Ha Long Bay Is one of Vietnam's most instantly recognizable tourist destinations. Located in Quang Ning Province, in the north-west of Vietnam, the bay consists of thousands of limestone ‘karsts' (karsts being geological formations, usually formed from limestone, which in the case of Ha Long Bay, have created spectacular cliffs and islands).
The bay itself is part of a much wider geological zone which includes Bai Tur Long, and the Cat Ba ialands. Ha Long Bay has a total area of around 1,500 square kilometres. There are upwards of 2000 islets dotted just off the coasts, and within easy exploration distance for visitors wishing to book boat trips, or hire kayaks. The bay is an incredibly diverse environment, not only for its impressive geological structures, but also for its wildlife. There are over 60 species of animals living in this part of Vietnam.
Anyone visiting the bay is following in impressively ancient footsteps. Ancient folklore describes a family of dragons being sent by the gods to assist the Vietnamese in fighting off invaders. Rather than the traditional western version of breathing fire, these mythical beasts spat out jewels and jade. These transformed into the thousands of islands dotted around the bay.
The vicinity was first settled in prehistoric times. Successive cultures have included the Soi Nhu, who flourished for thousands of years until around 7,000 BC, the Cai Beo, who lasted until 5,000 BC, and the Ha Long who gave the area its name, but who died out around 3,500 years ago. The bay's position has been ideal for human habitation, with its convenient access to the sea and therefore trade routes with other neighbouring civilizations, and the comparative shelter offered by its natural landscapes. Many artifacts have been discovered in the area's limestone caves – with some examples remarkably well-preserved considering their antiquity.
The natural landscapes of Ha Long Bay are amongst the most striking anywhere in the world. Visitors are struck by the sheer spectacle of the monolithic islands, rising spectacularly from the waters. French explorers from colonial times have left graffiti on some of the caves, although today's visitors are far more likely to be impressed by the vast chambers within the islands, containing stalactites and stalagmites.
Communitiesssed by the vast chambers within the islands, containing stalactites and stalagmites.
Two of the larger islnds, Cat Ba and Tuan Chau, are permanently inhabited. Here you'll find excellent tourist facilities, as well as well-appointed hotels overlooking beautiful beaches. Around 1,600 Vietnamese live around the bay are, centred in four fishing communities – Cur Van, Cong Tau, Ba Hang and Vong Veng. Their traditional accommodation consists of floating homes. The locals sustain themselves with fishing, and the cultivation of marine life. There are around 200 fish species in the bay, and over 400 types of mollusk.
First listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 due to its universal aesthetic value, the bay has been welcoming visitors to this part of Vietnam for some time. Tourists have many leisure options available to them, from exploring the islets and inlets from kayaks, to boat cruises along the bay. Larger boats offer restaurants and overnight stays. There are opportunities to fish, or to indulge in watersports such as snorkeling or diving. The more intrepid can try out undersea caving, although this only be done with experienced guides.