Hitchhiking Vietnam
Halong Bay
3,000 islands rising up out of the sea like dragon teeth, Halong Bay is on of the world's natural wonders - you'll think you fell into a Chinese brush painting.
"I wish I could give you my first impressions of Halong Bay but unfortunately I was sound asleep, propped up on the back of a motorbike with my helmet lodged between the shoulder blades of the a very patient Swede. Sorry about that."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam

Halong Bay is east of Hanoi. Take the biggest, busiest, nastiest road out of Hanoi and don't stop until you reach Haiphong. At this point you will get lost and wander around aimlessly for at least an hour, trying to make sense of a dozen contradictory sets of bystander directions. Eventually you'll stumble across the ferry north. The woman directing traffic will try to charge you for a "foreign" ticket (don't pay) and the police will shake you down (pay). From there it's pretty much a straight run to the bay. If you hit the border to China then you've gone too far.

I could give you a long and complicated explanation of carboniferous chalk formations and wind/wave action... but why waste your time? Here's how Halong Bay was really formed:

Halong Bay means "Where the Dragon Descends into the Sea". There was once a great dragon living in the nearby mountains. One day he ran down to the coast and plunged into the sea. His thrashing tail tore up huge chunks of land, leaving behind only the flooded tips of 3000 karst islands.

  1. The Tarasque is a legendary sea monster (close marine cousin to Nessie) that inhabits the waters around Halong Bay. If you see it, take lots of photos. Go home and write a bestseller.
  2. I am told that the Halong Bay region is home to some 200 species of fish and 450 different kinds of mollusks. The best place to see these is in harbor right below the fishmarket early in the morning. This area is a major seafood supply line for Hanoi and Haiphong, and you will see almost every sort of sea life imaginable - apparently all of it edible. Bring a fork.
  3. Entire families live on their tiny fishing boats. Check out what gets loaded onto the dinghies once the fish have been off-loaded. Ice, coal, a few vegetables - it's amazing how little they need to survive.
  4. The stalls behind the fish sellers cater to the marine trade. The tackle alone is worth a look.
  5. One harbor away is an anchorage for many of the live-aboard fishing boats. Bring your camera.
  6. Most of the seawalls along the harbor sides are latrines for the people living on board their boats. Watch your step.
  7. Coal is a major industry in the area.
  8. Hon Gai (now officially known as Halong City East) is the main port for export of such basic products as coal. You will see it being kneaded, padded, pressed, and molded into all sorts of shapes to fit the ingenious cement cooking stoves used by the street vendors. If you stay for more than six hours then everything you own will acquire a fine layer of powdery black soot.
  9. The ferry landing on the Hong Gai side has a very steep ramp. I saw two near accidents (one truck rolling backwards down the ramp towards the water and one truck that got stuck straddling the ramp and the boat) in the space of an hour. If you're one of those people who goes to the race track to see the crashes, you're going to love this place. It's free, too.

I challenge anyone to get through Haiphong by motorbike en route to Halong without getting lost. I tried it six times (three of those times I was quite wide awake) and never managed. The reasons I went to Halong Bay six times are 1) the lovely scenery and 2) the friendly, cheap provincial extension office who cheerfully gave me a 10-minute, 2-dollar, thirty-day extension while explaining all the different Vietnamese military lapel insignias (with drawings) in French, Chinese, and Vietnamese (for free).

Central Highlands

Halong Bay


Highway 1

Mai Chau




Sapa Valley

Son La


The Loop

There is a police blockade on the north bank of the Cam river (where the ferry lands). The police do their duty by fining all foreigners traveling by car, van, or bus. The Lonely Planet wasn't sure if motorbikes were also fined. I am, and they are.

The trip from Hanoi to Halong Bay is fraught with bridge and ferry crossings. The bridges are one-way and shared with the trains, so be prepared for long waits. A motorbike or bicycle will hold you in good stead, as you will be able to ride along the pedestrian walkways and potentially save yourself a long wait.

The trip by bus, train, or boat is long and complicated. This is one of the few places where I would recommend one of the backpacker cafe tours, especially if you are short on time.