Nothing quite prepares you for the sheer beauty of Halong Bay in North Vietnam.
It’s a common backdrop for movies set in Vietnam, but no matter how many photographs you have seen or films you have watched, its beauty still catches you unaware.
It is not until you are on the bay in a boat or better still, floating in the emerald green waters, looking up at the awesome limestone karsts and islands, that you truly appreciate these wonders.
There are more than 3,000 islands rising from the clear waters of the Gulf of Tonkin and stretching along the 120-kilometre coastline of Bai Chay Beach, right up to the Chinese border.
The main town in the region is Halong City, which is bisected by a bay. Bai Chay, the western part, is the more scenic and has the most hotels, restaurants and touts – there are also casinos, an artificial beach and resorts.
Hon Gai in the eastern part is connected by the enormous Bai Chay Bridge. It is a major industrial port for Northern Vietnam and really just a stopping off point to visit Halong Bay.
To get there from Hanoi, it’s about a three-hour drive through the countryside where Vietnamese farmers work in the rice paddies and tend their water buffalo.
It is a busy port with lots of fishing and tourism boats competing for business. The dragon-faced boats offer both shorter and longer cruises to see the craggy islands that tower into the skies, topped with lush vegetation and overhanging rocks.
There are many caves and grottoes and boats stop at various spots around the bay. The most impressive of the grottoes is the Hang Dau Go, a huge cave of three chambers while the Thien Cung Caves are also worth a look.
If you swim at night, you’ll gather small fluorescent shrimps on your body that literally make you glow in the dark.
A quaint Vietnamese fable about the creation of Halong Bay captures the romance and spirituality of the place. It states that the Gods, seeing an invading foreign force approaching the bay, sent down a dragon to drive off the invaders and protect the local people. The dragon smashed up the rocks around the bay with its flailing tail and stopped the attack leaving behind thousands of rocky islands and outcrops strewn across the bay.
If you are not into myths, science will tell you the limestone and dolomite karsts were created by the dual powers of wind and seawater eroding the rock over millions of years.
As you near the shores of Halong Bay, take one long last look at the pretty islands often partly shrouded in mist. If you look hard enough, you may just make out the spine of the dragon, jutting from the emerald seas – like those legends say.
It is a wonderful sight that leaves you wishing you could spend longer.
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Visit Hanoi & Halong Bay with Back-Roads Touring
Embark on a journey of discovery and dive into the mysteries and cultures of Vietnam on a fascinating five-day tour with Back-Roads Touring.
Enjoy an overnight cruise in Halong Bay, master the art of Vietnamese cuisine with cooking classes and demonstrations, and marvel at the amazing scenery of Ninh Binh.
Over five fascinating days, your tour will include:
- 3 nights in boutique accommodation, 1 night on an overnight cruise
- Experienced Back-Roads Driver & Tour Leader
- Tours by air-conditioned vehicle
- Breakfast daily (B), 2 lunches (L), 3 dinners (D)
- Walking tour of Hanoi
- Papier-mâché mask making in Hanoi
- Street food tour in Hanoi
- Vietnamese cooking class and demonstration
- Boat cruises as mentioned in the itinerary
- Entrance included to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, Temple of Literature
DAY 1: HANOI, VIETNAM
Arriving into Hanoi you will meet with the group. Tonight, enjoy an evening of Vietnamese cuisine at KOTO restaurant, a social enterprise which teaches the art of cookery to disadvantaged young people. (D)
Accommodation: The Chi Boutique
DAY 2: HANOI
This morning, there’s an optional walking tour. Venture to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum to start your day and learn about the man who led Vietnam’s campaign for independence from French colonial rule.
Next, hear the legend of the One Pillar Pagoda, which was built by an emperor to honour the Goddess of Mercy, before visiting the Temple of Literature.
Later, your guide will lead you through the streets of Hanoi to learn about the area’s French colonial architecture. Once you arrive in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, you will join a family that produces traditional paper-mâché masks. Hear their inspiring stories about this unique art before getting the chance to make your own mask.
In the evening, embark on a street food tour where you can indulge in some local delicacies in Hanoi’s enchanting streets. (B,D)
Accommodation: The Chi Boutique
DAY 3: HANOI – NINH BINH
Set course for Ninh Binh Province. Boasting limestone karst topography jutting from the emerald rice paddy fields, this beautiful area is known as ‘Halong Bay on land’.
Take a short boat trip at the highly photogenic Van Long Nature Reserve, which is surrounded by breathtaking landscapes and rolling jungle hills.
After a cooking demonstration and traditional lunch at a local family home, you’ll transfer to the hotel, where the afternoon is yours to spend as you wish. (B,L)
Accommodation: The Tam Coc Garden
DAY 4: NINH BINH – HALONG BAY
Depart in the morning from Ninh Binh province to Halong Bay, you’ll board the Emeraude and cruise past the vast limestone karsts en route to Sung Sot Grotto (Surprise Cave).
In the evening, learn the secrets of Vietnamese cuisine at a cooking class and demonstration before watching the film Indochine on the sundeck of the ship.
Spend the night aboard your vessel in the scenic bay. (B,L,D)
Accommodation: Emeraude Classic Cruise Halong
DAY 5: HALONG BAY – HANOI
Make the most of one last morning with the group as you sit down to breakfast on the sundeck of the vessel. You can even indulge in a spot of optional tai chi.
Back en route to the port, pass by the Bai Tu Long Bay area and the Ba Hai and Hang Ma islands before disembarking and heading back to Ho Chi Minh City. (B)
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