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 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 Choose a Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise
There are tons of companies offering Halong Bay or Bai Tu Long Bay Cruises – Indochina Junk, Ethnic Travel, Cat Ba Ventures, and Hanoi Backpackers, to name a few. I found the process so confusing that I wrote a whole post on how to choose the best Bai Tu Long Bay cruise.
But you can start by asking yourself some basic questions. How many days do you have? Do you want to explore both Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay? 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? Do you prefer booking online or in person? Would you prefer a local operator or an international company? What’s your price range? Do you need transportation from Hanoi to Halong Bay? Are excursions included?
Best Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise Companies
There are SO many Halong Bay & Bai Tu Long Bay cruises running each day, but here are some of the best Bai Tu Long Bay cruise operators based on my research or personal experience.
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)
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: Most cruises include the option of a private ferry pickup.
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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