Ha Long Bay & Cat Ba Island, the Pearls of the North Vietnamese Coast

As far as unique nature sights go, there’s not much anywhere that can top the alien beauty of Ha Long Bay. While the Bay itself is by far the most famous attraction here, the nearby island of Cat Ba is also a great spot to spend some time for groups wanting to explore the nature of the Northern Vietnamese coast.

Made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, the country’s second after Hue, the bay is named after a local legend that tells of a family of dragons sent by the gods to help defend Vietnam from Chinese invaders. The dragons raised the rocks of the bay as a wall, blocking the invading ships, and then settled down in the bay. Thus, Ha Long Bay translates to “Bay of the descending Dragon”.

Ha Long Bay
One of Ha Long’s many cruise ships.

March to June is the best time to visit, as the weather and temperature are ideal at this time of year. However, we recommend avoiding the public holiday between April 30th and May 1st, as it may become incredibly crowded with Vietnamese visitors.

Almost 2000 islands are located in the bay, most of which are limestone formations jutting boldly out of the sea. There are also four floating villages that remain, housing about 1600 people and surviving through various marine activities like fishing and pearl farming. Since 2014, the government has been attempting to relocate most of this population to the mainland to safeguard their communities and the environment of the bay.

floating villages
Aside from the spectacular rock formations, the bay is also home to several floating villages.

The best way to experience the bay is by cruise. These take many shapes and sizes, ranging from shabby 1 star boats to luxurious and extravagant 5 star cruises. The length also varies, from a day-trip to three full days and two nights spent on the waters. On a day trip, you will be taken to the highlights near the mainland, namely Thien Cung Grotto and Dau Go Cave. If a night on a boat is possible to include in your tour, we recommend this, as the day tour really doesn’t do the area justice. On the two day cruises, you can expect to range further east and south, and will probably include Ti Top Island (where the best views of the bay can be enjoyed), Surprise Cave and Water Cave, as well as a visit to one or more of the floating villages, with the Pearl Farm being the most commonly visited.

Thien Cung Grotto
Thien Cung Grotto magnificently lit up in many-coloured light.

If you really want to make the most of your guests time in Ha Long, opt for a three day, two night cruise, which in addition to the sites mentioned above, will likely also spend a day taking you either to the far east of the bay (Bai Tu Long) which is far less crowded than the main area of the bay, or down to Lan Ha Bay and Cat Ba Island.

Whether you decide to include Cat Ba in your time in Ha Long Bay or not, for nature groups it’s worth heading there regardless. The vast majority of the island is preserved as a natural park focusing on the preservation of the critically endangered Cat Ba Lamur. Entering the national park either by motorbike or car is recommended, and here you can hike up to the viewing tower as well as discover the Frog Pond (if you’re here during rainy season).

Cat Ba Lamur
The endangered Cat Ba Lamur.

From Cat Ba Town, you can visit the Hospital Cave, almost reminiscent of an evil lair from a spy thriller; the cave was used as a fully functioning hospital during the war. You can also plan a short hike up to Cannon Fort, a remnant from colonial times, where you get the best views of Lan Ha Bay as well as astonishing sunsets.

If your group is comfortable with motorcycles, the 100 kilometre circuit road that runs along the western coast and through the interior of the National Park offers some absolutely stunning views that should not be missed if at all possible. If the idea of driving through remote areas on a motorcycle is a bit too much, then kayaking in Lan Ha Bay or taking a boat to nearby Monkey Island are also great activities to fill a day.

 kayaking in Lan Ha Bay
Kayaking is perhaps the most popular activity in Lan Ha Bay.

Really, there is no way to create a nature itinerary for Vietnam without including at least Ha Long Bay, and preferably some time spent on Cat Ba as well. Any lovers of nature and great views are sure to be awestruck by what’s on display here.

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