You’ll see the word “junk” popping up a lot when you’re planning a Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise. The tour descriptions promise nighttime sails aboard “a luxurious junk boat”, but how the hell can a boat be luxurious and junky at the same time? Well, turns out “junk boat” are actually a style of Chinese sailing ship with wooden hulls and fully battened sails used as early as the 2nd Century. They’re the kind of boat you imagine when you picture yourself on Halong Bay; they’re sometimes simple but far from junky. That sounds better, doesn’t it?
Known as “The Bay Less Traveled”, Bai Tu Long Bay doesn’t get even a fraction of 6 million tourists that travel to Halong Bay each year. Bai Tu Long Bay is the best alternative to Halong Bay with the same scenery and none of the crowds. But the popularity of Bai Tu Long Bay cruises means good information is hard to come by. Hanoi is cluttered with overpriced and completely made up tour operators. There are booze cruises at rock-bottom prices and shady storefronts selling overpriced tours under another company’s brand name. Assuming this excursion could be once in a lifetime, I bet you’ll want to make it count. Here are some tips on how to pick a Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise along with prices, reviews, and info on how to get to Bai Tu Long Bay.
Aboard a Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise
Many Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay cruises run the same itinerary. Here’s a look at what you can expect on a 3-day/2-night excursion, based on my cruise with Ethnic Travel.
Day 1 | Arrival Day / Halong Bay: Depart Hanoi in the morning to Halong City. From there, you’ll board the boat and cruise until you reach a swimming and kayaking spot. You’ll get lunch and sail onward to the spot where your boat will anchor for the night (ours stayed in Hang Trong). You can spend your evening navigating the caves by kayak, hanging out on the deck, chatting, or drinking Hanoi beer amongst the craggy karsts of Halong Bay.
Day 2 | Bai Tu Long Bay / Homestay: After eating breakfast, you’ll head back to shore, and drive north to Cai Rong Island. You’ll switch to a smaller boat on Bai Tu Long Bay and sail amongst the islets and fishing villages. The boat anchors on Quan Lan Island where you’ll hop on a bike for a short ride to the homestay where you’ll spend the night. The family that owns it leads a cooking class where you’ll learn to make Vietnamese Spring Rolls and a squid dish. More likely than not, you’ll find yourself up late drinking local Rượu from a plastic bottle and playing card games.
Day 3 | Bai Tu Long Bay / Departure Day: Wake up early to explore Quan Lan. You can ride bikes, explore the tiny fishing market, or enjoy some time on the beach before hopping back on the boat. The boat will sail to a kayaking spot before continuing back to Cai Rong Island where the car is waiting. Tour ends in Hanoi.
How to Pick a Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise
The 2,000 islets in the Gulf of Tonkin were formed by 20 million years under the impact of tropical wet climate. There are lots of companies offering Bai Tu Long Bay cruises, so here are some things to consider before you book yours.
The Basics: How many days do you have? Do you want to explore both Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay? The standard Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise is 3 days, 2 nights with one night on Halong Bay and one night on Bai Tu Long Bay. There are also some tours where you’ll start directly from Hon Gai Wharf and skip over Halong Bay entirely. Departures for Bai Tu Long Bay cruises are less frequent and the costs are higher than purely Halong Bay cruises.
Cruise Options: Would you rather go basic or pay extra for better food and classier decor? Do you want a Bai Tu Long Bay cruise that includes activities like bike riding and kayaking? Do you want to pay less for a room on a huge boat or pay a bit more for a lower occupancy boat? Since Halong Bay is the popular choice for backpackers, most Bai Tu Long Bay cruises are mid-range or luxury and on low-capacity boats.
Booking Options: Do you prefer booking online or in person? Would you prefer a local operator or an international company? Tour operators in Hanoi are everywhere, so regardless of how you go, do your research ahead of time to avoid getting scammed.
Costs + Inclusions: What’s your price range? Do you need transportation from Hanoi to Halong Bay? Are excursions included? How much will a beer cost you onboard? Bai Tu Long Bay cruises can cost anywhere from $100-$800. Find out what’s included ahead of time and decide what you want to pay for and what you can arrange on your own.
Best Bai Tu Long Bay Cruises
Bai Tu Long Bay cruises can really run the gamut with different itineraries, varied level of accommodation, and prices ranging from $100-$800. Here are some of the best operators based on my experience or research.
Ethnic Travel | Best Budget Cruise: Ethnic Travel’s Bai Tu Long Bay cruise will show you both the highlights of Halong along with some well-hidden places, and the more remote parts of Bai Tu Long. Their itinerary includes a stop on the more remote Quan Lan island where you can go for a bike ride, take a cooking class, and spend the night in a homestay. (Book from $158)
Swan Cruises Halong | Best Mid-Range Cruise: Swan Cruises runs Bai Tu Long Bay cruises with an itinerary similar to the rest, but what they’re really praised for are their local guides and comfortable rooms. Unlike some of the other operations, they have itineraries that start from Hon Gai Wharf and only travel through Bai Tu Long Bay. (Book from $240)
Indochina Junk | Best Luxury Cruise: Indochina Junk’s Dragon Pearl Bai Tu Long Bay cruise markets itself as luxury, but the reviews speak for themselves. If you’re willing to make use of the boat’s spa, sundeck, and big sea view windows, splurging on the Indochina Junk cruise may just be well worth your money. (Book from $360)