This picturesque spattering of lush limestone islands is a selling point for Southeast Asia, and especially Vietnam. Roughly 2,000 largely uninhabited islands were deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 with steep limestone cliffs that stick out of water and on some islands you can find historical caves. As is the case in much of Vietnam, undeniable natural beauty has developed a robust tourism industry, and both day and overnight tours run daily. However, venture off the beaten path and you can still find a vacant paradise.
Cat Ba Island
The most popular island, Cat Ba, is the backpacker hub and a logical base for exploring the bay. Transportation to the island is offered everywhere from Hanoi, including bus and boat trips to the island in under 6 hours. However, the worst Halong Bay tours are generally serviced out of Hanoi, so it’s best practice to book once on Cat Ba. The biggest island in the bay is perfect for bike travel, especially if you’re looking to escape the crowds and enjoy nature. The town of Cat Ba has an idyllic fisherman’s port vibe, but the main road is full of accommodation and not much else.
Explore Halong Bay
Similar to the likes of Sapa, Halong Bay is a circuit destination, meaning visitors are routed through a showing of the natural spectacle and sent on their way. However, given the abundance of tour guides, you do have a bit of flexibility when arranging your trip. Day trips are available and most affordable, but multiple night cabin stays on a cruise ships serving bounties of local fare often deliver the most rewarding experiences. One of the highlights is certainly a walk through the caves, Dau Go and Sung Sot (Surprise Cave and Amazing Cave), which are geological spectacles that are lighted with lots of different colors. However, please be reminded that you’ll be part of a tour, so if this isn’t your cup of tea, you might want to reconsider.
This is arguably the most renowned destination in Vietnam, and for good reason, despite the crowds. The dramatic display of limestone and greenery is jaw dropping no matter the number of boats. Keep in mind that you’re at risk of fog January to March although that often only adds to the appeal. Backpacker heaven can be found in Cat Ba Island where you’ll have tons of entertaining activities to join in on. Finally, if you’d like to ditch the crowds, the quieter Lan Ha Bay is a fantastic alternative.