Halong Bay

The majority of food, accommodation and other life-support systems for Halong Bay are to be found in Halong City, the capital of Quang Ninh province and Vietnam’s latest sin city (the number of signs advertising ‘Thai Massage’ gives a good indication of the size of the prostitution market). In more recent years this once-peaceful outpost has developed into a pleasure den for package tourist, both domestic and international, with a large following of border-hopping Chinese.

There’s little reason to stay in Halong City itself, although you’ll probably transit the city on the way to Halong Bay. This is one place where you’ll be thankful for arriving on a group tour: you’ll miss the significant hassle from young men wanting to sell you trips to the bay. Consider a tour on which you can sleep abroad a boat in the bay, rather than in the city. If you are travelling independently to Halong Bay from Hanoi, it is advisable to give Halong City a miss and make a beeline via Haiphong to less hassle-ridden Cat Ba Island (see the Halong Bay section in this chapter), where you can also arrange an independent itinerary.

Orientation

Halong City is bisected by a bay, and the most important district for travellers is called Bai Chay. Accommodation can be found on both side, is more scenic, closer to Hanoi and much better endowed with hotels and restaurants. Bai Chay is also where the majority of tourist boats are moored.

A short ferry ride (500d) across the bay takes you to the Hon Gai district. Hon Gai is the main port district and exports coal (a major product of this province), which means this area is a bit dirty, but at least there is some local flavor. The ferry from Haiphong docks in Hon Gai, so if you arrive late, you may find it easier to spend thi night there before crossing to Bai Chay the next morning.

District names are important: most long-distance buses will be marked ‘Bai Chay’ or ‘Hon Gai’ rather than ‘Halong City’.

Information

Money There’s a branch of Vietcombank in Hon Gai, which is somewhat inconvenient, as most tourist stay in Bai Chay on the other side of the bay.

Email & Internet Access Internet access is available at the Emotion Cybernet Café, right on the main drag in Bai Chay. The cost is 400d per minute. There are also several Internet cafés on ‘hotel alley’.

Beaches

The ‘beaches’ around Halong City are basically mud and rock – a problem the authorities are trying to ‘correct’. A Taiwanese company has built two beaches in Bai Chay with imported sand, but they are not at all attractive for swimming.

Places to Stay

The mojortity of visitors stays in Bai Chay. There are more than 100 hotels here, and keen competition keeps prices down, expeciall if you can avoid the commission-seeking touts. You will probably have to way more in thw peak season (summer) or during Tet. There are also accommodation optinos in Hong Gai, which is handy fot late or early bus and boat journeys.

Bai Chay The heaviest concentration of hotels is in town, in the aptly named ‘hotel alley’. This is where you will find countless minihotels, most of them nearly identical. Expect to pay something between US$8 and US$12 for a double room with private bath and air-con.

A couple of hillside with views of the bay provide an interesting alternative. Bong Lai Hotel (tell: 845658; rooms with/without balcony US$12/10) is simple, clean, cheap and friendly. The views are fantastic.

Hai Long Hotel (tell: 846378, fax 846171; air-con rooms US$12) is next door to Bong Lai Hotel. It’s a bit bigger, and there are fine rooftop views. Renovations were underway when we visited.

Halong Plaza Hotel (tell: 845810, fax 846867, email: [email protected]; rooms from US$140++) is good hotel right by the car-ferry landing, with all the facilities you would expect for the price. Discounts of around 40% of the published price are usually offered.

The majority of the other hotels are strung out for 2km along the main road heading west of town (towards Hanoi). Most accommodation here consist of large, axpensive, state-run hotels.

Heritage Halong Hotel (tell: 846888, fax 846718; email: [email protected]; rooms US$110-250) is a glitzy place – a huge upmarket Singaporean joint venture. The rooms are pleasant, with fine views, and it’s popular with international tour groups.

Halong Hotel (tell: 846329, fax: 846318; air-con rooms US$15-110) is a huge complex divided into four buildings of differing standards, reflected in the prices.

Hon Gai There are fewer palces to stay here, but the semand is low (and there are fewer touts) so prices remain cheap. The hotels are clustered mainly along Duong Le Thanh Tong, which runs on an east-west axis, as well as tucked away on Pho Hang Noi, jusr about directly opposite the bank. The hotels range from very ordinary to really grotty, and the road is very noise, very early.

Hotel Viet Phuong (tell: 826179; Duong Le Thanh Tong; air-con rooms 120,000d) is one of the cleanest, and it’s next to good com binh dan restaurant and fresh-bread shops for breakfast.

Phoenix Hotel (tell: 827236; 169 Duong Le Thanh Tong; rooms with fan/air-con 150,000/200,000d) is just about OK.

Places to Eat

Except for minihotels, most hotels have restaurants. It you’re on a tour, it’s likely that meals will be included.

For independent travellers, the area just west of central Bai Chay contains a solid row of cheap restaurant, all of which are OK. The owener of the Van Song Restaurant speaks fluent French.

Asia Restaurant (tell: 846927), on the ‘hotel alley’ slope, remains popular. The owner used to run a restaurant in East Berlin and speaks excellent German and some English. The Vietnamese food here is very good and prices are reasonable.

In Hong Gai, check out the string of local eateries along Pho Ben Doan, and clustered around the Hotel Viet Phuong.

Getting There & Away

Bus In Halong City, you can catch Hanoi-bound buses (35,000, 3½ hours) from Mien Tay bus station in Bai Chay, close to the public ferry, every 15 minutes.

Buses to Haiphong (18,000d, two hours) leave every 20 minutes from a bus station across the road from Mien Tay.

Buses to northeastern destination leave from the Hon Gai bus station. Buses for Mong Cai (35,000d, six hours) and Cua Ong (9000d, two hours) for Van Don Island depart regularly during daylight hours.

Car & Motorbike Halong City is 160km from Hanoi, 55km from Haiphong and 45km from Cam Pha. The one-way trip from Hanoi to Halong City takes about three hours by car.

Boat There are daily slow boats connecting Hon Gai with Haiphong (30,000d, three hours). Boats depart Hon Gai at 6.30am, 11am and 4pm. Hydrofoils leave Hon Gai for Haiphong (60,000d, 75 minutes) at 8am and 1pm.

There’s a daily boat connecting Hon Gai to Cat Hai Island (30,00d, two hours), but its departure times depend on the season and the number of visitors. This trip offers decent views of Halong Bay. From Cat Hai you can hop on another small ferry to get to Cat Ba Island (30,00d, two hours): see the Cat Ba Island section later in this chapter. There are occasional direct boats from Hong Gai to Cat Ba Island.

There are also services from Hong Gai to Mong Cai. A hydrofoil (170,000d, three hours) leaves daily at 6am, and there’s a ferry (70,000d, seven hours) daily at 9pm.

From Bai Chay there are also hydrofoil services to Mong Cai (US$12; three hours) leaving at 8am and 1pm. There also hydrofoil from Bai Chay to Haiphong (US$5; 50 minutes) at 9.10am and 1.10pm.

As always, be prepared for changes to these schedules.

HALONG BAY

Magnificent Halong Bay, with its 3000-plus islands rising from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin and covering an area of 1500 sq km, is one of the natural marvels of Vietnam. In 1994 it as designated Vietnam’s second World Heritage site. Visitors have compared the area’s magical landscape of limestone islets to Guilin in China and Krabi in southern Thailand. These tiny islands are dotted with beaches and grottoes created by wind and waves, and have sparsely forested slopes ringing with birdsong.

Besides the breathtaking vistas, visitors to Halong Bay come to explore the caves – some of which are beautifully illuminated for the sake of tourists – and to hike in Cat Ba National Park. There are few ‘proper’ beaches in Halong Bay itself, except fro on Cat Ba Island, but in Lan Ha Bay (off Cat Ba Island) the opposite is true. Lan Ha boats over 100 beaches, but almost no caves at all.

As the number-one tourist attraction in the northeast, Halong Bay draws a steady stream of visitors year-round. From February to April, the weather in this region is often cool and drizzly. The ensuing fog can make visibility low, although the temperature rarely falls below 10C. During the summer months tropical storms are frequent, and tourist boats may have to alter their itineraries, depending on the weather.

Ha long translates as ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’. Legend has it that the islands of Halong Bay were created by a great dragon that lived in the mountains. As it ran towards the coast, its flailing tail gouged out valleys and crevasses; as it plunged into the sea, the areas dug up by the tail became filled with water, leaving only the high land visible.

The dragon may be legend, but sailors in the Halong Bay regin have often reported sightings of a mysterious marine creature of gargantuan proportions know as the Tarasque. The more paranoid elements of the military suspect, it’s an imperialist spy submarine, while eccentric travellers believe they have discovered Vietnam’s version of the Loch Ness monster. Meanwhile, the monster – or whatever it is – continues to haunt Halong Bay, unfettered by the marine police, Vietnamese tourism and the immigration authorities. Enterprising Vietnamese boat owners have made a cottage industry out of the creature, offering cash-laden tourists the chance to rent a junk and pursue the tarasque before it gets fed up and swims away.

Dragons aside, the biggest threat to the bay may be from souvenir-hunting tourists. Rare corals and seashells are rapidly being stripped from the sea floor, and stalactites and stalagmites are being broken off from the caves. These items get turned into key rings, paperweights and ashtrays, which are on sale in the local souvenir shops Obviously the fewer people buy, the less the local people will take to sell; so please don’t!

There’s an excellent map of Halong Bay shown together with neighbouring Bai Tu Long Bay, published in 1998 by the Management Department of ha Long Bay. Look for it at the souvenir stalls at the cave sites, or ask your tour guide where you can find a copy. It costs about 8000d.

Grottoes

Halong Bay’s limestone islands are dotted with caves of all sizes and shapes. Most of these are accessible only by charter boat, but some can easily be visited on tour.

Hang Dau Go (Grotto of Wooden Stakes), known to the French as the Grotte des Merveilles (Cave of Marvels), is a huge cave consisting of three chambers, which you reach via 90 steps. Among the stalactites of the first hall, scores of gnomes appear to be holding a meeting. The walls of the second chamber squarkle if bright light is shone on them. The cave derives its Vietnamese name from the third of the chambers this chamber is sais to have been used during the 13th century to store the sharp bamboo stakes that Vietnamese folk hero and war general, Tran Hung Dao, planted in the bed of the Bach Dang River to impale Mongolian general Kublai Khan’s invasion fleet (see the boxed text ‘Playing for High Stakes’ earlier in this chapter). It’s the closest cave site to the mainland. Part of the same system, a nearby cave Hang Thien Cung has ‘cauliflower’ limestone growth as well as stalactites and stalagmites.

Hang Sung Sot is a popular cave to visit. It too has three vast and beautiful chambers, in the second of which there’s an astonishing pink-lit ‘penis rock’ (really, it’s the only way to describe it), which is regarded as a fertility symbol. It too requires a hike up steps to reach it, and a loop walk through the cool interior takes you back to the bay. Hang Bo Nau, another impressive cave, can be visited nearby.

Hang Trong (Drum Grotto) is so named because when the wind blows through its many stalactites and stalagmites, visitors think they can hear the sound of distant drumbeats.

Exactly which of these – or other- caves you visit will probably be decided on the day you travel. It depends on several factors, including the weather, the number of other boats in the vicinity, and the number of people putting environmental pressure on the caves.

Getting Islands

Dao Tuan Chau (Tuan Chau Island), just 5km west of Bai Chay, is one of the few islands in Halong Bay they has seen any development. Ho Chi Minh’s former summer residence is here. Currently there are three villas and a restaurant, and a major resort development is underway. Dao Titop (Titop Island) has a small beach from which you can swim, and hike to the top of the islet Cat Ba island, the best-known and most developed of Halong Bay’s islands, has its own entry later in this chapter. From Cat Ba you can get to uninhabited Hon Cat Dua (Pineapple Island) where it’s possible to stay overnight.

Getting There & Away

Air At present, Northern Airport Flight Service company ( 04-827 4409, fax 827 2780; 173 Pho Tvruong Chinh) offers a helicopter charter service from Hanoi to Halong Bay on Saturday only. The cost fro the charter service is US$175 per person (paying an extra US$20 gets you transfers to Hanoi’s Gia Lam Airport and the harbor in Halong a four –to-five-hour boat ride, and lunch in Halong Bay). The same helicopters can be privately chartered for US$2000 an hour.

Bus & Boat Most travellers book a one-or two-night Halong Bay tour at a café or hotel in Hanoi. The trips are very reasonably priced, starting from as little as US$12 to US$16 per person (on a jam-packed 45-seat bus), and rising to the US$40 to US$55 range. The latter will buy you a small-group tour on which you can sleep out on a boat on the bay, an overnight stay that is highly recommended. Most tours include transport, meals, accommodation and activities such as boat tours of Halong Ba and island hikes. Drinks are usually extra. Also increasingly popular are tours that incorporate some set kayaking.

You really couldn’t do it any cheaper by travelling here on your own, and the hassle factor in Halong city, the main launch point for boat tours of Halong Bay, is high enough in peak season to make your hair turn grey. But for those who prefer independent travel, there are buses direct from Hanoi to Halong City and Haiphong, from where you can organize transport to Halong Bay. (For further information see the Halong City and Haiphong sections earlier in this chapter). A better independent travel option is to get to Cat Ba Island (see Getting There & Away in the Cat Ba Island section later), from where you can also include Halong Bay on a chartered boat trip.

If you book a tour, there is always a small chance that the boat-trip part may be cancelled due to bad weather. This may entitle you to a partial refund, but remember that the boat trip is only a small portion of the cost of the journey (it’s the hotels, food and transport along the way that really add up). Depending on the number of people in your group, you probably won’t get back more than US$5 to US$10 if the boats don’t sail.

Getting Around

Boat You won’t see much unless you take a boat tour of the island and their grottoes. If you do end up travelling independently to Halong City, cruises are offered be private boat owners, travel agencies and hotels in Bai Chay. Conpetiton is fierce, and overcharging and high-pressure sales tactics are still the norm.

Since the area is large, it’s advisable to take a fast boat in order to see more. The rare but romantic

Since the area is large, it’s advisable to take a fast boat in order to see more. The rare but romantic junks are very photogenic (indeed, videogenic) and can be hired as well. However, junks are so slow on a calm day that they hardly seem to be moving at all.

You don’t have to rent a whole boat for yourself – there are plenty of other travelers, Vietnamese and foreign, to share with. A small boat can hold six to 12 people and costs around US$16 per hour. Mid-sized boats (the most popular ones) take around 20 passengers and cost US$30 per hour.

All tourist boats are located at a marina about 2km west of central Bay Chay.

Be careful, of course, with your valuables. Sleep-over boats have lockable cabins, but you’ll need to ask someone to keep an eye on your things if you’re swimming off a day-tour boat.