Considering traveling to Bai Tu Long Bay?
In this guide you’ll learn why I think a Bai Tu Long Bay cruise is a better alternative to the more popular (but more crowded!) famous Ha Long Bay cruises.
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.
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Table of Contents
- Why You Can Skip Ha Long Bay IMHO
- What is Bai Tu Long Bay?
- Bai Tu Long Bay versus Ha Long Bay
- Best Bai Tu Long Bay Cruises
- FAQ About Planning A Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise
- Summary: Go Off the Beaten Track and Cruise Bai Tu Long Bay
Why You Can Skip Ha Long Bay IMHO
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.
What is Bai Tu Long Bay?
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.
Bai Tu Long Bay versus 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 some of 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 and people in Bai Tu Long Bay. Which means the beaches, arguably some of the most picturesque beaches in Vietnam, aren’t polluted or overcrowded.
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.
Best Bai Tu Long Bay Cruises
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 the 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:
Dragon Legend and Dragon Legend 2
Let’s cut straight to the chase about the best Bai Tu Long Bay cruise:
If you have the cash, you need to go cruising on the Dragon Legend or Dragon Legend 2.
Why are the Dragon Legends the best choice IMHO?
Let’s start with the fact that there’s a heated pool on-board!
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 sundeck, to the incredible food offerings, the Dragon Legends are the biggest, baddest cruise ships on the bay.
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!
Budget Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise
Can’t swing the Dragon Legend boats? Or are you looking for a more intimate cruise on a smaller ship?
That’s cool! Check out the Dragon’s Pearl, a smaller boat run by Indochina Junk, but in the model of a traditional Chinese junk!
Can’t afford a cruise?
Though I think that taking a Bai Tu Long Bay cruise is 100% the best way to experience this natural wonder, if you’re on a real budget you can just go to Ha Long Bay City and climb Bai Tho Mountain (from where you’ll get some Insta-worthy views of the karsts, if not the full experience of cruising Ha Long Bay).
FAQ About Planning A Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise
Here’s some quick tips and frequently asked questions about planning a cruise to Bai Tu Long Bay:
How long (no pun intended) do you need to visit 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.
When is the best time to visit the Bay?
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.
How do you get to Bai Tu Long Bay?
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.
What do I need to pack for a Bai Tu Long Cruise?
You really don’t need to pack much for a Bai Tu Long Bay cruise!
- Swimsuit for kayaking and swimming
- Sunscreen for the sunny months
- A warm jacket for December through February
- Your camera and a wet bag if it’s not waterproof
- Something to read or watch on the journey from Hanoi
- A little bit of cash for drinks and tips to the crew
Otherwise, just use your common sense and pack what you normally would!
What are the dining options like on Bai Tu Long Bay cruises?
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!
Is Ha Long Bay too touristy?
In my opinion, yes, Ha Long Bay is too touristy.
It’s still beautiful, but at the end of the day there are just too many tourists and it’s clearly fallen victim to overtourism.
That’s why I think Bai Tu Long Bay makes such a great alternative though!
Summary: Go Off the Beaten Track and Cruise Bai Tu Long Bay
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 using this trick, or read some of our other top travel guides here:
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