Ha Long Bay and its thousands of limestone islands and turquoise waters evoke an image in travellers’ minds of a mystical place, serene and beautiful. Unfortunately, mass tourism has taken over Ha Long Bay and what was once a quiet, lovely place is now filled with many tour boats and even some booze cruises playing doof-doof music well into the night.
Not exactly peaceful.
Fortunately, there is a way to see the beauty of this area without all that craziness. (Drumroll please…) Introducing Bai Tu Long Bay, the little known but actually bigger sibling of Ha Long Bay. Bai Tu Long Bay is slightly to the north of the more popular Ha Long Bay, but it’s in the same UNESCO World Heritage area. The great thing is, not many tour companies run boat cruises to Bai Tu Long Bay – at least not yet.
Indochina Junk is one of the companies that run trips to Bai Tu Long Bay. We signed up for a two-day, one night cruise on the Dragon Legend boat and were picked up by a luxury van from our hotel in Hanoi early one day. And I mean luxury! This van had reclining armchair seats, a fridge, and even a TV that came out of the wall!
After four hours (and of course a mandatory stop at a hideous marble sculpture workshop slash embroidery gallery as is commonplace on Vietnamese tours) we arrived at Ha Long City, the gateway to the bay and where our boat was waiting.
Our cabin on the Dragon Legend was gorgeous – a huge soft bed and a couch which looked out to the green water of the bay, and an ensuite bathroom with a spa bath! We don’t usually travel in such luxurious style, so it was lovely for once to experience this style of travel. I reckon I could get used to it!
The crew on the Dragon Legend really knew how to fill our schedule with activities. First there was an eight-course lunch filled with local seafood specialties as we were cruising out to Bai Tu Long Bay. Unfortunately we’d had a bit of the old Delhi Belly that morning so weren’t really in the mood for steamed sea bass and crab skewers, but the food definitely looked delicious!
When we reached the first stop we got into kayaks and paddled behind one of the guides around the limestone islands. It was a stunning, hot day so it was lovely to get down close to the water and splash around! The bay is so beautiful, and there are so many islands – it’s quite an amazing sight seeing the lumpy horizon and realising that no, those are actually lots of islands and not one big piece of land.
After we finished kayaking and swimming the Dragon Legend motored towards our anchorage for the night, and we finally got some time to relax. Shaun got a massage and I photographed the fiery sunset accompanied by a very nice mojito. We were lucky with the weather – apparently it’s rare to have a clear blue-sky day in Bai Tu Long Bay.
Dinner was another eight-course affair, and the best course was MYO (Make Your Own) spring rolls with fried mackerel, lettuce, coriander, cucumber, carrot and nuoc cham (fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and chilli) dipping sauce. Yum!
After dinner, one of the crew members by the name of Harry Potter (seriously, and there was another guy called James Bond!) did a magic trick to entertain us all. It was flipping hilarious!
We awoke early with the sun streaming in – damn, wish we had a west-facing cabin! Breakfast was pretty early as we motored towards an island with a cave that we were to visit – yet another activity!
There was a 100-step climb up to the cave, a dry cave halfway up one of the limestone islands. There were a few stalactites and stalagmites which were pretty nice, but the cave was full of people from other boats; it was really the only time we saw many other tourists.
There were kayaks to use at the beach but we just relaxed – we’d done enough kayaking the day before! After a while the tender took us back to Dragon Legend and we motored back towards Ha Long City and the port.
On our way back we had a buffet ‘lunch’ – I put lunch in quote marks because it was at 10.30 am, but couldn’t really be classed as breakfast as it included French fries, chicken, and other more lunchy foods.
On the way back to Hanoi in the luxury van we stopped at the Yen Duc Village for a water puppet show, a tradition in Vietnam. The heavens had opened and a massive thunderstorm was in full force, and the water puppet show was outside! Fortunately we were under a shelter but we couldn’t really hear what was going on, the rain was so loud. Quite appropriate really I guess, to watch a water puppet show in the rain.
We were so lucky that we went to Bai Tu Long Bay the day that we did, because apparently the cruises going out the day that we finished were cancelled because of the bad weather! That would have been so disappointing.
Finally in the late afternoon we arrived back in Hanoi. Bai Tu Long Bay was a treat – it was so great to get out on the water and stay on a luxurious boat like the Dragon Legend. If you’re thinking of going to Ha Long Bay, we strongly recommend you head to Bai Tu Long Bay – we only saw a couple of other tour boats the whole time we were there.
Two-day, one night cruises on the Dragon Legend are approximately $250 USD per person for a double cabin (price depends on the time of year), including all food (not drinks though) and the luxury van transfer from Hanoi (as of June 2016).
Thanks to Indochina Junk for subsidising our trip to Bai Tu Long Bay on the Dragon Legend. As always, you’ll receive our honest opinion regardless of who foots the bill. Follow Dragon Legend on Facebook!