Ha Long bay is one of Vietnam’s most popular and visited sites. And, unfortunately, most exploited by tourism too. Is there a way to escape the crowds, on budget? Yes, there is. Read about my experience in this post.
A UNESCO WONDERLUST
Most of the tourists coming to Hanoi will end up to visit to Ha Long bay. The beauty of the place – A Unesco world heritage site since 1994 – and the convenience from the capital make it a must see.
The bay features thousands of limestone karsts and isles in various sizes and shapes, topped by rain forest. A breathtaking vision.
DISAPPOINTING HA LONG BAY TOURS
There is plenty of offers for 1 to 3 day tours in the bay, for any budget. A 2 day round tour from Hanoi can cost as little as 36 USD, transport, accommodation on the boat and meals included. Major cons are that this will imply only 3-4 hours of actual navigation, crowded bus and ships, awful food and accomodation. Average-level tours (around €90 for 2 days) would offer better conditions but still you would spend little time in the bay and mostly cruise in a highly trafficated spot as I have been told by some fellow traveller who did it. For a really different experience you should go for a way more expensive 3-day high level tour (150 to hundreds $).
But there is an alternative for budget travellers.
THE ALTERNATIVE: LAN HA BAY
A tricky thing has to be devealed. Not many Halong Bay visitors are aware that the limestones karsts and islands go beyond the actual “Ha Long bay park”. South you find Lan Ha bay, while Northeast Bai Tu Long bay. From an admistrative point they account for three separate parks, each one with its own turist fees, but from a geological and geographical standpoint they are a whole! If you don’t mind the Ha Long bay “brand” but care about the experience you may start seeing the bigger picture.
I haven’t been to Bai Tu Long nor met anyone who has, but I read good things about it, being the most faraway and therefore more untouched one. A minus of course is that you should invest more time and money to visit it. Apperently the best compromise is Lan Ha bay. That’s were I decided to go.
STARTING THE JOURNEY: GETTING TO CÁT BÀ
Lan Ha bay’s access point is Cát Bà, the largest island of the region. First step is therefore getting there. Although It is possible to go from Ha Long city / Bai Chay (access point to Ha Long bay), the most convenient port is Hai Phong, both if you’re coming from North (Hanoi) or South, like in my case. There is a regular bus+ferry route from Hanoi, connecting the closest land point (north of Hai Phong) to the Western part of the island, with a bus taking you to Cát Bà town. When I arrived to Hai Phong from Ninh Binh it was impossible to find out how to get on this route, but I took it on the way back from Cát Bà and was dropped in the middle of nowhere outside Hai Phong after 2 hours (120.000 dong = 5€) and had to take a taxi to the bus station. Alternatevely you can take a fast ferry (hydrofoil) from Hai Phong’s Behn Binh pier, which takes 45 minutes and gets right to Cat Ba town (180.00 dong = 7€ – consider additional 1/2 hour and 50.000 dong / 2€ to get to the port from Hai Phong bus station by motorbike taxi). I took it on the way on to the island. It was ok, but beware of on-line timetables (some ferry scheduled circulate only in peak season) and possible scams (I was taken by the motorbike taxi to another’s company and they wanted to sell me a more expensive ticket. Walk around and compare before buying).
WHAT TO DO IN CÁT BÀ
Cát Bà has some attractions on its own. Tour operators propose day tours for trekking in the island’s national park or visiting Cannon fort and Hospital cave (around 12$). I didn’t try the trekking but I climbed to Cannon fort. Previously known as Height 177, It used to be a French military observation and defence point that features huge size cannons and trench and shelter systems of fortifications that were built in 1940s and used throught Vietnam war. This is undisputedly the island’s best view point, allowing to see both sides of the see and the closer part of Lan Ha bay. Sunset is the best moment to enjoy the view.
Cát Bà town lives on tourism, so you find there plenty of restaurants, bars and travel agencies. As a consequence don’t expect an authentic atmosphere. I walked a bit away from the center and found the local market with some basic street food, but it wasn’t very exciting. Nevertheless when I was there (mid December 2015) it wasn’t very crowded.
CHOOSING A LAN HA BAY TOUR
When I arrived in Cát Bà weather was rainish and temperature around 15 degrees. I was aware that it wasn’t the ideal time for visiting. Best periods to visit Ha Long and Lan Ha bay are March-June and October-November when sun mostly shines, In December many days are cloudy or rainy, while in January and February even drizzly and foggy.
There is a fierce competition for boat tours in the bay. Prices for the basic tours are the same everywhere: 16$ for the day tour, 70$ for the 2-day one (including meals and accomodation on the boat). Asia outdoors and Cat Ba ventures have a good reputation for the adventure tours (rock climbing, kayaking, etc) but are more expensive. I decided to focus on a basic 2-day tour in the bay (all packages include some kayaking), wishing to be lucky for the weather. I compared various offers and realized that the leaflets are a bit overpromizing. On the 2-day option they claim to visit Bai Tu Long bay and Ha Long bay but this is not true (as I could later check with my GPS). There is a simple reason for that: they should pay for the entrance fee of those parks and nobody wants to do that when on a price competition. My final choice was the package from the tour operator stand just outside the pier, as it seemed to have better reviews on Tripadvisor.
CRUISING THE BAY
The tour started at 8am on a motorised Chinese-style junk. We were about 20 people on board. After leaving the crowded Cát Bà main harbour we soon passed by a fishing floating village. Thousands of people are supposed to live in such villages in the bay but mostly are in the archipelago in front of the island’s Eastern side. As far as I understood they also grow fish and shrimps.
First stop was at Monkey island. We stayed about 40 minutes, so no time to climb for the view. The island has a nice sandy beach and the main attraction – as you can imagine – are about 20 sleepy little monkeys quite used to steal tourists’ food and drinks.
The top moment of the first day was the stop in a small bay where we went kayaking. It was great fun since the landscape was beautiful and there were some tunnels to explore. it was a bit messy at times because there were many kayaks around (maybe 30) but overall it was very good. It was also possible to swim and snorkel, but the days was chilly so only a few dared.
After lunch on board (some rice, omelette and stir-fried vegetables and chicken) we cruised back to drop on another boat the people who were doing the 1 day tour. Only 5 of us left for the night, all French speaking: 2 French, 2 Belgians and myself (read Audrey’s post here). We then cruised to the inner part of Lan Ha bay and casted anchor. We saw sunset and sunrise surrounded by a 360 degrees view over limestone karsts. Dinner was pretty much same as lunch but the great plus was that we moved on top of the junk and had it enjoying sunset. The accomodation on the boat was quite basic. Me and the guys slept on berths, while the two girls managed to have a cabin.
The next morning sun was shining for us and we had a small bay almost for our own. We went kayaking again for a couple of hours, reaching some small beaches and getting close to a sail junk (a luxury package tour). A few people from it were sunbathing on a small beach. It was really awesome, I couldn’t have asked for better. After that we had lunch and came back to Cát Bà at 15.30 in time for catching the last bus leaving the island.
I’m very happy I chose to visit Lan Ha bay instead of Ha Long bay. And very satisfied I took a 2-day cruise. Being almost alone in the bay at early morning was great. This made it worth the 70$. I must admit I was very lucky to get a warm sunny day in December – almost low season -, otherwise I would probably have a different opinion. But since Ha Long bay will be always be more crowded in any season, if you are a budget traveler Lan Ha bay is definetely where you should head to.