Other travelers wrinkled their noses, shook their heads, and told us disappointing tales of overcrowding and pollution, of a bucket list item that was a letdown.
We were in Vietnam, asking fellow travelers about their experience in Halong Bay (also spelled Ha Long Bay).
Off the coast in the far north of the country, hundreds of limestone karsts and tiny islets jut up from the water, some towering hundreds of feet above the surface. The result is otherworldly scenery that’s so spectacular, it’s recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
But though Halong Bay had long been on my own bucket list, when we finally found ourselves in Vietnam, we started second-guessing going there at all. Everything we read online and heard from other travelers repeated the same themes.
Yes, it’s stunning, just like the pictures. But there are so many boats, and it’s insanely crowded. There are scams everywhere, and it’s heavily commercialized. The water is filthy and full of trash.
And with this level of overtourism and the environmental degradation that’s taking place, it’s not a sustainable travel destination. In fact, many point to Halong Bay as a prime example of how tourism can go wrong.
As one blogger who visited as part of an academic research trip to Vietnam put it:
“The entire experience left me feeling stressed out and disappointed in this so-called ‘must-see’ attraction. Other than the less than ideal personal experience, Ha Long Bay is creating a variety of economic and environmental issues in the local area. It’s simply not worth the damage it is currently creating.”
But visions of limestone islands were still dancing in my head, so I did a little more research. Some Google searches for responsible travel in Halong Bay turned up another place we hadn’t heard of: Bai Tu Long Bay, billed as a Halong Bay alternative that’s less crowded and more sustainable. One of the only companies running cruises there (and the very first to do so) is Dragon Legend, a branch of Indochina Junk, which is known as one of the most responsible operators in Halong Bay.
It sounded like we were going to get to have our cake and eat it, too.
Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam: A Halong Bay Alternative
Open up Google Maps, and you’ll see that Halong Bay extends straight off the coast of the eastern side of Halong City. Just to the northeast, running between the mainland and the Con Dao Islands, you’ll find Bai Tu Long Bay.
Though only Halong Bay has a recognizable name, there’s no obvious boundary between the two bays and nothing to really distinguish one from the other. In fact, the UNESCO World Heritage Site encompasses both. So whether you visit Bai Tu Long Bay or Halong Bay, you’ll experience the same ecology, geography, and world-famous landscapes.
The cruises through both bays are similar as well, although the exact itinerary depends on the company. Most trips in either Bai Tu Long Bay or Halong Bay stop at some combination of islands, beaches, caves, and villages, with kayaking, squid fishing, tai chi, and cooking class all common inclusions in both areas.
Bai Tu Long Bay or Halong Bay
Six million tourists now pour into Halong Bay every year (that’s four times more than visit Machu Picchu!). Hundreds of boats cruise through its waters every day, all trying to navigate the narrow passageways in between the karsts without running into each other.
I haven’t been able to find numbers on how many people visit Bai Tu Long Bay, but it can’t be that many. All the ships are small, and just a few companies operate trips there. During our two days on the water, we only saw a handful of other ships.
So, what does that mean?
One of the reasons I loved our Bai Tu Long cruise so much was that it was incredibly peaceful – calm, quiet, nothing but us and our natural surroundings. If there were a hundred other boats in the water around us, well, it just wouldn’t have been the same back-to-nature experience that felt so magical.
Crowded waters cut into the views of the scenery – which is the entire draw of visiting Halong Bay if you ask me– and it also means an incredible amount of noise. Compounding the inevitable noise that comes from all those boats and people on the water, many of Halong Bay’s cruises are targeted toward backpackers looking to party their way through the bay. And the sound of thumping music and late-night parties doesn’t get contained to their own boat, especially when so many ships are crammed together.
While I found the island and village excursions to be added bonuses rather than the main event, they were enjoyable because they were also peaceful and offbeat. It was just the small group of people from our ship in the water village we visited, at the cave we climbed through, and on the beach where we had lunch.
But in Halong Bay, the islands and other attractions get just as crowded as the water. Dozens of boats crowding the dock of any island, throngs plowing through caves en masse, and hundreds of tourists clambering to capture their next Instagram post.
Choosing a Halong Bay alternative isn’t just about avoiding crowds, though. It’s also because, well, Halong Bay is apparently kinda gross.
The sheer number of boats and people, combined with a lack of regulations, has created a huge problem with pollution. The bay and many of its islets are full of trash, and the water has become filthy. When we asked other travelers about swimming there, they looked alarmed – the water was so dirty, they said, that nobody had even considered jumping in.
Dozens of companies offer cruises in Halong Bay, and they really run the gamut. No doubt many companies operate high-quality, well-organized, safe trips and employ wonderful well-trained staff. But there are a lot of horror stories.
I’ve seen and heard complaints from SO many travelers that their guides didn’t speak any English, the rooms and dining areas were dirty, or the boats were rundown to the point of feeling unsafe. Halong Bay is also known for being rife with scams: trips that don’t follow the listed itinerary or boats that don’t match advertised pictures, extra “fees” levied once the cruise has started, and fake trips that are “cancelled” but never refunded.
While all this has to do more with the operator than the location, these problems seem to be far more common in Halong Bay than in Bai Tu Long.
Sustainability in Halong Bay
But Bai Tu Long Bay isn’t just a more pleasant destination – it’s also a more sustainable one. Halong Bay faces huge environmental problems, which go beyond the pollution and trash that’s obvious to visitors.
Since regulations are difficult to enforce, most boats dump their waste directly into the bay (which is as gross as it sounds), and boats frequently anchor right on coral reefs and beds of seagrass. The regular dredging that takes place dumps sediment on the shore, damaging the mangroves and coral. On islands in the bay, the popular caves are becoming degraded from the constant influx of visitors. The list goes on.
But in an area with fewer and more dispersed ships, those things don’t become a problem. Bai Tu Long Bay is also a national park, preserving both water and land and protecting hundreds of species of plants and animals. I’m guessing that’s a big part of why tourism and development have been so limited there.
Plus, the ships that operate in Bai Tu Long Bay are all very small (ours had 24 cabins). While many Halong Bay boats are similarly sized, others are more like typical cruise liners, notorious for the amount of air and water pollution they create and how much they disturb aquatic wildlife and affect smaller fishing boats.
Impact on the Local Population
To be honest, I’m not sure how much better Bai Tu Long Bay is doing in this area, although a few things I noticed during our trip with Dragon Legend seemed promising.
Halong Bay is notorious for being a place where local people, who also suffer from the crowding and pollution, see limited benefit from the tourism in their area. Many of the companies operating there are foreign-owned, most of the ships are staffed largely by crew from Hanoi and elsewhere, and the all-inclusive nature of the cruises keeps passengers spending money in just one place. Not only that, prices and crime are both going up, and the rampant commercialization is threatening traditional cultures.
For their part, we saw that Dragon Legend hires people from a local fishing village as rowers (our cruise included an incredibly memorable ride in a traditional rowboat), although I have no idea about their wages or working conditions.
There was also a music performance on the second night of our cruise, and some of the staff played a traditional style of music that’s in danger of dying out. Our guide talked about how the company trains staff in traditional instruments to help preserve the local culture.
Downsides to Bai Tu Long Bay
The biggest downside to visiting Bai Tu Long Bay is the cost. Halong Bay has cruises at just about every price point, but since the only trips in Bai Tu Long Bay are more upscale, there aren’t any shoestring-budget options.
Since there are so few companies operating in Bai Tu Long Bay, there are also fewer options overall, which means you don’t get as many choices when it comes to the ship, itinerary, excursions, or trip length. Since it takes more time to reach Bai Tu Long Bay, there aren’t as many day trips from Hanoi either (although I have seen a couple).
Lastly, there are a few specific attractions you’d only see by visiting Halong Bay – like Surprise Cave and Titov Island – but given everything else, we didn’t mind too much. Plus, we got to see Bai Tu Long Bay’s top sights, like Thien Canh Son Cave and Vung Vieng fishing village.
Planning Your Trip to Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam
Have I convinced you that cruising Bai Tu Long Bay needs to be part of your trip to Vietnam? If so, read on to plan your cruise…
Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise Operators
We loved our Dragon Legend cruise and highly recommend it, but there are some other companies offering trips there as well:
Swan Cruises: Swan only operates trips in Bai Tu Long Bay, with day cruise, one-night, and two-night options. They also have a trip that combines one night in Bai Tu Long Bay with a visit to a local eco-village and a cycling tour. Read their reviews here.
Treasure Junk: Treasure Junk has one- and two-night trips in Bai Tu Long Bay, and I was glad to see that their website describes the steps they’re taking to operate more responsibly. Read their reviews here.
It’s at all feasible with your schedule and budget, I would highly recommend taking a two-night cruise. While one night is certainly better than nothing and definitely worth the trip, I promise you’ll want to spend more time there.
Around lunchtime on our second day, I realized that the trip would already be over if we were on a one-night cruise, and I remember thinking how grateful I was that we’d been able to go for the longer option.
Weather in Bai Tu Long Bay
The weather in Bai Tu Long Bay is similar to Hanoi: warm and humid most of the year, but with distinct seasons. Unlike many parts of Southeast Asia, northern Vietnam’s temperatures drop off significantly in the winter months, with averages in the low 60s. This is also the foggy season, and thick mist can obscure views and sometimes even force cruises to be cancelled.
During the summer, temperatures are in the 80s with high humidity. This is also monsoon season in northern Vietnam, with heavy rains and high winds from May to September, which can make conditions unpleasant or cause cancellations.
The Best Time to Go
Weather-wise, spring or fall is the best time to visit Bai Tu Long Bay. Temperatures are comfortable, visibility is high, and conditions are pleasant – plus, there’s little chance of your cruise being cancelled. We went in mid-March, when it was pleasant but a little cooler and foggier than would have been ideal.
Better weather usually means peak tourist season – and fall is especially busy in Halong Bay. But since Bai Tu Long Bay stays quiet year-round, you don’t need to worry too much about timing your trip to avoid the crowds.
Getting There & Away
Many Bai Tu Long Bay cruises include transportation to and from Hanoi, with pick-up and drop-off at hotels there. But we booked our trip through Halong Bay Tours specifically because they charged separately for pick-up (and discounted the cruise). Since we were coming from Ninh Binh, going to Hanoi just to get picked up there would have been out of the way anyway.
So we took a bus straight from Ninh Binh to Halong City, and stayed there the night before the cruise. Even though it’s practically attached to one of the continent’s biggest tourist destinations, very few travelers (especially Westerners) spend time in the city. But by staying there, we were able to spend money with several local businesses and disperse our tourism dollars a little more.
We used Grab to get across the city, including to and from the cruise port at Hon Gai. After the cruise, we caught a bus to Hanoi from the public bus station in Halong City, which cost 80,000 dong (about $3.50) each.
Packing for Your Cruise
Since the companies that operate in Bai Tu Long Bay tend to be more upscale, a lot of amenities are included on the ship. The other items you’ll want to have are things you’d probably bring anywhere in Vietnam or Southeast Asia:
Swimsuit: One of Bai Tu Long Bay’s big advantages over Halong Bay is that you can swim there, either directly from the boat or off one of the islands, depending on where your ship stops.
Activewear: Most cruises include a kayaking excursion, and some have hiking, tai chi, and other options for getting active.
Scarf: If you visit in the cooler season like we did, a scarf makes it easy to layer up in the evenings.
Sandals: We liked having water or sport sandals for kayaking and walking through the water village, but flip-flops will also work just fine.
Contact solution, shaving cream, deodorant, and feminine hygiene products: These are four types of products that are often limited or hard to find in Southeast Asia. If you need them, bring them with you!
Kindle: Our cruise ship didn’t have Wi-Fi, and the cell service was weak – and it was blissful. It also gave us the perfect opportunity to dive into some good reads.
Dramamine: Although the water is usually calm in Bai Tu Long Bay, it can occasionally get rough. If you’re prone to motion sickness, bring along some Dramamine.
Dry bag: To protect your electronics when you go out kayaking or to the water village, store them in a dry bag.
Phone case: If you’re just bringing a phone with you, a waterproof case will keep it safe on excursions.
Water bottle: Our ship provided jugs of drinking water where we could refill our own bottles, and I’d imagine most ships in Bai Tu Long Bay do the same.
To keep your trip to Bai Tu Long Bay as sustainable as possible, consider packing some of these eco-friendly items as well, which will help minimize plastics and further cut down on waste.
Another Halong Bay Alternative
Apparently, there’s another alternative to Halong Bay! We didn’t even hear about Lan Ha Bay until sometime after our trip. It’s on the other side of Halong Bay, and from other travelers who’ve been there, it sounds very similar to Bai Tu Long Bay: it has the same iconic scenery, but it’s cleaner and less crowded than Halong Bay. Only a few companies operate there, and the ships are smaller and tend to be more upscale. If you’re considering Bai Tu Long Bay or Halong Bay, you might want to look at Lan Ha Bay as well!
The Future of Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam
We had an amazing time in Bai Tu Long Bay, and felt like we’d discovered a sustainable and off-the-beaten-track destination. My only concern now is whether it will eventually go the way of Halong Bay.
While Dragon Legend was once the only company permitted in Bai Tu Long Bay, there’s now a growing number of companies operating there. Tourism in the area overall looks to be on the verge of exploding, and with Halong Bay getting dirtier and more crowded every year, word is getting out about Bai Tu Long Bay as a less touristy alternative.
So, here’s hoping the permitting process for Bai Tu Long Bay doesn’t loosen up too much and that the area’s status as a national park helps keep things in check. But if the government doesn’t maintain restrictions (and even if it does), we all need to do our part to protect the bay as visitors – and the companies that operate there need to make it easy for their guests to do so.
As Bai Tu Long Bay gets more popular, I hope to see even more ships using alternative energy sources, encouraging clean-up efforts, and keeping waste down, so it remains a sustainable destination.
Are you adding Bai Tu Long Bay to your bucket list?
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