Vietnam continues to surprise me. It’s natural beauty is astonishingly gorgeous and utterly compelling. Prior to visiting Vietnam, I didn’t know much about it but the more I see and learn, the more I love it and know I will be back. After a fantastic stay in Hoi An, I flew to Hanoi from Danang to meet my friend Kara. After a rainy evening staying in (a much needed break!), we were picked up early in the morning by a luxury, wifi-enabled Indochina bus that took us three hours north to the port in HaLong Bay, where we boarded our Junk boat – the Dragon Legend II.
According to an ancient myth, dragons once descended from heaven and spouted streams of jade droplets that fell into the waters of HaLong Bay, forming its islets to protect the bay and its people from invaders. HaLong Bay is Vietnam’s most famous natural attraction and has been featured in several action movies, including King Kong, Mortal Combat and several Bond films. It is a true sight to behold – up there as one of the top natural sites everyone should see in their lifetime.
HaLong Bay, my third UNESCO world heritage site visit in Vietnam, is located in the Gulf of Tonkin in northeast Vietnam and is known for its 1,600+ towering rainforest-covered limestone islands situated in emerald green water. Junk boat tours and sea kayak expeditions are popular ways to view the scenic islands, with their untouched beauty. The only inhabitants of the islands are monkeys who can swim between the islands and a few remote floating fishing villages.
There are many cruise options from which you can see HaLong Bay, including both 2 night and 1 night options. Kara and I decided on the 1 night option given our limited timeframe and general feeling that we would see plenty of the formations over the course of 1 night. We also chose to explore Bai Tu Long Bay, which is a quieter arm of the Bay with calmer water and fewer boats. We were not disappointed! We were thrilled with our junk boat selection, which was rated as a 5-star cruise and included excellent food, stunning personalized details throughout the cruise, and a beautifully appointed bedroom. A junk boat is an ancient Chinese sailing ship designed in the 2nd century AD and developed during the Song Dynasty – typically used for extensive ocean voyages.
The best time of year to visit HaLongBay is apparently August-October, when the skies are clear and the weather is much warmer. I actually didn’t mind the fog – it added an element of mystery and the air was surprisingly warm. During our cruise, we stopped by one island, which had a large stalagmite cave system, and kayaked to another island with a beach. Given the boat did not have wifi, it was the perfect digital detox for 24 hours and the beds…the beds were simply heaven! I slept better on the Dragon Legend II than I had anywhere else in Vietnam.
If you are ever in Vietnam, you MUST stay overnight in HaLong Bay. Here’s a short video from my walk around the deck of the boat.
5 Tips for Making the Most of HaLong Bay
- Invest in a 4 or 5-star junk boat like Dragon Legend II to see the Bay. You are on the boat for 24-48 hours and will likely only do this once in your life, so make the most of it!
- Follow my friend Jenn’s advice and go to Bai Tu Long Bay versus HaLong Bay. Tours for both leave from the same port, but Bai Tu Long Bay is off the beaten path and much less touristy.
- Request a room on the lowest floor so you are at sea-level
- Join the kayaking trip from the boat. You’ll get a totally different perspective, and you can get up close and personal with the limestone islands. You may even spot a swimming monkey while you’re at it!
- Buy a bottle of wine and enjoy a soak in the boat’s hot tub (if available). It is so incredibly peaceful and a wonderful way to view the sunset while sailing past island formations.