SE Asia #03 Ha Long Bay

September 29, 2018  •  6 Comments

MARCH 2018

SE Asia #03 – Ha Long Bay

This is part 3 of our tour of 3 South East Asian locations and covers Ha Long Bay.

Route to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi
01 Map Hanoi to Ha Long01 Map Hanoi to Ha Long

The third day of our formal (Road Scholar) tour started with excursions to various sights in Hanoi and then off we went to Ha Long Bay on the western side of the Gulf of Tonkin in the China Sea.  Ha Long bay is about a two and a half hour drive from Hanoi through what were once quaint villages.  However, with the immense popularity of this destination for tourists most of these villages have tried to capitalize on this traffic by setting up roadside businesses.  But, between the villages are stretches of lush green rice paddies being tended by farmers in iconic conical hats as we saw in the previous installment for this trip. 


The Bay & Islands

The bay is around 600 square miles and includes approximately 2,000 small limestone islands which are what it is best known for.  Our guide said the islands of Ha Long Bay were the inspiration for the look of the floating islands in the movie Avatar but the internet does not corroborate that.  According to the Internet, the Avatar inspiration were similarly formed islands in China. 

These islands in Ha Long bay seem to be scattered haphazardly throughout the bay. Most have sheer vertical cliffs rising spectacularly from the ocean and are topped with thick jungle vegetation that creeps down the sheer sides of the island like some sort of knit ski hat. 


Sheer Cliffs with jungle creeping down the sides
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Limestone Islands in Ha Long Bay
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A couple of the larger islands - Tuan Chau and Cat Ba - have permanent inhabitants, as well as tourist facilities including hotels and beaches. Even though in most cases the sheer cliffs go right down to, and below, the water, some of the smaller islands have secluded beaches one can use if one has a boat to get there.  But, most people see the bay and its islands from small cruise ships on one or two day trips.


Two day cruises on Ha Long Bay, like the one we took, have become so popular that they finally designated one particular area as “Cruise Ship Bay”.  This bay is surrounded by islands so the water is usually pretty calm and is now the only place in the larger bay where these ships are allowed to anchor overnight – as did ours.  At night all these ships are scattered around this bay like little illuminated islands casting a warm glow and reflections on the bay from their electric lights.  It was really quite lovely to see.


Cruise Ship Bay at night
Cruise Ships anchored for the night, Ha Long Bay, VietnamCruise Ships anchored for the night, Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Smokey sunset at Cruise Ship Bay
Smokey sunset on Ha Long BaySmokey sunset on Ha Long Bay

As most of the islands in many ways are the same, as one sails among them it is a marvelous pastime to notice the differences.  Many of these islands have wind and wave-eroded grottoes making for other worldly appearances.  Some are tall and small, others are larger and some are more like curving fins. 

Many of the 989 islands that have been given names have acquired their name as a result of their unusual shapes. Such names include Voi Islet (elephant), Ga Choi Islet (fighting cock), Khi Islet (monkey), and Mai Nha Islet (roof).

Ha Long Bay #2Ha Long Bay #2

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As it turns out, some of the Ha Long Bay islands are actually hollow and contain limestone caves inside with stalagmites and stalactites. A few of these are open to the public with electric lighting inside. 

Hang Dau Go (Wooden stakes cave) is the largest of them in the Ha Long area.  French tourists visited these caves in the late 19th century and named the cave Grotto des Merveilles. Its three large chambers contain numerous stalactites and stalagmites (as well as 19th-century French graffiti).  The rock formations are quite interesting due to the various rock colors which included light tan, pink, rust, pale violet, oyster white and many other colors.  What was nice was that all these different colors occur in the same room with each formation consisting of one color.  For example, one column might be tan and the stalactite right next to it might be pink. 

As far as limestone caves go, this one isn’t particularly large or grandiose, but it is big enough that no outside light penetrates to the inner rooms.  Unlike most such caves in the States where you go through in groups, in these you just wander around on your own.  There is some asphalt paving along the pathways where needed but no rails or fences to restrict you to those paths.  You can pretty much wander where you wish.  However to my observation no one seemed inclined to go into delicate areas or into spaces that in the US would have been blocked off.

Hand Dau Go Cavern
Ha Long Bay Caves #1Ha Long Bay Caves #1


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Floating Villages

A community of around 1,600 people live on the Ha Long Bay islands in four fishing villages where due to the sheer cliffs they live on floating houses.  The shallow waters near these floating villages are home to over 200 species of fish and 450 different kinds of mollusks. As one would expect they have historically survived through fishing and marine aquaculture but at least in one case are now doing quite well catering to the tourist trade.

Near the fishing village of Vung Vieng, there is a large floating dock where the cruise ships can offload passengers.  On the dock is a full blown ticket office with several windows where you buy passage on a smaller craft that hold up to about 8 passengers each.  The hulls of these tourist boats are modeled after the village fishing fleet but they have installed benches to sit on.  Each of these boats is propelled by a lone person who stands or sits in the rear with two long oars.  These oars persons are outfitted in dark pants, a vibrant fuchsia colored tunic and topped with an iconic conical Vietnamese straw hat.

These young men and women must be in pretty good shape as they row these boats through their islands and floating village all day long.  This can’t be easy.  Each round trip takes about an hour. 

Some of our group on one of these boats
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Local Villager who rows tourists around their islands
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Along the way, we passed some of their village mates fishing from small boats.  Due to the wide variety of sea life they fish for there are all manner of fishing boats they use to catch these fish.  These range from small one person row boats all the way up to multi person boats equipped with long side booms festooned with lights to attract eels at night.  Interspersed with these fishing boats are floating store boats that go from village to village selling a wide variety of goods.

One man fishing row boat.  The fisherman uses his feet to work the oars so his hands are free to deal with the fishing pole
Fisherman, Ha Long Bay, VietnamFisherman, Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Eel boat waiting for nightfall
fishing Boat #3, Ha Long Bay, Vietnamfishing Boat #3, Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Floating produce store
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Family returning from a trip to a store stopping to catch dinner
Family on way from town on Ha Long BayFamily on way from town on Ha Long Bay

(Chinese) Junk.  These are capable of open sea travel
Chineese Junk, Ha Long BayChineese Junk, Ha Long Bay

In the village and surrounding waters people live in a floating house or on their boat.  The floating houses are really the same sort of house one would build on land, but instead they build them on floating platforms.  I’m sure in older times they were much more “hut” like, but now they look like small cabins one would find by a lake.  Small clusters of these houses are tied together side by side with ropes to shore on one side and some sort of anchor or weights on the other to keep them from drifting away.  In the village these houses were well maintained and painted in pastel colors.  This is just normal life.  Kids are playing jump rope or hop scotch on the docks along the fronts of the houses, dogs run up and down the docks with the kids or defend the homestead from passing tourist boats and clothes are hanging out to dry.  As a kid though, you know you’re in trouble when mom tells you to go play in the basement.

Part of the floating fishing village of Vung Vieng
Vung Vieng Fishing Village homesVung Vieng Fishing Village homes

But, some village residents forego the floating cabin and live on their boat.  As one would expect, these too come in various sizes and shapes but most seem to be roomy enough for a small family.  It seems that the owners of these boats like to paint them in bright colors but usually in red, blue, green and black.

Three house boats docked together
Three boats, Ha Long BayThree boats, Ha Long Bay

House boat for a single family
Home on the BayHome on the Bay


The playroom is upstairs
House boat playpenHouse boat playpen

As it turns out, Ha Long bay was the only place on our trip where the smoke cleared enough to see some blue sky, but even without that it is quite a wonderful place to see.  If you ever find yourself in Hanoi, make the effort to take an overnight cruise on this marvelous bay.


I hope you enjoyed reading about our SE Asia trip to North Vietnam and will come back for the rest of this journey.


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Or, this whole series at:

These and other Images of this trip are posted in a Gallery on my website. 
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Thanks for reading – Dan


(All images by Dan Hartford.  Not all images from 2017 trip, some from prior trips.  Info from Wikipedia and pamphlets gathered at various




Margaret Isabelle(non-registered)
What gorgeous pictures you took of Hanoi Bay, Dan and the stories you wrote enhanced the beauty of our Road Scholar trip to Vietnam. Many thanks.
tom hislop(non-registered)
The baby with what looks like a playpen on a boat is fun photo.
Bruce McGurk(non-registered)
Thanks, Dan. The Bay cruise looks like it was a lot of fun, and glad you are on another Road Scholar trip! Are your lungs recovered yet from the smoke?
Pearl Chow(non-registered)
I loved learning about how the people lived on the water. Thanks for sharing, Dan!
Dennis Hogan(non-registered)
Great pictures and commentary, Dan. Really captured the ambiance.
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