When booking my Vietnam holiday I was looking forward to cruising between the limestone peaks of Bai Tu Long Bay, Halong Bay’s quieter neighbour, after hearing others rave about the serenity of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Top Gear aside, the bay is famous for its thousands of small islets, each of which looms up from the turquoise waters in various shapes and sizes. Around 1600 Vietnamese people live amongst the islands on brightly coloured floating houses and fish farms dot the waters.
Myths & Legends
Legend has it that Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay were created when Vietnam was at war with invaders. The gods sent dragons to defend the country and they did so by spitting out jewels and jade which turned into thousands of tall rock mountains, forming a bay to create a wall against invasion. It’s little wonder then that the symbol of the dragon is widely used all over the bays, from carvings on the authentic Junk Boats which drift peacefully between the iconic karsts to the local stories shared with visitors. Halong Bay translated roughly to ‘The Bay of the Descending Dragon’, referring to the point at which the mother dragon descended from heaven. Bai Tu Long Bay can be translated to ‘The Bay of the Attending Dragon Children’.
It took around four hours to drive from Hanoi to Halong city (where the pier is located) which is tucked away in the northern Quang Ninh province. On arrival, we boarded a small boat which transported us and our fellow passengers to a traditional Chinese Junk Boat which then set sail into the misty bay. It was an amazing feeling to look out of the window and see that we were surrounded by hundreds of Karst cliffs.
After settling into our cosy cabin, nestled in the bottom of the boat, we were shown into the dining room where we were served a delicious three-course menu of fresh fish, rice, vegetables and meat dishes along with a delicious dessert! Once we had finished our lunch we had plenty of opportunities to take photos before we got ready for our kayaking trip.
We kayaked with our group and guide from a small floating village with looming cliffs surrounding us. Our guide Mee, told us about the rock formations as we paddled on the calm water. After a refreshing dip in the sea we headed back to the boat where dinner was served by the friendly staff. Vietnamese games and squid fishing followed.
The next morning we woke early and headed to a complex of caves, hidden in the limestone rocks. As a group we decided we would head there before breakfast to beat the crowds, we had the place to ourselves to explore. After climbing up about 100 steps we climbed through the narrow entrance and was greeted by hundreds of stalagmites and stalactites gleaming in the soft yellow glow of the lights. The cave is pretty rustic, kind of what you expect from a cave really, there are no handrails or walkways so you do enter at your own risk but this natural wonder never fails to fascinate. The view from the top is pretty epic too, looking down on the sea below.
Back on board, we had a breakfast buffet of fruit, eggs, bacon and pancakes – you certainly won’t go hungry on this boat! After an hour to freshen up we checked out of our cabin so they could get it ready for the next set of guests – the turnaround is seamless.
As we cruised back to shore we took part in a spring roll making challenge (I won!) and had a cooking demo from the onboard cook – some people had a go at carving the vegetable flowers for themselves but it’s a pretty tricky skill! Before we waved our goodbyes to the friendly crew we had yet another tasty meal to set us up for the transfer back to Hanoi.
Why we offer Bai Tu Long Bay over Halong Bay
We have decided to offer Bai Tu Long Bay exclusively on our trips instead of the more well-known Halong Bay. Unfortunately, Halong Bay is experiencing overcapacity and, as a result, the environment is suffering. We always try to be part of the solution so this instance we want to alleviate some of the pressure on Halong Bay by offering an alternative. We hope this will help make this hot spot more sustainable in the future – providing local people with employment and allowing visitors to enjoying this stunning place.