The invaders crept closer and closer to the land.
Seeing no other option, the Jade Emperor asked Mother Dragon for help.
In a burst of light, the dragons descended from the Heavens and incinerated the invaders — freeing the people of danger.
As the dragons did this, they scattered emeralds around the waters, forming islets that would protect against future invasions.
Through this origin story, Ha Long Bay was created.
Who doesn’t recognize the iconic limestone rocks rising into the sky out of emerald green waters?
Ha Long Bay is consistently one of the top travel destinations in the world, garnering around six million visitors a year!
That said, when I first traveled to Vietnam in 2018, it wasn’t high on my list of things to see (for a reason I am unsure of now).
Luckily, I would have my mind changed.
In January of 2018, I would travel to visit it with my girlfriend, Kaitlyn, and my friend, Donovan.
What is Ha Long Bay?
Located 102 miles (164 km) southeast of the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
You may not know it by name, but you’ve undoubtedly seen it in pictures or films, where it made cameos in Pan and Kong: Skull Island.
Or, if you’re a huge Anthony Bourdain fan like me, then you’ve probably seen his episodes of Parts Unknown or No Reservations visiting the area.
It consists of about 1,600 different islands, although most remain uninhabited by people.
The resulting landscape is a forest of limestone karst scattered around a wide expanse of water.
Trees decorate the limestone pillars, seeming to defy gravity as they grow on the sides of cliff faces.
Legend of Ha Long Bay
As you gleaned from the introduction, Ha Long Bay has an interesting tale of its formation.
If you translate the name “Hạ Long”, it literally means ‘descending dragon’.
Ancient Vietnamese mythology says that Vietnamese people descended from dragons. Thus, when the Vietnamese people formed the country, they had to repel invaders looking to enter by sea and destroy the country.
The Jade Emperor, the emperor of Vietnam, asked the Gods to send the Mother Dragon and her children to help his country fight their enemies.
The invaders had almost defeated Mother Dragon and her children, but they destroyed them in a big ball of fire.
As this happened, large emeralds appeared and were scattered around the waters.
The legend states that these are the teeth of Mother Dragon and her children, and they were left to create an impenetrable wall to guard Vietnam against future invaders.
Being an American, I’m envious. Our origin story is just the story of some men wearing strange wigs fighting other men who are also wearing strange wigs — just in different-colored clothing.
Way lamer if you ask me.
The Trip to Ha Long Bay
Honestly, this is probably one of the shortest trips I’ve ever taken.
We spent about a total of 30 hours in Ha Long in total.
We were living in Hoi An at the time, so we took a Grab to Da Nang to fly from there to Hanoi.
Before we left, we had arranged for someone to pick us up and take us to Ha Long. We had a 3.5 hour trip with a Vietnamese man who spoke zero English. Funnily enough, he was probably having the same thoughts. “Great, I have to drive for 3.5 hours with people who speak zero Vietnamese.”
The highlight of this car ride was when we arrived at a local restaurant for dinner about halfway through the ride.
We entered to find a restaurant that was about 3/4 filled, all with Vietnamese families. All stopping their meals to look at the spectacle that just walked in. Unfortunately, the spectacle was us. I felt my face burning red from the attention.
We took our seats with our driver, and he promptly set about ordering food. He communicated, er, well, tried to communicate, that he ordered food for all of us. Knowing how wildly different an Asian’s appetite is from a Westerner’s put all three of us in shock of what was about to arrive at the table.
I pictured squid tentacles. Not fried, just bare squid tentacles. I would try to eat them as the tentacles gripped my lips for dear life — trying their best to get out of my mouth.
Luckily for us, this man had smarts. He wasn’t going to waste that delicacy on us foreigners. He knew that dish was something that should be appreciated. Meanwhile, looking at us, we didn’t make the cut of people who would be into things that moved when you ate them.
And he was exactly right.
He ended up ordering us a few different dishes that were all popular Vietnamese dishes, which would easily satisfy us. Although, there was one little pot with a top on it that I’m pretty sure held the squid tentacles. He stuffed this one into his jacket.
After arriving the first evening, we all promptly went to bed as we had been traveling most of the day.
The next morning, Kaitlyn and I were woken up by Donovan knocking on our door. Upon opening the door, my eyes were blinded by the energy that seemed to be radiating from Donovan.
“Oh, sorry, I thought you guys were already awake,” he said. “I’ve already gone and gotten a big bowl of Pho, had myself a nice iced coffee. After that, I figured I’d walk around the town and see what I could find.”
I stared at him, wiped the sleep from my eyes, and blinked twice. It’s the only response I could muster. I was like a 90s Gateway computer, still booting up. Donovan was an iMac, sitting on the Home Screen waiting to do something.
Kaitlyn and I got dressed and headed downstairs to meet Donovan before we headed toward the shore to meet Dinh, our host on Airbnb, and also the man who arranged/guided our tour of Ha Long Bay.
We got on a small fishing boat and began puttering out deeper into the bay. The rocks grew larger and larger as we inched toward them. It was hard to believe how big they actually were, not to mention that a large portion of them sat under the water.
I began to think of the legend of Ha Long Bay. I was staring at some motherf—in’ dragon teeth, and I couldn’t be happier.
It wasn’t a particularly sunny day, but it seemed like it really wanted to be. The sun kept poking in and out of the clouds like a new mother playing peek-a-boo. But we didn’t let the weather ruin the beauty we were seeing. This was a special place, and we were determined to enjoy it.
Dinh directed us toward one of the giant rocks in particular. As we pulled up, he told us that we would go inside, where we’d have our own boat in a small lagoon-like area. We were excited.
Ten minutes later, Dinh plopped down the mattress I had slept on into the water. Okay, it wasn’t the mattress I had slept on, but it looked similar. The three of us climbed aboard the SS Serta and set sail into the lagoon, waving goodbye because this thing would surely sink as soon as we got out further.
Thankfully, it didn’t, and Donovan proved to be an admirable captain as he guided us around obstacles that would surely sink us. He was sure he wasn’t going to be another Edward Smith!
We proceeded to paddle around the small area. All that paddling eventually wore out the engine (me). We decided it was time to find a new adventure.
We headed toward our next stop. Dinh took us to some small islands where Vietnamese soldiers had hidden from the Americans during the war. The history was palpable the entire time.
As an American, it’s impossible not to visit Vietnam and feel…something. I’m not sure if there is a word to describe it, but it’s there. The Vietnam War (the American War for the Vietnamese) forever linked our two countries. The brutal fighting that took place was some of the most vicious in American history and scarred multiple generations of the American population. However, this pales in comparison to how it affected Vietnam.
More than two million Vietnamese people were killed, an extra three million were wounded, and more than 10 million became refugees. When considering the toll this took on Vietnam as a nation, this graph begins to make a lot of sense.
On top of this, most infrastructure that existed in Vietnam was utterly destroyed, and the Vietnamese economy was set back decades. As someone so far removed from this, I cannot even begin to imagine these people’s pains and difficulties. Regardless of any political view of the war (which I do not care to debate), the human suffering that came from the Vietnam War is something that should never be repeated.
Interestingly enough, much of the beginning stages of the war began near Ha Long Bay, in the Gulf of Tonkin — which I’m sure will ring a bell to any Americans reading this.
In fact, the first airstrike by the American military occurred near Ha Long Bay, as the U.S. tried to preemptively attack Northern Vietnam. The Vietnamese stopped the attack — shooting down two US aircraft and capturing the first U.S. airman to be taken as a prisoner of war, Everett Alvarez Jr. This began the bitter fighting that the world would witness for the next decade.
A few weeks prior, we had been speaking to a driver as we went from Da Nang to Hoi An. I asked him a question he probably gets a lot when meeting Americans, but one that had been in my head since I had come to Vietnam.
“How do Vietnamese people view Americans? How do they feel about Americans coming to visit Vietnam?”
Before we came to Vietnam, I hadn’t done much research on the subject. We were living in Vietnam because our original plan to go to Bali had been foiled by Mount Agung (to be discussed in a future post). I remember thinking about this question as we touched down in Da Nang.
Thanks to Google Translate, he answered this: “In the past, we were enemies. But, we look to the future as friends.”
Which, I thought, was a pretty damn poetic answer. Not that I should be judging poetry.
It’s one of the most striking things I found about my time in Vietnam. The people always treated us with kindness and warmth.
It is difficult for humans to let go of grudges, especially ones that had as deep an impact as the Vietnam War on Vietnam and its population. The pain caused doesn’t just disappear.
But I looked over at Dinh, who was smiling ear-to-ear as he helped two Americans back onto the boat, eager to show his beautiful country to anyone willing to respect it. Even people that would have been bitter enemies if we were born 50 years earlier.
The sun had begun to get lower in the sky, and we decided it was time to head back. The trip couldn’t have gone better. Dinh and the boat captain were fantastic tour guides, and Dinh was also a great host. Ha Long Bay surprised me in so many ways and is one of my top memories in Vietnam now. But, it’s always great when the most unexpected things sneak up and gift you something. Ha Long Bay was that for me.
Since then, I’ve traveled to many countries, but Vietnam still holds a special place in my heart. I keep in touch with Dinh and hope to see him as soon as coronavirus allows. And I plan to return to Vietnam to live for a longer period. Something about the country tapped into me.
As the late Bourdain said,
“Vietnam. It grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Once you love it, you love it forever.”
Thank you all for taking the time to read this. Below, you will find some extras about Ha Long Bay that may help you plan or enjoy your trip there.
Where to stay
I’m biased, but I wouldn’t change where we stayed if I repeated the trip 10 times. Dinh’s rooms in his Airbnb are basic but provide you with everything you need to use as a base point to check out the area. There are loads of hotels you can find, but none will provide the experience that Dinh provides with his boat trip and his hospitality.
If you insist on not having the great time you could, here are the top ten hotels you can find near Ha Long Bay.
What to see
Obviously, Ha Long Bay! However, if you’re reading this, I imagine you’ve already sorted that out. Once you’ve gone out on Dinh’s boat tour and are looking to explore elsewhere, try checking these places out:
- Poem Mountain (Bai Tho Mountain)
- The hike is great, even if it’s “closed”. We had to climb around a gate to continue on when we went. I have read that they have since put up a fence to block the way up. But that isn’t stopping anyone! Here’s a great guide to get around the fence. Not that I’m promoting breaking the law or anything, I would never.
- Visit Cat Ba Island
- This is Ha Long Bay’s largest island. A national park covers a large portion of the island, a cave called Hospital Cave that was important during the Vietnam War, or you can go rock climbing. There are many options no matter the type of tourist you are. Here is an excellent guide to answer any questions about Cat Ba Island.
- Sun World Ha Long Amusement Park
- Not only Vietnam’s largest amusement park but also home to one of the world’s tallest Ferris wheels. Especially great if you have children, this would be an excellent getaway after they spent the previous day staring at some rocks in the water (at least that’s what they may have seen it as). If you want to know more, here is a great resource that seems to be the premier source of things to do around Ha Long Bay.
How to get there
There are primarily two ways to get to Ha Long Bay: via Hanoi or Hai Phong.
Situated around 102 miles (164km) from Ha Long Bay. The most usual route is via road transportation. The trip used to take 3.5-hours, but it now takes 2.5-hours thanks to a new expressway.
- Cruise bus
- You can book this through a cruise tour company. Companies will largely take care of your transportation if you book through them.
- Private car
- There are plenty of drivers that you can find to book a private car through if you choose this method. Naturally, the more expensive, the more comfortable.
- There will be bus terminals inside the airport where you can find bus transportation to Ha Long Bay. One way is around 100,000 – 200,000 VND ($5-$10).
- A relatively new mode of transportation, travelers can get a scenic view of Ha Long Bay, usually lasting around 15 minutes. It takes approximately 45 minutes to get from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay.
Closer to Ha Long Bay, only 46 miles (75km) away, Hai Phong also has great options for travelers. Road travel used to take around two hours. Now, thanks to the new highway, it takes around 45 minutes.
- There is a local bus system that can be used, which will be similar to the one that can be used in Hanoi. A ticket will cost between 40,000 VND to 100,000 VND ($2-$4)
- A taxi would cost roughly 830,000 VND ($36) to get you from Hai Phong to Ha Long Bay.
- Departing from the Ben Binh Terminal and taking travelers to Car Vieng or Cat Ba. A ticket costs 130,000 VND to 170,000 VND ($6-$7).