Sunset on Halong Bay

Halong: Bay of the Descending Dragon

Covering an area of over 43,000 hectares, Halong Bay in northeast Vietnam is known for its impressive seascape formed by thousands of limestone islands and islets. These towering pillars rise from the seabed like a defensive wall and locals believe that they are the vestige of a legendary battle.

From Phang Nga Bay in Thailand to Guilin in China, the limestone karsts are by no means limited to Vietnam. Yet nowhere else are they found on such a spectacular scale as in Halong Bay. In total, there are some 1,600 weathered pinnacles and islets punctuating the emerald-colored bay.

They create an otherworldy scenery that has inspired poets and artists for centuries. In 1994, UNESCO also recognized the site’s outstanding value and declared it a World Heritage Site. Ever since throngs of visitors have flocked to Halong Bay to admire its magnificent seascape.

The Etymology of Halong Bay

Boasting an ethereal beauty, Halong Bay is one of the most popular sites in Vietnam. Its name is recognized globally, and millions of people came here to behold this natural wonder. However, not every visitor knows the meaning of that name. In the old Vietnamese language, “Ha Long” means “descending dragon” and it originates from a legend in this ancient land. The legend says that during the old time when the country was newly formed, the Jade Emperor sent the Mother Dragon and her children descending on earth to protect the ancient Vietnamese from the northern invaders.

When the enemy’s fleet moved into the Gulf of Tonkin, the dragons suddenly appeared. Some attacked with divine fire, while others dropped giant emeralds on the battlefield, creating an invincible barrier that left the enemy’s battleships sinking. After thousands of years, the wall of emeralds turned into islands and islets, and the site where the Mother Dragon descended was named “Ha Long”. Other dragons landed on a bay further east, which was later called “Bai Tu Long”.

Halong Bay where the Mother Dragon descended
The magnificient seascape
Aerial view of Halong Bay
The wall of limestone pillars

The Islands

Halong Bay is characterized by thousands of rocky and earthen islands, typically in the form of jagged limestone pillars rising from the sea. They stand between 50 to 90 meters high and are mostly unspoiled by human activities. The islands are topped with lush vegetation, providing habitats for various kinds of birds, reptiles, and mammals. Some large islands even feature sandy beaches where visitors can dip in the bay’s cool water.

Eons of wind and waves have sculpted the rocky island into a variety of shapes. There are Dog Islet, Fighting Cocks Islet, and Incense Burner Islet, to name a few. The weathering also created grottoes and karst caves. Some of them are so marvelous and have become tourist attractions in their own right, such as Heavenly Palace Cave and Awesome Cave. These caves are formed as a result of the repeated regression and transgression of the sea on the limestone, creating hollows, and arches, as well as countless stalactites and stalagmites.

Incense Burner – one of the most popular islets in Halong Bay. This islet is even featured on the 200,000 VND note.
Awesome Cave
Spectacular stalactites in the Heavenly Palace Cave.
The sandy beach of Titov Island

Tips for visiting Halong Bay

  • Halong Bay is large and it might take a few days if you want to explore the area thoroughly. Very often, people take the 2-days-1-night junk boat tour which includes 1 night on the ship, full-course meals, as well as transportation from Hanoi. But even then, you can only see a part of the bay.
  • To admire the full scale of Halong Bay, it’s recommended to take a seaplane tour. So far, only Hai Au Aviation offers this sightseeing tour. The tour costs 2,000,000 VND (approx. 85$) and takes about 25 minutes. The departing/landing point is just a short walking distance from the piers.
  • If you have no interest in spending the night on a boat, you can opt for a 4-hour or 6-hours day tour, which will bring you to several popular attractions of Halong Bay, including the Heavenly Palace Cave, the Awesome Cave, as well as some unique-looking islets. All boats depart from the Tuan Chau Harbour.
  • There is a wide range of tour operators in Halong Bay, from luxury ship tours that cost 500$ per room per night to day tours that cost merely 30$ per person. Though extreme does exist, all boats have to meet certain safety requirements.
  • All visitors must purchase entry tickets for Halong Bay (40,000 VND, about 2$). And there are also separate admission tickets for attractions in the bay, such as caves and fishing villages (from 30,000 to 50,000VND).
  • Another way to capture the panoramic view of Halong Bay is by hiking to the observation deck on Titov island. Please note that the hike is fairly steep, with about hundreds of uneven steps.


10 thoughts on “Halong: Bay of the Descending Dragon”

  1. Nano @ Travels With Nano – Tokyo, Japan – Hi, I'm Nano! Welcome to my site! Travels With Nano is filled with everything I am passionate about: uncovering the world one sight, bite and cultural experience at a time. I'm here to share savvy travel tips and inspire (not influence!) your future travel adventures. Needless to say, I am thrilled to have you here reading!
    Nano @ Travel With Nano B. says:

    Gorgeous views and the caves look insane! xx

    1. Thank you, Nano! I was surprised as well. I visited Ha Long some twenty years ago, but I don’t remember that I saw such beautiful things. Maybe I was too young, and the caves was too dark and scary 🙂

  2. I love listening to olden day legends as this Len. Thanks for sharing the story of the mother dragon 🙂

    1. It would be more beautiful when the sky were clear! Or at sunrise 🙂 Although there are more tourists, the bay is less chaotic than in the past. I can still remember that my boat was constantly chased by hawkers, who want to sell seafood, and stuff from China 🙂 It was very annoying!

  3. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
    Bama says:

    Vietnam’s north is a part of the country I have yet to visit. Depending on how many days I have when I do go one day, I hope I’ll be able to see Ha Long Bay myself, apart from an obligatory trip to Hanoi. From the stories and articles I’ve read and heard, the country’s capital sounds like a very interesting place to explore. Back to Ha Long Bay, when you were there how busy was it? I know it has become one of the most popular places in Vietnam now.

    1. I must admit that it was less crowded (and less chaotic) than I expected 🙂 Yes, there was a lot of people, especially at the ticket booth. But we were able to get our admission tickets and book the ship in less than 20 minutes. Probably because we chose the morning tour. The busiest time would be at noon, when the tour buses from Hanoi arrive.

      Each ship has a maximum capacity (40 seats I think), and it departs whenever it’s filled. So you don’t have to worry about being tucked on an overloaded ship. Most of the ships (if not, all ships) have an open deck, where you can climb up and make photos of the bay.

  4. Monch Weller – Philippines – Monch Weller is a pen name and I blog at The Monching's Guide. I'm the most terrible bloke you'll ever meet, but at least I'm bloody honest about it.
    Monch Weller says:

    Another great post, Len! You know, I suddenly remembered the 007 movie “Tomorrow Never Dies” with Pierce Brosnan as James Bond. Ha Long Bay featured prominently in that movie!

Leave a Reply Cancel reply