Even in a country with the diversity of Vietnam, the spectacular seascape at Ha Long Bay can stun the most powerful into humility.
This UNESCO World Heritage site is in northeastern Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin, in Quang Ninh Province. The lush emerald and turquoise waters harbor over 1,600 mostly uninhabited—and thereby undisturbed—islands and islets, according to UNESCO.
In Vietnamese, Ha Long means “descending dragon.” Dragons play a prominent role in Vietnamese culture, and the most popular legend has it that one such creature and her children descended from heaven to defend the Viet people from invaders, spraying fire and emeralds or jade. She and her children then stayed on Earth.
The jewels eventually formed towering limestone formations, and over millennia, their protective crags and jagged edges evolved into the backdrop of green islands, towers, and water relished by visitors. A nearby bay, Bai Tu Long, refers to the children of the dragon.
“These legends strike a chord with Vietnamese beliefs and history in two ways,” says Hanh Tran, lecturer of South and Southeast Asian studies at the University of California, Berkeley. “First, the history of fighting against invaders. Second, the belief that Viet people are descended from a dragon father (Lac Long Quan) and a fairy mother (Au Co), and that there is a sacred, hidden power to support them in their war efforts.”
That’s not to reduce the charm of Ha Long Bay to the fanciful. From a scientific viewpoint, it’s remarkable as “a very evolved, very advanced, unusual looking karst landscape,” says Robert Brinkmann, professor of geology, environment, and sustainability at Hofstra University in New York. Most such formations are on land, such as in Florida or Puerto Rico, and not on the water.
“What’s unusual about the karst towers at Ha Long Bay is that such a beautiful place inspires not just geologists, but artists, science, and painters to come together to understand the landscape,” Brinkmann adds.
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How to Get There
Ha Long Bay is 103 miles (165 kilometers) from Hanoi (formerly known as Thang Long, “Ascending Dragon.”) It’s accessible by bus, taxi, motorbikes, ferry, hydrofoil, and private tour companies. You can also take a Ha Long Bay transfer directly from the airport. To cut the journey from up to four hours down to about 45 minutes, consider a helicopter or seaplane. A tour company from Hanoi is highly recommended, as most people at Ha Long Bay will be on tourist boats anyway.
How to Visit
Most visitors take an overnight boat tour of Ha Long Bay to experience at least one sunset and one ethereal sunrise. “You can stay closest to the water and the limestone islets as well as do activities such as kayaking, swimming, and visiting fabulous caves,” says Tran Trong Kien, CEO of TMG, a travel company in Asia.
Megan Hardesty, co-founder of Cohica Travel, seconds kayaking. “Many boats offer this as part of the cruise, but a lot (especially the big ones) do not. It was amazing—one of those experiences that forces you to be completely in the moment. The limestone cliffs just tower above you when you're floating alone on the calm water.”
To get off the beaten path, Kien recommends taking a seaplane, which are run by Hai Au Aviation, a TMG subsidiary. “At the moment, cruising in Ha Long Bay is limited to just five routes, but flying with seaplanes, you get to view the whole bay and admire its grandness and the amazing formations of the islets.”
When to Visit
The best time to go is from March to May or September to November, which is generally a good time to visit Vietnam to avoid the extreme heat. Vietnamese summers bring monsoons, and winter can be cloudy and cool (50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit).