Hopefully you’ve made it to this article since you’re spending time exploring options for a boat tour in Ha Long Bay and, lucky for you, heard about the option of a Bai Tu Long Bay cruise instead? If that’s the case, good news, we have all the information you need on which is the best part of this iconic Vietnam landmark to visit, who are the best operators and what to expect on your Bai Tu Long Bay cruise.
Should I choose a Ha Long or Bai Tu Long Bay cruise?
You’ve probably been poring over pictures of Ha Long Bay, dreaming of sailing around the towering limestone formations, spending hours out in a kayak on the still blue waters and slurping down seafood while gazing out at the setting sun.
But you might also have heard the cautionary tales: crazy party boats, hundreds of boats all vying for the same dock, and thousands of tourists clogging up the fishing villages and sights along the way.
The latest statistics show that almost 6 million people visit Ha Long Bay annually. Sound like a relaxing sailing vacation? We thought not.
Ha Long Bay, while it’s a UNESCO Heritage site and recently named as one of the new wonders of the world (like Table Mountain or the Amazon), is suffering from over tourism, as a result of this fame.
There is no doubt that the tours are convenient – a multitude of options, from backpacker booze cruises to hugely upmarket luxury junk boats, competitive pricing and the street cred that comes along with saying you’ve been to the renowned bay. Ha Long’s limestone karsts are also more impressive than neighbouring Bai Tu Long, giving you slightly more to take in.
But Bai Tu Long offers you something more than breath-taking scenery: the opportunity to actually experience the ‘dream’ of Ha Long. The quiet evenings on the water, the undisturbed time kayaking amongst the formations and hours just surveying the horizon, with hardly another junk boat in sight.
Until recently, Bai Tu Long didn’t allow junk boats to anchor overnight, meaning that the number of boats remained limited. This rule has now been relaxed but there are still permits needed for this luxury, and only a handful of operators in the region have secured the permit. This means you’re sharing your overnight experience with between 10 and 30 boats, rather than the 200 that cruise around Ha Long.
Read next: The perfect 3 week itinerary for Vietnam!
About Bai Tu Long Bay
The myths say that the gods sent a family of dragons to protect the Vietnamese against invaders. After winning the battle, the maternal dragon settled down in Ha Long bay, with her children staying in Bai Tu Long Bay, to attend to her needs.
In more literal terms, Bai Tu Long forms part of the Ha Long Bay archipelago in Vietnam’s Quang Ninh province, which is nearly 2000 islands which took 20 million years to form. Bai Tu Long is in the north east, Cat Ba in the southwest and Ha Long sits smack in the middle.
To be honest, it reminds us a little of Ang Thong National Park in Thailand which, if you haven’t been, is a must!
Bai Tu Long cruise itinerary
We went for the 2 day 1 night cruise because of time constraints but felt that we packed in more than enough to appreciate this beautiful place. Here’s a little rundown of how it all went.
- Transfer Hanoi to Halong
- Exploring the boat
- Visiting the Thien Canh Son Cave
- Sea Kayaking
- Sunset party and dinner
- Morning Tai Chi
- Vung Vieng Fishing Village and Pearl Farm
- Return Halong to Hanoi
When to visit
Visiting Bai Tu Long Bay is the experience of a lifetime, and you definitely want to soak in everything it has to offer. That’s why weather is so critically important to your trip, and you need to choose wisely!
Most will recommend that you visit between March and June, which gives you hot weather but usually without rain. We went in July and lucked out in that we had perfect conditions: a small breeze, manageable heat and yet not a rain cloud or a monsoon in sight.
How to get there
Nearly all operators offer you a transfer from Hanoi which takes approximately 4 hours.
However, be careful when making your booking – some of these are not actually included in the price quoted. Make sure you enquire about what is included in your tour and whether the transfer, and entrance to any national parks or the cave is included or payable separately.
A major tip from us is to ask your operator whether you are able to stay in Ha Long itself before the tour. This is the only way you will be able to reach the secret viewpoint made famous by Instagram and most companies will allow you the stop over before starting your cruise the following day.
If you want to book your own travel, which can sometimes work out cheaper, check out the latest deals on Bookaway!
What is the best junk boat cruise in Ha Long Bay (or Bai Tu Long)?
All the operators use refurbished junk boats, essentially ancient Chinese sailing ships that used to have a multitude of functions: from cargo to actual living quarters.
However, this is where the similarities in cruises end. Choosing a tour in either area can feel like a very confusing exercise: you will find hundreds of different operators online, varying lengths of tour, 3 star, 5 star, booze cruises, different budgets.
At the end of the day, you need to select a tour that best suits your needs. Consider a few questions to find your perfect cruise:
How long can you go for?
Of course you could do a day trip, and you would have a wonderful time. But we’d strongly recommend you need to spend at least one night on board a boat, to get both a sunset and a sunrise in.
We opted for one night although most people take the two night options and having met a number of people doing two nights, none have said that they regretted it.
Which area suits you best?
We are firm believers in sailing Bai Tu Long Bay. As above, it’s a far more secluded experience and transports you into an almost magical world from the moment you set foot on the deck.
How much do you have to spend?
Bai Tu Long might not offer as many budget options as Ha Long, but there is still a wide range on offer. In Ha Long, you’re able to do low price backpacker cruises, which we didn’t find in Bai Tu Long Bay at time of writing; it mainly caters to mid-range to luxury tourists.
For Bai Tu Long, we went on a 2 days, 1 night cruise with 4 star company, Paloma Cruises, who we highly recommend as a mid-range option. Similarly, Swan Cruise, Indochina Junk, Oriental Sails, Athena and Dragon Legend Cruise seem to offer a similar package, based on reviews.
In terms of luxury, the ultimate provider in the area is Emperor Cruises, who even offer suites with deliciously deep baths, a spa and a small fitness centre on-board!
What kind of group are you?
Our cruise had a number of families on board, and was well-equipped to deal with them. But, as a 30-something couple, we also felt catered to, as we met two similar couples on-board.
If you’re travelling in a larger group, we might suggest Ha Long Bay, which offers larger group or guided tours.
What should our tour include?
Most of the tours offer a standard set of options: lots of food to keep you satiated, kayaking, cooking classes, a trip to a fishing village, morning tai chi and sunset sundowner parties.
We’ve provided a very detailed itinerary of our cruise with Paloma below which seems to line up with the other operators in the region. The one thing we’d mention is that we believe a trip to Ban Chan beach is well worth doing and was not offered on our tour. Based on research, Garden Bay Legend Cruises seems to dock here.
Transfer Hanoi to Halong Bay
A little bleary-eyed and worse for wear when our driver arrives at our hotel in Hanoi, at around 07.30 in the morning.
We’re accustomed to private transfers in South East Asia but this one is particularly plush: padded, leather seats, chilled water bottles and free WiFi that works like a treat. We’re lucky in that we are only with three other passengers; a young Norwegian solo traveller and a French couple, which allows us to stretch out with lots of room for our baggage.
The drive takes about four hours and our driver is great: he navigates the streets safely, constantly checks we are all happy and pauses for an obligatory 30 minute rest stop half way. The rest stop leaves a little to be desired: the bathrooms are a bit dingy and it’s really just a huge souvenir complex, but it’s better than most we have experienced in Vietnam.
After the drive, we arrive in Ha Long, darting among the high rise buildings to the pier. Here we are deposited at the Paloma offices and given a quick pre-briefing by our cruise manager, Hoang. He also takes the time to check any dietary requirements and crack a few jokes… we like this guy.
No sooner has twenty minutes passed and we are escorted across from the office to the pier itself, where a few bamboo boats lull languidly in the bay. This boat is to become our taxi for the next 36 hours, as it ferries you from the main junk boat to all the various destinations, and is usually moored on the back of the cruise liner.
The two minute journey to our junk boat is over before we know it and we are ushered onto the boat to check into our rooms. At this point we are about 25 people but will swell to 50 by dinner, as those doing the 2 night tour are out sightseeing within the bay.
Exploring the boat
After we’re deposited on the boat, we are able to check into our rooms for the journey. Ours is far nicer than expected, and almost better than the photos we had seen when booking the trip.
Snow white linen, a moderately large bathroom, soapy-smelling shower gel and assorted toiletries and a view to die for! Pulling back the curtains in our room, we’re confronted with an incredible vista of the bay ahead of us. And, as we start moving, the first limestone karsts come into frame and we know it’s well worth the money for this cruise.
James is particularly enamoured with the toilet which offers a compelling outlook over the water, as you go about your daily business!
The PA system sounds (this happens often over the next day, as Hoang corrals out to the various activities) and we’re asked to come up to the deck for lunch.
We take the chance to explore the boat as we go up to lunch. The bottom deck is a mixture of guest quarters: double and single rooms, as well as the small jetty for the bamboo boat, an engine room and living quarters for the staff. The lower deck – where we stayed – was all double rooms, while the upper deck housed the restaurant and bar. Above this was another platform including sun loungers, occasional tables and a smaller bar, along with the skipper’s capsule.
Arriving for lunch sees the crew pair you up at different tables, in what is a very smart system which matches like-minded travellers. We noticed that families were seated at their own tables while couples or singles were matched with others their age. This meant we were seated with another 30-something couple that were travelling full-time as we were, and the sweet Norwegian girl, in her mid 20s.
Table service ensued and we were treated to a 6 course meal, the likes of which we hadn’t yet seen on our South East Asia itinerary. Kicking off with spicy pumpkin soup, followed by tangy sweet and sour chicken, steamed fish parcels and a number of salads and fruits, the food on the cruise was absolutely delicious and, again, better than what we expected for the price.
Visiting the Thien Canh Son Cave
After an hour digesting our delicious meal, the tannoy sounded again and we were back onto the bamboo boat and navigating towards one of the islands to explore the largest cave in the area – Thien Canh Son cave.
Our guide, Hoa, tells us a bit of history of the cave: it’s one of about 60 discovered caves in the Ha Long area and has some local legends around it, including naturally carved images that are said to resemble a lotus and a baby elephant.
We take the 60 steps up to the cave and into it’s belly, only to feel slightly disappointed. The cave isn’t too exciting and doesn’t compare much to others we have seen on our travels, although it’s an okay stop on an itinerary. Generally we felt that the cave stop was the most commercialised, tourist-driven part of our trip.
We’re given about an hour to rest up before changing back into swimming gear for our favourite part of the itinerary: spending 30 minutes or so navigating the waters in the bay on our sea kayaks.
The crew are obviously very passionate about their work in Ha Long Bay and this becomes really evident in the sea kayaking portion of the tour.
We’re carefully deposited into two man kayaks and led by the cruise manager, Hoang, around the bay. He takes it slow, ensuring everyone is comfortable, and makes sure that we visit quiet spots around the area.
Now, we have kayaked in a number of places around the world, but would count this portion of the trip as one of our best ever kayaking forays. Hoang leads us into a secluded spot in the bay, where we find ourselves in absolute stillness, punctuated only by a few birds singing in the trees towering above us. It’s magnificent, and represents exactly what we had imagined a Ha Long or Bai Tu Long Bay cruise would be like.
Sunset party and dinner
We’re transported back to the boat for the last time that day, and given a chance to freshen up for the sunset party.
This party happens on the upper viewing platform and is less of a party and more a cocktail hour, where the bar staff offers us a menu of tasty cocktails, all priced at 3 for 2. I opt for a Pimms cocktail, which is perfectly concocted, and we spend the next hour or so chatting with other guests, while orange and pink streak through the skies around us.
This is followed by dinner which, like lunch, is absolutely delectable. Highlights include freshly grilled prawns, a steaming seafood stew and a perfectly wobbly crème caramel tart. The crew also takes the time to introduce the chef, making a huge spectacle of how he flambee’s the prawns by turning off the lights and introducing a massive flame in the central nave of the boat, as we are all transfixed.
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Morning Tai Chi
We sleep incredibly soundly, gently lulled by the water surrounding us and wake up refreshed and ready to go. It’s an early start, as we roll out of bed at 06.15 for Tai Chi, run by a Tai Chi master that magically appears on our boat that morning.
The Tai Chi, like all the other activities, is optional but highly recommended. It’s a fantastic way to start the day, being put through your paces on the upper deck, stretching out and breathing as you watch the sun peek out from the horizon and sluggishly rise up in the sky.
The buffet breakfast awaits us, and it’s akin to that of a 5 star hotel. Pancakes cooked to perfection, glass jars showcasing different breakfast cereals, crispy lean bacon and eggs made to order by the cruise chef. Fresh watermelon jostles for space with mango, pineapple and passion fruit, and there are three juice options, tea and strong coffee.
It’s phenomenal that this quality of food can be offered on such a small boat, and is one of the best breakfasts we have had in South East Asia.
Vung Vieng fishing village and pearl farm
Our first activity for the day is a tour of a local fishing village, Vung Vieng.
This little floating fishing village was established in the 19th century as about 50 families took up residence, focusing on fishing and using the area for exchanging goods. These 300 people made a modest life in the village, relying on fishing and later on the tourism from cruises in the bay.
However, a few years ago the government started encouraging inhabitants to move closer to the mainland, for social reasons. This means that the village is now a little deserted, and generally only has a handful of people, mainly the fishermen who row your bamboo boat and those working at the pearl farm (more on that below).
We enjoy our time speeding through the narrow channels of the floating fishing village, listening only the sound of dogs barking from the pier as we go around.
The boats end at a small pearl farm, which offers a chance for a bit of eco-tourism but also a new source of income for the village, considering fishing has become more difficult with the rise of tourism in the area. It’s our first ever visit to a pearl farm, so it’s fascinating as our guides us through the process, prising open oysters to reveal the hidden beauties within.
As with any activity like this, there is an opportunity to purchase jewellery yet we don’t feel pressured at all, and are soon back on the cruise liner, with our money safely in our wallets.
Cooking class and final lunch
Before we know it, our Bai Tu Long Bay cruise has come to an end, and it’s time for our final lunch aboard. Hoang brings all the guests together, with a challenge in mind: rolling the perfect Vietnamese spring roll!
We are given a short instructional, with some hilarious comments from the crew, and we are all off! It’s relatively easy to put the roll together but of course the guests get competitive, and we all hope to be deemed the ‘Best Spring Roller’ on Paloma Cruises that day. Unfortunately we don’t win the contest but turns out we all win: the food we’ve made becomes a key part of another satisfying lunch experience and we eat the spoils of our cooking class victory.
Transfer back to Hanoi
Our cruise is over and it’s time to depart back to Hanoi. We return exactly as we arrived – in a lovely air-conditioned, comfortable shuttle bus with excellent WiFi. And, somehow, it’s over. But never forgotten: our Bai Tu Long Bay cruise is an experience we will never forget, and worth every penny.
How much did it cost?
Speaking of money, you’re probably wondering how much it all set us back? Of course the price depends hugely on what time of year you go (low or high season), your length of cruise and whether you take a budget, mid-range or luxury option.
We paid about 250 US dollars (200 GBP at time of writing), for the both of us, including everything documented in this article. However, usually this cruise is about 300 – 400 US dollars: we were able to negotiate because it was low season when we travelled.
A quick tip: get the email address of the operators. Just blindly booking on their website or on Agoda means you are getting published price. Once we emailed a few operators, the cost decreased significantly. We also had friends who managed to negotiate the cost down quite a bit speaking directly to operators in Hanoi.
Some recommended operators
Afffordable option: Paloma Cruise
We can really recommend Paloma, and found them to be the perfect mix between a budget cruise and luxury travel. Their reviews also speak for themselves!
Luxury option: Indochina Junk
It’s a toss up between this operator and Emperor Cruises, but Indochina Junk is one of the most well-known luxury bay cruises in Bai Tu Long Bay.
What camera equipment and other gear do we use?
We’re living proof that you don’t need the most expensive gear to travel the world and take good photos. Here are some of our must have items that make it into the packing list for all our travels.
- Main Camera: Panasonic Lumix FZ1000
- Drone: DJI Mavic Air – Fly More Combo
- GoPro: Hero 7 Black
- GoPro Dive Case: Go Pro Housing
- GoPro Case: Smatree GoPro Carry Case – Small
- Packing Cubes: Eagle Creek Packing case
- Backpack: Osprey Farpoint 70
- Powerbank: Anker Powercore
- Phone: Xiaomi Mi 9
- Hard drive: Transcend Slim Storejet 2TB
- Laptop: Lenovo IdeaPad 720s
- Headphones: Bose Quiet Comfort 35
- Wifi Hotspot: GlocalMe G4
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