You may have heard of Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site 170km from Hanoi. Famous for its turquoise water and 1,600 limestone islands (which are topped with lush rainforests), it’s no surprise that Halong Bay is a major tourist attraction, welcoming millions of visitors a year. Always keen to avoid the crowds, my boyfriend and I instead decided to visit Bai Tu Long Bay, Halong’s lesser-known cousin. Both bays are situated close to each other and look very similar, but Bai Tu Long Bay is much quieter and more peaceful. In this post I’d like to share exactly what you can expect when visiting this stunning part of Vietnam.
Can you visit Bai Tu Long Bay as a day trip from Hanoi? Yes, but I really wouldn’t recommend it. The journey time from Hanoi is roughly four hours each way, so you would probably spend more time travelling than actually exploring the coastal area. Most visitors opt to stay for one or two nights aboard small cruise ships which weave around the islands. There are several different cruise ships – ranging from 2* to 4* – suitable for every budget.
Should I book in advance? No! An online reservation will cost considerably more than a face-to-face booking. There are hundreds of agencies in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, so the prices are very competitive. The travel agency staff can show you some different itineraries and ships so you can choose the right one for you. We booked in-person through Adventure Indochina Travel and paid $95 USD each (roughly €85) for one night aboard the Lemon cruise. However, as not enough people booked this ship on our selected day, we were upgraded to the fancier Christine Diamond cruise for free. Result!
What’s included in the price? Our $95 USD included overnight accommodation (double bed with an en suite bathroom), transfers to and from Hanoi, an English-speaking tour guide, two meals per day (lunch & dinner on the first day, breakfast and lunch on the second), excursions and insurance. We were given two bottles of water each day, and brought some extra with us. The only things which weren’t included were tips for the tour guide and crew, plus alcoholic drinks and soft drinks on board.
Here’s a breakdown of the itinerary we followed (which from what I’ve seen online is very standard).
- 8am – Leave Hanoi. You’ll travel in an air-conditioned bus and there will be one stop along the way, at a convenience store where you can use the toilet and buy snacks.
- Midday – Arrive at Hon Gai harbour and take a small boat to the cruise ship you’ll be staying on overnight. Our ship was on the small side, which I was happy about, with only fifteen passengers.
- 1pm – Time for lunch! Ours was buffet-style; very tasty, with a good variety of meat, fish and vegetarian options.
- Afternoon excursions – We were given the choice to kayak or be rowed in a bamboo boat around Bai Tu Long Bay. I wanted to take photos and enjoy the scenery so opted for the bamboo boat. In case you’re wondering, we weren’t allowed to go swimming in the bay because of conservation reasons. After the hour-long boat trip, we visited the Vung Vieng fishing village and a pearl farm to learn about the process of collecting pearls from oysters. The fishing village was very small but interesting, and the pearl farm felt like a typical ‘tour filler’ activity but at least no one tried to hard sell us pearls.
- 18.30 – Dinner time! It was a fixed menu and we were very impressive with the food, especially the fresh seafood. It was actually too much food; every table had leftovers so I hope the waiting staff finished it off for us!
- After dinner, we were given a glass of wine and some fresh fruit and were left to relax and chat with the other passengers. There were some optional activities like board games, squid fishing and karaoke but we didn’t partake. We slept really well and luckily weren’t disturbed by any karaoke!
- 6.30am – The cruise crew offer a Thai Chi lesson, which we missed because we woke up at half 5 for sunrise then went back to bed!
- 7am – Breakfast. Again, buffet-style, tasty and filling.
- 8am – Leave the main cruise ship to take a smaller boat to Thien Canh Son cave. We had time to walk around the cave and nearby beach, paddle and take photos.
- 9am – Back to the boat to check out of our rooms. We could leave our luggage in the ship’s reception area.
- 10am – A short cooking class to learn how to ‘make’ Vietnamese spring rolls. The pork mince filling was already prepared for us and we were shown how to fill and wrap the rolls up tightly. The crew then took them away to cook them.
- 11am – An early lunch, eating the spring rolls we’d made earlier, along with bun cha (Vietnamese pork meatballs with rice noodles, lettuce and dipping sauces).
- 12pm – We left the cruise ship to return to Hon Gai harbour. From there, we got into a minibus and headed back to Hanoi.
I hope this blog post has given you a useful overview of a typical visit to Bai Tu Long Bay. If you are staying on a fancier ship, there might be some extra excursions but the above is very typical. One night might be enough but if you’d like to extend your stay, nearby Cat Ba island is apparently gorgeous! It is very mountainous so you can enjoy rock climbing and hiking, along with kayaking and scuba diving. In hindsight, my boyfriend and I should have made time for Cat Ba. Oh well, an excuse to revisit northern Vietnam again one day!
Ciao for now
The Curious Sparrow