It’s an image that has become synonymous with Vietnam’s stupendous scenic beauty – the limestone karsts and isles magically rising out of green, placid waters in Ha Long Bay.
The limelight that the spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Site hogs leaves Ha Long in the relative shade and it is not often that tourists focus on what it offers instead of going on the famous cruises.
With a population of just over 200,000 people, Ha Long is much smaller than other popular coastal towns like Da Nang or Nha Trang, but it does not lack its own charms and warm hospitality to give visitors an enjoyable time.
Here’s seven things you can do to guarantee yourself a good time with a longer stay in Ha Long.
Feast on seafood
A squid cake is served with steamed rice rolls and chili fish sauce in Ha Long. Photo by VnExpress
Oysters. Crabs. Shrimp. Squid. Cockles. An apparently endless array of seafood caught fresh every day is supplied to numerous restaurants. What better way to start or end your trip than enjoying this delicious food whilst enjoying the orange skies lighting up the bay next to a restaurant?
The seafood restaurants here cover all budgets too, ranging from fine dining with the finest catches available and excellent service, to more affordable options of choosing your catch from a tank and washing it down with a Ha Long beer surrounded by locals and other tourists enjoying their evening.
Some of the local highlights include geoduck (tu hai) and horseshoe crab (cua). Alternatively, a bowl of seafood noodles (bun be be) for breakfast will definitely start your day right. Most of the best seafood breakfast options in general can be found away from the tourist area in Cai Dam.
Take in incredible views
Experiencing the beauty of the bay isn’t limited to expensive and not-so-expensive cruises; it can also be admired from many other angles. One of the most popular ways to do this is to ride on the Nu Hoang Cable Car which reaches heights of 620-feet above Ha Long, offering views you would only get from a chopper. You don’t have to worry much about waiting for a long time to get on the popular cable car. It currently holds the Guinness World Record for the highest passenger capacity in a cable car cabin – 230.
Cable car over Ha Long Bay. Photo by VnExpress
If cable cars aren’t for you, there is another viable option. The Ha Long View Tower is in one of the greenest parts of the city and is another incredible spot from which to view the city from a higher perspective.
The tower nestles in the hills in Bai Chay and is just a few minutes away from the entrance to the Bai Chay Bridge. You will need a motorbike and some courage to reach the tower, but you will be rewarded with views of pine tree forests on the way up and a sprawling view of the city after ascending the spiraling steps.
Relax at Bai Chay beach
The journey to a coastal city cannot fail to include a trip to a beach for enjoying the tranquil sound of the waves or admiring the clear blue skies above the magical green isles. It is worth bearing in mind though that this beach is popular with locals and domestic tourists, so the experience can be dampened a touch by excessively loud music and frustrating levels of trash.
Despite these drawbacks, you only have to walk a little further away from the crowds and you can almost guarantee yourself a peaceful spot to soak in the scenery and appreciate the sounds and aesthetics of an environment that starkly contrasts with the smog and endless noise of the urban sprawl.
Drive out to Tuan Chau island
Just because your trip to Ha Long may not include a boat cruise, doesn’t mean you can’t get close to the gorgeous bay and see the traditional fishing boats out at sea. A short drive over the bridge in Bai Chay will lead you to Tuan Chau Island. Here, you can chill on Tam Beach or tuck into some succulent seafood a little closer to the source.
If you have children with you, the King Kong Park on the island could prove to be a hit. Shortly after coming off the bridge, you are greeted by a large sculpted rock of King Kong surrounded by other large statues of dragons and dinosaurs. Within the park lies an opportunity to swim in a calmer setting void of waves, perfect for a family day out.
Shop at Bai Chay market
Another great place to visit in Ha Long is the Bai Chay market. Boasting over one hundred open-air stalls where you can shop for many things you need (and don’t), handicrafts and souvenirs to clothes and … you guessed it… more seafood. The prices in Ha Long are relatively lower than in other markets, especially as this is meant for locals rather than tourists.
One thing you shouldn’t miss out on is a mollusk with bivalve clams (ngao), which many consider the tastiest dish in the city. You can try it in multiple ways: steamed; cooked in soup; fried with noodles; or my personal favourite, grilled.
Another local delicacy you can purchase in the market are snails (oc).They are not as famous as the ones in nearby Hai Phong, but still worth checking out. Make sure your bargaining skills are sharp. The majority of seafood sold here is purchased by the kilo and negotiating a little can get you closer to the price you are willing to pay.
Visit the Quang Ninh museum
Quang Ninh Museum. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Cuong
The final place on this checklist for your visit to Ha Long is a visit to the Quang Ninh museum.
The unique box design by Salvador Perez Arroyo has won architectural awards and made the museum a popular spot for visitors and locals. The giant mirror outside reflects the image of the sky in Ha Long and inside, the history of the area can be gleaned through various artifacts.
The museum celebrates the cultural identity of the people of Quang Ninh and emphasizes the importance of coal mining workers in the province’s and the nation’s development.
Among other things, it delves into the province’s close connections with sea and nature, and reflecting on all this interconnectedness is a good way to round up a thoroughly enjoyable visit to Ha Long.
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