Halong Bay: “It is the wonder that one cannot impart to others” – Ho Chi Minh
Before planning our trip to Vietnam, I must admit, we knew very little about the country’s key tourism destinations. The one place we did know about though, Halong Bay, was an absolute must-see from our perspective.
Perhaps surprisingly, In the end we intentionally left a Halong Bay cruise off of our itinerary, in favour of Bai Tu Long Bay.
Why did we make the decision to sail Bai Tu Long Bay instead?
Join us as we explain…
Bai Tu Long Bay vs Halong Bay – Which Should I Choose? Maybe Cat Ba Island? Help!
Ha Long Bay – Paradise Lost?
North-eastern Vietnam is most known for its incredible limestone bays, the most famous of which is Halong Bay. In this region, towering limestone cliffs cut through emerald waters. It should be absolutely incredible, and it is – almost.
Though it was designated a World Heritage Site in 1994, tourism to the area has dramatically increased and unfortunately, so has the environmental impact. What once was home to pristine waters and hidden grottoes is now affected by rubbish beyond anything I could have imagined.
With thousands of boats sailing each day around Halong Bay, uncontrolled tourism is becoming an all-too-real problem. Likewise, shady operators that care more about lining their pockets than in playing a role in maintaining the environment or keeping visitors safe are actively contributing to issues in the bay.
We found ourselves in a bit of a tourism conundrum.
Did we really want to head all the way to Vietnam just to miss what would potentially be one of the most beautiful and unique parts of the country? Not if it could be avoided!
Did we want to play a role in degrading this incredible part of the world though? Not at all.
Bring on Bai Tu Long Bay
With a desire to see this beautiful part of the world without the obvious short-comings that we discovered, I turned to the internet and began my research. There had to be a better option!
Fortunately, there was…
Looking beyond Halong Bay, the limestone plataeu that formed the regions infamous islands stretches on. For approximately 100km (all the way to the Chinese border) different bays can be found and we very quickly settled on Bai Tu Long Bay, directly to the north east of it’s more famous neighbour.
Bai Tu Long Bay is every bit as beautiful as its famous neighbour. In some ways it’s actually more stunning, since it’s only in its initial stages as a destination for travellers. The area is quickly growing in popularity with domestic tourists, but the bay and its islands are still unpolluted and relatively undeveloped. For Western travellers, it’s a laid-back alternative to the touristy bustle of Halong Bay.
We were drawn to the promise of a quieter, less polluted bay and once we came across the reviews of IndoChina Junk, we were 100% sold!
Cat Ba Island
We did mention Cat Ba Island earlier though so why didn’t we seriously consider it?
Located in the area region, this island provides a base to visit the less touristy (bus equally alluring) Lan Ha Bay.
Though it also receives amazing reviews, we knew that we wanted to spend the night out on the water so, for us, the decision was an easy one. If you get seasick or would just rather be based on land, it might be a good option for you.
Out on the Water in Bai Tu Long Bay – Cruising with IndoChina Junk
Which IndoChina Junk Boat is the Best? Dragon’s Pearl or Dragon Legend?
IndoChina have a number of cruising options but there were two main ship designs that caught our eye.
Modelled after traditional Chinese junk boats, the Dragon’s Pearl boats in the fleet (of which there are three) each house 11 cabins split across 3 levels. Though it wasn’t our first preference, our sailing on the Dragon’s Pearl ended up being the perfect opportunity to meet other travellers and thanks to it’s amazing staff, comfortable rooms and intimate environment, we’d whole-heartedly recommend it.
The Dragon Legend is a whole new class of ship for IndoChina Junk. With 24 luxury cabins, restaurants both inside and outside, 4 decks and a spa pool, this ship offers a 5-star service in the bay.
Our initial pick of the two, it really was the Dragon Legend that we had our eye on.
So, Which Boat Did We Choose?
Initially we booked two nights on Dragon Legend but as luck would have it, Mother Nature had other plans for us!
A storm up north meant that our original sailing had to be cancelled so we transferred our booking to Dragon’s Pearl and crossed our fingers hoping that the weather would be good enough to squeeze through.
Fortunately, the weather did hold for a night (at least enough for us to sail) and though it wasn’t the boat we’d initially booked, it ended up being an amazing and intimate experience.
Reviewing Dragon’s Pearl
You won’t go hungry when sailing with IndoChina Junk!
Every meal consists of course after course and is freshly prepared onboard. There’s a clear focus on seafood but the vegetarians in our group were well catered for (as was I as someone who doesn’t tend to eat seafood).
Food was plentiful, tasty and served up in a snap; what more can you ask for?
Cosy but comfortable the cabins onboard the Dragon’s Pearl serve their purpose perfectly. They each some kitted out with an ensuite bathroom and the amenities that you’d need for an overnight stay. Relatively small, you’re unlikely to spend much time in your room but let’s face it – that’s not what you’re there for!
Professional and friendly, the staff aboard the Dragon’s Pearl went out of their way to make our trip one to remember. They were patient and kind throughout the sailing and really did help make the trip the fantastic experience that it was.
Though it’s temping just to sit back and relax, taking in your beautiful surroundings, there are a number of activities on offer in Bai Tu Long Bay and we’d recommend you check them all out.
Don’t worry – you’ll still have plenty of time to laze about!
Kayaking in the bay was a real highlight for us and one that even a downpour couldn’t diminish. The colour of the water in Northern Vietnam is absolutely gorgeous and to be sitting right on top of the water was just magical.
We were also surprised by just how tropical the little island that we stopped on was. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting (maybe a rocky beach to match the limestone cliffs?) but it certainly was pretty.
Whilst on the island, we also popped up and into a moderately-sized caving system. Beautifully lit, this space was home to many local families in years gone by and, thanks to its history, was a worthwhile stop on our itinerary.
The following day, we also paid a visit to a fishing village and learnt a great deal about the manner in which these families live out on the water.
We enjoyed zipping around in their old-school boats and seeing the limestone cliffs up close as a family (yep, that’s my Mum and Stepdad with us).
Activities are also included on the journey to and from the boat (from Hanoi), with a visit to a marble factory breaking up the journey there and a stop at a water puppet show on the way back.
Both stops were worthwhile additions to the itinerary and a welcome opportunity to stretch our legs, though neither really compared with the beauty of the bay itself.
Getting to Bai Tu Long Bay
IndoChina Junk have got you covered. They’ll pick you up in a luxury van and transfer you door-to-door in style.
Seriously, how easy is that?!
Is There a Rubbish Problem in Halong and Bai Tu Long Bay?
If you’ve researched visiting this area, you’ve probably heard whispers of the region’s garbage problem.
Do they have one? Yep, they sure do.
Unfortunately we noticed the same thing in Bai Tu Long Bay – styrofoam, plastic bags, buckets, bottles – we saw it all floating through what would otherwise have been the kind of water you’d dream of.
It was sad to see that level of litter in such an idyllic setting but my hope it that as tourism to the area increases (and Vietnam makes more money through the process) that garbage disposal will be improved.
Thankfully, IndoChina junk do already have an environmental policy in place and are doing their part to clean up the bays – let’s just hope that everyone gets on board and joins the fight quickly.
Would We Recommend a Visit to Bai Tu Long Bay as part of a Vietnam Holiday?
The bay isn’t perfect but if you ignore the rubbish problem, it’s pretty close to it.
There’s something incredible about sitting out on the top deck – he chatter between new friends, drink in hand, watching the sun set.
We’ll certainly be back when we next visit Vietnam!