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Early morning in Hong GaiHa Long Bay is northern Vietnam's biggest attraction and one of the most magnificent natural splendors of the Far East. Few of the millions who visit each year ever set foot in a hotel. Instead nearly all sleep aboard a junk! Of the nearly 500 water craft licensed to carry passengers in the bay, nearly 100 are live-aboards. While the vast majority of cruise operators shave corners to compete on price, a handful differentiate their cruises by offering upscale amenities or activites such as kayaking. Because the price you pay generally includes everything except beverages, this is one of those instances when you truly get what you pay for! (Click here for our recommendations.)

"Ha Long" means "Where the Dragon Descends into the Sea." From the emerald-green waters of Ha Long Bay some 3000 limestone and dolomite islands (or "grottos") rise jaggedly from the Gulf of Tonkin like medieval stone cathedral spires, or the scales on a dragon's back. Local lore has it that an enormous dragon created the bay, grottos and outcroppings as it thrashed its way toward the open sea to prevent the intrusion of enemy navies. Today, local fishermen still report encountering a giant sea beast called Tarasque, sort of the Nessie of the South China Sea.

Halong Bay's Limestone FormationsHa Long Bay affords some of Vietnam's most spectacular scenery, including beautiful limestone formations, rock arches, gin-clear water, virtually inaccessible lagoons, sheer cliffs, peaceful coves, eerie caves, secluded strips of white, powdery sand, and thousands of limestone islets. Like sculpted cartoon characters, these islets are fancifully named: Frog Island, Face Island, the Isle of Wonders and the Isle of Surprise. Chinese junks glide over the teal-hued bay between the grottos, which are densely carpeted in neon-green ficas, mangrove and spiky cacti. Pearl oyster farms are tucked into tight channels between the towering, limestone cliffs. Primitive floating fish hatcheries are spun across the waters between the grottos like neglected spider webs.

Two major battles were fought in Ha Long Bay during the 10th and 13th centuries. In 1882, French Captain Henri Rivière was beheaded here after trying to capture the region's enormous coal deposits. The locals paraded his head from village to village. The French weren't amused, and decided that Vietnam should be permanently annexed as a French colony.

Coal remained the mainstay of local industry until recent years, when hydroelectric projects in both Vietnam and China (where much of the coal was destined) largely relegated it to the proverbial back burner. Locals have diverted their attention from the coal mines to the gold mine of tourism. Nevertheless, coal mining remains an eyesore to the more adventurous travelers who decide to head to Mong Cai in Vietnam's far northeast.

Most folks will get their fill in 24 hours, but there's a whole lot of bay out there waiting to be "discovered"! This maritime mountain range covers an area of some 1500 square kilometers, about 400 of which are protected as a World Heritage sight. The typical overnight cruise covers a mere 80 square kilometers. So if you want to get off the tourist trail and really see the bay, try a multi-day trip or charter your own boat!

Ha Long's only natural drawback is the weather: It can be horrible. It is often damp, rainy and cold, particularly during the winter months. Visitors during the winter tend to spend most of their time in the bay itself, as Ha Long's waters remain bathtub-warm year-round. If Ha Long were, say, a thousand kilometers closer to the equator, this would be paradise on Earth. As it is, it's still darn close. Catch the area on a nice day, particularly during the spring and fall months, and you're in for one of the biggest treats of your Vietnam visit.

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