Halong Bay is one of the best places to visit in Vietnam. Have you ever heard of this amazing place?
If you haven’t, I hope that we are about to blow your mind with a few images of this enchanting place. When we booked a last minute trip to Vietnam we arrived with no plans, but knew we had to get to Halong Bay.
It wasn’t until we were already in Hanoi that we debated about going on a Halong Bay cruise, which was one of the best things to do in Halong Bay!
Halong Bay is one of the most well-known tourist attraction in Vietnam, but that can sometimes lead to questionable destinations full of tourists. However, after the advice of many, we had to Halong Bay for ourselves. We didn’t know what to expect, but now it remains a highlight of all our travels around the world. If you find yourself in beautiful Halong Bay, here are all the amazing things you can do!
The Best Things to do in Halong Bay
Take a boat cruise
Perhaps one of the first things you should do upon arrival in order to truly see and appreciate the beauty of Halong Bay is to take a Halong Bay boat cruise around the bay. Halong Bay covers a vast area comprising some two thousand islands. You could take one of these cruises every day and still discover something new.
There are different options for these cruises (usually on traditional Vietnamese style boats), whether you want an inexpensive, authentic experience, or something a little more elevated like an overnight cruise with food packages included. We personally cruised on the Au Co, for three days which was so amazing!
Note* A multi-day Ha Long Bay cruise with a full itinerary is one of the best things you can do in Ha Long Bay. Many of the things I’m about to mention are included in a two or three-day cruise itinerary. It would be logistically easier to book a Ha Long Bay cruise and let them handle the logistics for you rather than doing all of these on your own!
- Insider Tip: For something a little more adventurous, try a multi-day kayak tour, where you can spend the night sleeping in caves.
Visit Cat Ba Island
This is definitely one of the more popular islands in Halong Bay, and for very good reason. Some of the most popular things to do on the island include a bike tour, hiking Cat Ba National Park (see if you can spot any langurs among the nearly three dozen varieties of animals on the island), and a central market where you’ll find the freshest vegetables, fruits, and seafood, including crab and shrimp.
You can also visit Hospital Cave and Two Cannons Fort, both historical remnants of the Vietnam War. The Hospital Cave, in particular, is fascinating. It was a fully-functional secret hospital during the war that was located deep in a cave impervious to bombing.
- Location: Cat Ba Island
- Insider Tip: Cat Ba is one of the main ports where boats leave for cruise tours, so this is a great spot to choose as your base in the area.
Go diving or snorkeling
The marine life in the area is incredibly vibrant and diverse. Combined with very clear waters, this is an ideal spot for a little underwater exploration. Among the sea life, you might be able to spot cuttlefish, crustaceans, or even octopi. Don’t miss the underwater grottoes; they are truly magical and otherworldly.
There are diving schools nearby to give you quick crash courses in the diving basics, but all boat cruises will offer snorkeling stops if you prefer not to go as deep. Note that December is generally considered the best month to dive since water temperatures are ideal.
- Insider Tip: The best diving spots are near Van Gio Island, Cong Do Island, and Trai Cave. This is where the highest concentration of coral reefs can be found.
Check out the karst formations
The best way to explore these awe-inspiring rock formations is by kayak, since you won’t be able to do this one on foot! The area is rich with what are known as karst formations. The island-like rocks you see scattered around the Ha Long Bay region are made from limestone or similar rock and worn away by water near the bottom so that the base appears narrower than the upper areas.
Many of these rocks are so huge that you can kayak right underneath the negative space near the base!
- Insider Tip: If you have a waterproof camera, this is the time to break it out – the photos you’ll leave with will be unparalleled.
Take a seaplane
This is the best way to get a bird’s eye view of Ha Long Bay and really appreciate the beauty of the region from above. These tours can be as cheap as 2.3 million dong (or, if your guide accepts USD, around USD 99) and usually leave from nearby Hanoi. There is currently just a single company offering these tours – Hai Au Aviation.
The 25-minute ride will take you on an incredible aerial tour of the Ha Long Bay region, with the pilot pointing out specific areas of interest. If you’re not afraid of heights, this is definitely something you should add to your list of things to do in Ha Long Bay.
- Location: Leave from Hanoi (72 Bà Triệu, Trần Hưng Đạo, Hoàn Kiếm)
- Insider Tip: The company also offers quick trips between Hanoi and Tuan Chau—better than a four-hour car ride.
Another activity that’s not for the faint of heart, nor those afraid of heights, is parasailing. With such an expanse of clean, clear blue waters, there are a lot of companies offering parasailing adventures for those who want to feel like they are literally flying above the world.
You’ll be soaring at the height of about 35 stories off the water, and the sweeping views of the whole area are hard to beat—especially as you take in the rich blue of the water and the lush, jungle-like nature sitting atop many of the bay’s islands.
- Insider Tip: This is a good time for the GoPro camera you’ve been wanting to test out (go for the chest strap for a hands-free experience)
Explore the ‘Bewitching Grotto’
With a name like ‘The Bewitching Grotto,’ it’s impossible not to want to visit. Known locally as the Me Cung Cave, this is one of dozens of enchanting cave grottoes in the Ha Long Bay area, but also one of the most beautiful and most visited. Be warned; the entrance to this cave is quite narrow, but once you’re inside, it opens into a cavernous inner chamber full of winding tunnels with ceilings full of stalagmites and stalactites.
If you’re really up for an adventure, there are also options for guided spelunking inside the cave. You’ll come across a fair few fossils for your efforts.
Note* If you’re on a multi day Halong Bay cruise, this activity will likely be included in the cruise itinerary.
- Location: Me Cung Cave
- Insider Tip: Those with limited abilities or afflictions like asthma or claustrophobia might want to sit this one out.
Ha Long City
If you’re visiting Ha Long Bay, chances are you’ll be using nearby Ha Long Bay City as your jumping-off point. But there’s so much to do here, that you may want to stay an extra couple of days to experience it all.
Since the city has grown with the increase in tourism, there are a lot of hotels in the city. These are a good option if you enjoy the popular boat cruises but aren’t keen on spending the night on the water. The city is divided into two parts – Bai Chay (more catered to visitors and tourists, with hotels, restaurants, and bars), and Hong Gai, the local area.
- Location: Ha Long City
- Insider Tip: Don’t miss the local delicacy – gio, a minced pork dish.
Bai Chay Market
For anyone who is a fan of markets, this one is for you. The Bai Chay market is a huge indoor market right in Ha Long City. It’s situated in prime proximity to the day of island adventuring you have planned. Not only does the market have stalls selling the freshest fruits, vegetables, and tantalizing seafood, but there are clothing and textiles sold as well.
This is a market typically catering to locals, so you are guaranteed a really authentic experience.
Location: Đường Anh Đào, Bãi Cháy, Thành phố Hạ Long, Quảng Ninh 202400
- Insider Tip: The evenings are typically considered best since nearby nightlife will trickle into the market area.
Lan Ha Bay
Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is easily accessible to travelers, so it’s not surprising that the area sees an extremely high volume of tourists all year round. As such, the area can sometimes feel overcrowded, especially during high season (October through December).
If you want to visit at a busier time of year but avoid the crowds, don’t miss Lan Ha Bay. It’s in a quieter part of the region and has all the best elements that any other busier island offers, such as sandy white beaches, crisp, clear water, and tons of things to do, like swimming, hiking, rock climbing, and snorkeling.
- Location: Lan Ha Bay
- Insider Tip: If you’re in it for the history lesson, this area is also home to some of Vietnam’s oldest floating houses.
Visit the Virgin Cave Shrine
This is more of a local legend, but the cave itself is very real. Hang Trinh Nu is a very famous grotto in the Ha Long Bay area, but even more famous is its heartbreaking story. Legend has it that a woman who was trapped in a loveless marriage ended her life inside the cave. There are two endings to the story. One says that her body turned to stone, and another states that she was found and buried by local fishermen—one of whom was the man she was truly in love with.
Today, there is a shrine dedicated to the woman inside the grotto, and it remains a popular attraction in the Ha Long Bay area.
- Location: Bo Hon Island
- Insider Tip: The cave itself has multiple caverns and tunnels that wind through the rock, so there’s more to this stopover than just the shrine.
Visit Monkey Island
Monkeys may be sneaky little troublemakers, but there’s something irresistible about them nonetheless. In Ha Long Bay, there’s even an island (aptly named Monkey Island in English, or locally known as Cat Dua) where you can spot them in the wild.
Aside from the local wildlife, Monkey Island is a popular stop on many boat cruises, and for good reason: there’s a hike to the summit with incredible views, white sand beaches for sunbathing, and crystal clear waters perfect for snorkeling or just going for a swim.
- Location: Cat Dua Island
- Insider Tip: Monkeys can be aggressive if you get too close, so don’t approach them.
Night fishing for squid
If you’re doing an overnight cruise, many will offer a pretty unique experience – night-time squid fishing. Cruise management provides all the necessary equipment, and when darkness falls, the small squid flock close to the water’s surface. Once you’ve netted your catch of the night, it will be barbecued up on deck so that you can enjoy your dinner. Guests with some fishing experience can expect to catch around two dozen squid!
Ideal fishing seasons are from April through January, with the best times being October through November.
- Insider Tip: Regardless of the season, this is a weather-permitting event.
Go hiking on Ban Sen Island
If you’re feeling fed up with crowds and interested in doing something a little more off the beaten path, then Ban Sen Island is the haven you’ve been seeking. This is a much less traveled island in the Halong archipelago. There are few roads and wilder foliage than many islands with more human occupation. Because of its more challenging terrain, it makes for a great getaway.
If you’d like a guide who can show you the ropes and the best-hidden spots on the island, find one in Cai Rong before you leave. While you’re on the island, don’t miss out on local delicacies like Sen oranges, as well as farmed seafood like oysters and geoduck (clams).
- Location: Start from Cai Rong and catch the ferry across to Quan Lan.
- Insider Tip: There are no roads or facilities whatsoever on the island, and it’s extremely densely forested, so this is better suited to a quick day trip.
Visit Tuan Chau
This schist island is connected to Halong City by a land bridge. It’s composed partially of human-made beaches and partly of volcanic rock formations that created even more caves. Don’t miss Dau Go Cave, just a quick ferry ride over from Tuan Chau. This enormous and impressive cave is full of stalactites and stalagmites and illuminated with artificial light to make the inside appear even more otherworldly.
Check out the island’s marina. This is an important entryway into the Ha Long Bay region, and there are all manner of interesting vessels that dock here or pass through. You likely won’t spend much time here, but there are definitely some interesting points while you use it as a jumping-off point.
- Insider Tip: This area is also rich in archeological history: remnants from early peoples have been found all over the island.
Plan and Pack for Vietnam
Travel Water Bottle
Plastic pollution is a problem in Vietnam so it’s best not to contribute to the problem buying plastic water bottles everywhere – plus the water from the taps here is perfectly safe to drink. We’ve shifted to using an insulated aluminum water bottle as it handles the hot sun well.
However, we also love filtered water bottles in areas we’re uncertain of the water supply. Read more about favorite water bottle for travel in our post.
If you’re wondering what travel necessities to bring to Vietnam then good walking shoes should be your top concern.
No matter what you will need a beach bag when heading to the beach. This is to throw in anything like towels, a book, a speaker, sunglasses, snacks, and sunscreen. As full-time travelers, we often use our daypacks for trips to the beach since a tote is unnecessary.
However, a classic tote that everyone has in their closet is a great option for those on short trips or live close to the beach. They also travel well as they can fold flat and lie in your luggage. For family beach goers I recommend a large yet durable beach tote like this one.
Skin cancer is for real! Don’t forget your SPF when traveling around Vietnam. We recommend ordering some online before leaving the house as you will need it underneath the sun in the summer.
We highly recommend getting an eco friendly sun cream that does not contain harmful chemicals.
Make sure to protect your eyes from the sun. There are a lot of options for sunglasses and everyone should own at least a pair. It’s best to make sure they do have UV protection for the health of your eyes.
We made our first investment in quality polarized sunglasses with a pair of SMITH Optics Lowdown 2. Truthfully, not everyone needs to invest $150 in a pair of sunglasses, but they do make a huge difference from the crappy $10 ones.
Most hotels will provide you with a towel, but they often aren’t suitable or allowed on the beaches. I like to travel with a microfiber towel because they are light and fold up small, and they also don’t cling on to sand our dirt. Here are a few of our favorite travel towels.
Remember that Vietnam uses the Type C adaptor. Make sure you find a good universal adapter like the one I have to keep you charged. Otherwise, you may be paying for a cheap one once you land.
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