Cruising Bai Tu Long Bay
Vietnam’s iconic Halong Bay is on many travelers’ bucket lists – it was definitely on mine! But that was before I learned about Bai Tu Long Bay, an equally stunning area that’s more peaceful and more sustainable. The cruise I took there exceeded every expectation, and now I encourage everyone to put it on their Vietnam bucket list.
Bai Tu Long Bay Vs Halong Bay
At the top of almost every list of things to do in Vietnam is the world-famous Halong Bay. Off the country’s northern coast, the bay is known for its other-worldly scenery of green waters, rainforested karsts, and limestone islets. And the thing to do there (really, the only way to visit) is to take a cruise. And there are dozens (hundreds?) of options, from grotty backpacker party boats to five-star luxury cruise ships.
The only problem? Halong Bay’s popularity, along with a lack of regulation, has created an overtouristed environmental nightmare. The sheer number of visitors has absolutely packed the bay with ships, making for a less-than-peaceful experience and creating an enormous amount of pollution. From what past visitors have said, the water is too filthy for swimming, the boats can barely navigate without running into each other, and every stop is overflowing with crowds of tourists. And while plenty of reputable companies operate cruises there, it’s also known to be rife with scams, rickety boats, and poor service.
Like most travelers in Southeast Asia, Halong Bay had long been on my bucket list – but the more I learned about the actual experience of visiting, the more I started to question whether it was worth it. But then I learned about somewhere else.
An Alternative Destination
Northern Vietnam has another bay, with all the same beauty but a fraction of crowds and a more sustainable approach: Bai Tu Long Bay.
If my experience of talking to other travelers is any indication, most visitors to Vietnam don’t even realize Bai Tu Long Bay exists. In fact, it was only when I was researching sustainability and responsible travel in Halong Bay that I came across Bai Tu Long as an alternate destination. And now I recommend it to everyone!
Travel in Bai Tu Long Bay, which is partially protected as a national park, is much more tightly regulated. Only a handful of companies are permitted to operate cruises and only on small ships, also the companies that operate here are required to follow much stricter policies regarding pollution and waste.
Is Bai Tu Long Bay worth visiting?
The biggest reason to visit Bai Tu Long Bay (or Halong Bay, for that matter) is to experience a truly incredible natural wonder. Jagged karsts shoot up out of emerald water, lush green islets dot the bay, and it’s so stunning it almost feels like a fairy tale.
One of the biggest highlights of the cruise was the chance to go kayaking in the bay. It made me feel like I got even more up close and personal with nature. The water was calm as I paddled among the tiny islands, looking up at the karsts from the kayak. If there was a way to spend a whole day just kayaking around the bay, I’d do it!
But taking a cruise through the bay, at least for me, isn’t about merely seeing some scenery. It’s about being immersed in nature, disconnecting from the outside world, and finding a sense of peace.
Because Bai Tu Long Bay is so uncrowded and quiet, the trip was incredibly relaxing. With no Wi-Fi on the ship and minimal cell service in the bay, disconnecting was basically a given. The cruise was time away from devices, screens, news, social media, gossip, and all the other things that can easily fill up our downtime.
How to Visit Bai Tu Long Bay
Bai Tu Long Bay can only be visited on a cruise ship with a permitted company, of which there’s a handful. Although these cruises are not something that can be done on a shoestring budget, it’s more than worth the cost.
My cruise was through Dragon Legend, which is a branch of a larger company called Indochina Junk. They’re known as one of the most responsible companies operating in Halong Bay and were the first to be permitted for cruises in Bai Tu Long Bay. Everything from the service to accommodations to excursions on the cruise was top-notch.
Cruises are typically either one or two nights, and I was fortunate to be able to go for two nights. If at all possible, that’s what I’d recommend. The one-night trips last less than 24 hours, and I imagine it would feel like there wasn’t really enough time to get immersed in the experience.
There are also a few options for day trips from Hanoi to Bai Tu Long Bay, which I’d advise against since time on the water would be super limited. Plus, a lot of the fun is staying overnight on the ship! And although it was foggy during much of my cruise, the stargazing from the ships must be incredible when the conditions are right.
Cruises run year-round, although cancelations do happen due to weather, especially in the summer, which is the rainy season. Northern Vietnam gets surprisingly chilly in the winter, so spring and fall are the ideal times for a cruise.
Most cruises include round-trip transportation from Hanoi, which has the closest airport and is about 2.5 hours away. I booked a (rare) package that didn’t include transportation and stayed overnight in Halong City before the cruise instead, but I can’t say there’s a whole lot to see in the city. Or at least, it far pales in comparison to my memory of the cruise itself.
Although the classic Hai Long Bay cruise is on most peoples bucket list, its popularity has become its downfall. If you’re after a more authentic experience that hasn’t suffered the fate of over tourism, then opt for the more regulated Bai Tu Long Bay instead. I assure you, you won’t be disappointed.
Save it for later
If you loved this bucket list article about how to experience Bai Tu Long Bay in Vietnam, or know someone that will, then please share and pin it for future reference.
If you have any questions, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Have a bucket list travel idea of your own that just needs to be shared? Fill out this form to get featured on the site.