More than seven years ago I took a cruise on Ha Long Bay in northern Vietnam, and it is still easily one of my fondest early international travel memories.
The sight of thousands of soaring limestone islands jutting up from the tranquil turquoise waters as I sailed on a wooden junk ship through the UNESCO-protected bay is something I will never forget.
But here’s the thing:
Apparently I’m not the only one.
You see, Ha Long Bay is perhaps a just tad too utterly picture-perfect for its own good in the age of Instagram and social media.
Over the past few years, it’s completely exploded in popularity, turned into one of the more popular places to travel on the planet, and been been flooded with millions of visitors. And along with that popularity has come all the ills of over-tourism: environmental degradation, safety issues, and rampant overcrowding.
So on my latest trip to Vietnam in 2019, I struggled with how to relive my incredible memories of Ha Long Bay without participating in the degradation of the place I remember so fondly.
That’s when I heard about a promising off-the-beaten path alternative to a traditional Ha Long Bay Cruise:
Bai Tu Long Bay.
Read on to learn what Bai Tu Long Bay is, why I chose to visit Bai Tu Long Bay, and why I think a Bai Tu Long Bay cruise is a responsible — and more enjoyable — alternative to taking a Ha Long Bay Cruise in 2019.
Look, Ha Long Bay is a world class attraction. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature.
Its soaring limestone islands are so beautiful that they are practically made of Instagram gold:
But sometimes a place is just too stunning for its own good.
In the last decade, Ha Long Bay has gone from barely heard of to a virtual household name. I recently ran a poll on Instagram and found that over 80% of my followers already knew about Ha Long Bay.
And they aren’t alone:
More than 7 million visitors came to Ha Long Bay in 2017, and with the opening of an international airport nearby, that’s set to more than double by 2020!
The overcrowding has led to many visitors complaining about dozens of loud party boats blasting music through the night, substandard safety issues, crowds fighting for space on the few islands you can actually visit, and excessive pollution and garbage like this:
In short, with over 500 ships on the bay, Ha Long Bay’s over-tourism problem seems virtually guaranteed to just get worse.
Fortunately, I was relieved to discover there’s still a way to experience Ha Long Bay more responsibly and without having to deal with the crowds:
Simply take a cruise to Bai Tu Long Bay instead.
Bai Tu Long National Park is the area immediately to the northeast of Ha Long Bay proper.
And, in a sense, Bai Tu Long Bay IS Ha Long Bay. That is, Bai Tu Long is included within the UNESCO World Heritage Site (and in fact makes up three quarters of the protected area).
So what separates Bai Tu Long Bay from Ha Long Bay?
As far as I can tell, it really comes down to a matter of permits. Very few companies — Indochina Junk being the main one — have permission to run cruise ships in Bai Tu Long Bay, so it remains a less touristed and off-the-beaten track alternative to the main Ha Long Bay.
Just like Ha Long Bay, Bai Tu Long consists of limestone karsts jutting up from stunningly tranquil water (counting both bays, there are nearly 2,000 different islands).
My guide told met hat Vietnamese legend has it that a dragon laid her eggs, which are the islands we see today, in Ha Long Bay (which means “descending dragon”) and then reared them in Bai Tu Long before ascending again to the heavens.
Supposedly the limestone karsts are a bit higher in Ha Long Bay and there’s a slightly denser concentration of islands.
But having been to both bays, I can confidently tell you that I was completely and utterly unable to tell the difference the two by appearance.
Seriously, had you blindfolded me and taken me to Bai Tu Long Bay and told me I was back in Ha Long Bay, I wouldn’t have had any reason at all to question that.
The only difference between the two bays as far as I am concerned is that there are far, far fewer boats, garbage, and people in Bai Tu Long Bay.
In fact, other than at night when we docked in the same bay with other boats, I didn’t really see any other boats at all on my cruise through Bai Tu Long!
So which is better: Ha Long Bay or Bai Tu Long Bay?
The answer is clear: Bai Tu Long Bay. There’s really no reason to go another way if you can make it onto one of the limited cruises to Bai Tu Long Bay.
Ok, so by now you should be sold on picking Bai Tu Long over Ha Long Bay, right?
But what is the best cruise to Bai Tu Long Bay?
I went with and highly recommend Indochina Junk, the first and largest company to be licensed to operate in Bai Tu Long Bay (note: I paid for my cruise, but was afforded a media rate).
You have several different options for cruising Bai Tu Long Bay and, while all are great, there’s a couple ships that really stand out from the rest:
If money is no object, you need to go cruising on the Dragon Legend or Dragon Legend 2.
Click here to check pricing on Booking. (affiliate disclosure: if you use my links to book a Bai Tu Long Bay cruise, I may receive a commission at no extra cost to you)
Why are the Dragon Legends the best Bai Tu Long Bay cruises?
Let’s start with the fact that there’s a heated pool on-board!
Raining outside? No worries: you can still take a dip in the jaccuzi inside your spacious room.
From the huge outdoor and indoor dining options, to the giant sun deck, to the incredible food offerings, the Dragon Legends are the biggest, baddest Bai Tu Long Bay cruise ships out there.
Of course, all that flash comes with a price – but it may not be as much as you think!
Oh, and I really love that Indochina Junk has a strong focus on responsible ecotourism and conserving the bay for future generations. Our guide even put a bounty of a free beer if we picked up plastic from the bay while kayaking!
Can’t swing the Dragon Legend boats? Or are you looking for a more intimate cruise on a smaller ship? That’s cool! Here are some great options to consider for your Bai Tu Long Bay cruise:
Here’s some quick tips and frequently asked questions about planning a cruise to Bai Tu Long Bay:
At a minimum I recommend taking a 2 day, 1 night cruise.
That can feel a bit hurried though, so a 3 day, 2 night cruise will give you more time to enjoy the bay if you can swing it.
Bai Tu Long Bay is beautiful all year long. However, your best bet to see sun and good weather is from September to November, and again from March to April.
Many cruise packages include a free transfer from your hotel in Hanoi. The journey takes 3-4 hours and will include a restroom break. As of 2019, it is also now possible to fly to Van Don International Airport, which will cut the journey time down to an hour.
You really don’t need to pack much for a Bai Tu Long Bay cruise! I suggest:
Otherwise, just use your common sense and pack what you normally would!
There’s a lot of fish on a Bai Tu Long Bay cruise (in fact, you can watch the crew catch them from the back of the boat – or even try your hand at squid fishing). But I’m a vegetarian and I found that I was very well accommodated for on the Dragon Legend 2, which is in contrast to my first Ha Long Bay cruise where I was made to eat fried corn for three days!
Bai Tu Long Bay is an awesome alternative to the more crowded Ha Long Bay. In fact, Bai Tu Long Bay really IS Ha Long Bay: it’s just the more off-the-beaten-track part of the bay! l
That’s it for now! If you’re traveling Vietnam, go find out how to get a free Vietnam Lonely Planet download using this trick.
Oh, and before you go be sure to pin this on Pinterest (just click these images):
Nate Hake has traveled to 65+ countries across six continents around the world and blogs about his travels at TravelLemming.com. He is from Denver, Colorado, recently concluded a six month stint living in Mexico, and is now currently traveling in Thailand.