The limestone karsts of Bai Tu Long and Halong Bay have long inspired all who look upon them to tell of them. “Here is the unfinished works of the Beings… here is the stones which the Giant played and threw away” wrote the Vietnamese poet Xuân Dieu. Ho Chi Minh himself described Halong Bay as “the wonder that one cannot impart to others.” Now, what do you think could be so spectacular about some rocks that prodigious authors only tell of them as supernatural, and influential leaders can’t so much as describe them? You’d be impressed if you saw 20 million years in the making, too.
Halong Bay is legendary for a reason, but turns out that 6 million other annual visitors know this too. The good news? Halong Bay is not the only place of its kind. In fact, Bai Tu Long Bay is a Halong Bay alternative with all the splendor and none of the crowds.
Planning your trip to Northern Vietnam? Here’s everything you need to know about Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay, plus tips on picking the best cruise, insights on when to visit, transportation details, and which operator to pick for your Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay Cruises.
Halong Bay or Bai Tu Long Bay
Legend has it that the gods sent a family of dragons to protect the Vietnamese against invaders. After a battle victory, the mother dragon settled in Halong Bay and her children attended to her from Bai Tu Long Bay. But you know what? The scientific explanation isn’t too unimpressive either. It took a good 20 million years under the impact of tropical wet climate for the Gulf of Tonkin’s 2,000 islets to form.
Why travel to Halong Bay?
Halong Bay is on par with Machu Picchu as far as “things you really ought to see before you die” go. Hell, Ho Chi Minh couldn’t even describe it.
While Halong Bay’s notoriety has left it a bit over-developed and sadly swarmed littering tourists, the bay itself is a true marvel. Halong Bay offers a higher density of karsts than it’s neighboring Bai Tu Long, and also allows you to sleep on the boat overnight which is pretty darn cool. Halong Bay cruises are cheap, readily accessible, and you’ll get to say you went to Halong Bay.
Plan your Trip: Halong Bay Cruises | Halong Bay Hotels
Why travel to Bai Tu Long Bay?
Never heard of it? I hadn’t either. But I’d that’s the very thing that makes Bai Tu Long the perfect alternative to Halong Bay. It’s pretty much the same damn thing, except no one has had the chance to ruin it.
From local dock to pristine islands, Bai Tu Long Bay is as unaffected as you’d first imagine Halong Bay to be. The waters are stiller and you can cruise for hours without spotting another tourist boat. The only real drawbacks to Bai Tu Long are that you’re technically not seeing the bucket list Halong Bay, the density of islands is ever so slightly less, and the protected status of Bai Tu Long Bay prohibits boats from anchoring overnight.
Plan your Trip: Bai Tu Long Bay Cruises | Quan Lan Island Hotels
Is Bai Tu Long a good alternative to Halong Bay? Definitely yes. The geology in Halong Bay is slightly more impressive, but you’ll never once feel like you have it to yourself. Bai Tu Long is extremely similar, and being the only boat is pretty amazing. If you have 3 days for the trip, it is possible for you to find a combined Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise. I think this is the best way to do it.
How to Pick a Halong Bay or Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise Company
Unfortunately, the popularity of Halong Bay cruises means there are more imposters than there are legitimate operators. Overpriced, unsafe, and even non-existent Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay cruises are for sale in Hanoi. So how do you sift through them?
The Basics: How many days do you have? Do you want to sleep on the boat or do a day trip? With overnight cruise options ranging from $60-$300, what’s your price range? When do you plan to go?
What are your priorities? Decide what you require from your excursion. Would you rather go basic or pay extra for gourmet food, active ventures, and tasteful decor? There are boat options to suit all price ranges. The one thing I can say is that it’s always worth paying for a lower-occupancy boat. Trust us on this!
Pick the right company: Most Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay cruise operators and travel agencies in Hanoi and have a Trip Advisor presence, but there are many copy cats. Opportunists latch onto well reviewed agencies, print branded materials, and next thing you know, you’re booked on a tour with a Sinh Café Travel that isn’t the real Sinh Café at all. Track down a few reviews and ask around before booking to ensure you’re going with a legitimate agency.
Find out what’s included: Where does the trip depart from? What are the excursions? What’s included in your price? If you’re getting a great deal, but not much is included, you may be better off spending a bit more up front to ensure you pay less out of pocket during the trip.
Best Halong Bay or Bai Tu Long Bay Cruises
Best Local Experience (Halong + Bai Tu Long): While Halong Bay feels about as local as Disneyland, the best way to get an authentic local experience is to take Ethnic Travel’s Halong Bay & Bai Tu Long Bay tour.They’ll show you the highlights of Halong Bay alongside some well-hidden places. After kayaking, squid fishing, and sleeping on the boat in Halong Bay, you’ll return to the dock and drive further on to Bai Tu Long Bay. 2 hours later, you’ll board an even better boat at a far more pleasant dock for the exact same scenery and some solitude. If you like the sound of that, you’ll really love being dropped off at the remote Quan Lan island for a bike ride, cooking class, and overnight homestay, along with kayaking on some of the stillest waters you’ve ever seen.
Best Bootstrapping (Halong): Budget travelers or long-term backpackers can save money by booking a tour from Cat Ba Island. You can take a local bus to Hai Phong and a hydrofoil or ferry the rest of the way. Check out Cat Ba Ventures for some of the best excursions on the island.
Best Party Halong Bay Cruise (Halong): If you’re looking for the full backpacker Halong Bay experience, Ha Long Bay and Castaways Island with Hanoi Backpackers is one of the best party cruises on the market. The tour includes tubing/wakeboarding/rock climbing, hanging out with a bunch of other twenty-somethings, staying up too late drinking whiskey buckets and beer, waking up with a terrible hangover, and doing it all over again. My head hurts just thinking about it, but you’re looking for a sinfully good time, this is your cruise.
Best Luxury Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise Experience (Bai Tu Long): Indochina Junk Dragon Legend Cruise of Bai Tu Long Bay is not only one of the best reviewed, but one of the most responsive of operators to work with. While I didn’t end up traveling with them, Indochina Junk offers a full itinerary for Bai Tu Long Bay on a boat far above the rest. 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.
The Dirty Details
When to Visit: Want to actually see the karsts? The best time to travel to Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay is from October-January. If you’re in Vietnam between February-April, expect a bizarre drizzle that makes the already surreal landscape into something otherworldly. Finally, while cruising is still possible, May-September is best characterized by unexpected tropical storms that have been known to derail even the most well planned of trips. If you’re flexible, the very best month to go is November.
Getting to Halong Bay: You can get to Halong Bay from either Hanoi, Haiphong, or Cat Ba Island. Here are the best ways to get to various points of embarkation.
The Easy Way: Book with a Halong Bay tour that includes transport from Hanoi or arrange your transport through Viator.
The Cheap Way: Take a bus from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, and a ferry onward to Cat Ba Island. Tickets run you right around $6, and the trip will take no more than 4 hours. You can also take a bus or train to Hai Phong, and get to Cat Ba Island by ferry. From Cat Ba, there are more boats than you can imagine, and the tours come cheap.
Traveling in Vietnam? You might also like:
- I Was Wrong About Hanoi
- The Other Sapa: Trekking in Ha Giang
- Must Eat: Northern Vietnamese Street Food
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