I had to blink a few times when I half stepped, half tumbled out of the van that my bag and I had been crammed in the back of for almost five hours.
We had left Hanoi extremely early and I had slept for most of the 170-kilometer drive, making the people that were piling out of the van behind me still complete strangers.
Like lemurs, we followed our tour guide to a long wooden dock and onto a creaky boat which would be our home for the night.
After dropping my bag in my room and splashing some cold water on my face, I headed up to the main deck to make some new friends.
I was surprised to discover that in the fifteen minutes I had been in my room, we had pulled out of the dock and were already surrounded by the majestic, tree-covered limestone cliffs, rising mysteriously out of Halong Bay.
What is Halong Bay?
Considered to be one of the Natural Wonders of the World, Halong Bay consists of thousands of islands that rise out of the water in the Gulf of Tonkin on the east coast of Vietnam.
The name of the bay — Halong — literally means ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’, which comes from a local legend that explains how the awe-inspiring islands were created. According to this legend, one day a great dragon came down from the mountains. As it charged towards the coast, it’s flailing tail gouged out valleys and crevasses. When the dragon finally plunged into the sea, the areas that it had gouged out filled with water, creating the bay.
In reality, the islands are the peaks of a vast underwater mountain range that are dotted with beaches, grottos, and forested slopes filled with birds.
How to Visit Halong Bay
Visitors from all over the world come year round to visit this UNESCO world heritage site that boasts amazing coral reefs, mangrove forests and small freshwater lakes. They come to take boat cruises, explore the massive limestone caves, and kayak in the emerald waters.
Halong City is the gateway to Halong Bay, and where you will find information offices and the boat dock where tours begin from. If you are visiting the bay on your own, you will need to purchase an entry ticket at an information office. This entry ticket is usually included in the price of your tour if you are going that direction instead.
If you have the time, you definitely want to take an overnight tour. There is nothing like sleeping in a boat floating on the calm water in between the giant cliffs of the bay. It's breathtaking.
There are a bunch of different boat operators. The easiest way to book is through your hotel or hostel, or you can check out one of these tours that are recommended by Lonely Planet:
While floating silently through the bay, the sun staining the sky pink, the wind and waves gently rocking the boat, it was easy to understand why these stunning rocky islands are often referred to as nature’s sculptures.
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