See UNESCO World Heritage Site Ha Long Bay

in Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin

written by Ellen Freudenheim, MPH

For some, the notion of going on vacation to Vietnam – and the Gulf of Tonkin, of all places! – may seem counterintuitive. After all, the very word “Vietnam” conjures up a kaleidoscope of memories: of the war, the social strife about the American military involvement in southeast Asia, violent public demonstrations and for some, tough personal choices.

But things change with time, and today Vietnam has a thriving tourist economy. A trip to anywhere in Vietnam is an amazing, evocative, fascinating destination for adventuresome Americans.

The country is anchored by two quite different cities, both busy, crowded and urbane, offering a wide range of tourist facilities. Plus, there are five knock-out tourist destinations, all UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Vietnam. Each is almost worth a trip halfway around the world: Ha Long Bay, the monuments of Hue, the ancient town of Hoi An My Son Sanctuary, and Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.

To focus on one, Ha Long Bay, first one must go to Hanoi. Hanoi, located in the north, is now known as Ho Chi Minh City and the nation’s capitol. A place most Americans over 50 never expected to find themselves, it’s an eye-popping combination of capitalism and left-over socialism, with a South Asian twist. And, there’s a lot to do there. Make a pilgrimage to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and complex. Take a tour of the prison built by the French to incarcerate Vietnamese, known as the Maison Centrale, but which eventually was named the Hanoi Hilton by American pilots shot down and held there during the Vietnam War. (John McCain one of them.) Enjoy a lunch of pho, the traditional Vietnamese meal, check out one of the city’s many temples, and watch a genuine water puppet show. Have a drink, or stay over at the spiffy Hanoi Sofitel Métropole.

From Hanoi to Ha Long Bay it’s a three and a half hour car ride.

Ha Long Bay, UNESCO World Heritage Site

Toward the northern part of Vietnam, in the Gulf of Tonkin, lies Ha Long Bay. Ancient and mysterious, Ha Long Bay (which, translated, means “Descending Dragon Bay”) is literally dotted with some 1600 large and small mountainous limestone towers, some large enough to be islands. These remarkable limestone pillars, called karsts, are 500 million-year-old geological formations. Because of their precipitous nature, most of the islands are uninhabited and pristine.

The area also sustains a rich and biodiverse ecosystems, including swamps, mangrove forests, beaches, and coral reefs. Not surprisingly, it is also recognized as having historical significance. Ha Long Bay was home to prehistoric Vietnamese. Evidence has been found of human life here dating 25,000 years back.

It’s fun to book onto one of the many available overnight tour boats for a two or three day cruise. Sailing on Ha Long Bay, it’s hard not to be awestruck at the shape of the mountains, and the beauty of the surroundings as one island gives way to another.

One of Vietnam’s most popular tourist destinations, Ha Long Bay is worth a visit. But, do it sooner rather than later. Despite its UNESCO designation, this protected area is under serious pressure due to tourism, fishing and other economic development projects. With romantic sunrises and sunsets, ancient karsts, a trip to Vietnam’s still pristine Ha Long Bay is the stuff of lifelong travel memories.