Ha Long Bay – Cat Ba Archipelago

Ha Long Bay – Cat Ba Archipelago
Photo by Els Slots.

The Ha Long Bay - Cat Ba Archipelago shows all stages of sea-inundation of tropical karst.

Ha Long Bay is the best example of marine invaded tower karst in the world. There are 138 marine lakes present in Ha Long Bay – Cat Ba, about one-third of the global number.  The islands hold caves and grottoes, with stalactites and stalagmites. The limestone pillars are a unique natural feature of great scenic beauty and biological interest.

Community Perspective: Best visited on a boat tour (can be one day or multiple days, starting from Hanoi). The scenery is beautiful, but don’t be surprised by the pollution (although this seems to have improved in recent years) and the overtourism you will encounter. You need to be lucky with the weather as well, as it is often foggy.

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Martina Rúčková

Slovakia - 23-Jan-20 -

Ha Long Bay – Cat Ba Archipelago by Martina Ruckova

I had very mixed feelings before visiting the Ha Long Bay, mostly due to all of the reviews and articles I've read about it, stating it being crowded, dirty, smelly, with trash literally swimming on the surface of the water, marring the view. So when I was on a business trip in Ha Long, on the actual day of a three-hour-long boat tour of the bay, I've actually bailed in favour of sitting by the pool and enjoying some much-needed alone time. I would be there a month later again, this time with my husband Ivan. My colleagues who went told me the bay did not smell, but they weren't lucky with the weather and they enjoyed a very foggy November morning.

One month later, it was late December and the weather was as sunny as could be as Ivan and I boarded the Indochina Sails junk ship. We booked the trip before we took off for Vietnam, through Booking based on the recommendation of the Lonely planet - there are just too many companies operating in the Ha Long Bay and quality varies. It was not cheap, but included was transport from Hanoi and back (we only used it one-way as we moved along to Ninh Binh after this), lunch, dinner and breakfast, one night on ship in a double room, entrance fees and activities. When debating whether to do just a short trip around the bay, or spend the night, I would highly recommend spending the night if you can afford it. The sunset and sunrise views were the best part. 

I was amazed almost instantly as we took off the busy port of Ha Long and went on to the bay. The skies were blue, water was clear and devoid of trash, the views were simply amazing. Our junk ship had about 15 rooms but only about seven of them were occupied, so our junk was not crowded and it has a lovely quiet atmosphere. We had lunch, then enjoyed a bit of rest on the sun deck, enjoying the views as we moved closer and closer to the karst formations. Later in the afternoon we took a trip to the Surprise cave (Sung Sot cave) along with hoards of other tourists. This was probably the most frustrating part, as ships can dock around different parts of the bay throughout the night, but the itineraries are mostly the same, so there will be a lot of people. I have to say though, the cave was amazing: the first space is smallish and with many people around you get hit with a wave of disappointment but after that you move to the vast and expansive space of the cave with lovely decorations and neat walkways which allow tourists to disperse a bit. The next morning we took an early trip to the Ti Top (Titov) Island, where you walk about 400 steps to reach the top with nice views. Again, many tourists, which means you don't have to worry about the tempo of the ascent, it will be slow, you won't even break a sweat. There is a beach at the island as well and our guide from the ship brought towels for those who wanted to take a dip, but I was quite reluctant - there was a bit of a smell to the water by the tiny beach.

The Bay is beautiful and the views change all the time, I did not get bored by them. I enjoyed my time on board very much, though I think an overnight cruise was just enough, two-nighters have some more islands to visit, kayaking and other activities. The local authorities have tried regulating waste management of the junks and I think it got much better from what I've read. It's still not ideal, as witnessed by the lack of marine life, but it's improved. The karst formations are amazing and a wonderful backdrop to just chilling on the sun deck. I would recommend this experience to anyone. Ha Long Bay, despite what I've heard about you, you've impressed me!

Michael Turtle

Australia - 14-Dec-16 -

Ha Long Bay – Cat Ba Archipelago by Michael Turtle

Ha Long has big problems - overcrowding, pollution, and an inconsistent tourism product. That doesn't take away from the beauty of the place but it does present some concerns.

It's hard for people (myself included) to choose a boat to go on. None of the travel agencies actually own the boats they are selling you a place on. They work on commission and they get more commission from certain companies – so they’re the ones they’ll push. They also don’t really know whether there will be a place on the boat they are selling you. It’s entirely possible (and happens very often) that you actually just get on-sold to another boat without realising until it’s too late.

I wish there was an easy way to guarantee a good time. That's hard, though. I think the tourism industry would benefit in the long term from working on improving their product and not ripping off the stream of tourists who will never come back again.

Read more from Michael Turtle here.

Sam Ang

Malaysia - 02-Nov-15 -

This is an adapted review from my blog (Drafts from My Coffee Table), which can be accessed by clicking on my name above.

The bay was undoubtedly beautiful, some of the islands were covered in verdant foliage, others barely an outcrop barely supporting life. Most of them were only partially covered, exposing the ungrowable limestone. Erosion of the limestone by natural elements created caves, once used as hiding places and bases by smugglers and pirates.

Our guide pointed out to a pair of unusual rock outcroppings, mentioning them as one of the highlights of the cruise - the Kissing Rocks. Featured as the ticket image, the pair of rocks were actually unspectacular save for an illusion of a pair of rocks seemingly split down the middle. To the seafarers they may have been an important landmark, and to geologists, a good example to show the power of natural erosion.

Pirates are of course no longer an infestation in the bay but people do live on the waters. The floating villages became one of the 2 stops for our ship, lending us an opportunity for some excitement. The wooden structures were anchored in the waters, and I felt barely a sway stepping onto the platforms.

The young lady rower was one of the villagers and her life was spent mostly over the waters, being as familiar with the bay as we were with city blocks. In strong strodes she silently worked the oars, silent except for answering our questions or when pointing out an interesting spot. In short conversations, we got to know that she was in her teens yet her strength and skill of rowing a vessel with the weight of 7 belied her age.

Read more from Sam Ang here.


usa - 09-Apr-14 -

I have to agree with the people who complained about the pollution of this most stunningly beautiful area. Also we got the feeling that there was not much life there. We saw people fishing but saw no fish in the water ourselves in the two days we were on the boat. We never saw a bird either during that time. We wondered why it was so devoid of life? Bit off putting really.

Deborah Graban

United States - 03-Nov-13 -

I visited Ha Long Bay as a side trip to a bicycle tour of Vietnam. We stayed overnight on the bay and took a kayak tour the next morning. The boat itself was first class and the service and meals on the boat were excellent.

Unfortunately, it's my opinion that this should be taken off of the list of World Heritage sites. Why in one word: POLLUTION. Not only is the air so thick with pollution that it's difficult to see the beautiful limestone outcrops jetting out of the bay, the water stinks to the point where I was concerned about it splashing on me when we kayaked. It seems to me that the 100's of boats in the bay may be dumping raw sewage into it. What a terrible shame and truly an environmental disaster. The Vietnamese government is spending a bundle of money widening the roads and building a new port area so people will visit. Unless they also turn their efforts into cleaning the area up, they might as well leave the roads alone. Furthermore, from what I could see, it will take 15-20 years to clean this site up. Too bad-- the decimation of this site is impossible for me to understand.

Stephen Brooker

UK - 22-Sep-12 -

We did Ha Long Bay as a one night cruise.

The shear natural beauty of the place is bordering on indescribable, and when coupled with a comfortable junk and excellent seafood, this beomes one of the worlds most romantic places. Loved it znd would go back in an instant.


Malta - 07-Sep-12 -

Ha Long Bay – Cat Ba Archipelago by Clyde

I visited this WHS in February 2011. There are around 1600 limestone karsts that form this incredible seascape. Best seen on board a junk boat for a number of days to take in the breathtaking views especially at sunset and sunrise.

Els Slots

The Netherlands - 18-Mar-11 -

Ha Long Bay – Cat Ba Archipelago by Els Slots

Between 8 and 9 in the morning, you'll see dozens of minibusses plying the streets of Hanoi. They are picking up their passengers for a tour to the famous Ha Long Bay. You'll see the same minibusses over and over again when driving the 3.5 - 4 hours to Ha Long, and the same tourists will be on your boat or the one next to it. Ha Long Bay is an extremely popular destination both for foreigners and Vietnamese: already in the early 1990s, it saw over 1 million visitors a year. It is unlikely that that number has decreased over the years - so there will always be about 3,000 other people in the Bay at the same time as you!

I visited just a week after the fatal accident that killed 12 people here on an overnight boat. Traffic seemed to have resumed as normal. Overnight stays are also possible again, some of my group went on to stay for 1 or 2 nights on the boat. I opted for a day trip only: not because of the accident, but also since I usually get bored pretty quickly looking at "natural beauty". And I had heard bad reports about life on board the ships: I knew that I had made the right decision when I overheard the guide speak to the others about the evening program that would constitute "drinking and karaoke".

The natural beauty of the Bay lay hidden today under a very common fog. As I had already seen the similar karst landscape at Yangshuo/Guilin in China a couple of years before, I cannot really say that I was blown away by it. We went onto one of the islands to visit the Surprising Cave - a indeed surprisingly big and beautiful cave with three hollow chambers. We saw some monkeys here too, just outside the cave exit.

Part of the tour also was half an hour of kayaking - enough to paddle a full circle around the main area. The views from the kayak I found much more impressive than from the larger boat: you're so tiny then and the peaks rise sharply in front of you. I had a better look at the water too, and cannot say that I saw pollution by plastic or other junk floating around (contra dictionary to most of the reviewers below). There is a thin layer of oil on the water in some parts though.

And then it's time to get back on the bus to Hanoi, another 3.5 hours. It has been somewhat of an obligatory trip, to tick off the WHS. However, the tour was carried out well (good seafood for lunch) and I had a satisfying day.


Australia - 09-Sep-10 -

I have just returned from Vietnam (August/Sept 2010) and of course did the obligatory Halong Bay 3 day 2 night boat trip. The scenery is absolutely beautiful but I was so distressed by the pollution levels (air and water) that I am not recommending to any intending travellers.

The water in the bay we kayaked to for swimming was extremely polluted (althought the small beached area was relatively clean. After swimming, my skin stung for the rest of the day. Maybe the sea is extremely salty...or maybe the little mounds of oily foam floating all over the water are a testament to who knows what chemicals being dumped into the bay.

The sky was so hazy that there were no stars to be seen at night and the islands were invisible until you were almost on top of them.

The depth of the physical pollutants in the ocean was a real shock. For as far down as I could see (bear in the mind the water is pretty clear) there were plastic bags. Add to this the plastic water bottles, fishing flotsam and jetsam (including nets and floats), bits of broken up foam, all manner of food packaging etc etc and you get the picture of where this World Heritage Site is heading.

I asked one of the crew on my day boat about it and he said it mainly comes from the fishing villages (where he lived incidentally). When I asked if anyone came to clean it up he just looked at me bewildered. Obviously the idea of cleaning it up is completely foreign.

On reading the other reviews on here, it seems the problem has compounded in a few short years. How much longer are the authorities going to wait before this site is completely destroyed??


Australia - 16-Apr-10 -

Just spent 2 nights/3 days on a junk in Halong Bay (April 2010), like some of your other reviews I to was shocked by the amount of pollution in this World Heritage area. The haze was described by the operators as mist and apparently is at its worst at this time of the year April/May. I would describe the 'mist' as smog and if the air quality in this area is as bad as the water quality in this beautiful area I would say this was a fair description. One of the days we visited a beach for a swim. The beach was so polluted by plastic bags, bottles, plastic bags filled with garbage and other flotsam and jetsam, there was no way that I would let my children swim in such polluted water. I found it amazing that the tour operator took us to this beach when it was in such a dirty state. My husband and I found it ironic that the operator didnt employ some locals to keep the beach clean - this could've been done at a minimal cost. Halong Bay needs to be cleaned up - on my return home I told people how beautiful the area is, but I also tell them about the pollution. Eventually tourists will be turned off and the main losers will be the tour operators and the locals who live in the floating fishing villages.


Vietnam - 20-Mar-09 -

Ha Long Bay – Cat Ba Archipelago by huongnguyen

Out of my expectation!

This was the first time I stay overnight on boat. It gave me a strange feelings, romantic and authentic...

Lopez Mr

USA - 11-Oct-08 -

There is a best way to enjoy your cruising in halong bay that is renting a charter and sailing down to cua van (near cat ba island) and this is a place really great for swimming and stay overnight, of course only oneway that you have to rent a boat charter to make this special cruise trip,

My family of 4people from LA had stayed for 3days and was guided by the Vietnampathfinder Travel (www.vietnampathfinder.com) that office base in the florida ( their head office in hanoi) and i would say their quality is really outstanding,

I also have collected some information on Cua dai fishing village to share with you:

Cua Van Fishing Village

"Va Gia "– Cua Van is situated at Hung Thang Commune, Halong City, 20km away from the tourist boat wharf, the fishing village lies in a calm bay surrounded by mountain.

Characteristics: Cua Van Village has a population of 733 in 176 households. They mainly earn their livelihood by fishing.

This makes it ideal for anchoring boats here. Their floating houses look spacious and clean. The well-off families even have tiled roof houses with radios, television sets, tables and chairs, etc.

The village boasts a training establishment for their children. Over an area of 150m2 lies four classrooms and one small room for teachers. They are the first floating classrooms in Hạ Long. At present, Cua Van has 7 classes, mainly in grade 1 and grade 2. The youngest pupil is 8, while the oldest one is 17.

It is interesting to see the rambunctious children going to “school”. Their bustling calling and their flopping rowing liven up the atmosphere of the quite bay. Looking at the small boats driven by tiny oars going to school, and the radiant faces of the children, one feels confident in a bright future for the fishing village.

Thank you mr Tony Pham for makiing the best trip for us!

Elisabeth Fransisca Situmorang

Indonesia - 20-Aug-08 -

Ha Long Bay – Cat Ba Archipelago by Elisabeth Fransisca Situmorang

It's a stunningly beautiful site. As I always love water, it gives the best out of the site. The changing of shade of colours from the sky as opposed to the bay... the rocks of different size and forms... the misty fog as I went along a 4 hours sail from the port to one of the islands, and not a second was wasted..

I call the place, where some peace of mind can still be found...


USA - 07-Jul-08 -

The first time we visited Ha Long Bay was in February of 1999. We took a motorized, wooden boat from Hon Gai City all the way south to Cat Ba Island. The nearly 4-hour cruise afforded us visits to well-known caves and beaches that were prepared for commercial tourism. We were absolutely impressed by Ha Long Bay's unique and natural composition of over a thousand islands and islets. Though we encountered some floating merchants, we didn't observe any pollution from tour operators, merchants, or tourists.

Recently in late December 2007, we had another opportunity to revisit Ha Long Bay. This time we decided to take just a one day excursion. The bus ride from Ha Noi to Hon Gai City was on better conditioned highways. However, the experience wasn't any better, due to an excessive number of automobiles, scooters, and just bad traffic in general. What I observed were too many tour operators, too many motored boats of all sizes, and especially too many tourists crunched into such a small welcoming area. Speaking of "welcoming," that was the feeling I least had when the bus dropped us off to board our boat. The feeling of pristine and wonder of nature was nowhere to be found until 5 minutes into the Ha Long Bay water. I was disappointed with the chaotic, unorganized, and unprofessional way of guiding visitors by the Ha Long Bay tour operators.

All in all, it wasn't the same good and memorable experience as it was 8 years ago :-(

Philip T.K.

Canada - 08-Jun-06 -

I visited Ha Long Bay on a day trip from Hanoi in July 2004. It was very cloudy on the day I visited but the resulting mist made the islands in the distance very enchanting and I was able to take quite a few good shots from the boat I was on. Ha Long Bay is one of Vietnam's premier destinations and as a son of Vietnamese immigrants, I am very proud of this world heritage site.


United States - 02-Apr-06 -

We were in Vietnam in December, 2005. We did an overnight junk trip on Ha Long Bay and were thoroughly enchanted. Stunning scenery, and really quite a special place especially cruising through in the morning mist. We did not see any of the pollution that others have written about. We really felt like we were far from land-based civilization while we were out on the water.


USA - 01-May-05 -

I have just returned from a trip to Vietnam which included 2 days on a traditional Vietnamese junk boat in Halong Bay. The site itself is breath-taking, but unfortunately, there is little respect for nature shown by those operating the tour boats. I repeatedly saw boat operators throw their garbage overboard into the waters. These are the people who survive on tourism and ought to care more about protecting the very site which is bring the tourists to them in bus-loads. It was sad to see this and I hope the government forces people to clean up their act.

Site Info

Full Name
Ha Long Bay – Cat Ba Archipelago
Unesco ID
Viet Nam
7 8
Natural landscape - Karst landscapes and caves

Site History

2023 Extended

To include Cat Ba Archipelago

2023 Name change

At the extension, from Ha Long Bay to "Ha Long Bay – Cat Ba Archipelago"

2017 Revision

Renomination of Cat Ba Archipelago (2011)

2014 Requested by State Party to not be examined

As Cat Ba Archipelago

2000 Criteria

Additional criterium added (Natural i), no boundary change

1994 Inscribed

1993 Deferred

Bureau - Agreed not cultural but natural values are OK - however boundaries etc need redefining to exclude induct areas. Also better Management plan


The site has 2 locations

Ha Long Bay – Cat Ba Archipelago: Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay – Cat Ba Archipelago: Cat Ba Archipelago


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