Everyone has heard of Halong Bay in Vietnam.
The famous Bay, "where the dragon enters the ocean" in Vietnamese is simply the number ONE touristic destination in the country.
As soon as I moved to Southeast Asia I was very excited to go on that trip, however it was not very long until I found that most of my friends did not really enjoy Halong bay.
Disappointed, I went back to the "basic" internet search...
Unfortunately, few touristic operators (or even travel blogs) report that Halong Bay is becoming unsustainable these days. Boats lining up on the bay, obstructed landscapes and larges crowd of tourists bumping kayaks into each other are common occurrence.
One friend of mine even told me there were lots of trash floating around!
So what would we be missing by choosing NOT TO GO there?
After much hesitation, we decided to say goodbye to the famous rock formations appearing in many Hollywood movies and risk the alternative route of Bai Tu Long Bay.
3 DAYS IN BAI TU LONG: THE ALTERNATIVE ROUTE OF HALONG BAY
Ever heard of Bai Tu Long Bay?
Not so long ago I didn't even know that this bay existed...
Bai Tu Long is also part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong, the fantastic archipelago of 1,600 islands. In fact, Bai Tu Long is only 30 Km East from the main tourist hub!
Taken as a laid-back destination, the area is still under-explored and is unlikely to change rapidly. As this bay is more difficult to access, there are only few boat companies that make this route (compared to the number of boats currently making Halong).
But still, the FOMO crisis (fear of missing out) was still hitting when I arrived at Hanoi.
BAI TU LONG BAY CRUISE REVIEW
Bai Tu Long shares many similar geological features with Halong Bay, and if you are not a specialist looking for specific rock formations, you will not know the difference.
From the beginning to the end, the cruise was very chilled and we never felt overwhelmed with crowds or other boats.
In fact, we stopped at empty beaches of exclusive access and the company we chose (Indochina Junk) was able to arrange a seafood barbecue just for our group.
Actually, some companies have a monopoly on a few beaches, what may seem awful at first, but in practice is good, because at least it ends up protecting some places from massive tourism.
I'm not sure if other companies do the same, we only discovered this fact when we were already there.
WHAT TO DO IN BAI TU LONG BAY?
Some guides such as Lonely Planet recommend visiting Hong Van Beach, Minh Chau Beach, Bac Van Beach ... but seriously, good luck to find a boat which does exactly this itinerary, within your budget and fitting in your dates.
We kinda desisted of knowing where we were going exactly (despite the crazy captain explanations on a map on Day 1) and we were more than happy of just going with the flow during 3 days (2 nights).
The main activities on board were: relaxing, disconnecting, enjoying the scenery and eating (non-stop by the way), but our cruise also offered Kayaking (top notch experience), cave trails (meh), visit to fishing villages (super) and lunches at local beaches (meh).
The Dragon Legend Cruise also offered Tai Chi Chuan on the deck at the sunrise but we never got up so early. Buuuh...
AND HOW WAS THE BOAT?
We enjoyed the quiet vibe of the cruise, the decor of the cabins and the cleanliness in general.
The on board meals didn't disappoint at any moment.
The Dragon Legend Cruise had a small swimming pool on the deck and a tiny gym room (basically a treadmill and a step).
Considering that most of people would take this cruise only once in a lifetime, and that prices are relatively ok compared to the price of a real "bling-bling" cruise, we decided to avoid risks and ended up choosing the company Indochina Junk (their boat was not the cheapest, but it was well worth it).
We chose exactly the room in the photo above, which also had a bathtub (with panoramic view, of course). Oh well...
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AND HOW to CHOoSE THE CRUISE?
To be honest, this is not an easy task!
Prices vary enormously and most companies offer a crazy pout-pourri of routes and on board activities that end up confusing the customers rather than helping.
Our priorities were:
A minimum of comfort (and cleanliness) - I had even read of rats on some boats...
A company operating exclusively on the alternative route (Bai Tu Long)
Good value for money, but without extreme luxury
The final choice was made considering reviews of other travelers in travel forums (and of course, the food reviews)!
In fact I was a bit worried that a cruise like this would be boring but in fact the time passes very fast since every 3-4 hours the crew propose some activity (eg cooking classes or games). The activities, of course, are optional and if you want just to stay relaxing, this is your call.
I recommend the cruise for couples and single travelers as well, since we ended up exchanging a lot with many solo travelers.
WHAT'S THE BEST TIME of the year ?
Like all southeast asian countries, it's important to pay attention to the seasons.
The cool/dry season is from October to March, and the hot/humid season is from April to September.
Some boats modify their itineraries to adapt to the weather conditions. Contacting the operator is always a good idea.
Concerning the cruise's duration, we recommend at least 2 nights.
In my humble opinion it is not worth flying to Hanoi, go through all the hassle just to take a short ride. Taking time to disconnect is essential.
Tip> Make sure to choose a company that provides transfers to and from the port. Our minivan was worthy of a popstar!
The cruise is also a great activity for anyone looking for programs to do with children in Southeast Asia. We saw a few families having a blast on the cruise and I would totally recommend it to my friends with kids!
Voilà! I hope this article clarified some of the questions about the alternative route of Bai Tu Long.
If anything is still missing, just give me a shout on the comments!
Looking for another ideas in Vietnam? Check it out a list of family-friendly destinations!
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