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Halong Bay and Cat Ba island

 

Majestic and mysterious, inspiring and imperious: words alone cannot do justice to the natural wonder that is HaLong Bay. Imagine 3000 or more incredible islands rising from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin and you have a vision of breathtaking beauty. Halong Bay is pure art, a priceless collection of unfinished sculptures hewn from the hand of nature. In 1994 it was designated a World Heritage site. Visitors can’t help but compare the magical, mystical landscape of limestone islets to Guilin in China and Krabi in southern Thailand, but in reality Halong Bay is more spectacular. These tiny islands are dotted with and waves, and have sparsely forested slopes ringing with birdsong.

Halong Bay Vietnam Beyond the breathtaking vistas on a boat cruise through the bay, visitors to Halong come to explore the caves –some of which are beautifully illuminated for the benefit of tourists and to hike in Cat Ba National Park. There are few real beaches in Halong Bay, but Lan Ha Bay (off the coast of Cat Ba Island) has more than 100 sandy dtrips. Halong city is the gateway to Halong Bay but not the ideal introduction to this incredible World Heritage site. Developers have not been kind to the city and most visitors sensibly opt for tours that include sleeping on a boat in the bay. In short, Halong Bay is the attraction; Halong City is not. For more on tours in and around the bay, see the boxed text. As the number–one tourist attraction in the northeast, Halong Bay draws a steady stream of visitors years round. From February to April the weather in this region is often cool and drizzly. The ensuing fog can make cisibility low, but this adds an ethereal air to the place and the temperature rarely falls bellow 10 degree C. During the summer months tropical storms are frequent, and tourist boats may have to alter their itinerant's, depending on the weather. Halong Bay is the stuff of myths and naturally the Vietnamese have concocted one. Halong translates as 'where the dragon descends into the sea'. Legend has it that the islands of Halong Bay were created by a great dragon that lived in the mountains. As it charged towards the coast, its flailing tail gouged out valleys and crevasses. When it finally plunged into the sea, the area filled with water, leaving only the pinnacles visible. Dragons aside, the biggest threat to the bay may be from souvenir-hunting tourists. Rare corals and seashells are rapidly being stripped from the sea floor, and stalactites and stalagmites are being broken off from the caves. These items get turned into key rings, paperweights and ashtrays, which are on sale in the local souvenir shops. Obviously the fewer people buy, the less the local people will take to sell, so don't encourage the trade.


Sights & Activities


CAVES
Halong Bay's limestone islands are peppered with caves of all shapes and sixes. Many of these are accessible only by charter boat, but some can easily be visited on a tour.
Hang Dau Go (Cave of Wooden Stakes). known to the French as the Grotte des Merveilles (Cave of Marvels), is a huge cave consisting of three chambers, which you reach via 90 steps. Among the stalactites of the first hall, scores of gnomes appear to be holding a meeting. The walls of the second chamber sparkle if bright light is shone on them. The cave derives its Vietnamese name from the third chamber. This chamber is said So have been used during the 13th century to store the sharp bamboo stakes that Vietnamese folk hero and war general Tran Hung Dao planted in the bed of the Bach Dang River to impale Mongolian general Kublai Khan's invasion fleet. It's the closest cave site to the mainland. Part of the same system, the nearby Hang Thien Cung has 'cauliflower' limestone growths as well as stalactites and stalagmites.


Hang Sung Sot is a popular cave to visit. It too has three vast and beautiful chambers, in the second of which there's an astonishing pink-lit rock phallus, which is regarded as a fertility symbol. ‘Penis rock' is the only way to describe it. It, too, requires a hike up steps to reach it, and a loop walk through the cool interior takes you back to the bay. Hang Bo Nau another impressive cave, can be visited nearby.
Hang Trong (Drum Grotto) is so named because when the wind blows through its many stalactites and stalagmites, visitors think they can hear the sound of distant drumbeats. Exactly which of the caves you visit will probably be decided on the day you travel. It depends on several factors, including the weather, number of other boats in the vicinity, and the number of people putting environĀ¬mental pressure on the caves.
ISLANDS
Dao Tuan Chau (Tuan Chau Island), just 5km west of Bai Chay (western Ha long City), is one of the few islands in Ha long Bay that has seen any development. For many years the only accommodation was in Ho Chi Minh's former summer residence, an elegant but decaying structure. However, all this changed as the island rebranded itself Tuan Chau International Recreation Complex, complete with aquarium. Circus, golf course and private villas There are more than 300 rooms in this vast complex', The beachside rooms are task-fill and the top rate includes steam baths and saunas in the rooms.
Dao Titop (Titop Island) is a small island in the middle of the bay with a small, somewhat scruffy beach. Ignore its dubious charms and make for the summit of the island, which offers one of the best panorama views of Ha long Bay. It's cheaper than a chopper. Cat Ba Island is the best known and most developed of Ha long Bay's islands.

 

CAT BA ISLAND

Rugged, craggy and jungle-clad Cat Ba. the largest island in Halong Bay, is straight out of Jurassic Park. Lan Ha Bay, off the eastern side of the island, is especially scenic and offers numerous beaches to explore. While the vast majority of Halong Bay's islands are uninhabited vertical rocks, Cat Ba has a few fishing villages, as well as a fast-growing town. Except for a few fertile pockets, the terrain is too rocky for serious agriculture; most residents earn their living from the sea, while others cater to the tourist trade. Life has always been hard here and many Cat Ba residents joined the exodus of Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s and '80s. Although the island lost much of its fishing fleet this way, overseas Vietnamese have sent back large amounts of money to relatives on the island, fuelling the hotel boom of the past decade.

Cat Ba is still relatively laid-back, despite about a 20-fold increase in hotel rooms (and karaoke machines!) since 1996, Almost half of Cat Ba Island (which has a total area of 354 sq km) and 90 sq km of the adjacent waters were declared a national park in 1986 to protect the island's diverse eco-systems. These include subtropical evergreen forests on the hills, freshwater swamp forests at the base of the hills, coastal mangrove forests, small freshwater takes and coral reefs. Most of the coastline consists of rocky cliffs. but there are a few sandy beaches hidden away in small coves. There are numerous lakes, waterfalls and grottoes in the spectacular limestone hills, the highest of which rises 331m above sea level The largest permanent body of water on the island is Ech Lake, which covers an area of 3 hectares. Almost all of the surface streams are seasonal; most of the island's rainwater Hows into caves and follows underground streams to the sea, which creates a shortage of fresh water during the dry season. The waters off Cat Ba Island are home to 200 species of fish, 500 species of mollusc and 400 species of arthropod. Larger marine animals in the area include seals and three species of dolphin. Ho Chi Minh paid a visit to Cat Ba Island on 1 April 1951 and there is a large annual festival on the island to commemorate the event. A monument to Uncle Ho stands on Mountain No 1, the hillock opposite the pier in Cat Ba town.
The best weather on Cat Ba Island is from late September to November, particularly the latter, when the air and water temperature if mild and skies are mostly clear. December to February is cooler, but still pleasant. From February to April rain is common, while the summer months, from June through August, are hot and humid. This is also peak season and the island is overrun with Vietnamese tourists from Hanoi and beyond.
Cat Ba National Park
This accessible national park is home to 32 types of mammals - including langurs, wild boar, deer, squirrels and hedgehogs and more than 70 species of birds have been sighted, including hawks, hornbills and cuckoos. The golden-headed langur is officially the world's most endangered primate with just 60 left in the park. Cat Ba lies on a major migration route for waterfowl, which feed and roost on the beaches in the mangrove forests. There are 745 species of plants recorded on Cat Ba, including 118 timber species and 160 plants with medicinal value. The park is also home to a species of tree called Cay Kim Gao. In ancient days, kings and nobles would eat only with chopsticks made from this timber, as anything poisonous it touches is reputed to turn the light-colored wood to black. A guide is not mandatory, but is definitely recommended if you want to go walking; otherwise, all you are likely to see is a canopy of trees. Two caves in and around the national park are open to visitors. Hospital Cave oozes historical significance, as it served as a secret, bomb-proof hospital during the American War. This cave is actually just outside the park and the entrance is located about 2 kilometers along the road to Cat Ba town. Hang Trung Trang (Trung Trang Cave) is easily accessible, but you will need to contact a ranger to make sure it is open. Bring a torch (flashlight) as it is gloomy inside. There is a challenging 18km hike through the park and up to one of the mountain summits. Arrange a guide for this six-hour hike and organize a bus or boat transport to the trailhead and a boat to get back to town. All of this can be easily organized with rangers at the national park headquarters or at the hotels in Cat Ba if you're travelling independently. Many hikes end at Viet Flat, a remote minority village just outside the park boundary, from where boats shuttle back to Cat Ba town (about 250,000d per boat). Don't get stranded or you'll get stiffed. Take proper hiking shoes, a raincoat and a generous supply of water for this hike. Independent hikers can buy basic snacks at the kiosks in Viet Hai, which is where many hiking groups stop for lunch. This is not an easy walk, and is much harder and more slippery after rain. There are shorter hiking options that are less hard core. If you're planning to join an organized tour from Hanoi, check the trekking options before you book, as many of the cheaper trips don't actually hike through the park at all. To reach the national park headquarters at Trung Trang, lake a minibus from one of the hotels in Cat Ba town (15.OOOd, 30 minutes). Another option is to hire a motorbike (one way 30.000d).
Beaches
The white-sand Cat Co beaches (simply called Cat Co 1, Cat Co 2 and Cat Co 3) used to be great places to lounge around for the day. However, 1 and 3 have been taken over by new resorts, leaving Cat Co 2 as the only sane and safe haven. There is also simple accommodation here. It is accessible via a wooden Cliffside walkway around the mountain from Cat Co 1. On weekends the beaches fill up with Vietnamese tourists and litter becomes a real blight, but during the week the crowds diminish. The beaches are about 1 km southeast from Cat Ba town over a steep headland, and can be reached on toot or by motorbike
Other beaches include Cai Vieng, Hong Xoai Be and Hong Xoai Lon.
Cat Ba Town
A sleepy fishing village just a decade ago, it is now the Costa del Cat Ba! Since being 'discovered' by Hanoi residents. Cat Ba has turned into a highly popular summer getaway, filling up on weekends and holidays, when the town is jumping. This has been a boon for the range of amenities available, from hotels to restaurants, but the downside is a boom in karaoke joints and the tuneless wailing they often emit. During the summer the town also fills up with cars, as Hanoi residents use the car ferries to come via Cat Hai. Weekdays are saner, as is just before or just after the peak summer season.
MONKEY BUSINESS
Monkey Island is also part of Cat Ba National Park and many visitors make a boat trip here. However, we do not recommend this trip as the troop of monkeys on this island is pretty aggressive and many travelers have been bitten. The bite itself can be painful and shocking, but worse are the rabies shots that follow. Save the monkey business for somewhere more interesting like Cuc Phuong National Park.

Source: lonely planet

 

 

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