Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Halong Bay
The dramatic karst cliffs and iridescent waters of Bai Tu Long Bay are just as mesmerizing as the neighboring Halong Bay, but the comparative lack of crowds adds a tranquillity often lost amidst Halong’s sea of junk boats. Part of the Halong Bay UNESCO World Heritage site and largely dominated by the lush Bai Tu Long National park, Bai Tu Long Bay makes a worthy addition to any cruise, and with such striking scenery, it’s unlikely to stay off-the-beaten-track for too long.
Highlights of Bai Tu Long Bay include Van Don Island, the bay’s largest and most visited island; the traditional fishing village of Vung Vieng; the white sand beaches of Quan Lan Island; and the remote Co To Island, while popular activities include trekking through the jungle in the Bai Tu Long National Park, spotting wild butterflies on Tra Ban Island and kayaking to Thong Thien Cave.
A distinctive pair of karst islets jutting out from the calm waters of Halong Bay; the unique Hon Ga Choi Island has become one of the bay’s most memorable landmarks and among the most photographed attractions for cruise visitors. Located right in the heart of the bay, the jagged rock formations loom 12 meters over the water, improbably perched on narrow, weatherworn bases and appearing to lean towards each other.
It’s this peculiar creation of nature that afforded the island its name - Hon Ga Choi (Fighting Cocks Island), or Trong Mai Island (Cock and Hen Island), depending who you ask. For the full effect, pass by the islands at sunrise or sunset, when the dreamy sunlight casts a red hue over the rocks, further enhancing their cockerel-like appearance.
Carved into the karst cliffs of the eponymous island, the eerily beautiful Dau Go Cave is a mesmerizing sight, with dramatic cascades of stalactites and stalagmites. The cave’s name, which translates as ‘Driftwood Grotto’ or ‘Wooden Head Cave’ depending which version you prefer, is said to hark back to the 13th century, when it was used by General Tran Hung Dao to store the giant, steel-tipped wooden stakes that were used to defend themselves against Mongol invasion.
Today, Dau Go Cave is among the most visited caves of Halong bay, accessible by boat or kayak, and featuring three large chambers, reached via a 90-step rock stairwell. Inside, highlights include the spectacular rock formations, made all the more atmospheric by the streaks of natural light that dance off their surface, and the 25-meter-high domed roof.
As the starting point for the majority of cruises, most visitors to Halong Bay pass through Bai Chay and the steady influx of tourists has seen a wealth of hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops open up along its lively waterfront. Its name, Bai Chay, translates as ‘Scorched Beach,’ a tribute to the 13th-century forest fire that swept across the mainland, but traces of its turbulent past have long since disappeared.
Today, the wide sandy beach of Bai Chay is the main pull for visitors, stretching for 500 meters along the waterfront and buzzing with activity day and night. Stroll along the picturesque Bai Chay harbor, where a jumble of white-painted junk boats await their passengers; ride the elevator to the top of the Bai Chay Bridge for a view over the bay; then head to the beach to swim, try water sports like waterskiing and kayaking, or watch a traditional water puppet show.
The evocatively named Me Cung Cave, or Bewitching Grotto, stands out among the many caves of Halong Bay for more than just its beauty – it’s also an important archaeological find, where significant prehistoric remains have been found. Squeeze through the narrow doorway, a gaping hole etched into the cliff side, and you’ll find yourself in an underground wonderland, with small rocky chambers and tumbling stalagmites and stalactites, lit-up by trickles of daylight and sprinkled with fossilized shells. Following the pathway out of the cave, a rock-cut stairwell leads to another dramatic sight - the shimmering Me Cung Lake, with its startling blue waters circled by karst cliffs and harboring a colorful array of coral, fish and sea creatures.
Sprawling off the southeast coast of Cat Ba Island, the remote Lan Ha Bay is an idyllic spot to escape the crowds of Halong Bay and those looking to venture off-the-beaten-track will find a natural playground ripe for exploring. Like the rest of Halong Bay, the best way to get around Lan Ha Bay is by boat and the startling turquoise waters are peppered with more than 300 karst islands and dozens of white sand beaches.
Aside from swimming, rock climbing, hiking and kayaking are the most popular activities in Lan Ha Bay. Additional highlights include the Monkey Island resort, so called for its boisterous population of free-roaming monkeys; camping on Hai Pai Beach (Tiger Beach); and visiting the Cai Beo floating village, one of the oldest of its kind in Vietnam.
More Things to Do in Halong Bay
The rugged and scenic Cat Ba Island is the largest island in Halong Bay. About half of it is a dedicated National Park, home to both marine life and mammals, including the endangered Cat Ba langur (also known as the golden-headed langur), civet cats and Oriental giant squirrels. In 2004, the park was recognized by UNESCO as a Biosphere reserve of the world. (Many tour operators offer trekking and canoeing options through the park.)
The eastern side of the island is home to several beaches worthy of exploration, fishing villages and a small town (population 8,000) that tends to get crowded on weekends and public holidays. Here, you’ll find a promenade, and a strip of hotels, bars and restaurants.
Travelers to picturesque Halong Bay’s largest island, known as Cat Ba, can spend a day venturing out to one of the area's more isolated islands, complete with a private beach accessible only by local boat. As its name suggests, long-tailed macaques monkeys that were originally imported to appeal to tourists run wild on this remote land mass. These tiny mammals rush to shore as boats arrive to greet visitors who plan to spend the day exploring the lush landscapes of Monkey Island.
While the island is perfect for a day trip, accommodations such as the Monkey Island Resort also exist for travelers who prefer to spend several days enjoying this out-of-the-way place. The white-sand beach is idea for sunbathing, and the shallow turquoise waters that stretch out from the shore offer up plenty of snorkeling options that don’t require a boat! Swim with tropical fish, relax on the sand or sip coconut water from fruit just picked from the tree.
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