Every day, hundreds of boats of every description, ranging from tiny sampans to giant cruisers, set out into Ha Long Bay loaded with sightseers from around the world. Rather than chug aimlessly around the bay, they follow a fixed route and usually stop off at a few islands so visitors can step ashore and get a closer look, particularly at the caves that are the result of centuries of wind and water erosion of the porous limestone.
One of the most popular stops is at Hang Dao Go, or Grotto of the Wooden Stakes. Visitors need to climb almost 100 steps to enter this huge cave, which consists of three chambers and was known to the French as Grotto des Merveilles.
The first chamber features several stalactites as well as lots of gnomes, the second has rocks that sparkle like diamonds when lit up with a torch, and the third is thought to be where Tran Hung Dao concealed thousands of bamboo stakes which he then planted into the bed of the Bach Dang River to wreck the invading Chinese fleet in 1288.
Sung Sot Cave (Surprise Cave) is also a popular stop and also consists of three chambers. In the second chamber is a large rock lit up by pink light that guides like to call the ‘Cock Rock’ for its phallic shape. You need to hike up several steps to see this, and there’s a trail that leads out of the cave to a panoramic view of the bay. Many tour boats also stop at Hang Trong (Drum Cave), so called because the sound of wind passing through it creates a rumbling sound like a drum roll.
Apart from the caves, boats often stop at islands that have trails leading to the summit so that visitors can enjoy the spectacular panoramic views. One such island is Dau Titop, where there’s also a tiny beach.
Beaches are something you hardly see at all in the bay due to the rugged topography of the islands that rise sheer from the sea, but to the south of Cat Ba Island in Lan Ha Bay, several of the islands have sandy beaches. This area is a bit far from Ha Long /city for a day trip, but excursions do go there from Cat Ba Island, which is located to the south of the bay.
Inevitably there is fierce competition between tour companies for the tourist dollars that arrive in Ha Long Bay each day and some of them now offer more challenging activities than walking though caves of climbing a hill. Many boats stop so their guests can take a swim while the crew prepare a meal, and some tour operators now offer the opportunity of kayaking into hidden lagoons via entrances that are revealed at low tide.
Rock climbing is another activity that is beginning to catch on in the bay, and is organized mostly by companies based on Cat Ba Island, such as Asia Outdoors.