Ha Long Bay: Vietnam’s most magical natural wonder

Ha Long Bay (Vietnamese: Vịnh Hạ Long, ‘descending dragon bay’) is one of the world’s most famous natural wonders. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and popular travel destination.

Ha Long Bay is located in Quang Ninh Province, in northeastern Vietnam, about 170 km from Hanoi. It is a center of a larger zone at the intersection of the western part of the Gulf of Tonkin and Cát Bà Island to the southwest. The bay has a 120-kilometre-long coastline. The nearest major city is Halong City. Most boats and cruises depart from Ha Long Bay cruise port.

The most outstanding feature of Ha Long Bay is its great collection of 1,969 islands and islets making it the largest limestone island ecosystem in Asia which covers an area of more than 1,550 square km. 989 of the islands have been given names by locals over the years. The majority of these islands have the heights ranging from 50-100 meters.

A dense cluster of limestone monolithic islands are rising spectacularly from the water. It is a mystical landscape where thousands of limestone karsts in various shapes and sizes burst breathtakingly skywards from the depths of the sparkling, emerald-green water. Massive rock formations jut out of the blue water like sleeping goliaths. Atop the backs of those striking formations and limestone islands are lush layers of silky greenery. Some islands have their foot eroded so deeply that it appears to be fragile to support such a heavy mass of the huge island body, which becomes so grotesquely unproportionate.

This densely concentrated zone of stone islands is also famous for its spectacular scenery of grottoes and caves. Natural geological phenomena have formed over millions of years here, creating a variety of different shapes and sizes of stalactites and stalagmites. The biggest and most popular limestone cave in Ha Long Bay is Sung Sot Cave. ‘Sung Sot’ means ‘surprise’ in Vietnamese

The cave was first discovered in western culture in 1901 by French travellers when Vietnam was part of French Indochina. The travellers were so astounded by the size of the cavern that they named it ‘Grotte des Surprises’ or the ‘Cave of Surprises’. The cave welcomed its first visitors in 1993.

There is a small dock at the bottom of Bo Hon Island, where boats arrive and tourists have to climb up 100 or more steps to the mouth of Sung Sot Cave. The cave covers about 10,000 square meters. The cave is about 30 meters high, it has three main chambers and provides a 500-meter long passage.

The cave is believed to be the place where Thanh Giong, an extremely famous hero in Vietnamese folklore, flew away after defeating Chinese invaders. Visiting Sung Sot Cave, tourists can easily find stalactites, which greatly resemble the massive horse and sword that Thanh Giong left behind to drive away evil spirits. Inside the cave, there are several small ponds, which are regarded as the footprints of Thanh Giong’s horse. The view from the cave is breathtaking.

One of the most beautiful islands in Ha Long Bay is Ti Top Island. The island was named after the Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Stepanovich Titov who, together with President Ho Chi Minh, visited the island in 1962. Ti Top island has since become a popular tourist destination.

Covering a total area of 3.7 hectares (0,037 km²), Ti Top Island is one of the smallest islands in Ha Long Bay. It has a steep slope on one side and an inclined slope on the other side. It has a beach that is shaped like a crescent moon and known for its immaculate white sand and the calm emerald blue waters all year round. Many cruises and small ships stop at the island. Ti Top island gains popularity not only for a number of activities such as swimming, sunbathing, kayaking, mountain climbing, and water sports.

Ha Long Bay was first listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, in recognition of its outstanding, universal aesthetic value. In 2000, the World Heritage Committee additionally recognised Ha Long Bay for its outstanding geological and geomorphological value, and its World Heritage Listing was updated. Ha Long Bay also has a rich, rare and precious fauna and flora.

A community of around 1,600 people live on Ha Long Bay in four fishing villages: Cua Van, Ba Hang, Cong Tau and Vong Vieng in Hung Thang ward. They live on floating houses and are sustained through fishing and marine aquaculture. Fish, shrimps, squids and crabs are reputed sea products of Ha Long Bay.

One of the best and the most popular ways to explore the tapestry of spectacular limestone karsts rising majestically from the sea as well as the captivating wildlife is by taking a boat or a cruise. Some of them stop at the famous caves and fishing villages. Ha Long Bay also offers many activities for adventurer enthusiasts. Kayaking gives visitors a chance to explore the karsts, lagoons and caves, which are mostly hidden. Rock climbing, cave spelunking, or trekking are other thrilling adventure options in the region.

Due to its stunning natural beauty and rich cultural heritage, Ha Long Bay is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Vietnam, attracting millions of national and international visitors each year. In 2010, the bay welcomed approximately 1.6 million visitors, while in 2023, that number increased to over 6.8 million. This represents a more than three-fold increase in the number of tourists visiting Ha Long Bay, making it one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations in Vietnam.