Vietnam tourism is rapidly developing. There are always new places to visit, attractions to see, hotels to stay in and golf courses to play at. Of these, the most photographed destination is probably Halong (or Ha Long) Bay, a picturesque spot about 170 km north of Hanoi.
Halong Bay boasts some of the most dramatic limestone karst landscapes in the region. In fact, the numerous sculptured rocks covered in a unique forest are so beautiful that the bay was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. With over 1,600 islands with many beaches and caves scattered over 1,500 km2 of vast landscape, Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin is one of its most popular.
Read this guide to discover the best things to do in Halong Bay and our tips on keeping your expenses within a budget while you’re there!
Halong Bay has transformed from a sleepy port to a bustling tourist centre. Newly equipped with hotels, restaurants, shops, a new convention centre, and tourist attractions, it has everything that visitors expect. On top of that, a recently completed cruise ship terminal is now attracting more maritime visitors.
The region’s limestone karst outcrops provide the backdrop for cruises lasting from just a few hours to several days. One-day budget trips departing from Hanoi cost from US$60 per person. Mid-sized ships run by companies like Paradise Cruises lets you pick from two-day, one-night trips at around US$250 per person and luxurious journeys which includes seaplane transfers from Hanoi and Halong Bay.
Kayaking is as strenuous as activities get on these cruises. Though, for the more adventurous travellers, there are several large limestone caves and coves (called hongs) nearby for exploring.
Dau Go Island, just 4 km offshore, is one of the most visited and it has a good network of trails, lights, and interpretation signs.
Boats depart from Bai Chay near the city centre. Individual travellers or small groups can join bigger groups. The boats are large and there is plenty of room for passengers to relax. Price-wise, you can expect to pay around US$30 per person for a few hours on the water.
On cheaper cruises, meals must be negotiated separately . If you don’t want to haggle, you can simply bring your own food and beverages. On-board though, you can expect delicious fresh seafood including bay-caught crabs on boats that provide lunch. Enjoy a sumptuous meal for as little as US$10.
When cruising, it’s a common sight to witness enterprising locals who take every opportunity to sell snacks, drinks, and fruit to tourists. Some even operating from small boats around the main tourist coves.
Most day cruises follow an established route that involves visiting a floating school, paddling through caves, exploring a large cave, lookouts, and swimming.
You can get side trips for an extra fee of around US$5 per person. Here, travellers alight from their boat onto a small one to be rowed through semi-hidden caves, hongs and passages.
Boats may also pull into a beach to enable passengers to swim in the clean waters of the bay, pose for a photo, get a drink or snack, or maybe even indulge in a quick game of beach volleyball.
Back on the water, the steep limestone cliffs covered in plants that have adapted to the limestone-rich conditions and which flourish in crevices and cracks within the parent rock.
Halong Bay has two dramatically different faces: the picturesque waters and islands of the bay and land-based activities.
Development on the land over the past two decades has been rapid and somewhat haphazard. However, for land-based visitors, the city has some appeal with restaurants, shops, venues for massage, temples, a museum, and a mall.
The urban development stretches along the coastline with the Bai Chay Bridge linking the city’s two parts. For those who enjoy thrilling theme park rides, Sun World is a must-visit destination. It especially appeals to families with adventurous kids although entry prices are expensive. There are various ticket combinations and prices so choose the most appropriate ticket bearing in mind that, the longer you stay here, the better the value. It’s open from 2:00 pm to 10:00 pm most days with entry tickets at around US $30 per person.
One of the biggest attractions here is the rollercoaster.It is most impressive in the evening when it and the Ferris wheel on the eastern side are lit up like Disneyland.
The park extends over two sites: one on the west and another on the eastern side of the Bai Chay Bridge. A double-decker cable car connects the two and travels high above the water, parallel to the bridge.
Tickets cost US$13 per adult. Be aware though that a child’s ticket is for someone less than 140 cm in height and based on age.
Where to stay
Vietnam is rapidly becoming a golfing destination with a recently completed course being FLC Halong Bay Golf Club and Luxury Resort. Perched high above Halong Bay, this par 71, 6,092-yard golf course provides golfers both excellent golf and scenic views. Golfers can also stay in the resort.
The Schmidt-Curley designed resort course has been designed for easy ball placement as landing areas are generous along wide open and well-turfed fairways. While there are valleys, dales, and rises, the overall design is friendly enough to avoid frustration.
The holes most golfers look forward to playing are the five, par-fives that offer Halong Bay views (the eighth to the 12th holes).
Many relax after golf in the clubhouse or one of nine dining outlets at the adjoining 649-room city-based, hilltop resort. Outlets here include Olive (Italian), Bamboo (Vietnamese and Chinese), Paradise Sky Bar, and The Connoisseur Cigar Lounge.
Luxurious Bayside Retreat
Halong Bay’s most serene accommodation is Vinpearl Resort and Spa Halong, currently the bay’s only island-located resort. It is situated on the closest island to the mainland just outside the UNESCO site and a short boat journey from the mainland.
Vinpearl offers a tranquil retreat from the busy urban setting along the Halong Bay coastline. The 384 rooms are plush with modern facilities with little touches like a complimentary mini-bar (soft drinks and snacks).
Guests can dine in the resort’s Akoya Restaurant and enjoy the local specialty, cha muc or squid cake. These are similar to the famous fishcakes served in Thailand. Expect to pay about US$20 per person for lunch). A cheaper alternative would be a bowl of pho (noodle soup) at any number of restaurants in the town which you can get at US $2.
Halong Bay is definitely a destination to include on any holiday itinerary to Vietnam. The limestone formations scattered across the bay is the main attraction that lure tourists but new land-based activities are adding more depth to the range of tourism opportunities.
Halong Bay on a Budget
If you’re a little strapped for cash, there are several affordable hotel accommodations at Halong Bay. One good example is Hanoi Rock Hostel which boasts clean, dormitory-style rooms at affordable prices. They also offer special deals if you book directly through them (i.e. a free night’s stay or a free meal). For the best deals on cruises, head on over to Halong Hub where you can choose from a variety of cruise options that will fit your budget.
To save on food expenses, backpackers tend to avoid the bayside tourist joints. This is because they tend to charge thrice for the same quality of food you can get cheaper elsewhere. If you want cheaper eats, you’ll have to brave the backstreets of Halong Bay. It’s also important to note that Halong Bay is all about seafood. You’ll notice that a big plate of clams, oysters, shrimps, and other types of seafood will set you back under US $5, with the most expensive dish being chicken. For a kick, pair your dishes with a bottle of vodka for just US$4 a bottle!
Halong Bay Travel Tips
- Fly to Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines from various parts of the world. The just-completed Van Don Airport will serve the future development of Quang Ninh Province, although it is 50 km by freeway to Halong Bay. It will not be long before budget airlines are flying into the new airport from various parts of the region.
- Halong Bay is a two-hour drive northeast of Hanoi’s International Airport. Resorts can arrange one of several modes of transfer including a limousine (at a cost). Transfer costs are incorporated into the price for those joining tours starting from Hanoi. A one-way shuttle bus transfer from Hanoi to Halong Bay starts from US$10.
- Typhoons affect Halong Bay between June and September. Winter, on the other hand, extends from November to April and summer from May to October. This makes October to December the best time to visit, although it is also the busiest.
- Read the fine print when travelling to and from Hanoi to Halong Bay and cruising on the bay. Get to know the type of vehicle will be used during the trip (is it a large bus or minivan?). Ask the right questions: Is overnight accommodation in a single or double berth? Is the rate for the room per person? What will I be getting in terms of meals, drinks, and access to equipment like kayaks? Note that there is also a government levy of US $13 for accessing the UNESCO park. Some operators incorporate this into the fee while others may not.