Mystical and magical, Halong Bay -- comprised of more than 1,969 uninhabited islands and rock formations -- is one of Asia's great natural wonders. Vietnamese legend has it that the archipelago came into being when a dragon fell to earth; Ha Long Bay, loosely translated, means the Bay of the Descending Dragon. Situated in the Gulf of Tonkin, Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Pack your cameras and get up early as the scenery starts several hours before your ship docks, and witnessing fishing boats among the rocks at sunrise is a moment not to be missed.
Cruise passengers have two main choices of what to do in Halong Bay. You can either explore the bay on a "junk" cruise of varying duration or make the trek to Hanoi, a three-hour drive each way. Some ships dock for more than one day, allowing you to stay in Hanoi one night or take an overnight cruise. Even if your ship doesn't do this, your port stop will be at least 12 hours to allow people enough time for longer excursions.
Halong Bay City itself is on a growth spurt. Construction cranes dot the port (known as Bai Chay), luxury hotels and resorts are on tap and the government is looking to build a beach to entice more tourism. Residents are very proud of the Bai Chay Bridge, a 3,629-foot cable-stayed bridge that changes color at night; it's a pretty sight at nighttime sail-away.
Most cruise ships tender to the port area. Near the pier, it's a 15-minute walk or so to shops, tourist markets and cafes.