Why You Should Visit Bai Tu Long Bay Instead of Halong Bay

If you're traveling to Vietnam, a visit to the famous Halong Bay is a must. Located a few hours outside of the capital of Hanoi, Halong Bay is a 1553 square-kilometer area of emerald green water with thousands of towering limestone isles and pillars sprinkled throughout it. 

Thanks to its stunning setting and natural beauty (which earned it UNESCO World Heritage site designation in the early 1990s), millions of people come to see the bay every year. And because the bay is best experienced via the water, the bay is flooded with thousands of cruise ships every day. 

Luckily there are lesser traveled areas where you can go to still experience the bay without the crowds. The bay is divided into two areas: Halong Bay, the namesake area located in the southern half; and Bai Tu Long Bay, located in the northeastern half of the bay. 

Bai Tu Long Bay - which is just as stunning as its southern counterpart - has remained under the radar and provides the perfect gateway to exploring the area as an alternative to the tourist-filled parts of Halong Bay. 

Several cruise companies already offer trips to the area. We joined Indochina Junk on their Dragon Legend two-day, one-night cruise. The tour included round-trip transfer from Hanoi Old Quarter, overnight accommodation in our own private cruise cabin, kayaking, and all meals during our stay.

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In late March the weather wasn't the best - it had been raining in the days leading up to our cruise. But getting to see the limestone isles up close was mesmerizing. And in the end, the rain and mist actually gave the bay a mystical feeling, and made our cruise that much more memorable. 

Based on our experience I would recommend:

  • Choosing Bai Tu Long Bay instead of Halong Bay. During our entire cruise we only saw a handful of other boats, which was one of the things I loved most about the experience. Being away from the crowds added to the peacefulness and allowed us to really enjoy the scenery. I don't think we would have had the same experience if we had gone to Halong Bay.
  • Opting for a three-day, two-night (3D/2N) cruise, if you have the time. The two-day, one-night (2D/1N) cruise is good if you're short on time but it's essentially a 24-hour trip so it can feel a bit rushed.
  • Be prepared for some touristy bits, but don't let that distract you from the incredible scenery. I will admit that the cruise felt touristy, which I didn't love. I don't think that was specific to Indochina Junk, but because of the nature of the way they do business the schedule is packed and things (like food and service) can lose quality. But these things don't seem to matter as much when you sit and enjoy the views throughout the bay.
  • Chose your cruise operator wisely, and take size into consideration. If you are planning a trip to Halong Bay/Bai Tu Long Bay, there is no better way to experience it than by cruise. Being on the water let's you see everything up close and personal and it is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. That said, it's important to do your research before booking (because the cruises aren't cheap, and you get what you pay for). Our cruise had about 25-30 people total. Mostly couples but also a few groups with young children. I think the size of the group was great, especially because I've heard some of the larger boats can have hundreds of people at a time.

Have you been to Bai Tu Long Bay? Are you headed there soon? We'd love to hear! Share your story with us and others in the comments below!