Mountains, islands and caves: exploring the highlights of Ha Long Bay

Emerald waters, otherworldly mountains, forested islands and caves are the highlights of Vietnam’s much-photographed Ha Long Bay.

By Liz Dodd
Published 25 Jan 2020, 06:00 GMT
The limestone karsts of Ha Long Bay are said to be jewels spat out by dragons ...
The limestone karsts of Ha Long Bay are said to be jewels spat out by dragons defending Vietnam from invaders.
Photograph by Getty Images

As the sun pokes out from behind one of Ha Long Bay’s limestone outcrops and a pink dawn floods the cove where our boat bobs about, my sister turns to me with a told-you-so expression on her face. I’d been halfway through a long-distance bike ride across Vietnam when she’d decided to visit. After days of silent rice fields and wild camping on secluded beaches, the last thing I wanted was a Ha Long Bay cruise — arguably Vietnam’s most cliched activity. But as daylight reveals the otherworldly mountains and forested islands among which we’d slept — said to be jewels spat out by dragons defending Vietnam from invaders — my cynicism is evaporating as quickly as the nighttime humidity.

Passing through Hanoi en route? Here's a five-minute guide to Vietnam's capital

Friends who know Vietnam well had advised joining a three-day cruise, which, while more expensive, promised a gentler itinerary and more secluded stops. Shorter cruises all tend to follow the same route, they’d said — leapfrogging one another around the bay. By night, I’d been warned, these boats moor together, and the sound of karaoke floats across the water. So, I’d selected a small company with no karaoke and a convincing itinerary.

Shortly after arriving at Tuan Chau Harbour, our ship, a traditional wooden craft, sails into view, standing out from the boisterous party boats around it. Inside, our cabin is sumptuous but sensible, decorated in the kind of typical Vietnamese art I’d seen while travelling across the country. There’s not much time to settle in before we’re mooring at Van Gia, the largest floating fishing village in Ha Long Bay. I pick my way cautiously across its planks and floorboards, peering into nets suspended just below the water. Upon reaching the far side, I jump into a waiting kayak to explore the rest of the inlet.

The Vietnamese government has recently cracked down on the number of boats allowed to cruise around the bay. Even fewer are allowed to overnight there, but ours is one of the lucky ones. The coast is only 20 minutes away, but as dusk descends and Ha Long Bay’s towering limestone cliffs change colour in the fading light, it feels like another world. “Swim before dinner?” my sister asks. We jump off the back of the boat together, the splash resounding around the watching walls of stone.

The next morning, we sail through the prosaically named Dark Cave and Bright Cave — part of an enclosed group of islands. As we drift through coves in silence in our kayaks, monkeys spring from rock to rock. It’s spectacular but pales in comparison to the caves we row into next: called, appropriately enough, Amazing Cave. Here, vast underground chambers roll on and on, full of stalactites transformed into fantastical characters by up-lighting.

Back on board, as we settle in for our final night in the bay, one of the boat’s chefs teaches us how to make Vietnam’s ubiquitous summer rolls: dainty, translucent rice paper rolls containing thinly-sliced vegetables, fresh herbs, vermicelli and sometimes seafood.

The following morning, as we head back to the mainland, there’s a stop at Ti Top Island. The temple atop this limestone mountain is where most of the iconic photos of Ha Long are taken. And despite my earlier cynicism, I find myself springing up the 400 steps to the summit. The panorama is breathtaking, reaching out over a maze of turquoise water, while down in the bay boats drift across its surface. Among them is the little wooden ship that will take me back to the mainland, my bicycle, and the tranquil rice fields. But I’m in no rush to get there.

The coves and inlets of Lan Ha Bay are blissfully quiet and great for diving.

Photograph by Nico Avelardi

Four beautiful bays off the beaten track

1. Lan Ha Bay
Strictly speaking, this is an extension of Ha Long Bay, its karst mountains and emerald waters recalling its famous neighbour. But that’s where the comparisons end: Lan Ha Bay’s islands are fringed by white-sand beaches, and its coves and inlets are blissfully quiet and great for diving.

2. Bai Tu Long Bay
Set in a national park just north east of Ha Long Bay, the floating villages and beaches in this maze of karst mountains see far fewer visitors than Ha Long. Cheap, regular boats service major islands, and tours of the area can be arranged in Hanoi.

3. Cat Ba Island
The largest Ha Long Bay island is carpeted in jungle. Many of its little beaches and fishing villages are still little visited by tourists.

4. Ninh B Inh
In the north west of this province, south of Hanoi, is Cuc Phurong National Park, home to spectacular forests and limestone peaks. From its overgrown pagodas to its cool caves, rural villages and extensive, luminescent rice paddies, Ninh Binh offers a rare glimpse of unspoiled Vietnam. The food is unique and includes spectacularly spicy goat and duck dishes.

Heading south? Head to the region's five best beaches

Published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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