Ha Long Bay
Amazing seascapes, caves, kayaking, bio-diversity and Vietnam's best seafood
Vietnam’s most obvious attraction is Ha Long Bay, adjacent to the Gulf of Tonkin, and currently attracting nearly two million visitors each year. Despite its status as one of Vietnam’s busiest tourist centres, its enormous scale, unique geomorphology and indisputable splendour makes a visit almost essential.
With Sao La Tours, you escape the worst of the crowds. We use only high quality boats, and recommend a night on the bay to allow time for the less visited islands and grottoes, leaving those that have been equipped with lights, walkways, refreshment stalls and souvenir shops to the tourists. The exceptions are Dao Go, a large cavern worth visiting for its grandeur, and Sung Sot, for its remarkable stalactites and stalagmites.
Although the name Ha Long Bay is often used to describe the entire area, it refers only to a section of a vast archipelago of thousands of limestone pinnacles stretching nearly a hundred kilometres from Haiphong to the east.
This remarkable seascape owes its existence to a complex process of erosion referred to as ‘karst’. A massive layer of high quality limestone was slowly dissolved by a warm wet climate that prevailed over South East Asia through untold millions of years. Water trickled through crevices enlarged cracks in the limestone creating caves and caverns, and caused weaker strata to collapse leaving the distinctive towers seen today. Comparatively recently, seismic activity inundated the low-lying land, creating Ha Long Bay.
The almost perpendicular peaks conceal the remains of many caves and grottos, their entrances exposed when part of the tower wall collapsed, but now concealed by subsequent rock falls and dense vegetation.
Some caves were already known, and others have been discovered recently, but expert opinion is that they represent only a fraction of those still hidden from view. Three large caves in the heart of the area protected as World Heritage have been made accessible to visitors. Many smaller caves can be visited, but often require a scramble across rocks and through unlit passages.
In the southwest corner of Ha Long Bay is Cat Ba, a large ‘karst’ limestone island full of small mountains covered in verdant forest. Part of the island is a National Park, rich in flora and fauna including one of the most endangered species of monkey in the world. Cat Ba also boasts two small, but pleasant, sandy beaches.
To the east is Bai Tu Long Bay. Although not quite matching the range of geological attributes of its illustrious neighbour, it is equally attractive and benefits from being less visited. Bai Tu Long, and particularly Quan Lan island, has by far the best beaches in northern Vietnam. Most are more or less empty, but tourism facilities are limited.
The Bay is also a treasure house of endemic, and often endangered, species of flora, molluscs and small invertebrates. Our company name and logo is derived from one such plant, the yellow slipper orchid, or ‘Sao La Tours’ in Vietnamese.
At present, a long term project is steadily transforming the entire archipelago and its hinterland into South East Asia’s first Ecomuseum linking all aspects of its natural, environmental and cultural elements to provide a holistic view for visitors, and to focus attention upon the critical importance of its conservation.