The Ha Long Bay region in Vietnam comprises nearly 2,000 islands, 59 discovered caves, as well as grottoes, undisturbed beaches and old fishing villages. This UNESCO World Heritage site is a dream come true for nature lovers, photography aficionados or anyone who loves stunning scenery and crystal blue waters.
For those of you who are planning a visit, here are the nine most important landmarks that you should not miss out on seeing:
1. The Chopstick
The Chopstick will certainly be pointed out to you if you are taking a boat trip through the bay.
Possibly Ha Long Bay’s most famous landmark, the Chopstick is a karst peak that protrudes from the water at a height of around 40 meters. Its long, thin shape is what gives it its moniker.
It is worth checking out, if purely for the fact that, in recent times, coastal corrosion has caused its base to shrink dramatically, so who knows how long it will stay upright for.
2. Ti Top Island
Located in the heart of Ha Long Bay, Ti Top Island has been long regarded as one of the premier landmarks of the region. Named after Ghermann Titov, a former Soviet Union hero in the second World War, Ti Top Island boasts a white sandy crescent-shaped beach, as well as a partially paved route up to the top of the karst, where you can enjoy panoramic views of the bay.
Due to its increased fame in recent times, Ti Top is often busy during peak times (summer afternoons). Arriving in the morning will give you a head start on the 400-step ascent to the top of the mountain, allowing you to enjoy the beautiful view without a thousand selfie sticks in the way.
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3. Bai Tu Long Bay
Sitting to the northeast of Ha Long Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay is its lesser known but equally staggering neighbor. Bia Tu Long has all of the coveted caves, beaches and islands that Ha Long Bay is known for, but without the crowds or congestion.
Highlights of the area include the ancient Thien Canh Son Cave, the colorful houses at Vung Vieng floating village, the untouched paradise of Ban Chan Beach and the Cong Do area.
4. Lan Ha Bay
As with Bai Tu Long Bay, Lan Ha Bay could easily be described as a quieter, lesser-known version of Ha Long. Lan Ha Bay itself boasts nearly 400 limestone karsts, as well as 139 quiet beaches that pepper the landscape. Lan Ha Bay actually belongs to the larger Cat Ba archipelago, and like with everywhere in the region, is best explored via sailboat.
Cat Ba Island is just a stone’s throw away and boasts many vendors that rent out vessels.
5. Co To Island
Co To Island is truly one of Ha Long Bay’s best-kept secrets. You will have to hire your own boat to get there but it is more than worth it. Co To Island district consists of 40 islands varying in size. Three of the largest islands are Co To Island, Thanh Lan Island and Tran Island. They boast white sandy beaches, sparkling azure water and craggy cliffs, all with the peaceful seclusion of an undiscovered paradise.
Cheap, fresh and delicious seafood can be found at seafront restaurants and the district’s larger islands offer beach activities, trekking and motorbike road trips.
6. Vung Vieng fishing village
What makes Ha Long Bay such a unique tourist destination are the people that live and work there. Small communities have lived by the waters of the bay for centuries, and four of these floating villages remain today, with its residents predominantly serving the community as fisherfolk. The most famous of these is Vung Vieng village, with its colorful houses that stand against blue waters and towering karst peaks.
The community is happy to open their homes to tourists and offer workshops and displays depicting traditional Ha Long culture. Visitors can try their own hand at traditional fishing techniques, net weaving and even learn a few things about pearl harvesting.
7. Tuan Chau Island
This newly developed area just outside of Ha Long City is perfect for those with children, or those looking for a break from relaxing on a boat or a beach.
At only 2.2 square kilometers, Tuan Chau is tiny, but it is packed full of exciting recreational activities for all ages. Attractions include dolphin, sea lion and seal shows, an animal circus, a golf course, a cultural sports center, a beach, a rural market and an ornamental fish lake, as well as villas and restaurants.
The Ho Chi Minh memorial is one of the island’s most important features, built in honor of the man himself who used to visit Tuan Chau on his holidays.
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8. Ban Chan Beach
For those who prefer to travel off the beaten track, Ban Chan Beach rivals any beach in Southeast Asia in terms of beauty and seclusion. Peeking out behind Bi Tu Long Bay, Ban Chan is unlikely to be busy at any time of year, as it sits right off the traditional boat routes of the region.
Although it is isolated and quiet, activities such as snorkeling, kayaking and beach volleyball are still offered.
9. Sung Sot Cave
The Sung Sot Cave complex is home to the most coveted caves and grottoes in Ha Long Bay, and possibly the whole country. There are a total of 59 discovered caves documented on the official registrar; however, experts estimate that the number could be close to eight times that. Sung Sot Cave is the largest cave in the complex, and the most famous.
The cave itself is incredibly wide, tall and lofty, so those with claustrophobia need not worry. Stalactites and stalagmites adorn the cave’s interior, some of which have formed enormous limestone columns of different shapes over the millennia.
Take a guided tour of the cave and you will hear about the legends associated with each of its pillars, from dragons and demons to dwarves and everything in between.
When should I go?
Ha Long Bay, much like the rest of northern Vietnam, can get surprisingly cold during winter months. Temperatures regularly drop to below 10 degrees Celsius between the months of December and February, and many homes and businesses do not have central heating.
Summer months, between June and September, can see exceptionally heavy rainfall and thunderstorms, so try to stick to the months of March and April or from late September through to early November for warm temperatures of around 25 degrees Celsius and clear skies.
Indonesian nationals are offered a 30-day visa exemption, after which one must extend their visa at an approved travel agency or visa service center.
If you are an expat living in Indonesia, you can visit the Vietnamese Embassy in Jakarta to obtain your visa, or apply online for an approval letter and get a visa on arrival. (kes)
Lana is a freelance writer from the UK currently residing in Hanoi, Vietnam. She has won several awards for travel writing by National Tourism Board of Vietnam. At the moment she is the editor-in-chief for a travel website about Halong Bay: www.halongbaytours.com
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.