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Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in northeastern Vietnam known for the 1,600-plus limestone formations emerging from gorgeous emerald waters. Ha Long Bay goes by a few nicknames—Ha Long technically means “descending dragon,” and the area is sometimes referred to as the garden of islands. About a hundred miles from Hanoi in the Quang Ninh Province, travelers can get to Ha Long Bay via private helicopter or seaplane, taxi, or bus. While taking an overnight cruise is popular in Ha Long Bay, you can easily create your own itinerary to see the best of the area on your schedule. Ha Long Bay is one of the quintessential Vietnamese tourist outposts—for good reason—and here’s how you can spend a perfect day in this veritable island paradise.
6 a.m. Climb Bai Tho Mountain to see the sunrise over Ha Long Bay. Catching the sunrise and sunset are must-sees; the view of the serene waters dotted with limestone clusters in the changing light is essential. Bai Tho sits right by the bay, within the city limits of Ha Long Bay. You can’t quite call it an iconic view because many people can’t find it, either because they’ve never heard of it, or because you have to walk through a residential neighborhood to access the hiking trail. Once in the neighborhood, locals tend to point you in the right direction. You’ll walk through a house to get to the trail—pay the homeowners 25,000 to 50,000 Vietnamese dongs per person ($1 to $3), and you’ll be on your way. The climb up will take no more than an hour—budget two hours for the whole experience to give yourself time at the top and to make pleasantries with the homeowners on your way up.
9 a.m. Have a cup of coffee and breakfast at Wander Station. Travelers visiting Ha Long Bay who find Wander Station on their first day wind up coming here every morning for breakfast or in the evening for dinner—that’s how beloved Wander Station is. Locally owned and operated, the atmosphere of Wander Station is homey, even in this particularly touristy area of Vietnam. For breakfast, grab an oat bowl, a fresh juice, and coffee.
10:30 a.m. Take a ferry to Cat Ba, a large island next to Ha Long Bay. If you aren’t island-hopping during your time in Ha Long Bay, spending some time on Cat Ba is a way to satisfy your craving to explore the thousand-or-so islands. And really, if you didn’t boat to an island did you even go to Ha Long Bay? Getting to Cat Ba is fairly simple—take a quick cab ride to Tuần Châu island, where there’s a ferry terminal. Then board the Cat Ba ferry, which runs five times a day in the high season.
12:00 p.m. The excursion options are near endless on Cat Ba, but with time for only one, choose between hiking Cat Ba National Park or taking a kayak tour from Cat Ba. Kayaking is one of the best ways to experience the waters of Ha Long Bay, though it was banned in 2017. While the kayaking ban was lifted, but it’s still more difficult to find these excursions than it was pre-2017. Cat Ba Kayak Adventures offers kayak or stand-up paddle boarding tours, but for those who can’t commit to a full day, they’ll also rent single or double kayaks for self-guided exploration.
Alternately, you can take a short hike within Cat Ba National Park. Ngự Lâm Peak is low-effort, high-reward hike that gets you a taste of the terrain and views of the park. It’s relatively steep but short, and the trail is easily accessible, so a guide isn't necessary. Once off the ferry, travelers typically rent a scooter and zip over to the entrance of the trail.
2 p.m. In general, hanging out in the town of Cat Ba after an awe-inspiring hike or kayaking tour can be a touch disappointing. If you want to try for lunch on the island, venture to Cat Ba Island Market, a local haunt on the north side of the town harbor. Alternately, you can hop back on the ferry for a late lunch and cocktails in Ha Long Bay proper.
3 p.m. Back in Ha Long Bay, Settle in at Bamboo Bar for drinks and snacks. Bamboo Bar is in Bãi Cháy, across the bridge from the area surrounding Bai Tho Mountain. Order their homemade spring rolls and a chilled glass of wine or a cold beer. From Bamboo Bar, you’ll have a view of the bay. And if you’re spending the night at Wyndham Legend Hotel, it’s walking distance, so you can even pop back to the hotel to freshen up before drinks.
6 p.m. For sunset, you’ll want to stay in the Bãi Cháy district of Ha Long Bay. Take the Ha Long Queen Cable Car to the top of Ba Deo Hill for a new vantage point over the bay. The cable car brings travelers more than a mile from Bãi Cháy to Ba Deo Hill—the journey takes about 15 minutes. When the tramway debuted in 2016, it was touted as the “world’s biggest reversible aerial tramway.” Tickets are 300,000 Vietnamese dongs (about $13).
7:30 p.m. Poke your head into Bãi Cháy Night Market. The open-air market has hundreds of stalls, drawing both tourists and locals looking for crafts, clothes, souvenirs, and the like. Open from 6 p.m. to midnight, it’s worth walking through just for the atmosphere, even if you don’t have a shopping agenda. The market is next to Bãi Cháy beach, so you can take an evening stroll along the coastline post-market.
9 p.m. Many of the best restaurants and hotels are in Bãi Cháy, so you’ll stay right in this neighborhood for the rest of the evening. Dine at Kim Hang Restaurant, which is walking distance from Bãi Cháy Market. The spacious, well-kept interiors and inviting staff make Kim Hang a lovely dining experience. They’re, unsurprisingly, known for their seafood—order up a platter of clams, crab, prawns, squid, and lobster with a Bia Ha Long (beer brewed in Ha Long).
Where to stay
Wyndham Legend Ha Long overlooks the city and the bay. The property has an outdoor pool, and a high-end Japanese restaurant, Sakura, among several other dining options. Location-wise, you’re right by Bãi Cháy beach and close to downtown Ha Long.