Ha Long is the capital of Quang Ninh province in Northeast Vietnam, and as the name would suggest it’s also the main city of Ha Long Bay.
Ha Long Bay is one of the most popular destinations in Vietnam, yet most people visit straight from Hanoi. I visited Ha Long Bay on my first visit to Vietnam via Hanoi, and I don’t recall any guide book or tour suggesting the option of stopping over in Ha Long.
The city has been reinventing itself in a bid to get more tourists to stay here. For starters a new airport was built in 2018 to serve Ha Long. Van Don Airport is 50km away so it’s not exactly convenient, but there are free transfer buses and the trip is via a new highway that has been carved through this mountainous area.
Ha Long is a city of two distinct halves, cleaved in half by the Cua Luc Straits. On the east side is Hong Gai, which used to be the provincial capital. On the west side is Bai Chay, which is where new tourism developments are being built. The two cities were merged in 1993 to become Ha Long, and in 2008 the Bai Chay Bridge unified the two.
There is not much written about the city of Ha Long, so I picked the old area on the Hong Gai side to stay in. This map includes places referred to in this article.
I stayed near one of the main roads (25-4 Road), which has a big city feel to it.
At the central post office is the clock tower. From here you can walk to the bay.
Living up to its Ha Long name, the city is right on the doorstep of the bay. Walk along the waterfront and you can see the famous rock formations without even getting in a boat. Obviously you should get in a boat, because Ha Long Bay lives up to the hype. Going to Ha Long City and not visiting Ha Long Bay would be like visiting Cairo without seeing the pyramids.
On the bay front is the provincial museum.
There are war remnants here as with most provincial museums in Vietnam.
Nearby is the Quang Ninh Exhibition of Planning and Expo Center.
Some travel guides describe Ninh Binh as Ha Long in the rice fields. Likewise, Ha Long city could be described as Ha Long Bay in the city.
Hon Gai is characterised by flat areas punctuated by mountain peaks. It explains why there are blank spots on the map with no roads.
I stayed on this side of the city to see what normal city life was like. That requires visiting the main market.
I was wandering around in the late afternoon and it was still bustling with activity.
There isn’t an old town here or any remnant of colonial architecture. The city was once a coal mining port, but the main port of the north is in nearby Haiphong. Instead of crumbling French colonial architecture, Ha Long is getting these new shophouses with French roofs (AKA mansard roofs).
With the city located on the bay I wondered how the city could have turned out if it had the same level of heritage buildings like Haiphong. It would be like having Hoi An in Ha Long Bay, and it would probably be more popular.
My next day was dedicated to exploring Bai Chay. The bridge is not pedestrian friendly, and the bridge killed off the ferry between the two areas, so I got a Grab taxi to the other side.
I keep track of real estate developments for Living In Asia, and Bai Chay keeps turning up in my research. I started off at the Harbor Bay development and walked back towards the bridge. Harbor Bay is typical of the new projects in Ha Long, which feature rows of European-style shophouses.
Next to Harbor Bay is Halong Marina Square. This looked like it was finished but there was no one there. It was hard to tell if it hadn’t opened yet, or if it had opened at the worst possible time in the history of modern tourism during the global pandemic.
This area is on reclaimed land, and here is the man-made Bai Chay Beach.
I prefer the beaches of Southern Vietnam, but if you are in the north and craving a beach this will do.
Near the beach is Little Vietnam, which is a low-rise residential area with streets themed like Hoi An and old Hanoi. There are some family-run hotels here, and in better times it looks like it would be a good place to stay.
At the large roundabout is the Viet Nam Heritage and World Natural Heritage ceramic mural (Vietnam’s largest ceramic mural).
The next big development here is the Sun Plaza Grand World new urban area. This looks similar to Harbor Bay with its rows of colourful shophouses.
One section is called Shophouse Europe, which features Euro-themed shopfronts with statues of European dudes at prominent intersections.
Again, it was hard to gauge what was happening here due to the pandemic. Just from this walk it felt like the city has built far too many new shophouses, and I don’t know how they expect to fill them all.
A bike lock on locked doors appeared to be the symbol of these new projects.
Walking further along Ha Long road, this section of Bai Chay feels more lived in. If I was going to stay on this side of Ha Long I would stay around here. The central point is Muong Thanh hotel.
Near here is Vuon Dao street, which appears to be the most established and lived in street with hotels.
Here you will find the more familiar Vietnamese-style skinny buildings.
It’s on this side of the city where the tour boats depart for Ha Long Bay. The rows of moored boats indicate how bad things are in the year of the virus.
By now you will have seen the Sun World Halong Complex. There is a cable car that connects the two sides of the city, with a theme park on either side.
It was also closed when I visited, thanks to the year 2020.
Getting to and from Ha Long
I got a flight here from Ho Chi Minh City to Van Don with Bamboo Airways.
Ha Long is about 150 km from Hanoi and there is an expressway for most of the way. A car takes about 1 h 40 m, while a bus trip is about 3 hours.
There is an irregular train service here from Hanoi, which wasn’t running at the time of my visit. I was planing to ride this as part of my quest to ride all the railways of Vietnam, but not this time. It usualy takes up to 7 hours, which is a ridiculous time given the distance.
There was a new Hanoi to Ha Long railway that was being built, but that project has fallen through.