Jul 30, 2012 1:33:15 PM
Beyond Halong Bay: the less-known sights of northeast Vietnam
Northeast Vietnam’s top ticket is Halong Bay, and while visiting the World Heritage site is an essential experience, the region also showcases craggy limestone peaks, tropical forests, caves, waterfalls and historic sights.
To the south of Halong Bay is Cat Ba, a verdant island renowned for its hiking, biking, sailing and world-class rock climbing. To the east, Bai Tu Long Bay continues nature’s spectacular show all the way to the Chinese border, and Quan Lan Island is emerging as a destination for pioneering travellers.
Looming above the coast, the karst continues into Cao Bang province, and the brooding mountains are one of Vietnam’s most idiosyncratic landscapes. With Sapa and northwest Vietnam firmly on the tourist map, head northeast instead to explore remote backroads and the sublime lakes of Ba Be National Park.
Beyond a boat cruise, visitors to Halong also come to explore the caves. There are few real beaches in Halong Bay, but Lan Ha Bay has idyllic sandy coves a short boat hop from Cat Ba town.
If you have more time and want to experience Halong Bay without the crowds, consider Cat Ba island. Here you’ll find operators who concentrate on Lan Ha Bay, which is less frequented, relatively untouched and has sublime sandy beaches. Cat Ba National Park, near Halong Bay, is a rugged island liberally shrouded in lush jungle. This park also includes the 300 or so limestone islands of Lan Ha Bay.
Rugged, craggy and jungle-clad Cat Ba, the largest island in Halong Bay, is emerging as Vietnam’s adventure sport and ecotourism hub. There’s an energetic roll-call of activities, including sailing, bird-watching, cycling, hiking and rock climbing.
Almost half of Cat Ba island (with a total area of 354 sq km) and 90 sq km of the adjacent waters were declared a national park in 1986 to protect the island’s diverse ecosystems: subtropical evergreen forests on the hills, freshwater swamp forests at the base of the hills, coastal mangrove forests, small freshwater lakes and coral reefs. Most of the coastline consists of rocky cliffs, but there are some sandy beaches and tiny fishing villages hidden away in small coves. Lakes, waterfalls and grottoes dot the spectacular limestone hills, the highest rising 331m above sea level. Lan Ha Bay, encompassing the southern seas off Cat Ba, is dotted with hundreds of jungle-topped limestone islands with many deserted beaches.
Cat Ba’s best weather is from late September to November, when air and water temperatures are mild and the skies are mostly clear. December to February is cooler but pleasant. From February to April is still good, but you can expect some rain. Summer (June to August) is hot and humid with occasional thunderstorms. This is also peak season and the island is packed with Vietnamese tourists.
Bai Tu Long
Further northeast, Halong Bay becomes Bai Tu Long National Park, a procession of karst landscapes easily equal to its more famous neighbour. Bai Tu Long’s isolation offers hidden beaches with a relative lack of tourists. Better boat services to Quan Lan Island is now making the Bai Tu Long region more accessible.
Ba Be National Park features emerald lakes, surrounded by soaring mountains and lush forest. Visit for hiking, biking and boat trips to caves and waterfalls, and staying in Ba Be’s village homestays.
Jane Atkin is part of Lonely Planet’s online editorial team.
Burning to explore hidden islands and secret coves? Lonely Planet’s Vietnam guidebook has the knowledge.