How to choose a bai tu long bay cruise


Other travelers wrinkled their noses, shook their heads, và told us disappointing tales of overcrowding & pollution, of a bucket danh sách thành công that was a letdown.

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We were in Vietphái nam, 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 sầu 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 danh sách, when we finally found ourselves in Vietphái nam, we started second-guessing going there at all. Everything we read online & heard from other travelers repeated the same themes.

Yes, it’s stunning, just like the pictures. But there are so many boats, và it’s insanely crowded. There are scams everywhere, & it’s heavily commercialized. The water is filthy & full of trash.

And with this level of overtourism & the environmental degradation that’s taking place, it’s not a sustainable travel destination. In fact, many point lớn Halong Bay as a prime example of how tourism can go wrong.

Want to lớn see the scenery of #HalongBay without all the crowds? Visit #BaiTuLongBay instead, a more sustainable alternative. #Vietnam #thisissustainable Click To Tweet

As one blogger who visited as part of an academic research trip khổng lồ Vietnam put it:

“The entire experience left me feeling stressed out và 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 và environmental issues in the local area. It’s simply not worth the damage it is currently creating.”


But visions of limestone islands were still nhảy in my head, so I did a little more retìm kiếm. 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 và more sustainable. One of the only companies running cruises there (và the very first to lớn bởi vì 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 khổng lồ get lớn have sầu our cake and eat it, too.



Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam: A Halong Bay Alternative

mở cửa up Google Maps, & 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 & 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 và nothing khổng lồ 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, và villages, with kayaking, squid fishing, tai bỏ ra, và 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 lớn each other.

I haven’t been able khổng lồ find numbers on how many people visit Bai Tu Long Bay, but it can’t be that many. All the ships are small, & 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 & our natural surroundings. If there were a hundred other boats in the water around us, well, it just wouldn’t have sầu been the same back-to-nature experience that felt so magical.

Crowded waters cut inkhổng lồ the views of the scenery – which is the entire draw of visiting Halong Bay if you ask me– và it also means an incredible amount of noise. Compounding the inevitable noise that comes from all those boats & people on the water, many of Halong Bay’s cruises are targeted toward backpackers looking to lớn buổi tiệc ngọt their way through the bay. And the sound of thumping music & late-night parties doesn’t get contained lớn their own boat, especially when so many ships are crammed together.

While I found the islvà and village excursions khổng lồ be added bonuses rather than the main event, they were enjoyable because they were also peaceful và offbeat. It was just the small group of people from our ship in the water village we visited, at the cave sầu we climbed through, và on the beach where we had lunch.


But in Halong Bay, the islands & other attractions get just as crowded as the water. Dozens of boats crowding the doông chồng of any island, throngs plowing through caves en masse, & hundreds of tourists clambering khổng lồ capture their next Instagram post.


Choosing a Halong Bay alternative sầu isn’t just about avoiding crowds, though. It’s also because, well, Halong Bay is apparently kindomain authority gross.

The sheer number of boats và people, combined with a lachồng of regulations, has created a huge problem with pollution. The bay và many of its islets are full of trash, và 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 toàn thân had even considered jumping in.

Service & Quality

Dozens of companies offer cruises in Halong Bay, và they really run the gamut. No doubt many companies operate high-quality, well-organized, safe trips và employ wonderful well-trained staff. But there are a lot of horror stories.

I’ve sầu seen & heard complaints from SO many travelers that their guides didn’t speak any English, the rooms & dining areas were dirty, or the boats were rundown to lớn 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, & kém chất lượng trips that are “cancelled” but never refunded.

While all this has to lớn vị more with the operator than the location, these problems seem lớn 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 và trash that’s obvious to lớn visitors.

Since regulations are difficult to lớn enforce, most boats dump their waste directly into lớn the cất cánh (which is as gross as it sounds), & boats frequently anchor right on coral reefs & beds of seagrass. The regular dredging that takes place dumps sediment on the shore, damaging the mangroves và coral. On islands in the cất cánh, the popular caves are becoming degraded from the constant influx of visitors. The danh sách goes on.

But in an area with fewer và more dispersed ships, those things don’t become a problem. Bai Tu Long Bay is also a national park, preserving both water and l& và protecting hundreds of species of plants và animals. I’m guessing that’s a big part of why tourism và 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 lượt thích typical cruise liners, notorious for the amount of air và water pollution they create and how much they disturb aquatic wildlife & 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 & 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 Legkết thúc 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, & 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 lớn help preserve sầu the local culture.

Downsides khổng lồ Bai Tu Long Bay

The biggest downside khổng lồ 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 lớn the ship, itinerary, excursions, or trip length. Since it takes more time to lớn reach Bai Tu Long Bay, there aren’t as many day trips from Hanoi either (although I have sầu seen a couple).

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Lastly, there are a few specific attractions you’d only see by visiting Halong Bay – lượt thích Surprise Cave & Titov Islvà – but given everything else, we didn’t mind too much. Plus, we got lớn see Bai Tu Long Bay’s top sights, lượt thích Thien Canh Son Cave and Vung Vieng fishing village.

Planning Your Trip to Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam

Have sầu I convinced you that cruising Bai Tu Long Bay needs khổng lồ 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 Legover cruise & highly recommover 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, & two-night options. They also have sầu 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.

Oriental Sails: Oriental Sails primarily operates cruises in Halong Bay, but also runs a one-night trip in Bai Tu Long Bay. Read their đánh giá here.

Treasure Junk: Treasure Junk has one- & two-night trips in Bai Tu Long Bay, & I was glad lớn see that their trang web describes the steps they’re taking lớn operate more responsibly. Read their đánh giá here.

Emperor Cruises: If you’re looking for an ultra-luxe pháo option, this is it. Emperor Cruises runs several luxury cruises, including one- and two-night tours of Bai Tu Long Bay. Read their Review here.

You can book your cruise directly with the operator or through a third-tiệc ngọt. We booked ours through Halong Bay Tours, và lots of options are also listed on Viator and Get Your Guide.

Trip Length

It’s at all feasible with your schedule & budget, I would highly recommend taking a two-night cruise. While one night is certainly better than nothing & definitely worth the trip, I promise you’ll want to lớn spkết thúc 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 lớn go for the longer option.

Weather in Bai Tu Long Bay

The weather in Bai Tu Long Bay is similar to Hanoi: warm và 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, & thiông chồng mist can obscure views & sometimes even force cruises khổng lồ be cancelled.

During the summer, temperatures are in the 80s with high humidity. This is also monsoon season in northern Vietphái mạnh, with heavy rains và high winds from May lớn September, which can make conditions unpleasant or cause cancellations.

The Best Time khổng lồ Go

 Weather-wise, spring or fall is the best time to lớn visit Bai Tu Long Bay. Temperatures are comfortable, visibility is high, & 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 & foggier than would have been ikhuyến mãi.


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 khổng lồ worry too much about timing your trip to lớn avoid the crowds.

Getting There & Away

Many Bai Tu Long Bay cruises include transportation lớn 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 (và discounted the cruise). Since we were coming from Ninch Binch, going khổng lồ Hanoi just khổng lồ get picked up there would have been out of the way anyway.

So we took a bus straight from Ninc Binc khổng lồ Halong City, and stayed there the night before the cruise. Even though it’s practically attached to lớn one of the continent’s biggest tourist destinations, very few travelers (especially Westerners) spend time in the thành phố. But by staying there, we were able lớn spover money with several local businesses & disperse our tourism dollars a little more.

We used Grab to lớn get across the thành phố, including khổng lồ & from the cruise port at Hon Gai. After the cruise, we caught a bus lớn 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 lớn be more upscale, a lot of amenities are included on the ship. The other items you’ll want khổng lồ have sầu are things you’d probably bring anywhere in Vietphái nam or Southeast Asia:

Swimsuit: One of Bai Tu Long Bay’s big advantages over Halong Bay is that you can swyên ổn 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, và some have hiking, tai chi, & other options for getting active sầu.

Scarf: If you visit in the cooler season like we did, a scarf makes it easy lớn 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.

Sunscreen: Whenever you’re on the ship’s sundeông chồng, out in a kayak, or exploring one of the bay’s islets, sunscreen is a must. Just make sure it’s the reef-safe kind.

Liên hệ solution, shaving cream, deodorant, và feminine hygiene products: These are four types of products that are often limited or hard khổng lồ 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 sầu 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 khổng lồ motion sickness, bring along some Dramamine.

Phone, camera, and/or GoPro: Bai Tu Long Bay is pretty much a photographer’s paradise, và we ended up using all three during our trip.


Dry bag: To protect your electronics when you go out kayaking or khổng lồ 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, và I’d imagine most ships in Bai Tu Long Bay vì chưng the same.

To keep your trip lớn Bai Tu Long Bay as sustainable as possible, consider packing some of these eco-friendly items as well, which will help minimize plastics và further cut down on waste.

Another Halong Bay Alternative

Apparently, there’s another alternative sầu to lớn 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, & the ships are smaller và tend to be more upscale. If you’re considering Bai Tu Long Bay or Halong Bay, you might want to lớn 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 Legkết thúc 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 lớn be on the verge of exploding, and with Halong Bay getting dirtier và 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 và that the area’s status as a national park helps keep things in check. But if the government doesn’t maintain restrictions (& even if it does), we all need to lớn vì chưng our part lớn protect the bay as visitors – and the companies that operate there need lớn make it easy for their guests lớn vị so.

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As Bai Tu Long Bay gets more popular, I hope khổng lồ see even more ships using alternative energy sources, encouraging clean-up efforts, & keeping waste down, so it remains a sustainable destination.

Are you adding Bai Tu Long Bay lớn your bucket list?



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