Halong City is gateway to one of the most majestic sites in Vietnam. Capital of its province, Halong is a reformed coal-mining town that realized even greater profits could be turned by promoting tourism. Domestic tourists come on holiday and book accommodation in Halong City. International visitors use it as little more than a transport depot, honing in instead on nearby Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Halong Bay is the kind of rare site that inspires fairy tales and landscape paintings. It centers on a field of limestone karst towers jutting out the bay and soaring high over green waters. These rock formations take a number of odd, often surreal shapes. The name itself means 'descending dragon', and looking out over the myriad rock shapes, its easy to imaging the undulating tail of a dragon snaking its way through the water.
A first visit to Halong Bay, with craggy, forested spires and perpetual mists, requires a few moments' processing. After that initial gaze, visitors descend for all kinds of activities. Weaving through the pillars by kayak or rappelling off a limestone precipice are especially popular pursuits. Old Chinese junks launch sightseeing cruises from the pier.
The best hotels near Halong are on Cat Ba Island. It's an oasis of jungle in the midst of the bay, home to sandy beaches that are many times better than any other in the region. With lakes, Buddhist grottoes, waterfalls and five-star resorts, Cat Ba Island is an enviable place to spend a night or two.