Last weekend, my wife and I came back to Halong Bay for an overnight stay on a wooden boat, being a tourist couple. Those were beautiful days of the north Vietnam’s autumn weather, the white painted wooden cruiser was teeming with eager, and the Gulf of Tonkin sparkled like wrinkled cellophane. The short trip was my wife’s first overnight boat experience, so she was moving around quite often taking photos of the islands and selfies around the vessel.
My first tours in Halong archipelago was in early 2007 when I was a kayaking guide for an adventure travel company in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, paddling our Necky sit-in ocean kayaks to hidden coves and lagoons up and down the Bai Tu Long Bay, Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay. I miss gliding through low tunnels and caves, where we got to lean back in our kayaks like an Egyptian mummy - my nose passing just below raveling calcite formations. Unfortunately, gone are the days when most of the bay was still unbeaten by big tourist boats, when it was so easy to find a quiet chamber and hang out on small empty white-sandy beaches we found on our paddle routes.
Being tourists on our holidays, we met interesting groups of travelers staying on the Paradise Luxury Cruise with us, we shared a few bottles of wine and we got fun, and there was a lot about Halong Bay for me to share. As a tourist guide in the region, and I got the luck to have seen much of this amazing bay.
Where is Halong Bay in Vietnam?
To the local people, Halong Bay refers to the central area of a larger limestone karst zone, which includes Bai Tu Long Bay to the northeast and Lan Ha Bay to the southwest. Those three bays share exactly the same geological and cultural characters, featuring the same kind of limestone islets dotting on the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin.
The total area of the whole Halong archipelago is around 1,553km2 (600mi2), including 1,969 islands and islets, most of which are limestone formations. In 1994, the core area of 334km2 (129mi2), with a density of 775 limestone islets, was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its aesthetic value. In 2000, it was again listed a World Heritage Site for its outstanding examples representing major stages of earth's history, and its original limestone karstic geomorphologic features.
Today, Halong and its sister bays – Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay are rivalry tourist destinations within the waters of the Tonkin Gulf, striving to attract more travelers to spend their holidays on their parts.
Difference Between Halong Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay
Administratively, Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay belong to Quang Ninh Province, Lan Ha Bay belongs to Hai Phong Province, but they are all in the same area known as Halong Archipelago in the Gulf of Tonkin. Each of those three bays has its own boat dock where boats offer cruising routes within its designated bay, meaning that if you want to see Lan Ha Bay you want to access it from Hai Phong Province, or if you want to explore Bai Tu Long Bay you want to book the boat that leaves from Hon Gai Dock.
Map of Halong Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay & Lan Ha Bay. Source: Vietnam Travel Information
Halong Bay, view from a seaplane.
Sunset view from Bai Tho Mountain, Bai Tu Long Bay.
Dark & Bright Cave, Lan Ha Bay.
Is there any big difference between them? I would say no, you don’t actually miss anything if you choose one but not others, because the scenery is pretty much the same. As you see on the map, what divides the three bays is an invisible line through innocuous stretch of calm waters between limestone islets. While there are larger boats with classic itineraries on Halong and Bai Tu Long Bays, there are more joined-group boats with more activities, like cycling and more kayaking, in Lan Ha Bay.
Recently, even my Hanoi food tour’s clients asked me whether they should choose Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay? I answered the question by comparing Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay as two queens with more leisure travelers, Lan Ha Bay as a young girl from the countryside with more active sunscreen-varnished tourists. And that, people choose Lan Ha Bay because boats that cruise there offer more activities, and opportunities to swim on the beaches with less tourists (honestly, it’s not always true). Taking it easy, I will just mention Halong Bay for all the three areas in the later words.
How Were the Halong Bay’s Islands & Islets Formed?
One of the best Halong Bay experience is the cruising through the limestone islands and islets dotting all over the bay, that arises one of the very common questions I have as a guide: how were those islands formed?
According to geologists and scientists, the islands and islets in Halong Bay are mostly limestone and shale, they have a tectonic age of at least 300 millions years. Their formation processes started when the nature stuffs like eroded earth, marine organisms, minerals fell down and deposited on the bottom of the ocean, forming layers upon layers of materials. During a very long period of time, the chemical reactions slowly turned them into limestone layers.
Then the underground movement in the earth’s crust, which happened about 200 million years ago, lifted those limestone layers up forming the islands and islets like what we see today.
So the limestone islands and islets in Halong Bay were formed by the underground movements of in the earth’s crust, which is said to first happen some 200 million years ago.
The Legend of Halong Bay
We the Vietnamese live with legends, like our national legend about the Dragon and Fairy, in which we refer to ourselves as the dragon’s son and fairy’s grandchildren.
Another famous legend in Vietnam is the legend of Halong Bay, which is also related to the dragon. As the legend goes, once upon a time when Vietnam was being attacked by foreign invaders from the east sea, Jade Emperor sent a family of dragons to help the Vietnamese defend their homeland. Those dragons flew down upon where is now Halong Bay and spat out countless jades into the sea, which quickly turned into a myriad of jade islands linking together to form a barrier against the invaders, and that helped the Vietnamese keep their land safe. Since then, the area where the dragons landed has been called Halong Bay - meaning “bay of descending dragons”, and where the child dragons landed was called Bai Tu Long Bay.
When I explained how Halong Bay was formed with this legend, my travelers like it better than the scientific stuffs mentioned above. With a flight above the bay on a seaplane, we can see that the islands are just like the jades spat out by the dragons, the story will then make more sense.
How Were Caves (Caverns) and Grottos in Halong Bay Formed?
We all know that caves were formed by various geologic processes. These may involve a combination of chemical reactions, water erosions, tectonic forces, atmospheric influences, and even digging.
According to geologists, caves in Halong Bay were formed by both water erosions and dissolutions. Dissolutions began when acidic water reacted chemically to the limestone bedrock, and was absorbed by the soil into the ground or through limestone bedrocks. On the way traveling down, the acidic water reacted chemically with calcium carbonate in the rock and created a space.
When the space became larger and larger over the years, the water can flow through, and as it flows it erodes. Physical erosion washed away rocks and sand then formed an underground stream. Finally, over hundreds of thousands of years or even millions of years, the cave was formed. Both the Sung Sot Cave and Thien Cung Cave, the two largest caves in Halong Bay, were formed that ways.
How Were those Stalactites Formed?
Thien Cung Cave, Halong Bay.
Visitors are always impressed with the stalactites in caves and grottos all over Halong Bay, and wandering how they were formed.
Stalactites were formed by the deposition of calcium carbonate and other minerals, which are precipitated from mineralized water solutions. The process started when the calcium carbonate rock in the limestone was dissolved by water containing carbon dioxide, then it formed a hydro calcium carbonate solution. That solution traveled through the rocks until it reached an edge on the roof of a cave it dripped down. At the moments before dripping down, it clung into droplets, that made the solution deposited when it reacted chemically with air and other minerals.
An average growth rate is 0.13 mm (0.005 inches) a year. With fast-flowing water rich in calcium carbonate and carbon dioxide, these can grow at 3 mm (0.12 inches) per year.
So, every stalactite begins with a single mineral-laden drop of water. When the drop falls, it leaves behind the thinnest ring of calcite. Each subsequent drop that forms and falls deposits another calcite ring. Eventually, these rings form a very narrow (0.5 mm), hollow tube commonly known as a “soda straw” stalactite. Soda straws can grow quite long, but are very fragile. If they become plugged by debris, water begins flowing over the outside, depositing more calcite and creating the more familiar cone-shaped stalactite.
That explained how stalactites in Halong Bay were formed, same stuffs that fall down on the bottom will later form a stalagmite.
When is the Best Time to See Halong Bay?
The best time to see Halong Bay is between September and December, when the weather is no longer too hot and you can enjoy beautiful sunrise and sunset on the bay. January to April is also the peak season in the bay as the weather is cool, though it might be a bit chilly and foggy to take photo. The weather from May to August is quite hot (35C/ 99F), but it is a good time to enjoy the beaches and take advantage of the low tourist season with summer promotions.
Fishermen and Fishing Villages in Halong Bay
Cai Beo Fishing Village, Lan Ha Bay.
What I love best about my job of being a guide and trip leader is the opportunities for people to people interactions, chances to meet and talk to the people we meet along the way when facilitating conversations between them and my travelers, lessons learned and compassion shared.
On rafts anchored under the shadows of the elegant limestone rock formations that make Halong Bay famous, are clusters of floating homes that form Cua Van, Vung Vieng, Cap La, Ba Hang, Cong Dam, Ho Ba Ham and Cai Beo fishing villages. There I had chances to meet and talk to many interesting fishermen, who have been living on the rafts for many years. Obviously, the heritage of Halong Bay is not just the landscape, it is also the people.
My travelers often asked why they’re living in such simple shelters and what’s the main reason keeping them on the water in the middle of nowhere for generations. They’ve told us that they just love being in the bay, they love the ocean and they love their fishing life. Fishing seems to be the only skill they have that brings in income and daily food.
Kids on Floating Houses in Halong Bay
Fishing boats, Lan Ha Bay.
At those fishing villages in Halong Bay, I had chances to meet the people and their kids. Kids in Halong Bay are so beautiful, they look really healthy with sun tanned skin and a ready smile. Just few years ago, there were many kids paddling little bamboo boats full of stuffs including snail shells, Oreo and Pringles, toward the big tourist boats trying conduct a sale, my travelers wondered when they go to school.
Very often, we were approached by a few kids during our kayaking tours, their living standards in floating houses were so low that they have to help parents earn living. My travelers were quite surprised to see many young kids controlling their candy-loaded boats very well, some of them were swimming very fast because they got used to it. That was what they do almost every day, and it's also a part of their life.
I am so glad that the local government has recently devised a plan to move the fishermen living in those floating houses inland, to protect the environment of Halong Bay (many of them just dumped wastes into the water to finish their works, although they know it's harmful to the bay) and to make sure the kids go to school. I think kids should be at home, and going to school, not hanging around on their try to earn money while they’re still so young. They won’t see their own future floating around in a bamboo boats looking for chances to approach tourists.
Seafood in Halong
I ate food cooked in Halong City, Cat Ba Island, and on rafts at fishing villages in both Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay, I always like the fishermen’s food the best. They cooked their fish broth in an interesting but different way with lots of herbs and lots of water. I still remember the taste of the broth, which was a bit sweet from the fresh-caught fish, a bit sour from the herbs and a little bit salty from the fish sauce. The best food is always the simple food!
Foods served on boat are also delicious and fresh, clams and shrimps were as fresh as they were just caught before the meal. Cooked by professional chef and garnished with spring onions and carrots, sea bass fish was marinated with turmeric and ginger like our traditional way of cooking fresh water carp. Tasty inside and crunchy on the outside. If you are a vegan or vegetarian, make sure the boat knows about that before it leaves the land.
Best Way to See Halong Bay
So far, the best way to see Halong Bay is to take a seaplane trip from Hanoi and do an overnight stay on the boat, nothing can compete with seeing the landscape from above. Incense Travel offers such a trip, the seaplane takes off from Hanoi airport and lands on Tuan Chau Island, where you will aboard a traditional wooden vessel for an excursion to experience Halong Bay in comfort.
Halong Bay Cruises and Itineraries
Thanks to the complete of an expressway connecting Hanoi, Hai Phong and Halong City, the opening of Van Don International Airport which is a mere 50km (30mi) from Halong Bay, together with the seaplane services, they made it so easy and convenient for those who want to see this famous World Heritage Site of Vietnam.
The bays have some sumptuous cruise options that are basically luxury hotels on water, where the experience of five-star amenities are waiting for their guests. It’s not about any particular divergence from the cruise itinerary, it’s a serious treat with higher quality meals, safety and luxurious amenities on boats, such as spa, gym, or stylishly sun-lounger.
On one-night cruises, these include excursions with kayaking, swimming and cave visiting all included, leaving little time to actually sit and watch the stunning limestone formations during daylight hours. If you have the time, a two-night Halong Bay cruise is much more leisure option, with the bonus of seeing places in Lan Ha Bay with fewer people around.
There are also small boats for you to chatter for a private excursion of your own, this option gives much more flexibility and of cause, more privacy to just relax and enjoy the amazing scenery.
On our trip last weekend, we got a suite on the Paradise Luxury Cruise, it was a gorgeous cabin locating nearby the prow of the boat. The Paradise is among the nicest wooden boats in Halong Bay, it’s also the name of the biggest cruise fleet in the bay with more than ten luxury vessels of all kinds.
Contact us or reach Joe directly on WhatsApp +84 967 25 8586 to start customizing your upcoming trip to Vietnam, Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay.