Ha Long Bay,
A visit to the north is not complete without a trip to Halong Bay, where placid waters give way to more than 3,000 limestone karsts and wind-sculpted limestone formations jut from foggy lagoons. Dotting the bay are tiny islands bordered by white sandy coves and hidden caves, adding to the majestic landscape of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Adding to this naturalist's dream is the biodiversity of islets, grottos, and Cat Ba Island national park. The bay, however, shows tourism's impact: the clearing of mangrove forests to make way for jetties and piers, marine life threatened by game fishing, and garbage from passenger boats and fishing villages found lining the shores. Beyond its geological uniqueness are activities like hiking, kayaking, rock climbing, or exploring one of the many floating villages where fishermen bring in their daily catch. The downside to all this allure is the mass number of unlicensed boats it draws to the bay each day.
Halong City, the launching point to Halong Bay, is not the place to come for fine cuisine, or any cuisine for that matter. In fact, you're better off suppressing your appetite until you dine aboard ship. However, there's a string of mediocre restaurants on Ha Long Road just west from Vuon Dao Road. If you want to try something local, tu hai is a shellfish specialty from Van Don Island. Other Halong dishes include dried shrimp, steamed cuttlefish, sea snails, and gat gu (steamed pancake made from rice flour).
The secret to having a good meal at this Cat Ba restaurant is ordering what is local and fresh. Pass on the steak and order whole fish, prawns, squid, or the house specialty, the seafood hot pot. This Vietnamese version of fondue comes with fresh vegetables, noodles, and every type of seafood imaginable—simply drop them into a pot of boiling broth at your table. The spring rolls are delicious and pair well with the cliff-side view over the bay. This is the best place to come for a cocktail at sunset or an ice coffee on a hot summer day. If you're here past dark, you can enjoy Le Pont's attached dance club that's popular with locals.
Co Ngu Restaurant
Catering toward tour groups, this gaudy restaurant resembles that of an imperial palace and has lovely views overlooking Halong Bay. The menu features fresh seafood and local specialties like Tu Hai, a shellfish unique to the region; it's famous for its shark fin soup. Other exotic (and daring) dishes include jellyfish salad, steamed pork, seafood tofu, and sautéed sea cucumber. Options from the Western menu range from grilled salmon and cheeseburgers to spaghetti marinara and BLTs. When ordering, you'll have to point at your menu selection since the staff speaks very little English. Although this is one of the better restaurants in Halong City, it pales in comparison to what you might find elsewhere in Vietnam.
Cat Ba Island
The largest island on Halong Bay, this top attraction encompasses lovely beaches, freshwater lakes, and fishing villages, as well as a town center with shops, hotels, and restaurants lining the shores, and Cat Ba National Park, where exotic wildlife, including the endangered langur monkey, live among the mangrove forests and jungle terrain. Activities on the island include swimming, kayaking, rock climbing, lounging on the beach, or even joining locals in a game of soccer in the town square. Note that the beaches are somewhat rocky and the water can be almost too chilly for swimming; the best beaches are on the eastern side at Lan Ha Bay. It's best to avoid Cat Ba during summer months when both tourists and locals flock to the island.
Getting Here: Overnight boat tours in the area generally include day-trips to this pristine island, or you can visit here by way of a 45-minute hydrofoil (146,580 VND) from Haiphong City. Dozens of tourist boats depart from Halong City to Cat Ba for around 100,000 VND. The trip takes about five hours and will give you a taste of what Halong Bay has to offer. Most hotels on the island rent motorbikes for 104,700 VND per day; it's a great way to hit all the sites in a day.
Cat Ba National Park
Covering about 263 square km (164 square miles) of Cat Ba Island is this national park where 32 species of mammals, including the endangered langur monkey, live among the jungle terrain and freshwater lakes. Within its tropical rain forest are 78 species of birds and 20 species of reptiles. In addition to impressive beaches and mangroves, within its boundaries are two historical caves once used as clinics during the Vietnam War. Active travelers can tackle the reserve by hiking the demanding (yet rewarding) 18-km (11-mile) Cang Viet Hai Trail across the park. The best views are from the park's observation tower, but the climb up metal ladders and cliffs are not for the faint of heart.
Many overnight boat tours will take you to see one or more of the four floating villages on Halong Bay, where 1,600 locals make a living by angling the mystical waters. If they're not fishing or fixing their nets for the next big catch, they may be passing the time swinging on hammocks—or even rowing toward your cruise boat to sell you groceries and souvenirs in a floating "store." These impressive fishing villages have their own schools, wooden shacks, and grocery stores that stay afloat by Styrofoam platforms wrapped in waterproof tarps.