Ha Long Bay is a surreal landscape of limestone karsts erupting from the ocean like tidal waves made solid by magic and time. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, this natural wonder of the world has since become the single most popular tourist attraction in all of Vietnam.
It’s also been named one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World several times because its distinctive, otherworldly geomorphic topology is truly something to behold. But how, exactly, did this fantastical seascape come to be?
The 1,600 islands and islets began forming millions of years ago. The limestone hills jutting out from the bay’s emerald waters were once mountains. Over the years, the limestone eroded away, leaving only the harder outcrops behind. The result? A spectacular assortment of jungle-covered pillars, secluded bays, and sandy beaches look like something out of a mythical fairy-tale.
It’s hard to say what’s the most beautiful time of day in Halong Bay. Mornings are fresh with dew on the deck, evenings are magical with soft glowing skies, and the hours between are full of enriching views.
Without a doubt, the best way to experience the feeling of living within this ancient heritage site is to glide across its smooth waters on a boat. It is possible to take a quick half-day or full-day cruise through Ha Long Bay, but a longer trip is ideal. Book for two or three days with a ship that can plan for food, beverages, cocktails, and sightseeing so that you can just relax and enjoy the trip.
On the boat, you have a constantly moving panorama on all sides. Every few metres a new scene is revealed: masasive rock faces, fluttering Vietnamese flags, tiny fishing boats, little inlets, jungled outcrops, swooping brown eagles, and karsts as far as the eye can see. As you move towards and away from outcrop after outcrop, your imagination drifts far from the stressors of everyday life. The views are magnificent, and there’s nothing left to do but watch as they go by.
Sunset is the perfect time for sitting out of doors and making friends with the other passengers. Come evening, the ship is surrounded by streaming reflections and deep blue skies. Curl up with a cocktail on a daybed, and watch as the stars come out.
Spend a few days on a yacht, cruising around the bay by day and sleeping on the boat by night. It’s truly luxurious to be rocked to sleep by currents, and stargazing from the deck lounge of a boat anchored in the open ocean is a radically different experience from what can be seen by land. Such cruises offer buffet meals, cooking classes, or guided tours to private beaches and fishing villages.
Though many travel guides focus on the landscape above the water, there’s a whole universe thriving below the surface. Ha Long Bay is home to more than 140 different species of coral, including rare varieties. These coral reefs cover up to 30 and even 60 percent of the area around islands like Cong Do, where legal restrictions, as well as geographic isolation, protect marine life from boat traffic, pollution, and human interference.
Let’s take a dive trip to the coral reefs and watch marine creatures like starfish, sea horses, and sea turtles through the clear water. You can also explore the underwater grottos and intricate cave systems that shelter entire ecosystems. New and experienced divers can head out with a diving school or, as an alternative, you can take a boat into deeper water and snorkel around.
Whatever your travel style, be sure to hop off the cruise for an afternoon to kayak around the karsts. A kayak is the best way to get up close to the limestone formations, and their small size allows for the most autonomy and adventure. The bay water is calm and still, making it safe, easy, and enjoyable to paddle between a selection of islands and karsts, through caves, and around floating villages. Hop into the clear water at intervals for a swim before heading back to the yacht for sunset cocktails and dining.