Northeast Vietnam

Con Son Den Kiep Bac - Hai Phong - Around Hai Phong - Ha Long Bay - Ha Long City - Cat Ba Island - Bai Tu Long Bay - Mong Cai Chinese Border - Around Mong Cai - Lang Son - Cao Bang - Aroud Cao Bang - Ba Be National Park - Thai Nguyen - Around Thai Nguyen


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Majestic and mysterious, inspiring and imperious:words alone cannot do justice to the natural wonder that is HaLong Bay. Imagine 3000 or more incredible islands rising from the emeral waters of the Gulf of Tonking and you have a vision of breatheaking beauty. Halong Bay is pure art, a priceless collection of unfinished sculptures hewn from the hand of nature. In 1994 it was designated a World Heri-tage site. Visitors can’t help but compare the magical, mystical landscape of limestone islets to Guilin in China and Krabi in southern Thailan,but in reality Halong Bay is more spectacular.These tiny islands are dotted with and waves, and have sparsely forested slopes ring-ing with birdsong. Beyond the breathtaking vistas on a boat cruise through the bay, visitors to Halong come to explore the caves –some of which are beautifully illuminated for the benefit of tourists and to hike in Cat Ba National Park. There are few real beaches in Halong Bay,but Lan Ha Bay (off the coast of Cat Ba Island) has more than 100 sandy dtrips. Halong city is the gateway to Halong Bay but not the ideal introfuction to this incred-ible World Heritage site.Developers have not been kind to the city ans most visitors sensibly opt for tours thar include sleeping on a boat in the bay.In short, Halong Bay is the attraction; Halong City is not.For more on tours in and around the bay,see the boxed text. As the number–one tourist attraction in the northeast, Halong Bay draws a steady stream of visitors years round. From February to April the weather in this region is often cool and drizzly.The ensuing fog can make cisibil-ity low, but this adds an ethereal air to the place and the temperature rarely falls bellow 10 dgree C. During the summer months tropical storms are frequent, and tourist boats may have to alter their itinerant's, depending on the weather. Halong Bay is the stuff of myths and naturally the Vietnamese have concocted one. Halong 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 charged towards the coast, its flailing tail gouged out valleys and crevasses. When it finally plunged into the sea, the area filled with water, leaving only the pinnacles visible. 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 don't encourage the trade.
All visitors must purchase a 30,000d entry ticket that covers all the sights in the bay. It's a flat fee whether you visit one or all. Tickets are available at the tourist boat dock in Bai Chay, but it is usually included for those on a tour. There's an excellent map of Halong Bay, together with neighbouring Bai Tu Long Bay, published by the Management Department of Halong Bay (15,000d). Look for it at souvenir stalls at the cave sites, or ask your tour guide where you can get your hands on a copy. Covit publishes an attractive hand-drawn map of Halong Bay (20,000d), but it's easier to find in Hanoi than Halong City.

Sights & Activities

Halong Bay's limestone islands are peppered with caves of all shapes and sixes. Many of these are accessible only by charter boat, but some can easily be visited on a tour.
Hang Dau Go (Cave 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 sparkle if bright light is shone on them. The cave derives its Vietnamese name from the third chamber. This chamber is said So 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. It's the closest cave site to the mainland. Part of the same system, the nearby Hang Thien Cung has 'cauliflower' limestone growths 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 rock phallus, which is regarded as a fertility symbol. ‘Penis rock' is the only way to describe it. 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 the caves you visit will probably be decided on the day you travel. It depends on several factors, including the weather, number of other boats in the vicinity, and the number of people putting environ¬mental pressure on the caves.
Dao Tuan Chau (Tuan Chau Island), just 5km west of Bai Chay (western Ha long City), is one of the few islands in Ha long Bay that has seen any development. For many years the only accommodation was in Ho Chi Minh's former summer residence, an elegant but decaying structure. However, all this changed as the island rebranded itself Tuan Chau International Recreation Complex ( r US$80-110;complete with aquarium. Circus, golf course and private villas There are more than 300 rooms in this vast complex', The beachside rooms are task-fill and the top rate includes steam baths and saunas in the rooms.
Dao Titop (Titop Island) is a small island in the middle of the bay with a small, somewhat scruffy beach. Ignore its dubious charms and make for the summit of the island, which offers one of the best panorama views of Ha long Bay. It's cheaper than a chopper. Cat Ba Island is the best known and most developed of Ha long Bay's islands.
A leisurely paddle among the karsts is an activity that has taken off in recent years and Ha long Bay is now following hard on the heels of Krabi in Thailand as kayaking capital of Southeast Asia. Many of the boat tours to Ha long Bay include the option of kayaking into hollow karsts or through a floating village. Specialist operator Hand span Adventure Travel ( 80 Pho Ma May) was one of the first to offer kayaking and operates a private island camp near Quan Lan Island.
Getting There & Away
Northern Airport Flight Service Company ( 173 Pho Truong Chinh, Hanoi) offers a helicopter charter service from Gia Lam in Hanoi to Ha long Bay on Saturday from Sam. Free transfers are available from the Sofitel Metro pole Hotel. The cost for the charter service is USS175 per person, but it only runs with a minimum of six guests. The same helicopters can be privately chartered for US$3695 round trip.
For more on tours to Halong Bay, see the boxed text below. It is hard to do it any cheaper on your own, but some travelers prefer to steer their own course. Travelling independently allows you to take more or less time in places, depending on the weather. The downside is that it is hard to arrange an overnight on a boat this way. You can take a bus to Halong City from Hanoi (40,000d, 31/2 hours) and book a passage on a Cat Ba tourist boat (130,000d including entry ticket, six hours). This boat takes in the main sites and drops you at Ben Beo harbour. Then chill out on Cat Ba before taking a hydrofoil to less Haiphong and a bus to Hanoi. Alternatively, run the route in reverse and try and hook up with a tour boat in Cat Ba.
Getting Around
You won't see much unless you take a boat tour of the islands and their grottoes. For those travelling independently, life has gotten much easier under the watch of Ha long Bay Management Department ( 166 Đ Le Thanh Tong). It regulates pricing for cruises on the bay and has a published list in its office at the Bai Chay tourist dock. Some of the staff speak English and can usually hook you up with other people. Be aware that the tourist boat dock is a bit of a circus, as dozens of boats unload one set of passengers and welcome another. There are usually hundreds of people milling about around midday. There is no need to rent a whole boat for yourself, as there are plenty of other travelers, Vietnamese and foreign, to share with. The official prices are ridiculously reasonable at 30,000/40,000d for a four-/six hour cruise. Whole boats can be chartered starting from 100,000/140,000/160,000/220,000d per hour for a no-star/l-star/2-star/3-star boat respectively - an affordable indulgence for those wanting some privacy. Boats to Cat Ba Island cost 100,000d per person or from l,000,000)d for a charter.
A military genera! and one of Vietnam’s greatest heroes, Tran Hung Dao (1228-1300) defeated the Mongol warriors of the Chinese army no fewer than three times as they attempted to invade Vietnam. His most famous victory was at the Bach Dang River in northeast Vietnam in 1288, which secured the country's sovereignty. He borrowed the military strategy of Ngo Quyen, who had regained Vietnam's independence in 939, following 1000 years of Chinese rule. After dark, sharpened bamboo poles. - of a length designed to remain hidden underwater at high tide - were set vertically in the river, near the bank where it was shallow. At high tide, Tran Hung Dao sent small boats out - passing easily between the posts - to goad the Chinese warships to approach. As the tide receded, the impaled Chinese boats were left high and dry, and flaming arrows destroyed the fleet. In Halong Bay you can visit the Cave of Wooden Stakes (Hang Dau Go; above), where Tran Hung Dao's forces are said to have prepared and stored the bamboo poles. Now you know why he is commemorated in all of those Tran Hung Dao streets in every Vietnamese town, and why every street parallel to a river is called Bach Dang, in memory of the victory.
The dragon that gave birth to Ha long may be legend, but sailors have often reported sightings of a mysterious ma-rine creature of gargantuan proportions known as the tarasgue. The more paranoid elements of the military suspect it's an imperialist spy submarine, while eccentric nave'Hers believe they have discovered Vietnam's version of the Loch Ness monster. Meanwhile, the monster or what ever it is - continues to haunt Ha long Bay, unfettered by the marine police, Vietnam 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 bored and swims away.
Take real care with your valuables when cruising the waters of Ha long Bay. Do not leave valuables unattended as they might grow legs and walk. Always try and ensure there is someone you know and trust watching your valuables on a day cruise. When it comes to overnight cruises, most boats have lockable cabins. Also take care with cameras and other items when your tour boat is approached by smaller, nimbler boats, as snatch thefts are not unknown
Don't even think about a day trip to Halong, as the real beauty of the bay is best experienced from the deck of a junk over a gin and tonic as the sun sinks into the horizon. Many travellers to this part of the country book a one or two-night Halong Bay tour at cafes or hotels in Hanoi. While we don't usually promote the tour option. Halong Bay is hard to explore properly without the services of an experienced tour company. However, for those with a bit more money to spend, there are lots of specialised boat companies offering excursions in the bay. Tourists travelling on inclusive tours through Vietnam have the Halong experience aboard a luxury junk. There are also now some genuine sailing junks operating in the bay and these are able to explore further afield when the wind is up. Finally, there is the option of a luxurious replica paddle ship. Budget trips sold out of Hanoi are reasonably priced, starting from US$15 per person for a dodgy day trip and rising to as much as US$100 for two nights on the bay with kayaking. Remember, you get what you pay for and the cheaper the tour. the more basic the boat. the meals and the service. We get heaps of complaints about poor service, bad food and rats running around the boats, but these tend to be on the cheapest of the cheap tours. Spend a little more and enjoy the experience a lot more. Most tours include transport, meals, the boat tour and, sometimes. island hikes. Drinks are extra and are generally more expensive than on the mainland. 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 actually entitle you to a partial refund, but remember that the boat trip is only a small portion of the cost of the journey. Depending on the number of people in the group, you probably won't get back more than a handful of dollars if the boats don't sail. For a list of reliable operators offering two- and three-day tours of the bay, check out the travel agents in Hanoi or in the Transport chapter.
Boat Operators
There are hundreds of boats plying the waters these days. The following is just a selection of the most interesting companies. For more on the government-run boats that are available for charter, see opposite.
Emeraude Classic Cruise ( s/d USS245/290) The Emeraude is a replica paddle steamer that cruises the waters of Halong Bay daily. The smart cabins include hot-water showers, meals are served buffet style and the upper deck and bar offer superb views. The main drawback is that the cruise is relatively short compared with the competition. Plans are afoot to build a second boat, which should make two-nighters a possibility.
Halong Ginger (d from US$373) This beautiful junk is visible from a distance thanks to its trademark ginger sails. Well finished throughout, it also has a good reputation for its food. Huong Hai Junks The leading boat company in Halong Bay, Huong Hai has a fleet of traditional junks that are all kitted out to a three-star standard. Most of the boats have about a dozen cabins and include an open-plan restaurant and bar on the upper floor.
Tropical Sails This small outfit operates some of the only junks with working sails, allowing the boats to get up a head of steam on a windy day. Most trips venture further afield to the southern reaches of Bai Tu Long Bay. The company also runs the Dragon's Pearl, a larger luxury junk with 12 cabins.