Bai Tu Long: the bay less travelled in Vietnam
With imposing limestone karsts enshrouded in mist above still, teal waters, Halong Bay is like no other place on earth.
Long has the Bay been chock-a-block with boats, full of tourists wishing to see the UNESCO World Heritage Site for themselves. We weren't too keen on feeling like sardines on a conveyor belt, so we wanted to find a way that we could avoid most, if not all, of the crowds.
The three Bays
After an initial, daunting Google search bringing back hundreds of thousands of results, it was clear that there are three main areas to visit in the wider Halong Bay area: Halong Bay itself, Lan Ha Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay.
The former is the Bay most people have heard of. The most recent King Kong movie shot scenes here and it's an easy option for day trippers, or one-night cruises.
Lan Ha Bay, to the south west of Halong, is home to Cat Ba Island. It's the place for adventure enthusiasts, with jungle trekking and rock climbing on offer. Some cruise companies with 3D/2N itineraries spend one of the nights on the island and incorporate some of these activities. Many people journey here independently and arrange their own boat or kayak tours from Cat Ba town.
Bai Tu Long Bay, to the north east, is similarly quiet and offers all the beauty of neighbouring Halong Bay. With only a small number of tourist boats allowed to travel here (apparently it's something like 40 as opposed to the 400+ boats that can cruise Halong Bay), it's still relatively undiscovered and untouched by mainstream tourism.
Indochina Junk's Dragon Pearl
Even once you narrow it down to which Bay you want to travel, there is still a variety of different boats to consider. We looked at the itineraries and what was included in each, and after scouring Google results, travel blogs and TripAdvisor, we'd settled on a 3D/2N cruise aboard Indochina Junk's Dragon Pearl.
At around 8.00am on Day One, we are picked up by Indochina Junk in a plush minivan from our guesthouse in Hanoi's Old Quarter and driven to Yen Duc village. We enjoy a relaxed traditional Vietnamese lunch and a water puppet show, before continuing on to Halong.
We board our boat around 1.00pm and are introduced to our captain (who I affectionately call Chris - in private - as he reminds me slightly of Matt's dad...) our guide, Kim, and the rest of the crew. The first afternoon sees us leaving the mainland behind and settling into our comfortable cabins.
With only 11 small but beautiful teak cabins on board and a maximum of 20 passengers, the boat never feels crowded and a camaraderie quickly develops between our group. This certainly wouldn't be possible on boats which take 50+ passengers.
The two sundecks and indoor restaurant area provide perfect opportunities to watch the limestone karts go by, and we settle in for our sail to Cap La.
Early evening, I slide into a kayak to explore Tra San from the water. There's a distinct silence to the bay, only the sound of paddles slapping the water can be heard as we drift through caves and pass fishermen heading back to their boathouses for the evening.
Back at the boat, dinner is served.
The chef (nicknamed 'Johnnie Walker'...) teaches us how to make spring rolls before presenting what can only be described as a banquet. Noodle soups, hotpots, skewers, salads, and more is laid before us, and it is all delicious.
In the morning, we cruise to Cong Dam to kayak inside dark lagoons and visit a pretty, secluded beach at Hon Co Island.
We anchor in a quiet part of the bay and take a smaller boat over for our beach barbecue, which is as scrumptious as the previous night's dinner.
We climb the steps to Thien Canh Son cave to reveal some breathtaking views of the bay, before making our way back to Dragon's Pearl.
The next morning, we wake to find the boat shrouded in mist.
Our cruise from Cong Do towards Vung Vieng is surreal, with the karsts revealing themselves dramatically as we edge closer and break through the haze.
Our final stop on our cruise is Vung Vieng fishing village.
We disembark and hop into a rustic rowing boat, driven by strong, local men and women, to explore the area.
There used to be a school at Vung Vieng, however, Kim tells us it's now shut down as it is difficult to get teachers to live out in the Bay permanently.
Fishing and oyster farming are the two main sources of income in villages such as these. Families here live in small communities and work together often, sharing resources where they can.
We board Dragon's Pearl and begin our journey back to the harbour. After a sublime and relaxing three days aboard, we are ready for the next stage of our journey - the overnight train from Hanoi to Dong Hoi...
Across Land & Sea received a media rate from Indochina Junk. As always, opinions, photographs and typos are our own.