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Favorite Places: Halong Bay, Vietnam

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Our weekend series “Favorite Places” features beloved travel destinations, attractions, restaurants, hotels and more from different members of the TPG team. TPG International Contributor Lori Zaino gives us a glimpse of the one of Vietnam’s most stunning natural wonders: Halong Bay. (All photos by the author).

Halong Bay

The name Halong means “where the dragon descends into the sea” in Vietnamese, and was inspired by the legend of a powerful dragon that ran along the coast of the Gulf of Tonkin, tail flailing and creating holes and crevices as it slammed into the earth. When this beast finally stopped his rampage and dove into the sea, water rose to fill the open areas, leaving only the highest points of the land visible above the surface.

Limestone pillars and a secluded beach in Halong Bay
Limestone pillars and a secluded beach in Vietnam’s Halong Bay.

What actually created the scenic natural wonder of Halong Bay — a UNESCO World Heritage Site set about 90 miles east of Hanoi on Vietnam’s northeast coast — was a massive flood during the Miocene Epoch. After weathering tropical conditions for the last 20 million years or so, this limestone landscape has since eroded into a scattering of roughly 2,000 islets spiked with jagged pillars that are lushly overgrown with vines, ferns and trees.

Boat cruises are the best way to see the Bay
Boat cruises are the best way to see the Bay.

Rimmed by towering cliffs and set against bright green, mineral-rich waters, this craggy, dramatic scene attracts tourists from all over the world. As a result, parts of Halong Bay can feel over-crowded — but if you focus on the natural beauty of the landscape, you can’t help but fall in love.

The best way to visit the bay’s glorious islands is via boat cruise (either a double-decker riverboat or a traditional junk), but beware that these are often thronged with people. To escape the hordes in favor of a quieter, more secluded experience, opt for a cruise that lasts at least two days so you can go further out and explore lesser-known parts of this special place.

I fell in love with this deserted beach on one of the islands, kayaking over from my river cruise
When kayaking away from my cruise’s river boat, I fell in love with this deserted beach on one of the bay’s many islands.

Boat cruises in the bay often include a variety of activities, such as cave spelunking, cooking classes or kayaking over the smooth waters to deserted islands and beaches that are uninhabited — at least by humans.

How many monkeys can you find?
How many monkeys can you find in this photo?

Some of Halong Bay’s islets are home to creatures like lizards, antelope and monkeys — and many feature their own caves, jungles and miniature lakes.

A fishing village in Halong Bay
A fishing village in Halong Bay.

Though modern-day Halong Bay is largely occupied by tourists, about 1,600 people still live on/above the water in makeshift houseboats that can either sail separately or be tethered together. The bay’s villagers have historically made their living from fishing, but these days they also benefit from tours offered by most boat cruises, who provide visitors the opportunity to explore these “floating villages” and interact with their residents.

A sunset over Halong Bay
Dusk over Halong Bay.

Tips For Visiting Halong Bay

Choose a reputable boat cruise company. Be sure to look for online reviews from sites like Tripadvisor before booking your cruise — and avoid prices that seem exorbitantly cheap, as they’re usually scam cruises that offer horrible conditions. Two well-reviewed companies, Paradise Cruises (the one I booked with, through their website) and Indochina Junk, both offer mid-range and luxury cruise options, with prices that start at about $250 per person, depending on the season and trip length. Note that Halong Bay cruises typically include van transport from Hanoi, which is about a 3.5-hour ride each way.

Don’t litter. The Bay is already suffering from the effects of mass tourism, so make sure to be a responsible tourist and don’t scatter trash in the water or on the islets.

Use the right credit card. Chase defines travel as “airlines, hotels, motels, timeshares, campgrounds, car rental agencies, cruise lines, travel agencies, discount travel sites, operators of passengers trains, buses, taxis, limos, ferries, tolls, bridges, highways, and parking lots and garages,” so use a card that gives you double points on your cruise, like Chase Sapphire Preferred. 

For more on Vietnam and Southeast Asia, be sure to see these posts:

12 Tips for Your First Trip to Southeast Asia
An Outsider’s Guide to Hanoi’s Food Scene
Hotel Review: Intercontinental Hanoi Westlake Overwater Pavilion
Responsible Ways to Meet Elephants in Southeast Asia
Honeymoon in Southeast Asia — A TPG Reader Story
AirAsia Asean Pass – Travel Southeast Asia at a Discount

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