Ha Long Bay (or Halong Bay) located in Northeast Vietnam covers an area of about 600 square miles which includes 1,969 islands. The Bay is divided into three main parts, called the ‘core’ Halong Bay in the central region, Bai Tu Long Bay located to the northeast and Lan Ha Bay located to the south.
The bay and islands are comprised largely of limestone, which has created breathtaking karst landscape and other cave formations. Limestone and forest covered emerald peaks thrust out from the water in the bay and vast coral reef systems support an abundance of marine life. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, Halong Bay cruises are a popular tourist ‘must-do’ when visiting Vietnam.
The most common way for Vietnam travelers to explore Halong Bay is by junk, or a cruise vessel. While day only options do exist, Adventure Life recommends to spend at least a minimum of 1 night aboard a junk while cruising Halong Bay to allow for additional time to partake in activities. Kayaking, cycling, visits to floating fishing villages, caving, snorkeling, and beachcombing are some of the activities that a longer Halong Bay cruise will offer a traveler that a shorter itinerary cannot accommodate. Below are some of the main sights offered on various cruise itineraries.
Highlights within Halong Bay:
Central Halong Bay – This is the main area surrounding the ports of Bai Chay and Hong Gai in Ha Long Bay City where most vessels embark and disembark. Here travelers can visit a number of floating fisherman villages and get a feel for the way of life for locals on this bay. Caves in this area include Dau Go Cave, which offers traces of a naval battle, Thien Cung Cave, Sung Sot Cave, and Trinh Nu Grotto. Larger islands in the bay are home to rich birdlife, and the seas contain over 160 coral species which comprise about 30% of the bay area at a depth of 4-6 m. The bay is also home to over 1,000 marine animal species.
Lan Ha Bay – Located to the southwest portion of Halong Bay, this bay is home to 400 islets including the larger Cat Ba Island. Many beautiful beaches in this area offer good spots for swimming and cave exploration. Better water quality is found in this area for diving and snorkeling, and the mountainsides in this area offer great opportunities for rock climbing as well.
Cat Ba Island – The largest island in the bay at about 55 sq. miles, Cat Ba is home to the lively Cat Ba town and more remote Cat Ba National Park. Here the dense jungle and rich biodiversity offers the habitat for some of the richest wildlife in Halong Ba, including rare primates like the Golden-headed langur. The island supports about 6 villages comprised of 13,500 residents and is one of the few inhabited islands in the bay that also offers basic services to tourists.
Bai Tu Long Bay – This newly developed sibling bay lies to the northeast and comprises ¾ of the area of the established UNESCO site. As a still relatively new area for tourists to explore, the region’s attractions are considered less ‘touristy’ and more authentic to the local culture. Highlights in this area include Vung Vieng Fishing Village, Cong Do Island in the south, Thien Canh Son cave with spectacular carved images and sparkling stalactites, and Tra Gioi beach. The Bai Tu Long Bay is rich in biological diversity, offers clearer water for snorkeling and diving and breathtaking geologic formations. Visits to this part of Halong Bay typically will require a minimum of 1 night stay on a junk, if not a recommended 2 night cruise. Another highlight en route from central Halong Bay to Bai Tu Long Bay is Yen Duc village, which affords travelers a chance to cycle the area, visit the local market and Buddhist pagoda, and get a glimpse of local life with homestay meal. Another main highlight in the area is Cong Dam, considered to be an outdoor geologic museum. This small village of only 120 people is more isolated from tourist routes and offers white sand beaches, kayaking, a chance to fish with locals and concentrations of coral reefs and stunning underground caves.