The best way to explore Halong Bay

Insight Guides' local experts reveal when, where and how to tour Vietnam's world-famous Halong Bay
Tourist Junks and Floating village in Halong Bay, Vietnam.
Tourist Junks and Floating village in Halong Bay, Vietnam.

Halong Bay is a must-see on your holiday to Vietnam. Photo: Shutterstock

Insight Guides' local experts for Vietnam recommend spending two or three days cruising around Halong Bay, one of the most magnificent natural splendours of Asia and a World Heritage Site since 1994. Swathed in legends and beauty and only about three hours from Hanoi, this should not be missed...

Length: Dependent on tour operator and length of tour; Insight Guides' suggested trips to Halong Bay include a range of tour lengths, from day trips to overnight stays
Time: 2 or 3 days
Start/End: Hanoi 
Ideal Insight Guides trip: Our Discover Vietnam holiday includes an overnight stay on a luxury cruise, while our 12-day Luxury Vietnam tour features a day trip to the bay. Don't forget, our suggested trips can be modified to suit your budgets, interest and requirements.  
Points to note: Explore Halong Bay by boat. It pays to go on an organised tour. Generally, these offer a package of meals, guide, boat, accommodation and transfers. The best time to visit is in warmer weather from April to October, as you can swim off the boat. However, during the typhoon season, which peaks in August, boats may cancel trips due to bad weather. All tour operators use engine-powered wooden boats, most with private cabins. 

Few could fail to be impressed with Halong Bay, with over 3,000 limestone islands jutting out of emerald-green waters in the Gulf of Bac Bo. In an area covering 1,500 sq km (579 sq miles), sampans, junks, fishing boats – and many tourist boats – sail past a fairytale backdrop of mostly uninhabited limestone karsts, which yield grottoes, secluded coves, coral beaches and hidden lagoons.

Islands and Grottoes

Halong Bay looks the stuff of legends. Geologists believe that the karst outcrops were formed by a giant limestone seabed eroding until only pinnacles remained behind. Your boat will visit a couple of the 15 caves open to the public, while en route. Tickets are purchased at the Tourist Wharf or are included in tour packages. The best known is found on the island nearest to Ha Long City: the Grotto of Wooden Stakes (Hang Dau Go), where General Tran Hung Dao amassed hundreds of stakes prior to his 1288 victory. On the same island, the Grotto of the Heavenly Palace (Hang Thien Cung) has some impressive stalactites and stalagmites, as does Surprise Grotto (Hang Sung Sot) on an island further south. 

 View of lagoon in the Halong Bay at the Gulf of Tonkin of the South China Sea, Vietnam. Photo: ShutterstockTraditional junks and overnight boats cruise the waters of Halong Bay. Photo: Shutterstock

Cat Ba Island

After a night on the boat, where you will also eat your meals, spend the following morning enjoying activities on the water. In the afternoon, visit Cat Ba Island, the largest in Halong Bay at 354 sq km (136 sq miles), which offers a spectacular, rugged landscape of forested limestone peaks, coral reefs, coastal mangrove and freshwater swamps, lakes and waterfalls. Almost three-quarters of the island and its adjacent waters form a national park with diverse flora and fauna. Some boats dock in the fishing harbour, where mini-hotels and basic tourist services are located. Spend a night here if possible and hike to try and see the endemic and endangered Cat Ba langurs (don't forget, Insight Guides local experts can add this to any of our suggested trip itineraries). Eat dinner at The Green Mango, below, and then head back to Hanoi the following morning. 

Places to eat around Halong Bay: The Green Mango

Where? Group 19, Block 4, Cat Ba Island
When? Daily breakfast, lunch and dinner
How much? $$$$

Cat Ba is very short on good dining options, other than the local style seafood joints, which are rather hit and miss. Green Mango remains the best bet with Western, Vietnamese and fusion cuisine on offer. 

Are you ready to take your trip to Halong Bay with Insight Guides?

Browse suggested holiday itineraries online (which you can modify to fit your requirements) or speak to our local experts directly today