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- 26 Jul 2021, 3 nights
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Hạ Long city in northeast Vietnam is a bustling place, but its true beauty lies just off the coast in Hạ Long Bay. There, you'll find turquoise waters and towering jungle-covered limestone pillars jutting out of the ocean as far as the eye can see, sculpting the horizon and colouring it emerald green. The bay was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994. You can view its nearly 2,000 rock formations from the coast but the best way to appreciate it is to join an overnight cruise that takes you around the key spots.
Get up close and personal with the ocean by staying at a Hạ Long hostel on a wooden junk boat. Many of the hostels are homestays run by the families who live there, including a fisherman-style house built by its owners and even one with a swimming pool outside. To save your đồng, look for hostels in Hạ Long Bay that have free breakfasts or free airport pick-up. Some hostels also have air con for a comfortable night's sleep.
Hạ Long city is a gateway to the beauty of the bay and you'll find some karaoke and waterfront bars for an evening out. The most popular and immersive way to explore Hạ Long Bay itself is to take to the water on a cruise, either for a day trip or for up to three nights. To protect the environment, there are five designated routes that all cruise companies follow around the area's bays, beaches and caves.
Hạ Long Bay's rugged yet ethereal beauty is a huge draw and it can get busy, though the uninhabited islands are unspoiled. Kayaking is a hands-on way to explore, while the local floating villages and shops let you experience Vietnamese culture. Hospital Cave was a bombproof medical centre during the Vietnam war and now has guided tours to show you around the abandoned offices and wards. The hikes, caves and dense jungle of Cát Bà National Park are also on Hạ Long Bay's doorstep.
The nearest airport is Nội Bài International Airport in Hanoi. Lots of tour companies will take you the 160km from Hanoi to Hạ Long but a bus or ferry connection is your best bet if you're going solo. Motorbikes and mopeds, which you can rent around the city, are the best way of getting around the local area and neighbouring bays. The traffic can be a little unpredictable for non-locals and there are taxis if you'd prefer not to drive yourself.