As our ship rolled through the emerald-glistening waters of Ha Long Bay, otherworldly karst formations, like raw jagged diamonds, jutted out, towering high into the clear northern Vietnamese skies. There I was, straddling between a world that was both familiar and foreign - my mind still trying to wrap around how this far corner of the Earth has some of nature’s most poetic beauty. This is Ha Long Bay, three words, three syllables that have been uttered through the ages by local fishermen, American generals, French colonialists, and Vietnamese dynasties that have come and gone… Yet these limestone islands that are toppled by rainforests have stood here strong through it all. Curious? Follow me on Instagram and YouTube for more adventures!
From the tranquil fishing villages that float upon the bay's gentle ripples to the dramatic caves and hidden lagoons waiting to be explored, each corner that your boat turns in Ha Long Bay will give you a sense of new discovery. As we embarked, my boat captain shared with us a little insight into Ha Long Bay's history and story, how they are both deeply intertwined with folklore and legend. The name "Ha Long" translates to "Descending Dragon," and according to local legend, the bay owes its existence to dragons sent by the gods to protect the Vietnamese people from invaders (which is really significant as Vietnam had a turbulent history with the French and Americans). As the dragons descended from the heavens, they spat out jewels and jade, which then turned into the thousands of limestone karsts and islets that dot the bay, forming a natural fortress. The dragons' tails created deep valleys and crevices while their breaths transformed into the bay's emerald waters. The result was a breathtaking seascape of towering cliffs and hidden caves that became a haven for sailors and fishermen, effectively warding off any potential threats.
Beyond the legend, Ha Long Bay has a rich human history that dates back thousands of years. Archaeological findings suggest that the area was inhabited as early as the prehistoric period. During the reign of the Ly Dynasty (1010-1225 AD), Ha Long Bay was a strategic maritime trading hub. Later, during the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), it played a significant role in defending Vietnam against foreign invaders. The French colonial period also left its mark on Ha Long Bay, with the construction of ports and infrastructure. In more recent history, during the Vietnam War, Ha Long Bay served as a shelter for Vietnamese naval forces and played a vital role in the conflict.
In recognition of its natural and cultural significance, Ha Long Bay was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. This status helped protect the bay from unsustainable development and ensured its preservation for future generations. To this day, the legend of the descending dragons still resonates in the hearts of the Vietnamese people, and Ha Long Bay continues to be a source of inspiration and wonder for all who have the privilege of experiencing its magic.
I’m currently exploring it like how most people would - taking a cruise through Ha Long Bay. You can choose from a variety of options, including day cruises and overnight cruises on traditional wooden junks. Cruising on a boat allows you to soak in the stunning scenery, visit islands, caves, and fishing villages, and enjoy delicious seafood meals on board - usually all-inclusive depending on your package and budget. Take it from me, I highly vouch for doing at least two days and one night cruise - just because you get to go further deeper into Ha Long Bay. Those who do just one day will get a good glimpse of it, but since you’re still closer to land - you’ll be in an area which can get quite overcrowded with other boats and ships. By doing at least two days, you get to be away from the crowds which makes a world of difference when exploring these tucked-away limestone karsts and islets.
Most cruises include fun activities - so rest assure that you won’t be just stuck on the boat! For example, there will be pit stops to places like Sung Sot Cave, also known as Surprise Cave. This is one of the largest and most impressive caves in Ha Long Bay. It features two main chambers filled with mesmerizing stalactites and stalagmites that you can walk through. Many of the islands in Ha Long Bay also offer hiking opportunities, such as Ti Top Island. Hiking to the summit of these islands rewards you with breathtaking panoramic views of the bay.
My family and I also went on kayaks provided by our boat. Getting to paddle through the bay's calm waters truly allows you to get up close to the limestone karsts and explore hidden lagoons and caves. It's a fantastic way to immerse yourself in the bay's natural beauty! If you want, you can also jump into the bay's clean and clear waters to go swimming. It's a refreshing way to cool off while surrounded by stunning scenery.
On the second day, our boat pit stop into one of the floating fishing villages of Ha Long Bay, where we observed the daily lives of local fishermen and learn about their unique way of life. It truly fascinated me how these villages are completely built on water, using different inflatable methods. There was even a whole soccer field built on water, and whenever the ball gets kicked too far, the kids would just jump into the bay to retrieve it!
Many cruises offer Vietnamese cooking classes, which is a fun pastime when you want to do a laid-back activity on the boat. You can learn how to prepare traditional dishes and savour the region's flavours - like making fresh spring rolls and vegetable cut-outs into animal shapes. These were great snacks to hold us over until our evening 3 course dinner that we had on the boat’s roof deck.
Honestly, with whichever activity you do here, just make sure to soak up how ethereal Vietnam can be. I mean, its no wonder that Ha Long Bay's stunning and cinematic landscapes have been featured in several movies because of the surrounding nature. Filmmakers and directors are drawn to the bay's dramatic limestone karsts, emerald waters, and mystical ambience just like I am. When we retired to our suites after playing rounds of backgammon after dinner, we watched some notable movies filmed in or featuring scenes from Ha Long Bay - just to add to the atmosphere. The first film we watched was Indochine (1992), a French film, starring Catherine Deneuve. It featured scenes shot in Ha Long Bay while telling the story of a French woman living in colonial Vietnam during the early 20th century through a romanticised lens. Then we watched Kong: Skull Island (2017), which was about King Kong, the iconic ape, with poignant scenes shot in Vietnam, including Ha Long Bay.
Getting to Ha Long Bay:
Ha Long Bay is accessible from Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, which is approximately 170 kilometers (105 miles) away. Here are the most common ways to travel to Ha Long Bay:
By Road: The most common way to reach Ha Long Bay from Hanoi is by road. You can hire a private car, take a shuttle bus, or book a seat on a tourist bus. The journey takes around 3-4 hours, depending on traffic.
By Train: There are no direct train services to Ha Long City, but you can take a train from Hanoi to Haiphong and then continue by road to Ha Long Bay.
By Seaplane: For a unique and scenic experience, you can take a seaplane from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay. This option offers stunning aerial views of the bay and reduces travel time.
By Cruise: Some travellers choose to arrive in Ha Long Bay by booking a cruise package that includes transportation from Hanoi to the bay - my most favourite way to explore this region! This allows you to combine your journey with a cruise experience.
Once you arrive in Ha Long City, you can easily find accommodations, tour operators, and transportation options to explore the bay and its surrounding attractions. It's easy to book these things right on the spot when you arrive, but if you are like me and want to compare different providers, it’s worth it to book in advance too.
Ha Long bayΚόλπος Χα Λονγκ, Thành phố Hạ Long, Κουάνγκ Νιν, Βιετνάμ
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