With the VnExpress Marathon set to make its debut in Ha Long Bay next week, feel free to explore the manifold attractions that the UNESCO heritage site has in store.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
Ha Long Bay and Hanoi are birds of a feather when it comes to the weather. They have four distinct seasons: spring, summer, autumn and winter.
This means that the most ideal time to visit the natural wonder is between March and April and September to November. The weather is cool, there is very little rain and cruise conditions are near perfect.
That said, the peak summer season between June and August is also a good time for a trip, with sunny conditions and the mercury ranging between 28 to 32 degrees Celsius. The occasional storm during this period can be a cruise dampener.
Next week there’s a more special reason to visit the bay.
More than 10,000 runners, including foreigners, will be in town for the VnExpress Marathon, which is making its debut after being delayed a year by the Covid-19 pandemic. If one is not participating in the race, it will be an opportunity to watch a special event that has been organized in other places like Hanoi, Hue and Quy Nhon, gaining in popularity every year.
WHAT TO EXPLORE
The ideal way to discover why Ha Long Bay has been recognized as a world wonder twice is a cruise through thousands of small vegetation-covered islands and towering limestone cliffs that dot the bay.
The rising popularity of Ha Long Bay has prompted travel agencies to develop a wide range of cruises – from budget to high-end and half-day to overnight trips.
For tourists who want a luxurious overnight stay to watch the sun come up on Ha Long Bay, Heritage Cruises, Indochine Cruise, Paradise Cruise and Stellar of the Seas are worth considering.
All five-star cruise ships in Ha Long are equipped with luxury cabins and modern amenities like bars, swimming pools, a golf club, a gym and spas. They also offer outdoor adventures like kayaking, cave exploring, onboard cooking classes, squid fishing at night and excursions to floating villages.
Prices for overnight cruises range from $116-228 per person.
For budget travelers, cruises under $100 are offered by Phoenix Day Cruise, La Muse Day Cruise, Queen Luxury Day Cruise and Vita Mia Luxury Day Cruise.
“During the high season for domestic tourism which lasts until the end of August, visitors should book at least 3-4 weeks in advance for a weekend cruise. Booking an overnight cruise is easier for Monday to Thursday,” said a representative of travel agency BestPrice Travel.
Each cruise has its own itinerary, but most take guests to Ga Choi, Dinh Huong islets, Sung Sot Cave, Thien Cung and Me Cung caves, Titop Island and Viet Hai fishing village.
Located 25 meters above the sea level on Lom Bo Islet, Me Cung (Bewitching Grotto) is said to be one of the oldest caves in Ha Long.
The entrance of the cave is quite narrow and visitors have to squeeze through. Once inside, the chamber opens up and visitors can enjoy the sight of winding tunnels covered in gorgeous stalagmites and stalactites.
Thien Cung (Heaven Grotto) on Dau Go Island, around 4 kilometers from Bai Chay Port, is one of the biggest grottoes in Ha Long.
Untouched for thousands of years, the cave was discovered by chance in 1993 by local fishermen looking for shelter during a storm.
The cave is reached by a pathway that winds through thick jungle.
Inside the cave, there are four pillars where time has carved unique shapes that are eerily similar to daily life scenes of humans, birds, flowers and leaves.
Sung Sot (Surprise) Cave on Bon Hon Island can only be reached after hiking up a steep path, but the views are well worth the trouble.
There are two different chambers in the cave, the inner one with stone formations that look like sentries lined up with even a stone in the center that looks like a general talking to his troops.
International media including the CNN and Lonely Planet have also recommended an aerial tour of Ha Long Bay on a seaplane. The seaplane service resumed last April after a prolonged suspension because of Covid-19.
A 10-minute tour over the bay costs around VND2.4 million (over $100) per person, while a 15-minute tour that costs VND3.6 million allows views of Thien Cung Cave, Trong Mai Islet, Sung Sot Cave, Ti Top Island, Bai Chay Bridge and Rieu Island.
A 30-minute flight, the most popular one, costs VND7.35 million ($321).
As the largest fishing village in Ha Long Bay, Cua Van, about 20 kilometers from Tuan Chau tourist pier, used to have 176 families living in floating homes with tiled roofs and equipped with radios, television sets, tables and chairs.
Since 2014, local authorities have been implementing a project to remove the floating homes and move all villagers to the mainland so that their children can go to school.
A majority of villagers have moved ashore, but several have chosen to maintain their livelihood in the floating village during daytime because the boats are their lifeline.
Apart from fishing, some locals also earn their living from providing kayaking services for tourists for around VND100,000 an hour.
Today, Cua Van hosts a floating culture center that displays and preserves traditional values of the long-standing fishing village. It organizes cultural exchange activities and has a collection of hundreds of archaeological antiques including fishing tools dating back centuries.
The Ti Top Islet has a crescent shaped beach and turquoise waters that never fails to catch the eye.
The islet is named after Russian cosmonaut Gherman Stepanovich Titov who, together with President Ho Chi Minh, visited it in 1962.
Bhaya Cruises, Indochina Sails and Paradise Cruises are among the tour operators that stop at the islet for one to two hours.
Given the calm waters, the beach is perfect for recreational activities like swimming, snorkeling and other water sports. There is a small stall on the beach which rents beach chairs, snorkelling equipment and other accessories.
The Quang Ninh Museum and Library, designed by Spanish architect Salvador Perez Arroyo, was built on an area of nearly 24,000 square meters with a total investment of over VND900 billion.
In addition to many artefacts and a massive book collection, the museum also has a screening room, a theater, coffee shop, and bookstore.
Several foreign tourists have remarked that Ha Long’s nightlife scene is busier than other tourism hotspots such as Da Nang and Hoi An in central Vietnam.
The most famous night market in the town is located inside the Ha Long Marine Plaza. It has 300 stalls that sell souvenirs, clothes and other items, not to mention a wide range of local food.
Most sellers here are able to communicate with tourists in English so foreign tourists cannot only bargain when buying things but also have interesting conversations offering insights into local lifestyle and culture.
The market is open from 6 p.m. until midnight.
Ha Long Town is also known for a casino, which is a rare business in Vietnam, having been prohibited for a long time. Even today, Vietnamese citizens are not allowed to gamble in casinos. The Royal International Gaming Club is one of only five casinos operating in Vietnam.
Located in the Royal International Gaming Club, Hotel & Spa Resort in Bai Chay, the casino has 70 slots and 18 table games. The first floor is a gambling hall that only opens on weekends. Slot halls on other floors are open 24 hours every day. The casino offers famous and popular games like baccarat, blackjack, roulette and poker.
Some famous bars and dance clubs in Ha Long are the Moonlight Bar, Karaoke Diamond Club on Huynh Thuc Khang Street, Ha Long View Club on Tran Thai Tong Street and La Plaza Bar and Lounge on Ha Long Street.
Bai Chay Town, mimicking the ancient town of Hoi An and Hanoi’s Old Quarter, hosts a range of coffee shops, pubs, beer clubs and eateries lit up by colorful lanterns.
WHERE TO STAY
Some homestay facilities with affordable prices from VND300,000 to 1 million per person are The Bay, Halong Ginger, Orestay and Deja Vu House.
Located along the Bai Chay coastal road, Ha Long Essence Hotel, D’Lecia Ha Long Hotel, Time Lotus Ha Long Hotel offer a night’s stay for under VND1 million.
The FLC Grand Hotel on Van Nghe hill with an infinity pool at an altitude of more than 100m above sea level and other hotels that offer breathtaking views of Ha Long Bay include Muong Thanh, Royal Lotus, Novotel and Best Western Premier Sapphire – the largest five-star hotel in Ha Long.
WHAT TO EAT
For Ha Long residents, the most common breakfast is bun be be, or noodles with mantis shrimp, which can be found at local markets, including seafood markets near the beach and the Bai Chay tourism complex. A bowl of mantis shrimp noodles costs VND30,000-40,000.
Noodle soup with cu ky, or thunder crab, is a good dish to try in Ha Long because most of the edible thunder crabs are found here. This crab has a small body with a lot of crust and little flesh, so people mainly use pincers filled with flesh to make the dish.
The broth of the noodle is also cooked with the crab. Cooks at some restaurants also add shrimp or mantis shrimp to a bowl, giving the dish added taste and a more appetizing look.
The dish is served at local markets at the Bai Chay beach or Gieng Don areas. Each serving costs VND35,000-50,000.
Squid fritters (cha muc) is a signature dish. Locals have this with banh cuon (steamed rice rolls), which is different from the southern version, where the rolls are usually served with cha lua or Vietnamese pork bologna.
Some famous restaurants to try this dish are Ba Ngan, Ba Yen and Goc Bang. A serving costs VND30,000 – 55,000 depending on how much squid you order.
In Ha Long seafood markets, fresh oysters are caught daily, washed and grilled over charcoal and seasoned with salt, pepper and lemon or grilled onions. Sometimes they’re served raw with a slice of lemon.
Banh gat gu (nodding cake), which originated in Tien Yen Town, is made with rice flour. Cold rice is added to the dough, so that the cake is coated with a fluffy but smooth texture. The cake is then steamed into a thick layer, which is then rolled without filling and sliced. It is usually dipped in a special sauce and served with a piece of caramelized pork.
Ha Long is also known for an unusual dessert – yoghurt with tapioca balls, or boba. The bobas are dipped in sweetened coconut milk and served with yoghurt, with all ingredients homemade.
The dessert can be tried at Lien Tuan or Co Nghi restaurant for VND10,000-30,000.
HOW TO GET THERE
From HCMC, there are daily direct flights to Van Don Airport, around 50 kilometers from Ha Long Town, with one-way tickets starting at VND3.5 million.
From Hanoi, a Limousine ride to Ha Long costs VND180,000 – 220,000 per person for the 2.5-hour journey.
Those traveling alone on a tight budget can reach Ha Long from Hanoi on a shuttle bus around $15 – 20 per round trip. Another option that is not usually recommended is to drive a motorbike along the Ha Noi-Hai Phong and Hai Phong-Ha Long expressway. The ride will take around 4 hours and there are beautiful sights along the way. In Ha Long Town, a motorbike can be rented for VND120,000 – 200,000 a day.
Tourists traveling in a group should ideally hire a taxi or a private car.