Towering limestone pillars and tiny islets topped by forest rise from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Designated a World Heritage Site in 1994, Halong Bay's scatter of islands, dotted with wind- and wave-eroded grottoes, is a vision of ethereal beauty and, unsurprisingly, northern Vietnam's number one-tourism hub.
Sprawling Halong City (also known as Bai Chay) is the bay's main gateway, but its high-rises are a disappointing doorstep to this site. Most visitors opt for cruise tours that include sleeping on board within the bay, while a growing number are deciding to eschew the main bay completely, heading straight for Cat Ba Island from where trips to less-visited but equally alluring Lan Ha Bay are easily set up.
All visitors must purchase entry tickets for the national park (40,000d) and there are also separate admission tickets for attractions in the bay, such as caves and fishing villages (30,000d to 50,000d).
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Halong Bay.
Lying to the south of Halong Bay off the north-eastern coast of Vietnam, the 300-or-so karst islands and limestone outcrops of Lan Ha are just as beautiful as those of its superstar neighbour, but feel more isolated and untouched. Lan Ha also has the additional attraction of numerous white-sand beaches, which aren't found at Halong. Geologically, Lan Ha is an extension of Halong Bay but sits in a different province. Around 200 species of fish, 500 species of mollusc, 400 species of arthropod (prawns, crabs) and numerous hard and soft corals live in the waters here, while larger marine animals in the area include seals and three species of dolphin. Like Halong Bay, Lan Ha is best explored on an overnight boat tour, which usually includes a stop at a beach and the chance to get out on the water to kayak. However, tours can also include activities like hiking and rock climbing, as well as homestays on some of the islands. How to book a tour of Lan Ha Bay Tours can be arranged from both nearby Cat Ba Island and Hanoi. Tours generally tend to come as a one day, two days/one night or three days/two nights package and the bay's admission fee is normally incorporated into the price. Locally-owned Cat Ba Ventures on Cat Ba Island is just one outfit running overnight boat trips around the bay (overnight boat tour per person from approx US$136).
For one of the best views in Vietnam, head to Cannon Fort, where there are astounding panoramas of Cat Ba Island's jungle-clad hills, the harbour and the karst-punctuated sea. The entrance gate is a steep 10-minute walk from Cat Ba Town, and it's then another stiff 20-minute walk to the fort, or take a xe om from town (15,000d). The fort was inaccessible in 2019 due to construction work on a nearby hotel, but should reopen soon.
Cat Ba's beautiful national park is home to 32 species of mammal, including most of the world's 65 remaining golden-headed langurs, the world's most endangered primate. There are some good hiking trails here, including a two-hour return trip to Ngu Lam peak and a day-long hike to Viet Hai village. To reach the roadside park headquarters at Trung Trang, hop on the Song Tung bus from Cat Ba Town, or hire a xe om (around 80,000d one way) or a car (US$30 return).
A 10-minute walk southeast from Cat Ba Town, the three Cat Co Cove beaches boast the nearest sand to town, though all are being developed with hotel construction. Cat Co 3 is the closest, with a small and popular sliver of sand. From there a walking trail, cut into the cliff and offering gorgeous sea views, winds its way to Cat Co 1, dominated by a new resort, then onwards to the pretty white-sand swathe of Cat Co 2.
Vietnamese and cruise-ship tourists flock to this cable car that spans the Cua Luc inlet, offering dramatic views over Halong Bay. The views are particularly impressive at dusk, though the cabins can get uncomfortably cramped at peak times. Your ticket includes a ride on the Sun Ferris Wheel on the far Ba Deo Hill and there are lots of other less-interesting attractions.
Hospital Cave served both as a secret bomb-proof hospital during the American War and as a safe house for Viet Cong (VC) leaders. Built between 1963 and 1965 (with assistance from China), this incredibly well-constructed three-storey feat of engineering was in constant use until 1975. The cave is about 10km north of Cat Ba Town, on the road to Cat Ba National Park entrance.
This huge cave consists of three chambers reached via 90 steps. Inside, ceilings soar up to 25m high, while some rather disco-festive lighting illuminates a wacky array of stalactites. The cave derives its name from the role it played during 13th-century battles with the Mongolians when locals stored wooden stakes, used to destroy invading ships, in the third chamber.
The popular Hang Sung Sot has three vast chambers – in the second there’s a pink-lit rock phallus unsurprisingly regarded as a fertility symbol. Even less surprisingly, some guides refer to it as the ‘Cock Rock’.
Hang Trong has wide-arched entrances on either side and a ceiling clustered with stalactites. It's so named because when the wind blows through its stalactites, the effect resembles the sound of distant drumbeats.