Designated a World Heritage Site in 1994, Halong Bay’s scatter of islands, dotted with water-eroded caves and grottoes, is a vision of ethereal beauty. Translated as “The Bay of Descending Dragons”, it features a 75-mile coastline, some 2,000 limestone islands, and 59 caves and grottoes that have been discovered and listed in the official register.
Additionally, there are dozens of beaches – many of which remain untouched by modern tourism. Nature lovers and adventure-seekers are drawn to Halong Bay (aka Ha Long Bay) for its captivating landscape and wildlife. One popular way to see the bay is to take a scenic overnight cruise, but you can also plan your own explorations during your Vacation in Vietnam. Read on for a list of the best places to visit in Halong Bay:
Dau Be Island is famous for its diverse flora and fauna including orchids, banyans, palm trees, golden monkeys, flying squirrels, and birds. The Ba Ham Lake consists of three inland ocean basins, and a narrow cave full of strange stalactites and stalagmites.
A World Heritage Site designated as a biosphere reserve, Cat Ba National Park is home to 32 species of mammals, including the most endangered primate in the world, the golden-headed langur. Seventy species of birds and more than a thousand plant species have been documented in the park, including 160 with medicinal value. There are some excellent hiking trails on the island, including an 11-mile route that leads to a mountain peak. You’ll get to explore its natural beauty highlighted by caves, limestone forests, cascading waterfalls, and small streams flowing to the sea.
To get to Sung Sot Cave, you will need to climb 680 steps through lush vegetation, but it’s definitely worth the effort for the inner views. There are two separate chambers that tower to a height of about 18 feet; the inner one is famous for having an array of rock formations that look like sentries, and there is even a rock in the center that looks like an army general barking orders to his troops.
In fact, there are some fascinating mythological legends behind each of these formations and as the light shimmers across the water and makes flickering patterns, it looks as if the rocks are coming to life. You can see limestone rocks in the shape of a Buddha or a tortoise, with the most famous formation in the shape of a phallus under pink spotlights, believed to contribute to fertility.
This small island was named in honor of the Russian cosmonaut Gherman Titov who visited Halong Bay in 1962. From a distance, it is an imposing tower of limestone jutting out of the water and shrouded with thick rainforest. The beach here is blessed with immaculate white sands and calm azure blue waters. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can hike up the 427 steps to the mountaintop gazebo, where you will be rewarded with jaw dropping views of the surrounding bay.
This huge cave is situated in the south-west section of Halong Bay, and covers an area of more than 100,000 square feet. It has an intricate network of stalagmites and stalactites that come in various shapes and forms. The entrance is halfway up a mountain, so you need to hike up to enter the cave. It’s not easy but it’s most definitely worth the effort because as you look out from the mouth of the cave, you’ll be privy to a view that will take your breath away.
Toi & Sang, or Dark & Light, Cave is a very impressive place to visit in Halong Bay, a system made up of two separate caves, hence the name. The Dark Cave stretches for 330 feet and has very little natural light. The Light Cave is much shorter and reminiscent of a cathedral with plenty of natural light shining through gaps and holes. The cave commences at the water level of a distinctive arched entrance that leads to a huge lake with massive trees and a variety of exotic orchids. It is best explored by kayak.
The Ba Trai Dao area consists of three small mountains that resemble three peaches when seen from afar, and has a bow-shaped beach at low tide.
Famous for the sweet and juicy myrtle fruit that is found here in the summer, this island is characterized by thick jungle, pristine beaches and clear emerald water.
Considered a hidden gem of Bai Tu Long Bay, Ban Chan Beach is tucked away in the bay’s back corner. The beautiful beach features powdery white sands, crystalline waters, and a sandbank stretching under the shade of casuarina pines.
Lying south of Cat Ba Town and about 30 minutes by boat from Cat Ba Island, Lan Ha Bay is a more serene and less touristy alternative to Halong Bay, best explored by kayak or sailboat, both of which can be rented in Cat Ba. In fact, some of the luxury Halong Bay boats choose Lan Ha as their primary destination. Geologically speaking, it is an extension of Halong Bay but located in a different province. It has its own impressive collection of 300-or-so karst islands, along with a staggering 139 white-sand beaches. Biologists have so far documented 200 species of fish, 400 species of arthropods, and 500 species of mollusks that thrive across the bay, while larger marine animals include seals and dolphins.
The seldom visited Co To Island in the Gulf of Tonkin, falls within the much-heard mantra of “Go now before everything changes.” Part of a larger archipelago and surrounded by a cluster of some 40 to 50 small islands, Co To Island comprises a scattering of hills, craggy cliff faces, glorious white sandy beaches and turquoise waters, few people, and cheap but delicious food. Head to Trinh Sat Beach, Hong Vanh and Van Chai, and more often than not you will have the whole place to yourself. You can also tour the island on a motorbike or take a walk to the lighthouse for a 360-panoramic view of the island.
Situated in the heart of Halong City, the 650-ft-high Bai Tho Mountain requires a 30-minute hike but will reward you with impressive vistas of the city and the bays beyond. With half of its foothills roving over the land and the rest immersed in the ocean, the mountain has been compared to a tiger ready to pounce and to a dragon preparing to fly away.
Resting in the heart of Cat Ba National Park, you have to either trek five miles to get to Viet Hai Village or skip those sheer cliffs, deep gorges and ponds along the way and go there by boat. Surrounded by high mountains, thick jungle and a vast sea, Viet Hai’s location is nothing short of spectacular. Because of its seclusion, the village has managed to retain a number of traditional features such as houses made of bamboo, wood, leaves and soil, and just like their ancestors who lived there centuries ago, the villagers of today make their living by fishing, farming and breeding animals. One of the ways to visit the village is on the Ylang cruise excursion.
Monkey Island (or Cat Dua in Vietnamese) is only accessible by boat, but if you make the effort to get there, you will be rewarded with plenty of outdoor adventure activities, including access to a private beach. As its name suggests, there are hundreds of monkeys that frolic across the island. They are very playful and they interact freely with both locals and visitors.
Stretching for about 1000 feet, this remarkable cave is a natural wonderland, thanks to the thousands of sparkling stalactites that take on different shapes and forms. It is sometimes called ‘Navy Cave’ because it was picked as an operation site by the naval forces during the American War. Today, you’ll still see some historical artifacts including the activity room, water tank, meeting room and the soldiers’ quarters. A visit here is an exploration of both nature and history.
Also known as Maze Cave or Bewitching Cave, Me Cung is considered one of the most picturesque caves in Halong Bay. An important archaeological site, it houses vestiges of human activity dating back to the Stone Age. If you climb the steps above the cave’s narrow 80-ft-high entrance, you can see a startling blue lake surrounded by mountains, and if you continue up to the top of the mountain, you will be rewarded with panoramic views of the area.
Hang Trinh Nu is popularly known as the ‘Virgin Cave, due to the legend attached to it that tells the story of a beautiful young girl who refused to marry a rich old man, and then committed suicide. In the heart of the cave, there is a stone statue of a woman with long hair, believed to be the young virgin from the story. This ‘Cave of the Girl’ is considered to be a symbol of eternal love by the locals.
Located northeast of Halong Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay has hundreds of its own karst island formations and is rich in biodiversity with a vibrant coastal ecosystem. Less crowded than Halong Bay, it promises to deliver many unique experiences. Be sure to visit Quan Lan Island, Thay Cave, Thien Canh Son Cave, and the Ang Du Area.
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