Halong Bay is the quintessential must-visit site in Vietnam. A spectacular piece of art sculpted by mother nature. Drawing hoards of tourists yearly, this 1,553 km² bay is nothing short of stunning – thousands of limestone karst monoliths jutting out of emerald waters, mysterious stalactite and stalagmite caves, colorful fishing villages scattered around the bay, and all under blue skies dotted with fluffy white clouds. It’s really just a live painting.
Halong bay is recognized as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, and it is also a UNESCO protected World Heritage site, which means among the 1,600 isles and islets, you can only legally visit a small handful. That too, for the most part, not on your own. Many are closed, preserved and protected by the government, but don’t be disheartened. The ones that are open for travelers come with plenty of to-dos and must-sees, and you will undoubtedly have a great time.
When to go to Halong Bay
When planning your trip to Halong Bay, it’s important to keep an eye on the weather up in the north of Vietnam. It goes through a cycle and can heavily affect your travel planning. We’d recommend that you visit Halong Bay in September, October, April, or May. November to March is when it is cold up in north Vietnam and June and July are the two months during which storms are frequent – causing cruises to cancel.
Visit these islands as part of a tour
There are many tour companies and a quick Google search will help you find a boat tour that is appropriate for your budget and travel style. We’d recommend doing the day tour with Central Backpackers if you are on a low budget, or Era and Paradise cruises if you have some money to shell out. Some tours offer the Hanoi to Halong Bay journey whereas many others start in Halong Bay city itself. If you wish to head to Halong Bay by yourself, then you can take a plane, bus or book a private car.
Bo Hon Island
Bo Hon Island (Soapberry Tree Island, when translated) is one of the largest islands in the bay, decorated with many mountains topped with lush-green forest, and tall vertical cliffs, all connected by a series of caves. Below the cliffs, the gentle waves wash over the white, sandy beach.
Deer, monkeys and chamois have made Bo Hon island their home. While Bo Hon is described as an island, it is actually a group of islets intertwined almost perfectly together, that from a distance, it looks like a majestic citadel.
The caves found in Bo Hon island are thousands of years old. Popular names include Sung Sot Cave, Luon Cave, Tien Cave, Trinh Nu Cave and Trong Cave. Each cave is magical and is connected to a legend of some sort.
Ti-Top (Titov) Island
This island, located just about 8 kilometers southeast of Bai Chay harbor in the mainland, is named after a certain meeting that happened in 1962. Lunch was shared on the shores of this land between President Ho Chi Minh (Uncle Ho) and a Soviet Cosmonaut by the name of Gherman Titov. As a tribute to this encounter, Uncle Ho named the whole island after him.
Compared to many other islands in Halong Bay, Ti-Top Island is quite developed, so it will not be the ideal place to go if you are looking for some time alone, away from everyone else. Over here you will find numerous restaurants and cafes, even bars, and souvenir and swimsuit shops.
While the restaurants serve delicious seafood, we suggest you head over to the fishing village by the dock and buy some fresh seafood that can be grilled on the spot by the vendors. Take your food to go and enjoy a picnic by the beach where you can enjoy a peaceful horizon on one side and calm forest on the other. From above, the beach looks like a crescent hugging the mountain.
A few hundred steep steps from the shores will lead you to the top of the island where you will be rewarded with stunning, 360 degree views of Halong Bay. The sunset is one of the most picturesque you will ever see.
Soi Sim Island
Soi Sim is a great escape, away from the hoards of tourists that flock to Halong Bay. This island is found in the southwest of the bay, about 10 kilometers from Tuan Chau port. The name is derived from a flower found blooming across the island, painting it in a beautiful shade of purple – the Rose Myrtle, or Sim in Vietnamese.
The island is devoid of development, meaning it retains all the pristine beauty gifted by mother nature. At Soi Sim, you can give yourself a lazy beach day, doing nothing but sunbathing on the beach, making shapes out of clouds in the sky, and going for a dip to cool off as the afternoon passes.
The island is also full of lush, green vegetation that is home to many kinds of endemic flora and fauna. A conservation enclosure has been built here, with a central display house that contains viewing platforms that simulate a flower with nine petals. There is also a trail that leads to the top of the mountain where you can get a great view of the surrounding islets and vast blue ocean.
Ngoc Vung Island
Ngoc Vung (shiny pearl) got its name from a legend which compares the island to a sleeping princess wearing a pearl necklace. According to the story, the crescent shape of the island resembles the princess’ neck, and these pearls under the water would glow at night, lighting up the whole island.
The main features of Ngoc Vuong Island include Vu Xuan Mountain and two kilometers of clean beach. You can get around this crescent-shaped island by bicycle and get a glimpse into the local way of living, as this island is home to a bunch of fishermen who make their income in a modest way.
The big waves crashing onto the shores of Ngoc Vung Island brings in jellyfish to the seashore, so a must-do while here is to try the various jellyfish dishes served in the few beachside food stalls that have been set up.
Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba Island (or Pearl Island) is the most popular of them all. It is the largest island of Halong Bay, and with just a two-hour ferry ride from Tuan Chau port, you can have the perfect island getaway.
Cat Ba is quite large in size and is a favorite among travelers, meaning the island is developed and you will very easily be able to find accommodation and places to eat and drink. While you can enjoy all these conveniences, you can also have a quiet getaway on the island with some peaceful beach time. Cat Ba offers you the best of both worlds.
Half of the island is Cat Ba National Park, which is the first national park in Vietnam that comprises of both land and aquatic ecosystems. Over here, you can partake in activities such as trekking and rock climbing, but if staying on land gets boring, then head to the shores and try some scuba diving, snorkeling and kayaking.
The island also has a bunch of caves to explore such as Hospital Cave, Trung Trang Cave and Hoa Cuong Cave and there is even an old fort on a hilltop with several bunkers and rooms filled with war remnants and propaganda posters. An ideal weekend would include all of this, with some sunbathing sprinkled here and there, a lot of seafood, and ending in a beachfront cocktail as the sun sets.
There is also a diverse range of accommodations, from fancy resorts to backpacker hostels, meaning the island caters to all sorts of budgets and travel preferences.
There are many other islands in Halong Bay worth visiting. For example, Rang Dua Island (coconut tree island) is isolated, with pristine and untouched land surrounding a large lake, and full of coconuts!
Then there is Mat Rong Island that translates to Dragon Eye island because the beautiful lake in the middle is surrounded by mountains topped with lush forest, and looks like the eye of a dragon. Another is Co To Island, home to Co To lighthouse, Hong Van and Van Chay beach and has some nice but basic sea-view bungalows.
Island hopping in Halong Bay is such an adventure. Happy hopping!