We all have heard of a Vietnam trip cannot be completed without a cruise tour to Halong Bay. Halong Bay often appears first in your mind because it is more famous than the other bays and be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994. What most people don’t know is that Halong Bay is not the only gorgeous one in the area. There are 3 of them: Halong Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay. And they all shine in their own nuances and are unmistakable. Unfortunately, you don’t have enough time to explore both 3 of them.Let’s take a closer look to see how well you know one of the most beautiful places on earth, as well as what it is still hiding from the world?
Needless to mention the reputation of this world nature wonder, Halong Bay becomes busier than ever as its beauty really stood the test of the time. Hence, be prepared for the huge amounts of visitors here. However, it’s fair to say that Halong Bay owns the unique gracefulness which can make up to anything that might be your concern.
This is the most extensive area of limestone mountains which made the signature of Halong Bay. With every changes of the time during the day, the light gently touches the mountains to create a colorful orchestra of the nature. Staying in this bay always leaves you in awe of the contrast between a small human-being and the great Mother Nature. Apart from that, Halong Bay features the largest and most beautiful caves of 3 bays. Not directly facing the ocean like its neighboring bays, this is the safest spot to swim with minimum effect of ocean currents and the warmer water.
The blessing scenery has been attracting a lot of foreign film makers to come and create masterpieces, the most famous ones are Indochine (1992) and Kong: Skull Island (2017). Many Vietnamese artists also come to Halong Bay to nurture their senses of art. Don’t miss your chance on this.
In an ideal world, visitors would be able to enjoy Halong’s beauty in reverential silence. That, unfortunately, will never be the case again, as hundreds of cruise boats now contest for space every day in one of Asia’s most popular tourist attractions. Especially in the peak seasons of spring and autumn, Halong’s waterways can seem tightly packed and the beauty can feel a little less intimate. Halong Bay’s overcrowding is the number 1 complaint levelled at the site, but those able to tune out the other cruises are still able to find a lot to be awestruck by.
The white-sand beaches around Halong Bay are pretty numerous, including Titop, Soi Sim, Tuan Chau and Bai Chay. However, the latter two of these are artificial beaches which, while still highly beautiful, contain a different feel quite far removed from the castaway experience visitors expect of the bay. Most other beaches visited by Halong Bay cruises are subject to the same overcrowding as the ocean, meaning that relaxing is best saved for the sundeck of your own ship.
One of the big differences between Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay is the time required to travel to each from Hanoi, from where 99% of all tours depart. Even after the construction of a new highway, travel time from the capital is 3.5 – 4 hours, meaning early starts and late returns to the hotel can be expected. Compare this with Lan Ha Bay, which can be reached in around half the time, and it becomes obvious why daytrippers short on time would opt for this much more accessible bay.
Bai Tu Long Bay
If the crowd is a problem for you, Bai Tu Long Bay is a more peaceful yet magnificent area in this complex. When it comes to comparisons, this bay almost has everything its renowned sister offers except for less tourists. In short, it’s a laid-back alternative to the bustle of Halong Bay. Boasting the same spectacular scenery of islands, karst pinnacles and the caves, there are plenty of activities for you to enjoy here from trekking, rock climbing to taking a dip in some secluded beaches or just purely treasuring the nature beauty. In addition, it’s the only bay which is home to one of seven Vietnamese national parks. For all nature lovers: don’t miss a chance to pay a visit to Bai Tu Long National Park which features both a terrestrial and an aquatic zone to cherish the pristine and flourishing wildlife here as it’s under strict protection.
However, when comparing Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay, not only does Bai Tu Long have fewer caves and fishing villages than Halong, but it actually contains just one of each. Thien Canh Son Cave, while still impressive, is far from the same magnitude as Sung Sot and acts as the only cave in Bai Tu Long with access to cruises. As well as this, Vung Vieng floating village offers a meager snapshot of local life here, but its smaller size and lack of residents makes it more of a sad relic of the past.
Further, Bai Tu Long Bay is the most distant from Hanoi. Though cruises for Bai Tu Long leave from a nearby port to that of Halong, the time it takes to reach the first of the limestone mountains is quite considerable. After the bus transfer, checking in at the waiting lounge and sailing along the mainland coastline, visitors are looking at about 5 hours of travel time before they can lay eyes on the famed beauty – certainly not an option for daytrippers.
Lan Ha Bay
Situated in the south of the Halong Bay and the east of Cat Ba Island, Lan Ha Bay humbly shines in its own beauty which is no less than Halong itself. Being the smallest one out of the 3 well-known bays, 400 of the karst formations were covered by greeneries and elegantly rest in the emerald waters. It earned the title as “Kayaking Paradise” for allowing travelers to paddle through plenty of caves and around the area. 139 sandy beaches are modest in sizes which makes them perfect for swimming, chilling out or even snorkeling to see coral reefs in some of them. Other than that, there is a splendid cycling route to Cat Ba National Park for visiting Viet Hai fishing village.
This is an ideal spot to spoil your adrenaline thirst by trying out some trekking, deep water bouldering, and rock climbing. We highly recommend this bay for adventurous travelers who also want to have a sense of the world nature wonder.
However, floating village excursions are practically non-existent on Lan Ha Bay cruises. Floating village culture sadly ran out of steam amid the modernisation of Halong and its most ancient village, Cai Beo in Lan Ha Bay, is essentially the only one of its kind remaining. Like Vung Vieng in Bai Tu Long Bay, Cai Beo lacks permanent residents and does not convey much about the old way of life that existed here for centuries.
Another negative to consider is that Lan Ha is currently under a huge drive to introduce mass tourism to the area. This includes the building of a gigantic port in Hai Phong city and the near-monthly announcement of another new cruise to its waters. At the time of writing, Lan Ha Bay is still far quieter than both Halong and Bai Tu Long, but a year is a long time in tourism and no one knows how crowded Lan Ha could be during the 2020s.
Which Cruise Tour Suits You The Best?
All the three bay have their own pros and cons and you should consider them carefully before making the decision. To help you sort it out more easily, we will list down the advantages as well as disadvantages of each location:
|HALONG BAY||BAI TU LONG BAY||LAN HA BAY|
|Geography||170 km to the east of Hanoi
1969 islets (most are limestones)
Area: 1553 km2
|30 km to the east of Halong Bay
3000 craggy and towering islets
Area: 560 km2
|16 km to the east of Cat Ba Isl
~ 400 islets
Area: ~ 76 km2
|Port||Tuan Chau||Hon Gai||Got|
|Transportation||From Hanoi city centre: 146 km -Shuttle bus / Car (3h25’)
From Noi Bai Int’ Airport: 148 km – Shuttle Bus / Car (3h) or Seaplane (45’)
From Cat Bi Int’ Airport: 62 km – Private Car / Taxi (1h45’)
|From Hanoi city centre: 136 km – Shuttle Bus / Car (3h15’)
From Noi Bai Int’ Airport: 157 km – Shuttle Bus / Car (3h20’)
From Cat Bi Int’ Airport: 79 km – Private Car / Taxi (2h)
|From Hanoi city centre: 153 km – Shuttle Bus / Car (2h)
From Noi Bai Int’ Airport: 150 km – Shuttle Bus / Car (2h30’)
From Cat Bi Int’ Airport: 28 km – Private Car / Taxi (40’)
|Sight-seeing||Ti Top Island (Titov Island)
Three Peaches Beach
Soi Sim Beach
Tuan Chau Beach
|Cap La Island
Hon Co Island
Bai Tu Long National Park
Thien Canh Son Cave
Vung Vieng Fishing Village
|Viet Hai Fishing Village
Trung Trang Cave
Cai Beo Floating Village
Visiting a fishing village by sampan
Fishing from the boat
Visiting a fishing village by sampan
Fishing from the boat
Cycling the island road
Fishing from the boat
|Pros||Immense natural beauty
The largest and most impressive caves
Largest selection of white-sand beaches
Only bay with a fully inhabited floating village
|More relaxing atmosphere than in Halong Bay
A huge amount of quiet beaches
Excellent areas for kayaking
|Wonderfully quiet waterways
Fabulous and accessible beaches
Hosts Cat Ba Island
Shortest travel time required
|Cons||Risk of overcrowding
Mostly artificial beaches
Requires the longest travel time to reach
|Fewer interesting caves
The longest distance required to reach
A single floating village offering
|Virtually no floating villages
Risk of overcrowding is growing
|Cruises||Glory Legend Cruise
Au Co Cruises
Stellar of the Seas Cruise
Oasis Bay Cruise
|Dragon Pearl Junk Cruises
Red Dragon Cruises
Dragon Legend Cruise
Huong Hai Sealife Cruises
La Regina Cruises
|Mon Cheri Cruises
When you’re considering between Halong Bay, Lan Ha Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay, there is no wrong answer here, only good options. The only and simple key for a great trip to this nature wonder is choosing the right cruise. It’s totally fine to make your decision on the basis of gut feeling. And if you are a traveler who has all the time in the world, there’s always a possibility to explore all 3 of them.