Pretty much every traveller who spends time in Hanoi will at least think about heading to Halong Bay. The road east is very accessible, which makes it tempting for day trips, so boxes can be ticked and photos can be snapped. However, extended explorations of Vietnam's limestone archipelago unveil a whole new world, both on and off the water. Take your time to experience adventures afloat, away from Halong's overcrowded areas, and get ready to explore flooded cave systems and rural rice paddies overlooked by sacred mountain pagodas.
Obviously there's a lot more, this is just to get you started...
It's early morning, and just a few bleary-eyed travellers are awake to witness the mist enveloping the limestone karsts that jut from the dragon-green water. Wooden junk boats gently rock to and fro whilst fishermen cast their nets, and birds flit and fly from foliage that clings to sheer rock faces. If you didn't know any better, you'd bet your hat that this was Halong Bay some twenty odd years ago. But it's not. The bays of Lan Ha and Bai Tu Long lie just 20kms to the north east of Halong. The water is clear, the ambience untouched, and the peace and quiet is wonderfully dreamy.
The hordes arriving from Hanoi for day trips are absolutely missing the point. To really make the most of the Halong Bay region's best spots, you need to spend at least two or three nights afloat. Lan Ha and Bai Tui Long bays are at their best in the late evening as the sun sets, or at dawn when the mist swirls. Staying overnight on a private wooden junk boat offers an unforgettably immersive experience. This is where you can take a crash course in Tai Chi or Vietnamese cooking on deck, or snorkel alongside. The longer you stay the further you can cruise, with all manner of untouched limestone islands waiting to be discovered around Halong Bay's outreaches.
Travel just a couple of hours south of Hanoi and you'll open up an altogether more rural side to Halong Bay's karst coastline. The city of Ninh Binh itself isn’t overly noteworthy, but the surrounding scenery is nothing short of exceptional. Hop on a bike and pedal past paddy fields, or float through vast flooded cave systems such as Tam Coc. In Hoa Lu, you can step into the ancient imperial capital and marvel at the temples and pagodas that remain guarded by the ever-present form of Ma Yen mountain. Visits to the village of Vuon Thi invite you to learn more about farming in the shadow of limestone monoliths, as well as how to cook Vietnamese style. A lot less crowded than Halong Bay, but just as beautiful to explore.