Ha Long City

A fleet of small boats carry pedestrians across the estuary that divides Ha Long CityHa Long City is not likely to win prizes for its architecture or facilities, but it is by no means the hell-hole portrayed in the ‘Lonely Planet’ travel guide.

The city is the provincial capital of Quang Ninh province, and was created in the nineties by amalgamating Bai Chay, a tourist area, with the much larger industrial and commercial area of Hong Gai. The considerable differences between the two elements, and their separation by a busy vehicle ferry crossing the Cua Luc estuary, made them uneasy bedfellows at first, but time and the imminent construction of a bridge is bringing them together.

Surprisingly, the tourist area of Bai Chai is the less attractive area for the serious traveller.Ha Long City's market The long seafront suffers from uncontrolled and inappropriate development, and apart from the hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops (mostly poor quality), and the Royal Park, a long seafront development with few distinctive attractions, there is little reason to spend much time there. Almost invariably, we recommend our clients to spend the night on a well-equipped boat on Ha Long Bay

Of course, Ha Long City’s fame is its location facing the World Heritage Area of Ha Long Bay. The main access point is a purpose built wharf to the west of Bai Chai. Its location means that the large numbers of day-trip visitors by-pass Ha Long City altogether, thus depriving the local community of much-needed income. If time permits, a visit to Hong Gai is worthwhile.

Coal dust is mixed with clay to make the waste into a usable fuelAlthough some of the coal mines and associated heavy industries have been moved further east, the commercial nature of Hong Gai is immediately evident.

Unlike Bai Chay, there has been no attempt to ‘internationalise’ Hong Gai. Nearly all the buildings are comparatively new: almost the entire area was flattened by blanket bombing during the war.

Fortunately, a small area in the south of Hong Gai escaped the destruction. In its centre is Bai Tho (‘Poem’) Mountain, the name derived from the several verses carved into its almost Long Tien pagoda nestles at the base of Poem Mountainvertical seaward face by famous kings and poets. The limestone peak is unexpectedly rich in bio-diversity and offers stunning views of the bay and the red backs of sea eagles swooping below.

It's also steeped in Vietnamese culture, not only for its role in wars and conflicts through the ages, but also for its religious associations. Two attractive temples, one on each side of the mountain, are worth a visit.

Elsewhere, Hong Gai bustles with life, and is a good example of Vietnam’s emerging industrial cities. A stroll around the market and port is pleasant and informative.

Ha Long City is already growing rapidly. However, it’s inevitable that the rate of growth will accelerate as it lies upon the main road to southern China. At present, the heavy lorries have to use the ferry - once the bridge is built, and the road to the border gate is upgraded, goods traffic will escalate.

The original fishermen's wharf, now swept away  by a tide of 'modernisation'The 160km journey to Ha Long City takes about 2½ hrs. Nearly all accommodation is in Bai Chai. At present, there are five good quality hotels but, although comfortable, none is up to deluxe standard. There is a limited number of reasonable mid-range hotels and an abundance of budget accommodation, much of it poor quality.

Restaurant menus are quite limited, but the seafood is excellent, especially that served on the boats we use. A good alternative is the floating restaurant near Bai Tho mountain. Apart from the ubiquitous karaoke establishments and various shows and entertainment in the Royal Park, there’s not much to do in the evenings apart from strolling among the prom or around Hong Gai.

On the western outskirts of the city, Tuan Chau is a small soil island close to the mainland that has been converted to a large resort area. Although well done, and boasting some of the best accommodation in Ha Long City, it has been designed to attract Vietnamese and Chinese visitors and is unlikely to appeal to those from developed countries elsewhere.

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