Visiting Ha Long Bay in Vietnam is a highlight of a trip to Southeast Asia and should not be missed. The scenery is stunning! Thousands of small islands rise out of calm green waters off the coast of north-eastern Vietnam and the area is truly magnificent with beaches, caves, lakes and viewpoints to explore.
Ha Long Bay is a safe and exciting destination for solo travellers and easy to access. This guide explains why it’s a must-see destination, how to get there and the best things to do when you’re in the area and lots more.
I took an overnight cruise to Ha Long Bay and it was a highlight of my solo 3 weeks in Vietnam. Ha Long Bay should definitely be included on a North Vietnam itinerary and is a great addition to a trip to South Vietnam as well. You can easily fly from the south of the country to Hanoi and join a cruise boat to explore this gorgeous part of the world.
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What is special about Ha Long Bay?
Ha Long Bay is a place of exceptional natural beauty that has been recognized by UNESCO and is World Heritage listed. The karst scenery is simply stunning and the area has geological significance. Off the northeast coast of Vietnam, dense clusters of islands rise from calm emerald-green waters and the natural beauty of the area is simply breathtaking.
TIP: Experience the limestone karst rock formations of Ha Long Bay in luxury aboard a 4-star junk boat cruiser on a 2-day / 1-night cruise. Immerse yourself in the everyday lives of the locals and get spectacular views from Ti Top Island.
How Big is Halong Bay?
Halong Bay covers approximately 1,553 square kilometres (600 miles) and includes around 2000 limestone islands on around 120 kilometres of Vietnam’s coastline. The ancient karst mountains and islets formed over 20 million years ago and are covered in lush tropical forests. Amongst the islands are limestone caves, lakes, floating villages and white sandy beaches.
The Legend of Ha Long Bay
Ha Long means “descending dragon” and, according to an ancient local legend, a family of dragons were sent by the Gods to defend and protect Vietnam against invaders. The dragons spat out jade and jewels which became the islets and islands of the bay. These islands formed a barrier against invaders from the sea.
Mountains rose like magic from the water, and ships crashed onto the rocky shores and sank. The place where the mother dragon descended is known as Ha Long Bay.
TIP: Vietnam experiences very different weather from the north to the south of the country Learn more about the best and the worst times to visit Vietnam.
Where is Ha Long Bay located in Vietnam?
Ha Long Bay lies off the coast of north-eastern Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin in Quang Ninh province, around 165 kilometres from Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam.
People have lived in Ha Long Bay since 5000 BC, and the area has an ancient history. There are four fishing villages in the bay but most of the islands are uninhabited. The two biggest islands are Cat Ba and Tuan Chau and there are a number of stunning beaches on the smaller islands.
Is Ha Long Bay near Ho Chi Minh City?
No. Ho Chi Minh City is in the south of Vietnam and is more than 1,800 kilometres away from Ha Long Bay. The best way to visit Halong Bay from Ho Chi Minh City is to fly to Hanoi in the north of the country and join a cruise boat. Another option is to travel to Halong City and catch a ferry to Cat Ba Island and take a day trip to Ha Long Bay.
How to see Ha Long Bay in Vietnam
The best way to see Halong Bay in Vietnam is by boat whether you cruise on a traditional Chinese Junk boat or take a sea kayak out on the bay. A cruise is an easy and enjoyable way to explore the area and there are hundreds of cruise boats to choose from with varying levels of service. The Chinese junk boats with their colourful sails are very popular and they look beautiful out on the water.
Alternatively, you can stay on Cat Ba Island or in along City or Haiphong and take a day trip to Ha Long Bay.
TIP: Experience the limestone karst rock formations of Ha Long Bay in luxury aboard a 4-star junk boat cruiser. Immerse yourself in the everyday lives of the locals and get spectacular views from Ti Top Island. My cruise was rated four stars and was very comfortable.
A Ha Long Bay Cruise
Booking an overnight cruise is the most popular way to see Ha Long Bay in Vietnam and most overnight cruise packages include accommodation, meals and non-alcoholic drinks. Transfers by bus to and from Hanoi and lots of fun activities are also included. A cruise is a great way to see the bay and offers an opportunity to see the sun rise and set in a truly beautiful location.
The best time of year to visit Ha Long Bay
The best time of year to visit Ha Long Bay is in spring (March – April) or in Autumn (September – October) when the weather is warm and mostly dry.
In Summer (May to October) the weather is sunny, hot and humid and it’s an ideal time for swimming. But typhoons can disrupt travel plans and summer has the highest annual rainfall.
In winter (November to March) the weather tends to be cool and dry, especially in January and February and there can be fog.
Ha Long Bay in January
I went to Ha Long Bay in January and had cool, pleasant weather for my cruise. From December to February, temperatures are mild with an average high of 20 degrees and there’s less rain.
The weather in Ha Long Bay is influenced by the monsoon season. The wet season is from May to September, and the dry season is from November to March.
Vietnam is a long, narrow country and there are different climates in the tropical south, central and north of the country. While the weather is cool in the north of Vietnam the south of the county remains hot and humid in January.
Is a day trip from Hanoi possible?
TIP: If you’re short of time this day trip to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi will give you a taste of the area. You’ll see the Ha Long Wharf, Sung Sot Cave, and the tranquil Ti Top Island. Kayak at Luon Cave, and swim in the blue waters of the crescent-shaped Titov beach.
Yes, it’s possible to visit on a day trip from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay but you’ll spend around 7-8 hours travelling to and from Hanoi and will have only an afternoon to see Ha Long Bay.
Day trips are also possible from nearby Cat Ba Island. Hai Phong and Ha Long city.
Is it worth staying overnight at Halong Bay?
Yes, it’s definitely worth staying overnight and 2-days is long enough to explore the bay and appreciate the beautiful surroundings. On an overnight cruise, you’ll see the sun rise and set over the bay. There’s enough time to climb to some stunning viewpoints, visit a cave and take part in various activities on board the cruise boat like early morning Tai Chi, kayaking, or a cooking class.
in 2 days you’ll spend the first morning travelling from Hanoi to the dock or the ferry to Cat Ba Island. Once on board the cruise boat you’ll motor to Ha Long Bay and have a few hours before sunset and the morning of the following day to explore. Around 11 am the cruise boats head back to the dock for the transfer to the bus and the return trip to Hanoi.
It’s still not a lot of time, so consider putting aside a few days for a longer cruise to Ha Long Bay to spend more time in the area.
How many days to spend at Halong Bay?
While an overnight cruise is enough time to get a taste of Ha Long Bay, it’s worth staying a bit longer if you can. The area is stunning, and you could easily spend a few days exploring the islands, caves and villages of the area.
With an extra day or 2, you can head off the beaten track to visit Bai Tu Long Bay or Lan Ha Bay where the scenery is just as beautiful as the main attraction. You’ll have more time to visit islands and fishing villages and caves in the area without the tourist crowds at the more popular cruise boat stops.
Consider spending a night or two on gorgeous Cat Ba Island and enjoy the white sandy beaches, limestone caves and stunning scenery.
Best Things to Do in Ha Long Bay
One of the most popular water sports is kayaking and it’s an activity offered by most of the cruise boats. Taking to the water in a kayak is an opportunity to explore the bay and discover the islets, coves and beaches from the water.
Visit floating fishing villages
There are 4 floating villages in the area. Cua Can fishing village is one of the most beautiful and it’s also the oldest. Cua Can village adjoins both Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay. The floating fishing villages create a lovely atmosphere and are an opportunity for visitors to witness an ancient and peaceful way of life on the sea in Vietnam.
Swimming & sunbathing on the beach
There are lots of beautiful islands to explore and many beaches where relaxing on the sand and swimming in the calm waters is popular. Pretty Ti Top Beach on Ti Top Island is a favourite stop for cruise boats and Bai Chay Beach is also popular with blue seas and golden sand.
Ti Top Island has stunning views from the top of the mountain. A steep climb from the beach to the viewpoint rewards walkers with sweeping views across the bay. It’s a popular stop on a cruise to Ha Long Bay. Poem Mountain is a leafy limestone peak that offers photogenic views of the bay and there are lots of other scenic viewpoints in the area.
Cat Ba Island
Staying on Cat Ba Island is a good alternative to a cruise and you can enjoy the stunning scenery of the bay on a day trip or explore the island by car, scooter, bicycle or on foot. You can get there on the ferry from the Tuan Chau ferry terminal.
Lan Ha Bay or Bai Tu Long Bay
Bai Tu Long Bay is a lesser-known area of the national park northeast of Ha Long Bay that is just as beautiful and much less busy. And Lan Ha Bay, an extension of Ha Long Bay southeast of Cat Ba Island is also very beautiful with hundreds of gorgeous karst islands and is much less crowded.
Caves in Ha Long Bay
Inside the Karst mountains, there are several enormous limestone caves containing stalactites and stalagmites and an abundance of internal lakes. Hang Dau Go is the largest of the caves in Ha Long Bay and Sung Sot Cave is a popular cruise stop on the bay.
Take a scenic flight and enjoy the stunning scenery of Ha Long Bay from the air.
Ha Long Bay in Vietnam is a very popular spot for rock climbing and there are many climbing routes on Cat Ba Island and on the limestone cliffs of the bay.
How to get there
TIP: The easiest way to reach Ha Long Bay is to book a cruise package from Hanoi. Cruise packages usually include a transfer by bus from your hotel to the cruise boat.
Ha Long Bay can easily be reached by bus or private hire car from Hanoi and driving to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi takes around 4 hours.
There are international airports at both Hanoi and Hai Phong and Hai Phong is around 63 kilometres from Ha Long Bay and is a 1.5-hour drive.
A seaplane flies from Hanoi to Tuan Chau Island near Ha Long City.
The flight may include a circuit over Ha Long Bay so you can take in the stunning scenery from the air.
Where to Stay
Onboard accommodation is included in cruise packages that are 2 or more days long and a cruise is the easiest way to see Ha Long Bay in Vietnam.
Accommodation is also available on Cat Ba Island and you can sleep comfortably on land while spending a few days exploring the area.
Alternatively, you can stay in Ha Long City, Hai Phong or Hanoi and take a day trip to Ha Long Bay.
How expensive is Halong Bay?
While a cruise can be one of the more expensive items on a trip to Vietnam, it’s still comparatively cheap. All meals, drinks, activities and transfers to and from Hanoi are included in most cruise packages. A 4-star overnight 2-day cruise costs about the same as a half day of snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
Can you swim in Ha Long Bay?
Yes, you can swim in Ha Long Bay and there are many pretty beaches where swimming is popular. The water is calm and it’s safe for children and those who are less confident in the water.
The area is stunning but there are often a lot of people visiting and it can get crowded. The cruise boats all tend to anchor in the same place. For conservation reasons, there are limited places where cruise boats can anchor overnight.
Is Halong Bay polluted?
Because of the number of cruise boats and tourists visiting the area unfortunately the waters of Ha Long Bay are not entirely clean. Although there were a couple of opportunities for swimming on my cruise, I chose not to, partly because the January weather was cool but also because I could see bilge from the cruise boats in the water. There are also signs of pollution by oil, metals, pesticides and organic matter.
Vietnam Travel Tips
- To enter Vietnam you must have a valid passport and visa. Make sure your passport is valid for at least 6 months after your arrival and you have an empty page for your entry & exit stamps.
- Don’t drink the water! Always drink bottled, boiled, or purified water in Vietnam. Boiled tap water is usually safe to drink.
- Don’t flush your toilet paper. Use the bin provided. The sewerage systems can’t handle it.
- When visiting a temple dress conservatively and be respectful. Cover your knees and shoulders or you may not be allowed to enter. Never sit with your feet pointing towards the Buddha. This is considered very offensive behaviour.
- Vietnam is generally a safe place to visit but watch out for petty theft and scams, especially if you’re travelling solo in Vietnam.
- Take a green taxi and make sure the meter is running or you might be overcharged. If there is no meter agree on a price before you get in the taxi.
- Take US dollars to Vietnam as it’s the easiest currency to exchange. I had no trouble changing Australian dollars except when I was travelling off the beaten track in spectacular Phong Nha-Ke Bang visiting incredible caves and enjoying more stunning karst scenery.
A cruise to Ha Long Bay in Vietnam was a highlight of my 3 week Vietnam itinerary and, although there were lots of other boats and tourists, I enjoyed my stay and would like to go back and spend a bit more time exploring the area. I’d like to see Bai Tu Long or Lan Ha Bay and maybe spend a night or 2 on Cat Ba Island. The area is stunning and solo travellers can explore this gorgeous part of the world in a safe and comfortable way.
If you have the time and money, you could easily extend your stay and get off the beaten track in this stunning world heritage area.
For peace of mind make sure you buy travel insurance before you go, especially if you are travelling solo. I use Travel Insurance that covers me for overseas medical, lost baggage, and other expenses and I can concentrate on enjoying my trip without worrying about something going wrong.