Along Vietnam’s northeastern seacoast, 70 kilometers from Hanoi is Halong Bay, an area made up of around 1,600 limestone islands and islets. Literally translated as “where the dragon descends into the sea,” according to legend, dragons were sent down from heaven to protect the Vietnamese from invaders. The dragons dropped jewels onto the Bay, which created islands that formed barriers against the enemies. Afterwards they decided to stay in the Bay, keeping watch over its waters.
While planning the trip to this famous UNESCO World Heritage Site, I found the best way to fully experience the beauty and mystery would be by taking a cruise. It not only saved travel time, but was the perfect way to admire the formations up close any time of day. Whether it was seeing the rocks outside our window during a meal, enjoying the sun deck or gazing up at the stars at night, we were fully engrossed inside the Bay the entire time!
We chose Indochina Sails because of their reputation and as recommended by a friend. As one of the first companies to specialize in luxury cruises in the area with more than 15 years of experience, we weren’t disappointed. Their ships are custom-designed wooden junks all built between 2007 and 2010 decorated with traditional Vietnamese décor and modern comforts. Each ship includes a restaurant, bar and sundeck with numerous lounge chairs—perfect for relaxing while watching the other ships go by. The service was impeccable and everyone went above and beyond to ensure our stay was memorable and comfortable.
With itineraries for 2 days / 1 night or 3 days / 2 nights, our 2-day trip felt like the perfect introduction to the Bay. Starting off with pickup in our Hanoi hotel, we were driven to Tuan Chau Port in Halong City, about a 3 hour ride away.
The cruise is a mix of boat activities and offshore excursions. On board activities include relaxing on the sundeck, massages, morning tai chi classes, a fruit carving demonstration, delicious meals and spotting islands like Incense Burner, Dog Stone Islet, Fighting Cock and Finger Islet. Because of the incredible amount of islands, only half are named, based on their appearance and shape.
For our first offshore excursion, we visited Surprise Cave, one of the largest grottoes in the Bay. When you first arrive it feels narrow but then quickly opens up to a massive theater-like space filled with tons of stalactites and stalagmites, thus the “surprise”. Our second excursion included a morning climb with 360 degree views of the Bay from the top of Titov Island.
For someone who loves sunshine, I was surprising enamored with the fog that surrounded us for most of the trip. It added to the mood and mystery of the Bay. I woke up for sunrise and was initially saddened to see gray cloud coverage over everything, but sitting on the deck watching the mist flow in and out of each tiny island added to the mood. Just as I was about to go back to bed, the sky opened up and reflected the prettiest shapes on the water.
Another unexpected fact I learned about the Bay is that it’s home to approximately 1,700 local fishermen and their families. They all live in three traditional floating villages, or communities comprised of boats and floating wooden houses. We didn’t visit any during our cruise but the local presence was felt while we sailed around, either seeing the fishing boats go by or villagers selling snacks to tourist boats.
I’m not surprised Halong Bay is considered one of the New Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Like I said, one night was a great introduction but I imagine I’ll be back for a longer adventure next time. With close to 2,000 islands in the area, I’m sure I’ll discover something new!