Location notes: Halong Bay, Vietnam.

Halong Bay in Vietnam is one of those special places where once you go, it will be permanently etched into your memory. It’s true, plenty of people visit the location each year and there are a million photos of the area on the internet, but I still tell people despite how touristy it is, it’s still an amazing place to visit.

As one of the eight UNESCO World Heritage listed sites in Vietnam, Halong Bay literally means ‘descending dragon’ in Vietnamese. There are thousands of limestone karsts scattered throughout the bay and when observed from a distance, is supposed to resemble the body of a dragon (think of a snake-like dragon, not a medieval fire-breathing dragon one), snaking its way through the water.

Halong bay

Halong Bay, Vietnam. Settings: f8, 1/160 sec, ISO 250 @ 24mm. Click on the image to view in high resolution goodness.

Photographic highlights

On the way there

There are plenty of things to see on the way to Halong Bay. Along the three hour drive from Hanoi to Halong City, there are countless rice paddies and signs of the daily life along the picturesque countryside that you won’t see in the city. To take full advantage of these views, make sure to sit next to the window on the right hand side of the bus and have your camera set to sports mode of on a fast shutter speed.

When you start seeing the limestone karsts rising out of the bay in the distance, you’ll know that you have arrived in Halong city. As soon as you get off the bus, you’ll be transported on small wooden taxi boats to the main boat which will ferry you to a central location within the bay where it will be moored for the evening.

halong bay

The boats waiting to take everybody out to the location. Settings: f8, 1/160 sec, ISO100 @ 70mm

Surprise Cave

When the boat arrives to the central area, the tour will take you to the Surprise Cave. It’s one of many caves in the area, but most tours will stop by at the Surprise Cave. Inside the various caverns are an interior, lit in a way where one would think they’ve stepped into some sort of attraction at Disneyland. Still, it’s pretty cool and exploring the cave system takes about 20-30 minutes depending on how bored you are. Make sure you have your tripod with you to shoot inside the caves.

surprise cave halong bay

A tripod is necessary if you want nice and sharp images in the caves: Settings: f8, 8 sec, ISO250 @ 24mm

At the end of the cave, you will end up climbing up the stairs to the lookout point where I photographed the main image. There, you will need to deal with about twenty people, rammed into the tiny lookout platform with their selfie sticks. My tip is to remain patient as they groups tend to come and go in waves, and then you’ll find yourself with plenty of room to yourself on the small deck.

Titov Island

Swimming in the bay is forbidden due to the jellyfish population, but there is the option to be dropped off at Titov island where there is a protected swimming area. Personally, I preferred the hike up to the top of the lookout point that offers panoramic views of the bay. It’s quite a hike up the steps but you can rest along the way and take some nice photos along the way.

halong bay

At the top from Titov Island at the lookout. The sky wasn’t amazing so I gave it a washed out sepia styling. With a lack of clouds, a vignette closes the image, thus drawing the eye in towards the middle. Settings: Five image panorama f8, 1/80 sec, ISO100 @ 52mm

From the water

Most tours will offer a kayaking session after the cave expedition where you can explore the limestone karsts and grottos up close. I didn’t bring my camera onto the kayak, but if you’re confident kayaker, take it with you in a dry bag. Most of the locals are fed up with the tourists getting in their way and taking photos, so be thoughtful and respect their space as they are working.

From the boat

You will be staying overnight on the boat so there will be plenty of opportunities for sunset and sunrise photos. As you at floating, it will be difficult to use a tripod due to the swaying boat, so you’ll need to bump up the ISO settings on your camera when the light levels drop.

If you’re not too hung over from the evening karaoke session, get up early around 5am to see what the sunrises is like. Even if it’s not to your liking, there are plenty of things happening, such as the locals preparing for the day to observe.

halong bay sunset

The top of Tiptov Island shot from the boat at sunset. Settings:  f8, 1/30 sec, ISO100 @ 200m

Taking the shot

For the main photo, I was limited by the size of the viewing deck so there wasn’t much room to move around to experiment with the angle. We were also lucky the time and had some decent clouds and blue sky so I wanted to include some of the clouds as well.

From a compositional point of view, the horizon doesn’t actually line up to the traditional rule of thirds, but I don’t think that matters as the lines from the left karst in the foreground and the right karst in the background form a nice V shape leading the eye back into the centre of the image and to where the moored boats are. I waited about a minute for the boat on the bottom right to reach that location before I took the image, because without it, there would have been too much empty space in the bottom of the image.

halong bay

Instead of using the rule of thirds, I used the triangle method of composition.

The technical stuff

Photography Tips

  • Be patient as the light will constantly change in Halong Bay as the clouds move across the sun, thus providing a pleasant and softer light to shoot in.
  • Use a polarising filter to prevent glare and reflecting off the surface of the water and off the limestone karsts.
  • As you’re on the water shooting, make sure your horizon is straight. If not, it can be fixed in post-processing.
  • Check your histogram after taking the shot as the sky could be overexposed. It is best to have a properly exposed sky and a darker foreground which can be corrected in post-processing.

When is the best time to go?

The best time of the year to go is in the spring and fall which is March to May when there is the greatest chance of sunshine and minimal fog. That said, sometimes mist can add mood to an image and can allow you to experiment with black and white settings on the camera or in post processing.

How to get there?

A guided tour is the most convenient way of getting there. You’re more than likely going to be staying in Hanoi beforehand and all of the hotels act as resellers for the main tour operators. My advice is to shop around at three different travel agencies nearby and compare them to what the hotel can offer. NEVER go with an option that is considerably cheaper than what the others are offering, because you get what you pay for in these cases.

halong bay children

The adults may be grumpy but the kids are always happy to have a wave. Settings: f5, 1/250 sec, ISO100 @ 185mm

How long should I go for?

If you have more than a night to spare, consider bolting on a trip to Cat Ba Island and renting a motorbike to ride to the various viewing points in the national park where the old military fixtures are. You can also charter cruises that go further into the bay where fewer boats go.

Prints of most images from this article are available for purchase on my travel photos. Click HERE to view them.

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