HANOI CITY TO HALONG CITY ( 164KM )
Towering limestone pillars and tiny islets topped by forest rise from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Halong translates as ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’ and legend tells that this mystical seascape was created when a great mountain dragon charged towards the coast, its flailing tail gouing out valleys and crevasses. As the creature plunged into the sea, the area filled with water leaving only the pinnacles visible. The geological expanation of karst erosion may be more prosaic, but doesn’t make this seascape any less poetic.
Designated a World Heritage site in 1994, Halong Bay’s spectacular scatter of islands, dotted with wind-and wave -eroded grottoes, is a vision of ethereal beauty and, unsueprisingly, norhtern Vietnam’s one tourism hub, Sprawling Halong Bay is the bay’s main gateway but its dowdy high-rises are a disappointing dooestep to this site. Most visitors sensiby opt for cruise-tours that include sleeping on board within the bay, while a growing number are deciding to eschew the main bay completely, heading straight for Cat Ba Island from where trips to less-visited but equally alluring Lan Ha Bay are easily set up.
Halong Bay attracts visitors year-round with peak season between late May and early August. January to March is often cool and drizzly, and the ensuring fog can make visibility low, but adds bags of eerie atmosphere. From May to September tropical storms are frequent, and year-round tourist boats sometimes need to alter their itineraries, depending on the weather. November’s sunny blue-sky days and lack of crowds make it the best time to make a beeline here.
Sights & Activities
Most cruises and day-tripper boats include at least a couple of caves, an island stop-off, and a visit to one of Halong Bay’s floating villages. The villages here farm fish, which are caught offshore and fattened up in netted enclosures.
Halong Bay’s island are peppered with caves, many now illuminated with technicolor lighting effects. Sadly, litter and trinlet-touting vendorrs are also part of the experience.
Which os the caves you’ll visit depends on factors, including the weather and the number of other boats in the vicinity.
Hang Dau Go
This huge cave consists of three chambers reached via 90 steps. Inside, ceilings soar up to 25m high while some rather disco-festive lighting illuninates a wacky array of stalacties. Among the stalacties of the first hall, scores of gnomes appear to be holding a meeting. The cave derives its name from the role it played during the 13th-century battles with the Mongolians when locals stored wooden stakes, used to destroyed invading ships, in the third chamber here.
Hang Thien Cung
Part of the same cave system as Hang Dau Go, nearby Hang Thien Cung has ‘cauliflower’ limestone growths as well as stalacties and stalagmites.
Hang Sung Sot
The popular Hang Sung Sot has three vast chambers; in the second there’s a pink-lit rock phallus unsurprisingly regarded as a fertility refer to it as the ‘Cock Rock’
Hang Trong has wide-arched entrances on either side and a ceiling clustered with stalacties. It’s named because when the wind blows through its stalacties, the effect resembles the sound of distant drumbeats.
Island & Islets
Cat Ba Island is the most developed of Halong Bay’s Island with Cat Ba Town the launching pad for the Lan Ha Bay region. Some Halong Bay cruise operators include Cat Ba and Lan Ha Bay on their itineraries.
This small island is a popular boat stop for superb panoramic views across Halong Bay from its summit.
Dao Ga Choi
One of the Halong Bay’s most photographed sites, these two jagged rocks jutting 10m out of the water look like two fighting cockerels having a face-off.
A kayak among the karst is an option on most Halong Bay tours. Count on about an hour’s paddling, often including negotiating your way through karst grottoes and around lagoons, or to a floating village in the bay.
If you’re really keen on kayaking, contact Handspan Adverture Travel in Hanoi or Blue Swimmer on Cat Ba Island, both of which run professionally organised trips and have qualified guides. Trips are operated in less-touristed Lan Ha Bay.
All visitors must purchase entry tickets for the national park and there are also separate admission tickets for attractions in the bay, such as caves and fishing villages. Most admission tees are included with organised cruises, but check when booking.
Halong Bay Tourist Information Centre
The offical Halong Bay Tourist Information Centre is at Bai Chay Tourist Wharf in Halong City. Here you’ll English-speaking staff and excellent maps of the Halong Bay area.
Getting There & Around
Most travellers elect to experience Halong Bay on a cruise-tour prearranged in Hanoi, which usually includes transfers to/from the bay.
It’s also possible to head to Halong City independently and book a boat trip at Bai Chay Rourist Wharf.
Alternatively, head directly to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi and arrange a boat trip from there to explore Lan Ha Bay.
Bai Chay Tourist Wharf.
From always bustling Bai Chay Tourist Wharf there are two main boat trips. Route One potters around the waters of nearby islands visiting the caves of Hang Dau Go and Hang Thien Cung. Route Two heads further into the bay to Hang Sung Sot and Dao titop.
On these trips you also have to factor in the separate admission costs to the national park and to each attraction. These day-trip tours are an entirely local and boisterous Vietnamese karaoke tunes pumping from the stereos as your soundtrack.
If there’s a group of you to share costs, there’s the option of hiring a complete boat and creating your own itinerary.
Development has not been kind to Halong City. Despite enjouing a stunning position on the cusp of Halong Bay, this is a gritty town with pockets of bland high-rise hotel development dotting the shoreline.
Many travellers opt to skip Halong City completely, prefering to spend a night out in Halong Bay itself. Increasing competition for a dwindling clientele means budget hotel rates are some of the cheapest in Vietnam.
Chinese and Korean visitors are now more prevalent, prefering to enjoy terra firma attractions like casinos and karaoke after a day explopring the bay.
Halong Bay is not foodie heaven. Restaurants rim the stretch of Halong west of Bai Chay Tourist Wharf.
For cheap, filling food, there are modest eating joints with English menus at the bottom of Vuon Dao, and hole-in-the-wall pho places along Bai Chay
Linh Dan Restaurant
Linh Dan has a novella- length menu conjuring up pretty much every stirfied variation on pork, chicken, seafood and vegetables.
A simple place with a small menu that specialises in fresh seafood. You can also pick your fish or crab from the tanks outside, but make sure you check the price first.
Getting There & Away.
All buses leave from Bai Chay bus station, 6km south of central Bai Chay.For Tam Coc, hop on the Ninh Binh - bound bus.
There are regular services to Cai Rong on Van Don Island, where ferries depart for the island of Bai Tu LongBay from Cai Rong Pier.
Note that many buses to Halong will be marked ‘Bai Chay’ rather than ‘Halong City’.
Day-tripping boats leave from Bai Chay Tourist Wharf.
Hon Gai Ferry Pier
From Hon Gai Ferry Pier there is one daily speedboat service to Quan Lan Island at 1.30pm.
Tuan Chau Ferry Pier
From Tuan Chau Ferry Pier, 13km southwest of central Bai Chay, there are two car ferries to Cat Ba Island’s Gia Luan Harbour at 8am and 3pm throughout the year with hourly services during the peak period of June to early August.
Gia Luan Harbour is on other side of the island from Cat Ba Town, so unless you’re convenient to catch a ferry to Cat Ba from Haiphong.
Car & Motorbike.
Halong City is 160km from Hanoi and 55km from Haiphong. The one-way trip from Hanoi takes about three hours by private vehicle.
Bai Chay is quite spread out; Mai Ling is a realiable taxi option. A taxifrom central Halong City to Tuan Chau Ferry Pier costs around 130,000.
Cat Ba Island
Rugged craffy and jungle-clad Cat Ba, the largest island in Halong Bay, has experienced a tourism surge in recent years. The central hub of Cat Be Town is now framed by a chain of low-rise concrete hotels along its once-lovely bay, but the rest of the island is largely intouched and as wild as ever. With idyllic Lan Ha Bay just offshore you’ll soon overlook Cat Ba Town’s overdevelopment.
Cat Ba is a pretty laid-back place most of the year and for climbers, kayakers and hikers it’s the launching pad for a swag of sweat-inclucing activities. Between June and early August the energy level gets dialled up signficantly as Cat Ba Town transforms Vietnamese. This is peak season and hotel prices during this period can skyrocket.
Almost half of Cat Ba island and 90sq km of the adjacent waters were declared a national park in 1986 to protect the island’s diverse ecosystem. Most os the coastline consists of rocky cliffs, but there are some sandy beaches and tiny fishing hidden away in small coves.
Lakes, waterfalls and grottoes dot the spectacular limestone hills, the highest rising 331m above sea level. The island’s largest body of water is Ech Lake. Almost all of the surface streams are seasonal. Most of the island’s rainwater flows into caves and follows underground streams to the sea, creating a shortage of fresh water during the dry season.
Ho Chi Minh paid a visit to Cat Ba Island on 1 April 1951 and there is an annual festival to commemorate the event. During this time, expect lots of waterfront karaoke and techno, beats from 8am to midnight.
First impressions of Cat Ba Town are not great, but the mediocre vision of a low-rent mini-Manhattan only extends for a street or two behind the promenade. A Ho Chi Minh monument stands up on Mountain No 1, the hillock opposite the pier in Cat Ba Town. The market at the norhtern end of the harbour is a great local affair with twitching crabs, jumbo shrimps and pryramids of fresh fruit. Head out of town for the island’s best sights.
Lan Ha Bay
Lying south and east of and limestone outcrops of Lan Ha are just as beautiful as those of Halong Bay and have the additonal attraction of numerous whitesand beaches.
Due to being a fair way from Halong City, not so many tourist boats venture here, meaning Lan Ha Bay has a more isolated appeal. Sailing and kayak trips here are best organised in Cat Ba Town.
Geologically, Lan Ha is an extension of Halong Bay but sits in a different province of Vietnam. Around 200 species of fish, 500 species of molluse, 400 species of artropod, and numerous hard and soft coral live in the waters here, while larger marine animals in the area include seals and three species of dolphin.
The bay’s admission fee is often incorporated into the cost of tours.
Cat Ba National Park.
Cat Ba’s beautiful national park is home to 32 types of mammal, including most of the worls’s 65 remaining golden-headed langur, the world’s most endangered primate. There are some good hiking trails here, including a hard-core 18km route up to a mountain summit.
To reach the park headquarters at Trung Trang, hop on the green QH public bus from the docks at Cat Ba Town, hire a xe om or rent a motorbike for the day.
A guide is not mandatory but is definitely recommended to help you make sense of the verdant canopy of trees. Most visitors opt to visit the park on an organised tour- Cat Ba Ventures runs good day-trips here - but you can also arrange guides with the rangers at the park headquaters. Within the park the multi-chambered Hang Trung Trang is easily accessible, but you will need to contact a ranger to make sure it;s open. Bring a torch.
The challenging 18km hikling trail in the park takes six hours and is best done with a guide. Boat or bus transport to the trail-head and a boat to get back to town also need to be arrnaged. Again, rangers at the headquaters can help with this or speak to CAt Ba Ventures or Asia Outsoors in Cat Ba Town. Take proper hiking shoes, a raincoat and a generous supply of water for this hike. Independent hikers can buy basic snacks at the kiosks in Viet Hai, which is where many hiking groups stops for lunch. This is not an easy walk, and is much harder and more slippery after rain. There are shorter hiking options that are less strenuous.
Many hikes end at Viet Hai, a remote minority village just outside the park boundary, from where taxi boats shuttle back to Ben Bao Pier. A shared public boat departs from Ben Beo at 6am on weedays and 7am on weekends.
Of the mammals present in the park, the more commonly seen include macaques, deer, civets and several species of squirrel, including the giant black squirrel. Seventy bird species have been spotted here, including hawks, hornbills and cuckoos. Cat Ba also lies on a major migration route for waterfowl that feed and roost on the beaches in the mangrove forests. Over a thousand species of plants have been recorded in the park, including 118 trees and 160 plants with medicinal value.
Cat Co Cove
A 10-minute walk southeast from Cat Ba Town, the three Cat Co Cove beaches boast the nearst sand to town, although rubbish in the water can be problematic some days. Cat Co 3 is the closest, with a blink-and-you’ll miss-it sliver of sand. From there a walking trail, cut into the cliff, offering gorgeous sea views, winds its way to Cat Co 1 dominated by a rather ugly resort, then onward to the pretty white-sand of Cat Co 2.
You can also walk straight up to the hill to Cat Co 1 and 2, or take the tourist ‘train’ that trundles over the hill during the summer months.
Water-sport gear like kayaks and windsurfers are available to rent at Cat Co 1 and 2. Note that on summer weekends the beaches get packed and litter can be a problem.
Other beaches located on Cat Ba Island include Cai Vieng, Hong Xoai Be and Hong Xoai Lon.
Hospital Cave served both as a secret, bombproof hospital during the American War and a a safe house for VC leaders. Built between 1963 and 1965, this incredibly well-constructed three-storey feat of engineering was in constant use until 1975. The cave is about 10km north of Cat Ba Town on the road to the Cat Ba National Park entrance.
A guide will show you around the 17 rooms, point out the old operating theatre and take you to the huge natural cevern that was used as a cinema.
Hostels can arrange Chinese mountain bikes rents better-quality mountain bikes for US$15 per day.
One possible route traverses the heart of the island, past Hospital Cave down to the west coast’s mangroves and crab farms, and then in a loop back to Cat Ba Town past tidal mud flats and deserted beaches.
Plenty of hostels in Cat Baa Town and travel companies rent kayaks ideal for exploring the Cat Ba coast independently. Due to shifting, strong currents, exploring the karst formations of Lan Ha Bay by kayak is best done with a guide, particularly if you’re not an experienced kayaker.
Most of Cat Ba Island consist of protected tropical forest. Cat Ba National Park has the most hiking opportunities.
Boat trip around Lan Ha Bay are offered by nearly every hotel on Cat Ba island. Typical prices start at around US$80 for overnight tours, but it is usually worth spending a bit more. We receive unfavourable feedback-craped conditions and dodgy food - about some of these trips.
The pioneer of climbing in Vietnam, Asia Outdoors is a one-stop shop for adventurous travellers. Climbing is its real expertise, with fully licensed and certified instructors leading trips, but it also offers climbing and kayaking packages with an ovenight on its boat. It’s also just launched stand-up paddle-boarding trips.Advanced climbers can hire gear here, talk shop and pick up a copy of Vietnam: A Climber’s Guide by Asia Outdoors’ Erik Ferjentsik, which describes climbs and has some great tips about Cat Ba too.
Cat Ba Ventures
Locally owned and operated company offering boat trips around Lan Ha and Halong Bays, one-day kayaking trips and guided hikes in Cat Ba National Park. Excellent service from Mr Tung is reinforced by multiple reader recommendations. These guys are a font of knowledge on everything Cat Ba and a great source of information on onward transport options.
This environmentally conscious outfit was established by Vinh, one of the founders of respected tour operator Handspan Adventure Travel. Superb sailing and kayaking trips, trekking and mountain-biking excursions are offered. Check it out ar Ben Beo Harbour or at its booking office in Cat Ba Town at the Green Bamboo Forest restaurant.
For a cheap feed, head to the food stalls in front of the market, or one block back from the waterfront on the cross street that links the loop of Nui Ngoc.
Green Bamboo Forest
Friendly and well-run waterfront eatery that also acts as a booking seafood on offer and myriad rice and noodle dishes. The quieter location is also a bonus.
Right next to Cat Ba market, this bambooclad place serves up lots of vegetable and tofu goodness and doesn’t use any dairy or eggs so is a top choice for vegans as well. Its 30,000d dairy-changing set menu is excellent value.
This friendly spot opens early for goodies, such as pain au chocolat and almond partries. Pop in for a coffee, creme caramel or croissant before the bus-ferry-bus combo back to Hanoi.
Bustling breakfast spot that’s a popular place for a hearty bowl of Pho bo - just the thing you need before a day of climbing or kayaking.
Handy supermarket for stocking up before heading off trekking or for the boat trip back to the mainland.
With a menu traipsing from steaks to seafood and over to Italy for pasta and pizza, Green Mango is a great dinner choice, with friendly staff. It’s also a chilled-out spot for a glass of wine or cocktail.
One of the most popular of the seafood spots lining Nui Ngoc, and often heaving with Vietnamese tourists diving into local crab, squid and steaming seafood hotpots. Definitely not the place to come if you’re looking for a quiet night.
For cheap, local style drinking, head to the bia hoi stalls near the entrance to the fishing harbour.
With cheap cocktails, loads of happy-hour specials and shisha, Rose Bar sticks all the boxes for backpacker fun a long way from home. It often stays open after midnight in the busy season.
A pool table, smiley staff and a location slap in the centre of the seafront strip make Oasis a popular spot to plonk yourself down for a beer or two. The menu is pretty decent if you’re feeling peckish.
Flightlessw Bird Cafe
Discover your inner Kiwi at this friendly bar decorated with New Zealand memorabillia. For those who always need to multitask, you can also get your nails painted while you drink, with well-priced massage and manicure services an offer.
This upper-floor bar has a real vibe and goes on until late most nights. It comes fully equipped with pool tables and terrific harbour views.
Most accommodation and restaurant offer wifi access
For tourist information, the best impartial advice is at Asia Outdoors.Cat Ba Centures is also very helpful. Both companies have websites with local information.
Getting There & Away
Cat Ba Island is 45km east of Haiphong and 50km south Halong City. Various boat and bus combinations make the journey from Hanoi, or there are forries from Haiphong and Halong City.
A fast hydofoil departs Haiphong’s Ben Bing Harbour at 7am, 9am, 1pm and 3pm, and goes straight to Cat Ba Town Pier, Haiphong-bound hydrofoils depart Cat Ba Town Pier at 8am, 10am, 2pm and 4pm.
Ferries from Halong City’s Tuan Chau Ferry Pier terminate at Cat Ba Island’s Gia Luan Harbour on the north side of the island, which means you’re still 40km from Cat Ba Town. The local QH Green bus between Gia Luan and Cat Ba Town is the only public transport linking the two.
For years this ferry route was brighted by a taxi mini-mafia at Gia Luan Harbour who did their bast to make sure you couldn’t catch this bus, but a recent crackdown on the culprits has made it more doable.
Due to frequent ferry schedule changes along this route, the Haiphong ferry remains the easier alternative for foot passagers. If you’re travelling by motorbike, this is a great option too.
The car ferry from Halong City’s Tuan Chau Ferry Pier leaves for Cat Ba Island’s Gia Luan Harbour at 8am and 3pm throughout the year, with the number of daily sailings rising to hourly in busy periods. From Gia Luan, throughout the year, the QH Green bus departs for Cat Ba Town at 9am and 4pm. If the ferry is late, the bus waits for the boat to arrive. From approximately May to September there are extra bus services at 1pm and 5pm.
From Gia Huan Harbour to Halong City’s Tuan Chau Ferry Pier, car ferries leave at 9am and 4pm. Catch the 7.40am or 3pm QH Green bus from Cat ba Town to connect with the boat. Again, the ferry timetable from Gia Luan is beefed up according to demand and there are usually hourly sailings from late May to early August.
Hoang Long Bus Company
Departing from Hanoi’s Luong Yen bus station. Hoang Long operates an efficient bus-boat-bus combo to Cat ba Town. A bus takes you to Haiphong, followed by a minibus to nearby Dinh Vu port, then a 40-minute ferry to Cai Vieng Harbour on Cat Ba Island. From there, another minibus whisks passengers to Cat Ba Town.
Between May and September buses depart Hanoi at 5.20am, 7.20am, 11.20am and 1.20pm, and return from Cat Ba Town at 7.15am, 9.15am, 1.15pm and 3.15pm. From October to April buses leave Hanoi at 7.20am and 11.20am, and depart Cat ba Town at 9.15am and 1.15pm.
If you’re travelling from Hanoi, this is the most hassle-free way.
A xe om from Cat Ba Town to Cat Co 2 beach or Ben Beo harbour is around 10,000 and in summer a tourist train whizz between Cat Ba Town and Cat Co 1 and 2.
Bicycle & Motorbike
Bicycle and motorbike rentals are available from most Cat ba hotels. If you’re heading out to the beaches or national park, pay the parking fee for security.
Cat Ba’s public QH Green Bus trundles between Cat Ba Harbour and Gia Luan Harbour in the north of the island, passing the national park headquarters enroute.
From Cat Ba town, throughout the year, sevices leave at 7.40am and 3pm with an 11am and 1pm service added from approximately May to September. During the peak holiday period of June to July, more departures are sometimes added.