Vietnam is positively overflowing with visitor attractions, appealing to families, couples and travellers. Many people are drawn here because, as the world's 13th most populous nation, Vietnam is vibrant and exciting, its cities bustling with activities and tourist hotspots. Others prefer the idea of escaping the colourful urban centres to immerse themselves in the tranquil beauty of the Vietnamese countryside.
For those falling into the latter category, a trip to Halong Bay should definitely be top of the agenda. Located on the top eastern coast of Vietnam, this area boasts one of the world's most captivating natural landscapes.
Broadly translating from the Vietnamese 'the dragon descends to the sea', Halong Bay spreads over 1,500 square kilometres, with a 120 kilometres coastline. It consists of some 1,969 beautiful islands of varying sizes, of which 989 have been named. On the landward side, almost 2,000 inlets have been carved into towering limestone cliffs.
The bay is split into two zones, south-west (Halong Bay) and south-east (Bai Tu Long Bay). The islands within these zones are formed from either limestone or schist, and these are famous the world over for their countless caves and grottoes. It is no wonder that Halong Bay has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Artefacts have been found amongst the labyrinth cave systems dating back tens of thousands of years. If you are keen to find out more about ancient Vietnamese history and archaeology, then it would be well worth visiting sites such as Dong Mang, Xich Tho, Soi Nhu, and Thoi Gieng. Another important site is Van Don, once an ancient commercial port. Bach Dang River is deceptively peaceful now, but this location is where fierce naval battles were fought against invaders. Poem Mountain has many engravings of poems celebrating long-forgotten emperors.
By far the best way to experience the Halong Bay vistas is to book a 45-minute helicopter tour. Tourists are collected from their hotels, then transported to Gia Lam airbase, not far from Hanoi centre. From here a boat transfer takes you for a four-hour cruise around the stunning islands, while enjoying a sumptuous local seafood lunch. Afterwards, you climb aboard the air taxi for a breathtaking flight over the Bay.
For those wishing a more hands-on experience, there are ample opportunities for swimming or scuba-diving in the jade-green seas, or kayaking. Whichever way you choose to explore Halong Bay, the memories will linger.