I’d wanted to go to Ha Long Bay ever since I saw a stunning picture of it in my 1,000 Places to See Before You Die book. But after a quick Google search, I read a lot of accounts that tourism had turned it into a polluted, overcrowded, floating karaoke bar. I like karaoke as much as the next Southeast Asian person (and they like it A LOT), but there’s a time and a place… Anyway, I still wanted to see it in-person and check it off the travel bucket list, so we decided to book a 3-day tour through Ethnic Travel, where we’d get to see both the tourist-filled Ha Long Bay and lesser-touristed Bai Tu Long Bay.
Yes, the accounts of trash, karaoke, and tons of boats clogging the water were unfortunately true. But the staggering limestone cliffs jutting out of the water are something you shouldn’t miss. We started our tour with a 10-course lunch (let’s just say we stretched our backpacker budget a bit for this tour…) on the boat and spent the rest of the afternoon lounging on the upper deck as we cruised through the cliffs.
We anchored near a floating village and ventured out to explore on some smaller canoes. I felt a bit like a spectator at the zoo, but it was incredible to see a community of people who rarely, if ever, set foot on land. There must have been about 20 houses lined up beside the cliffs, floating on huge blocks of Styrofoam. The anthropology nerd in me had a million questions.
After a quiet night on the boat in an area farther away from where most of the boats anchor, we woke up early to kayak around the bay and into a lagoon in the center of a limestone formation. It was my first time on a kayak, and I don’t know if any other trip will ever live up to it.
We sailed back to the pier and drove about 90 minutes Northeast to Bai Tu Long Bay.
As soon as we arrived at the pier, I knew this leg of the trip would be different. There was no tourist information center, no fancy ticket office– just a group of fishing boats on the pier and a bunch of confused fisherman gawking at all the foreigners.
We boarded a small boat full of BOOKS (I mean, who could really concentrate on reading when you’re floating by cliffs the size of skyscrapers, but I liked the thought) and had another huge lunch with some of the best food I had in Vietnam. The cliffs along Bai Tu Long Bay were just as stunning as Ha Long, but aside from a few fishing boats, we were the only boat in the water.
We spent the next few hours, sailing past deserted cliffs, passing by the occasional small fishing boat, but basically feeling like we were the sole explorers of the sea. We finally made it to a small island and headed to a beach, which was more reminiscent of something you’d see on the east coast of the U.S. Instead of walking on fine white sand and turquoise waters surrounded by palm trees, we wandered around course sand and black water.
The sun was starting to go down, so we rode bikes to the small town where we would have our homestay for the night. The “easy” ride quickly turned into a disaster as the sun set and the ride got more and more bumpy.
When we all managed to arrive at the homestay, we learned how to make spring rolls (and apparently failed based on the grimaces and complaints of the woman frying them) and ate another delicious Vietnamese meal that I can’t find a picture of…
The next day we boarded the boat and sailed to a beautiful area to kayak and see a small clam farm. We ended the trip with a long ride back to the pier through the nearly deserted sea. Ha Long Bay was beautiful, but Bai Tu Long Bay was one of the most incredible places I’ve seen in Southeast Asia so far.