RESTAURANT
Catering toward tour groups, this gaudy restaurant
resembles that of an imperial palace and has lovely
views overlooking Halong Bay. The menu features
fresh seafood and local specialties like Tu Hai, a
shellfish unique to the region; it's famous for its
shark fin soup. Other exotic (and daring) dishes
include jellyfish salad, steamed pork, seafood tofu,
and sautéed sea cucumber. Options from the Western
menu range from grilled salmon and cheeseburgers to
spaghetti marinara and BLTs. When ordering, you'll
have to point at your menu selection since the staff
speaks very little English. Although this is one of
the better restaurants in Halong City, it pales in
comparison to what you might find elsewhere in
Address: Block C2, Luxury Villa Zone, Halong Road,
Bai Chay, Halong City, Halong Bay
LE PONT RESTAURANT
The secret to having a good meal at this Cat Ba
restaurant is ordering what is local and fresh. Pass
on the steak and order whole fish, prawns, squid, or
the house specialty, the seafood hot pot. This
Vietnamese version of fondue comes with fresh
vegetables, noodles, and every type of seafood
imaginable—simply drop them into a pot of boiling
broth at your table. The spring rolls are delicious
and pair well with the cliff-side view over the bay.
This is the best place to come for a cocktail at
sunset or an ice coffee on a hot summer day. If
you're here past dark, you can enjoy Le Pont's
attached dance club that's popular with locals.
Address: Near Beach 3, Cat Ba Town, Halong Bay