Probably the most photographed of Vietnam's natural wonders, Halong Bay is a pristine water environment lined with Karst formations of limestone, rising from the glassy, blue sea.
There are over 3,000 islands in this UNESCO World Heritage site, located on the Gulf of Tonkin.
Reminiscent of Thailand's Krabi area, the best way to see Halong Bay is on an overnight cruise, where you dine and sleep on the boat, enjoying the Karst formations by day, taking time to swim or kayak, and view the extraordinary sunsets on deck by night.
Fetching views can be had from the summit of Titov (Titop) Island, a 15 minute walk from the island's beach, on the itinerary of most boat tours.
Several spectacular caves are accessible in Halong Bay, several of which are illuminated.
Halong tour boats are beautiful wooden vessels, surprisingly new (most are under five years old), but with a traditional design, featuring great meals and optional aircon.
As an option, you can have your boat drop you off on Cat Ba Island, for an overnight stay.
On the 3.5 hour bus ride from Hanoi to Halong Bay port, you'll stop for a drink at Dai Nghia Humanity Center, where you can see beautiful silk paintings being made, and have an opportunity to buy them.
This is not a tourist-stop confidence game!
Dai Nghia is a crafts center run by the province of Hai Duong, Nam Sach District, in association with the Red Cross, and employs disabled people, who create the silk paintings.
They're cheaper here than in Hanoi or Saigon, where they sell for as much as ten times the price you'll pay at Dai Nghia.
The paintings are beautiful, and can be rolled for easy packing, so if you like them, consider buying here, and supporting the workers.
Halong Bay can be drizzly and cold during February through March, but the gray-shrouded Karst formations' ghostly effect can provide a serenely somber atmosphere not to be experienced during sunnier times of the year.
You will get sporadic tropical storms in the summer, and the boats won't put out to sea on foul weather days.
If your boat gets cancelled, one idea is to spend the night at a hotel in Halong Bay, and try for better weather tomorrow ...
Getting to Halong Bay
Boat tours depart from Halong Bay port, but your best bet is to buy the tour from your hotel, or a tourist agency in Hanoi.
The ride to Halong Bay from Hanoi takes 3.5 hours.
Tours to Halong Bay do not have fixed prices.
We were quoted anywhere from $85 to $55 USD for a package including an overnight boat stay with an aircon room.
Non-aircon accommodations run from $25 to $35.
Kayaking may require you to change boats in mid-tour, so remember to book kayaking in advance.
Do remember to bargain.