Ha Long Bay and the northern seaboard
The mystical scenery of Ha Long Bay is what draws people to the northeast coast of Vietnam. Thousands of bizarrely-shaped limestone islands jut out of the emerald sea; navigating the silent, secretive channels, past bobbing clusters of fishing boats, and stopping to scramble through caves or swim beneath overhanging cliffs are some of the highlights of a trip to Vietnam. Tourism now rivals fishing as the prime activity, but the bustling harbour retains a certain
authenticity and the tourist hordes are easily swallowed up in the bay’s generous proportions, with many overnighting aboard a traditional wooden junk; their tea-coloured sails are just for show since almost all vessels are motor-driven, but there’s a timeless, romantic air to floating amongst pristine moonlit peaks. By far the largest island in the bay, the wonderful Cat Ba makes an appealing base for exploring the area with some fine scenery as well as being home to Cat Ba National Park, a forest and maritime reserve requiring the usual mix of luck and dedication to see anything larger than a mosquito.
The two main jumping-off points for the bay and its islands are Haiphong and Ha Long City: though most travellers pass straight through, both are well set up for tourism. Haiphong is the more appealing, despite being north Vietnam’s second-largest city and a major port: broach the industrial outskirts and you’ll find a surprisingly agreeable centre with some nineteenth-century architecture. Further up the coast, Ha Long City is split by a strait into two mismatched halves - the largely unappealing sprawl of high-end hotels and seaside kitsch known as Bai Chay, and the neighbouring Hong Gai, an earthy, industrious town largely dedicated to fishing.
Its a further 150km up the coast to the Chinese border with the booming Markets of Mong Cai and the long, sweeping beach at Tra Co: hydrofoil services ^ong the coast make travel up to Mong Cai uncharacteristically smooth.