Halong Bay (Vịnh Hạ Long), Quang Ninh Province in the far northeast of Vietnam, covers an area of 1500 sq km in the Gulf of Tonkin. Ha Long Bay is home to thousands of mainly uninhabited limestone karsts and islets, a lot of amazing caves, mysterious grottoes, and dozens of peaceful floating villages. That’s the reason why you shouldn’t miss the Halong Bay Tour when visiting Vietnam.
UNESCO describe Halong Bay as “a spectacular seascape sculpted by nature”. There are about 1900 limestone karsts and islets of various shapes and sizes. Therefore, it’s confusing for travelers to choose the right places for a perfect Halong Bay Tour. In this article, we will introduce and recommend to you the best islands where you can discover the ethereal beauty and have a perfect holiday in Halong, Vietnam.
1. VAN DON ISLAND – THE YOUNG & DYNAMIC ISLAND IN HALONG
Van Don Island (also known as Cai Dau) is the largest island (30km long and 15km wide) in the Bai Tu Long archipelago and is an ideal starting point for exploring the bay, which rivals Halong Bay in beauty.
Bai Dai (Long) beach, close to the main town Cai Rong, has a 2km-long strip of sand with a number of hotels, together with a small range of watersports. Offshore there are some wonderful rock formations to admire. Since the bridge was built connecting the island with the mainland, Cai Rong has seen a lot of development, with many reasonably priced hotels and restaurants on offer.
Cai Rong Town used to be a major trading port under the Ly and Tran dynasties and even now bustles with fishing boats that bring in their catch on a daily basis. Ferries leave Cai Rong port for other islands in Bai Tu Long Bay, including Quan Lan and Ngoc Vung islands.
The government has big plans for Van Don Island, with land acquired to build an international airport by the end of 2017 to give access to the new special economic zone, which will also embrace the islands of Quan Lan and Ngoc Vung. A road between Halong City and Van Don has also been approved, which will link with the highway to Hai Phong by early 2018. The aim is to encourage tourism to this previously difficult to reach the area, with part of the master plan being to build a large casino, which may even allow Vietnamese citizens to enter, a first for the country. Being part of an integrated resort complex with deluxe hotels and its own marina, this casino will make your tour to Halong Bay more fascinating.
Overland to Cua Ong from Halong City takes around 90 minutes, and then across the two bridges to Van Don Island. Ferry services depart from Cai Rong pier to a number of islands.
2. TI TOP ISLAND – THE GORGEOUS WHITE-SAND BEACH
Located in the heart of Halong Bay, Ti-Top Island is popular with tourists, despite its small size. Former President Ho Chi Minh visited the island with the Russian astronaut Titov in 1962, and as an expression of friendship renamed the island.
If you prefer plenty of interesting outdoor activities for your Halong Bay Tour, Ti-Top is the way to go. Boats stop here so visitors can swim and enjoy the gorgeous crescent-shaped white-sand beach which has its own beach bar. There is just the one beach as the rest of the island has dramatic vertical cliffs covered in dense greenery. Visitors who prefer not to just sunbathe or swim can have a go at some of the watersports on offer, ride a banana boat or play a game of volleyball.
Don’t leave the island without climbing the 400 or so steps to the peak for some of the most iconic and memorable views across the bay. The adventurous may even want to check out the view of the bay by going paragliding. Ti Top Island is located just 8km east of Bai Chay.
3. BAI TU LONG BAY – BRING THE UNIQUE FINE ART TO YOUR LUXURY HALONG BAY TOUR
If you have time to spare and want to escape the crowds in Halong Bay, join a longer two-night trip into Bai Tu Long Bay, east of Halong, where the spectacular limestone islands continue right up to the border with China. Bai Tu Long has everything that its better-known sister has to offer, but its location and less accessible caves mean that most visitors don’t go that extra mile. The bay is relatively undeveloped, but the limestone karsts are still magical and the unpolluted sea ideal for kayaking and swimming.
Bai Tu Long became a national park in 2001 (originally the Ba Mun Nature Reserve) and is rich in biological diversity. The national park covers an area of 15,783 hectares, of which 6,125 hectares is made up of islands. Deep in the bay hawks soar overhead during the day and at night, the lack of light pollution means that shooting stars are frequently seen.
Bai Tu Long Bay is home to floating villages, including Vung Vieng, Cap La, and Cong Dam, where hundreds of people live a way of life little changed in decades. Surrounded by the haunted beauty of the bay, the families generally sustain themselves by fishing or fish farming, but the arrival of tourists has opened up new opportunities to the villagers. Besides, Bai Tu Long Bay is the unique place where you can enjoy the luxury moment and have adventurous experiences at the same time. A quick ride in a sampan takes you to secluded beaches and lagoons for kayaking, snorkeling, boating, caving, or just simply laying around on the empty beaches in the pristine Bai Tu Long. Then, you’ll come back to the magnificent cruise named Emperor Cruises Halong Bay. This cruise is Vietnam’s first museum at sea where the art meets the luxury. Boasting a unique exhibition of impressive, hand-picked artworks of the painter Pham Luc – the “Picasso of Vietnam”, Emperor Cruises brings you the chance of immersing yourself in local culture and enriching your life experiences.
4. CAT BA ISLAND – BEST PLACE FOR NIGHTLIFE IN QUANG NINH PROVINCE
Cat Ba Island dominates Halong Bay because of its sheer size and its range of limestone mountains (the highest Cao Vong is over 300m) covered in dense vegetation. The island benefits from many natural habitats including freshwater lakes, mangrove forests, a rocky coastline interspersed with white-sand beaches and coral reefs. The majority of the islands in the bay are uninhabited, but Cat Ba has one major town and a handful of small settlements whose inhabitants mainly earn a living by fishing. The majority of the population live in the southernmost part of the island, in Cat Ba Town, with the remainder in six small communes and floating villages off the island. A road stretches across the island from south to north, linking the main town with the port of Gia Luan in the north, which is served by boats from Halong City and Tuan Chau.
Around half of the island and the adjacent waters were declared a national park in 1986 to protect the environment, and later, in 2004, the Cat Ba archipelago, including thousands of small islands, became a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve because of its rich biodiversity and the various ecosystems.
Nowadays, Cat Ba Island becomes a popular destination of both domestic and foreign travelers. Cat Ba Island is home to a wide range of hotels, bungalows, resorts, restaurants, and bars of all kinds. For your Halong Bay Tour, Cat Ba Island is best place to discover the nightlife. Some best bars in Cat Bai Include Rose Club, The Good Bar, Oasis Bar, and The Hive.
5. TUAN CHAU ISLAND – THE BEST CHOICE FOR YOU HALONG MORNING TOUR
Once a true island, not far from the mainland, with a handful of run-down villas and small communities, there is now a 2 km-long causeway which gives easy access to this fast-growing tourist area. Around 8 km from Halong City, Tuan Chau was once a sleepy island with limited electricity. Only reached by boat, the island was a wonderful base to enjoy the experience of being away from the bright lights of Halong City and able to enjoy the intensely dark skies and occasional shooting star.
Its proximity to the mainland made it ideal to build a causeway for easy access and very quickly the island started to transform itself into a resort destination with a handful of international-standard hotels located by the sandy beaches. The hotels range from the four-star, 106-room. In addition, the modern tourist center in Tuan Chau Island boasts a lot of fascinating extras such as golf court, cultural-sports center, and especially the heliport.
This is the port where the helicopter of Hai Au Aviation – the first seaplane in Vietnam lands and takes off. Departing from Hano, this seaplane will offer you the unique chance of admiring the magnificent beauty of the entire Halong Bay from the sky. Taking a Halong Bay tour with the charted helicopter is the luxury experience for you.
6. BO HON ISLAND – THE PARADISE OF HALONG BAY KARSTS
Dramatic sheer limestone cliffs dominate on the approach to Bo Hon Island, rising and falling out of the emerald sea. One of the largest islands in Halong Bay, the island is particularly famous for its caves and grottoes, including Luon Cave where small boats pass through a cavern which opens up into a lake surrounded by limestone walls, Trinh Nu (Virgin) and Trong caves, and its most famous, Sung Sot (Surprise) cave. Many have romantic legends associated with them.
Bo Hon Island is also a sanctuary for many species of flora and fauna including orchids and very tall weeping (Benjamin) figs. The eagle-eyed may even spot monkeys and deer. Bo Hon Island is 90 minutes by boat from Bai Chay.
Trinh Nu (Virgin) Cave
Of all the caves to visit during a Halong Bay cruise, the Virgin cave probably has the most moving legend behind its name. A family was in debt to a rich landowner and when they could not pay him back he said he would marry their beautiful daughter instead. She was in love with a local fisherman so she ran away from the landowner. Her boyfriend went out in his boat looking for her but it was a wild stormy night and although he could see her in the distance he could not make himself heard above the wind. His boat was washed ashore but, by then, she had laid down on the floor and died from exhaustion and was turned into stone. In desperation at her loss, her boyfriend also turned to stone.
Sung Sot (Surprise Cave)
Sung Sot (Surprise Cave) is probably the best known and impressive of the caves in Halong Bay. Hang Sung Sot Cave at Bo Hon Island was discovered at the very beginning of the 20th century, but not open to visitors until near the end of the century. The entrance is high up overlooking the sea, reached by dozens of steps, and on entering there is just a narrow passage, but further into the cave, the larger it becomes until it opens right up into a magnificent awe-inspiring space.
Everything about the cave is fascinating, with its stalactites hanging down from the roof and the intriguing rock formations, grottoes scattered throughout the cave, which can appear to look like animals or people, illuminated by colored lights. Then, when the sun is going down, the water outside the cave shimmers under the fading sunlight. Relaxing on the cruise deck, and enjoying the cocktail will help you release. Try to arrange your time and stay longer to truly discover the charm of nature here. I spent 2 days in Halong with Syrena Cruises, and it’s one of my best experience ever.
7. BA MUN ISLAND – THE DREAMLAND FOR YOUR HIDEAWAY HALONG BAY TOUR
Ba Mun Island is part of the Bai Tu Long National Park established in 2001. Ba Mun is unique as it has primeval forests where many rare types of timber can be found, including teakwood and ironwood. Many of the trees have grown very large with a huge circumference.
The eastern side of the island experiences wild seas with crashing waves sending flume high into the air. By contrast the western side is very tranquil. Visitors can explore the island by following nature trails that pass through the forest.
The island is also an important wildlife conservation area and is home to flora and fauna, dozens of them included in Vietnam’s Red Book of endangered species. The Lan Hai orchid was feared to be extinct but was discovered thriving on the island and now can also be found in Lao Cai province.
A number of rare species live on the island, including the golden deer, monkeys, langurs, turtles and sea birds. Rangers are based on the island to protect the animals and the environment.
A wildlife rescue center established on the island (not open to the public) takes in animals that have been saved from illegal traffickers. The staff take care of the rescued animals and feed them up until they are healthy and more confident after their traumatic ordeal. They are then returned to the wild when they are fit and ready.
8. QUAN LAN ISLAND – THE SLEEPING BEAUTY OF HALONG BAY
Reached from Cai Rong on Van Don Island, Quan Lan Island is that little bit harder to reach so the white-sand beaches and sleepy fishing villages have yet to be developed. However, there are a few guesthouses, homestays and restaurants and a small resort at Minh Chau. The three beaches on the island are equally attractive, but Quan Lan beach is the closest to the main town.
Son Hao Beach
Son Hao beach is a little off the beaten track, ideal for those seeking some isolation. Each one is perfectly safe for swimming as the beach gently slopes into the crystal clear water.
Minh Chau, at the northeastern end of the island, is a honeypot for visitors because of its 1km-long, crescent-shaped beach where the water is clear and there is a range of watersports on offer, including kayaking. Great beachfront eateries sell cold beer and reasonably priced seafood, such as squid, prawns, and mackerel. There are a number of accommodation choices in Minh Chau and probably one of the best is the beachside Minh Chau Lodge.
9. NGOC VUNG ISLAND – DON’T MISS THE HALONG MOTORBIKE TOUR HERE
One of the most beautiful islands, located on the border between Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long, Ngoc Vung has seen little development so remains atmospheric. Once famous for the pearls found in the waters surrounding the island, the residents still mainly earn a living from the sea, either fishing or aquaculture.
The main beach, Ngoc Vung, crescent-shaped and stretching 3km, is fringed by casuarina trees providing some shade from the sun, and virtually deserted. This does mean there are no facilities for travelers, but the isolation is its attraction. Here, swimming and watching the colorful fishing boats bob up and down in the sea is the main pastime for visitors.
There are only a couple of roads on the island and there is little traffic, most people traveling by bicycle or motorbike, with the occasional three-wheeled vehicle. Take the opportunity to rent a bicycle or motorbike to do your own short exploration of the island.
Boats to Ngoc Vung Island leave from Cai Rong Port, on Von Don Island, every day and it is possible to do a day trip from Cai Rong as there are just a few basic guesthouses on Ngoc Vung. The charms of this island are its peaceful way of life, the friendly people and the gorgeous unspoiled scenery. All ideal for a taste of the real Vietnam.
Ngoc Vung can be reached by ferry from Cai Rong in 2.5 hours.
10. CONG DO ISLAND – THE ISLAND WITH THE PANORAMIC VIEWS
Hidden lagoons surrounded by hills covered in lush green tropical forest, including a large lake in the middle of the island, are the main features of Cong Do, with the highest hill reaching 172m. Kayaking is the ideal way to discover the lagoons and to enter a pristine world with a hugely diverse ecosystem. A walk up to the top of the hill gives panoramic views of the surrounding islands in Bai Tu Long Bay, and on the way, the observant may even spot lizards and hornbills. Languidly circling the island, eagles and kestrels watch attentively for prey. A pristine coral reef, 700m long and 300m wide, is largely undamaged and home to rare corals, seahorses, and a colorful marine world. Taking a tour to Cong Do, Halong Bay, you can have chances of immersing yourself in the beautiful nature.
Cong Do is located around 25km from Bai Chay.
11. DAU BE ISLAND – THE IDEAL ISLAND FOR DOING HALONG KAYAKING
Dau Be Island is particularly well known because of Ba Ham Lake, which can only be reached by paddling in kayaks through a cave system where a forest of white, blue, mauve and pink stalactites hang down from the ceiling. On approaching the sheer face of the island (its highest peak is 139m), it is almost impossible to see where you can get in, as the entrance is wide and very low, just high enough to paddle through. The water is crystal clear and it is possible to see shoals of fish swimming below. The tunnel opens up into the open air with the lake surrounded by four sheer cliffs to which cling exquisite orchids.
Continuing deeper into the island, through a second cave, look out for golden monkeys, colorful birds and butterflies, flying squirrels and bats.
Dau Be is located in the southeast of Halong Bay, approximately 28km from Bai Chay.
12. DRAGON EYE ISLAND – ARE YOU READY TO GET LOST IN THE ADVENTUROUS LAND
From the air, Dragon Eye Island (Dao Mat Rong) appears to be part of a face mask with the large lake in the middle the eye of a dragon. The silence here is broken only by the gentle lapping of the clear blue sea on the white-sand beach and the rustle of the breeze in the deep green bushes that frame the beach and cling to the surrounding limestone cliffs. These mysterious cliffs appear to protect the ‘eye’ lake. The dramatic vertical limestone karst is a dazzling backdrop to the glorious white-sand beach, ideal to spend time sunbathing and swimming in the clear sea. That’s why Dragon Eye Island worths being the top choice for you adventurous Halong Bay Tour.
A short path, covered by the forest canopy, head up to the entrance of the Thien Canh Son (Grass) Cave, the formations in the three large grottoes appearing to be animals, mythical beings and flowers. Try to spot an elephant, a seal and what appears to be a group of gnomes having a meeting. In the reflection of the lights, the walls and stalactites appear to glisten like stars in the night sky.
13. LAN HA BAY – HEY, SOLO TRAVELERS! THIS ISLAND IS FOR YOU
To the south and east of Cat Ba Island, Lan Ha Bay is less visited but equally as beautiful as its larger neighbor, Halong Bay. Located in Hai Phong province, rather than Quang Ninh province, the bay is home to around 400 or so islands and islets, with numerous white-sand beaches which kayakers head to for picnics and swimming or even for overnight camping under the stars.
The bay is home to a number of floating villages where the locals raise fish, shrimps, mussels, and oysters in tanks next to their homes and are only too happy to sell seafood or pearls to travelers. Cai Beo, close to Cat Ba Island, is one of the oldest floating villages and is a photographer’s dream with its 300 or so houses, many painted blue and green with contrasting red roofs. You will be invited to have a look into the tanks and marvel at the frenzy when fish food is thrown into them. Be prepared to get wet! Homestays are now possible in the floating villages, and the accommodation is very basic but the location, away from light pollution, is idyllic. Imagine waking to see the sun rise over the limestone islands with just the sound of the sea lapping against the side of the house. It’s the reason why Lan Ha Bay is favored by the solo traveler when taking a tour to Halong Bay.
With easy access from Cat Ba Island, it is possible to join a day cruise to go on guided or unguided kayaking excursions into the bay to discover the islets, caves, crystal-clear water in the lagoons and deserted beaches as the islands are much closer together than elsewhere in Halong Bay. Many of the islands have sheer outcrops and these are a magnet for organized rock climbing trips from Cat Ba.
Monkey (Cat Dua) Island
Known for its small population of monkeys, Cat Dua Island has become known as Monkey Island and reached by boat from Cat Ba Island just 10 minutes away, passing Cai Beo floating village en route. The island is home to a resort with thatched wooden bungalows on stilts lining the storefront. It is possible to combine a stay on Cat Ba Island with a night or two in this low-key resort.