Travel period May 2015
The Hidden Alternative to Ha Long Bay
The area more to northeast of Vietnam than Ha Long Bay, is known as Bai Tu Long Bay. The rising limestone islands, that gave birth to the bay’s magnificent islands, goes on for some 100 km to the Chinese border.
With long and eloquent sandy beaches and very clear sea water. Bai Tu Long Bay connects with the sweet and graceful beauty of Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay. Bai Tu Long Bay is every bit as beautiful as its famous neighbor. In some ways it’s actually more stunning and unique because of its historic and cultural sites, precious and rare specialties, and the archipelago’s unspoiled beauty.
Best Time to Visit
Best time to visit Bai Tu Long Bay is Spring (March, April) and Fall (September, October) due to the dry climate and pleasant temperatures, allowing you to do most of the interesting activities available. The heat and humidity are mild and the sun shines brightly through clear blue skies.
Summer time lasts from May to September brings in the tropical heat and temperatures soar up to 35 degrees Celsius. It is the low season of the year and during these months you can probably get a good deal from most cruise companies.
Winter in Bai Tu Long Bay lasts from November to March and leads to cold weather. During these months, there are many foggy days during this season and visibility is poor, which may result in you missing out on a beautiful sunrise or sunset. The cold water does not facilitate swimming.
July and August are the months you want avoid as they can be quite stormy and rainy. At best you will face a lot of mist and low visibility, and at worst, your cruise or other activities might be cancelled.
We flew in and out of Hanoi and spent a few days there, staying at the Hanoi La Siesta Diamond Hotel & Spa. We were using Hanoi as our starting point as it was the closest and easiest spot for us to start our journey to Bai Tu Long Bay. I recommend spending a couple of days exploring Hanoi if you have the chance, we enjoyed our time there, with the majority spent mostly in the Old Quarter.
Transfers from Hanoi
Bai Tu Long Bay does not have great connectivity as it is located quite far from the main cities. You will have to switch around and change transport, stopping over at a number of intermediate destinations before you reach the bay area.
If you book a cruise around the bay, it’s likely that your transfer will be included as part of a package, the other option is you can hire a shuttle or by bus. Getting from point-to-point takes around 4 hours by land.
There’s no better way to see the stunning islands of Bai Tu Long Bay than on a cruise. Far off the beaten path of the typical tourist traps of Southeast Asia, these Vietnamese landscapes are indescribably beautiful.
We opted for a 3 day/2 night trip to Bai Tu Long Bay on board the Dragon Pearl Junk. What a treat! It was a remarkable sailing vessel. The boat is 3 decks tall and features 11 cabins, each decorated in an antique style which recalls a nostalgic feeling and equipped with all needed amenities. The restaurant offers both indoor and outdoor dining options.
Our air-conditioned cabin on the Dragon Pearl Junk was awesome with an en suite bathroom and comfortable bed. We loved it!
The staff on board couldn’t have been friendlier or nicer to all the passengers. Especially our tour guide Tom, nothing was too much trouble for him.
The food on board was ‘to die for’ and there was no shortage of it. Activities were planned for the duration of the cruise, but anyone could choose to opt out of the activities if they chose to.
Here’s our experience cruising Bai Tu Long Bay on Dragon Pearl Junk.
Cruising Bai Tu Long Bay
At the start of our adventure the private coach picked us up at 7.45 am from our hotel in Hanoi Old Quarter. On the way to the harbor we stopped at Yen Duc Village for a water puppet show and lunch before we were dropped at Hon Gai harbor, just after mid-day.
One hour later after we checked in and had a cruise briefing, we were on the junk, cruising to magnificent Bai Tu Long Bay. The thing that caught our attention right from the moment we left the rest of the boats in the harbor, was the silence. It was incredible to look around and not see one other single boat; to be able to admire the beauty of the place all by ourselves.
After a couple of hours of slow drifting among the impressive rocks, our boat dropped the anchor. We were invited to do kayaking through Cap La fishing village – a small fishing village lying between Bai Tu Long and Ha Long Bay. There were 80 family holders with more than 200 people living in the village. Their main livelihood is fishing and aquaculture. The facilities in Cap La floating village are very rudimentary; the few homes present are powered by generators as there is no mainline electricity, and clean running water is still rather hard to come by.
It was a stunning hot day so it was lovely to get down close to the water and splash around! The bay was so beautiful, and there were so many islands.
Then we made our way back to the junk for swimming and relaxing. I took the opportunity to photograph the fiery sunset accompanied by a very nice maitai from the sundeck area, before we had our authentic Vietnamese eight-course dinner, filled with local seafood specialties, as we were cruising along Bai Tu Long Bay. Since May is squid season, we had the rare opportunity to try night-time squid fishing.
Woke up early with the sun streaming in, and were greeted by the morning view of the Bay’s landscape, what a great start to the day. We had our breakfast and a cup of coffee in the fresh air, while the junk was cruising to Cong Dam, discovering geological values of Bai Tu Long Bay.
After breakfast, we were kayaking through the hidden lagoons and geological park in Cong Dam – it is an old, small village, far from the mainland with a population of about 120 people. This place is considered as an outdoor geological museum, with the highlight being mountains formed by a stacks of huge rocks, that look like an amazing arrangement of “mother nature”. Underground lakes and underwater caves are scattered throughout the area, that serve only to add to the sense that Cong Dam has much more to be discovered.
The scenery was magnificent and remained primitive. The Lagoons were stunning and have many majestic limestone mountains and pristine coral reefs. We made our way back to the junk to do boat jumping and swimming. Lunch was another eight-course affair. The food was ultra-fresh and they offered a good variety.
After lunch we relaxed on the sundeck, admiring the magical landscape that Bai Tu Long Bay has to offer, while the junk was cruising to Hon Co Island (Grass Island) – situated in the Cong Do Area, the island is featured with long white sandy beaches and calm crystal-like water. Here we enjoyed kayaking, sunbathing, swimming and exploring the Co Cave (also known as Thien Canh Son Cave).
The scenery of the bay was stunning, especially when the sun was setting. After we soaked in all the stunning scenery, we made our way back to the junk to get ready to have a deluxe dinner in Thien Canh Son Cave – it is a wild cave with its rare natural beauty, pristine limestone stalactites and beautiful surrounding landscape. Inside the cave, it was an ethereal wonderland with naturally carved images and mysterious beauty. The entire ceiling shined with thousands of glittering stalactites creating unique images.
From the junk we departed on a small boat that brought us to the shore of the island, where we disembarked to begin our climb up the 60 odd steps to the entrance of the cave.
They prepared a magnificent dinner in the cave on the island. The cave was lit with candles, and we were welcomed with Vietnamese songs. The atmosphere is hard to describe in words. If only we could stop time then. We enjoyed one of the tastiest dinners we’ve had in our lives; BBQ fresh seafood, veggie treats and other classic grilled dishes! It was difficult to stop eating or to choose between dishes.
The next morning after breakfast, by rustic row boat, we visited Vung Vieng fishing village – it is one of the fishing villages owning the most unique architecture in the world. All houses here are floating on the sea, surrounded by multi-shaped boats and rafts. Unlike living on the mainland, almost all activities of the locals are closely associated with the water and spectacular limestone islands.
Next, they took us to a pearl farm, and explained the process of making pearls. We also visited a fish farm and a floating school, before we made our way back to the junk. The Junk then started cruising towards the harbor, while ala carte lunch was served.
Finally, in the late afternoon we arrived back in Hanoi. The moment we got back to Hanoi, it was like coming from a different world. All of a sudden everything was loud and hectic.
Our trip to Bai Tu Long Bay was a treat, with all the splendor and none of the crowds. It was so great to get out on the water and stay on a Junk. If you’re thinking of going to Ha Long Bay, we strongly recommend you head to Bai Tu Long Bay instead.