Vietnam’s Halong Bay lies both near and far from the bustle of Hanoi, the country’s capital city of some 7.5 million people. Located about 100 miles east of Hanoi, the World Heritage site is a fairytale-like archipelago dotted with 2,000 tree-cloaked islands in the Gulf of Tonkin. Considered one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, Halong is a place of contrasts — remote forested limestone ridges and lonely towering pinnacles, juxtaposed with crowded floating villages, where locals sell drinks, snacks and trinkets from their boats.
Halong traces its history deep into the stories that pre-date Vietnam’s formal status as a nation. As legend goes, a flotilla of foreign invaders in the distant past attacked the Vietnamese people. In response, The Jade Emperor dispatched a family of fire-breathing dragons to the area’s defense. The Mother Dragon and her children were happy to oblige, and spat out jade and pearls all over the bay. The pearls turned into thousands of giant rocks and islands upon impact with the water and formed natural defensive walls that smashed the enemy fleet one ship at a time, earning the area the title of “Bay of Descending Dragons.”
Centuries later, it wasn’t the dragons that thwarted a major invasion in the 13th century by Chinese emperor Kublai Khan. In 1288, Vietnamese General Tran Hung Dao sank 400 Mongol ships in the nearby Bach Dang River, ending the existential threat to his country’s empire. In 1468, another Vietnamese statesman, Emperor Le Thanh Tong, conducted an inspection tour of the region. He was so taken by the immense beauty of Halong Bay that he wrote a poem that was carved into the side of a mountain. The beginning of the poem reads:
Hundreds of tidal currents rise into vast waves
Countless mountains blend their green into the blue sky
The sound of night-drums beat strong in my heart…
Known as Poem (Bai Tho) Mountain, it’s located in the center of the city of Halong. The words etched in stone have been almost lost to the combined forces of the water and sun, but the mountain will reward whoever wants to climb it with magnificent, panoramic views of Halong Bay and the city.
The best way to experience the magic of Halong Bay today is from the water. A concierge at Hanoi’s InterContinental Hanoi Westlake or InterContinental Hanoi Landmark72can help set up a three- or four-day excursion on a small cruiser. If your time is more limited, you can arrange a day trip by seaplane — the flight takes under 45 minutes and the reward is breathtaking views from above.
At Halong, the options to explore are seemingly as multifold as the islands. You can kayak into a pristine lake through a picturesque grotto, swim in the bay’s crystal-clear waters and work on your tan lines on what’s probably the tiniest beach in the world. You can descend into a beautiful cave to explore a stunning collection of stalactites and stalagmites, and encounter ethereal lake views upon emerging. If you elect to take a cruise, you can wake up at dawn for Tai Chi, participate in cooking demonstrations or just sit on your balcony, soaking in the solitude.
At times, it’s hard not to feel as if you’ve been transported back into the past. You’ll see the water, rocks, sky and stars as they were observed by the first inhabitants of the area who lived here around 18,000 BC. And the spotty cellular service around the bay might even add to this magical sensory illusion. Halong Bay will take you on a journey of fascination, where this mythical past continues to cast its spell over the present.
Experience the scenic beauty of Halong Bay by first booking a stay at the newest InterContinental Hanoi Landmark72, the tallest hotel in Vietnam. Boasting staggering, 360-degree views of the city, the bird’s eye view at the exclusive Club InterContinental lounge is a sight to behold. From making your restaurant reservation while being chauffeur-driven from the airport, to providing breakfast, drinks and canapés in our exclusive lounge, book Club InterContinental for an exceptional experience with details that truly delight.