Cat Ba Island
Rugged, craggy and jungle-clad Cat Ba, the largest island in Halong Bay, has experienced a tourism surge in recent years. The central hub of Cat Ba Town is now framed by a chain of low-rise concrete hotels along its once-lovely bay, but the rest of the island is largely untouched and as wild as ever.
Northern Vietnam's most approachable city has a distinctly laidback air with its tree-lined boulevards host to a bundle of graceful colonial-era buildings. Caffeine-aficionado heaven, the central area buzzes with dinky cafes where tables spill out onto the pavements – perfect for people watching.
Mong Cai & the Chinese Border
Huge industrial zones are rising around Mong Cai city with plots being snapped up by Chinese and foreign corporations. Elsewhere in this border region, travellers’ highlights include the stunning karst scenery around Cao Bang, historical caves and the thundering Ban Gioc Waterfall.
Mountainous Cao Bang province is one of the most beautiful regions in Vietnam. Cao Bang itself is more prosaic, but it is a useful base to explore the surrounding countryside. The climate is mild here, and winter days can get chilly when a thick fog clings to the banks of the Bang Giang River.
Development has not been kind to Halong City (Bai Chay). Despite enjoying a stunning position on the cusp of Halong Bay, this is a gritty town with pockets of bland high-rise hotel development dotting the shoreline. Many travellers opt to skip Halong City completely, preferring to spend a night out in Halong Bay itself.
Bai Tu Long Bay
There’s way more to northeast Vietnam than Halong Bay. The sinking limestone plateau, which gave birth to the bay’s spectacular islands, continues for some 100km to the Chinese border. The area immediately northeast of Halong Bay is part of Bai Tu Long National Park. Bai Tu Long Bay is every bit as beautiful as its famous neighbour.
Quan Lan Island
If you want to slide right off the typical traveller trail, Quan Lan Island (Dao Canh Cuoc) ticks the boxes. The island's only real hub is the sleepy three-street settlement of Quan Lan Town, separated from the sea by a hem of mangroves. A handful of simple guesthouses, restaurants and places to rent bicycles (US$4 per day) and motorbikes (US$6 per day) line the main street.
Ba Be National Park
Often referred to as the Ba Be Lakes, Ba Be National Park was established in 1992 as Vietnam’s eighth national park. The scenery here swoops from towering limestone mountains peaking at 1554m down into plunging valleys wrapped in dense evergreen forests, speckled with waterfalls and caves, with the lakes themselves dominating the very heart of the park.
A bustling border city, Mong Cai thrives on trade with China. For the Vietnamese, the big draw is the chance to purchase low-priced (and low-quality) Chinese-made consumer goods. For the Chinese, the attraction is two huge casinos and new golf courses. But other than as a border crossing, Mong Cai holds no interest for tourists.
Con Son & Den Kiep Bac
Although most appealing to domestic travellers, Con Son and Den Kiep Bac are potential diversions en route to Haiphong or Halong City. Con Son was home to Nguyen Trai (1380–1442), the famed Vietnamese poet, writer and general who assisted Emperor Le Loi in his successful battle against the Chinese Ming dynasty in the 15th century.
Tra Ban & Ngoc Vung Islands
One of Bai Tu Long’s largest islands, Tra Ban offers some of the bay’s most dramatic karsts. The southern part is blanketed in thick jungle and provides a habitat for many colourful butterflies. Boats leave from Van Don’s Cai Rong Pier at 7am and 2pm (40,000d, one hour). There’s no accommodation, so check on times for return boats.
Van Don Island
Van Don (Dao Cai Bau) is the largest (around 30 sq km), most populated and most developed island in the Bai Tu Long archipelago. Now linked to the mainland by a series of bridges, it has a few places to stay, but you won't want to linger. It’s chiefly useful as the jumping-off point to other islands.