Choose Bai Tu Long Bay or Lan Ha Bay?

Many people hear it before they even arrive in the country: Halong Bay is overcrowded. Whether this statement is true or not depends on your own view on the term ‘overcrowded', but it is true that there are many more tourist boats there than were in recent years gone by.

With this in mind, travellers are starting to turn their attention towards a question that is beginning to take form in Hanoi: Bai Tu Long Bay or Lan Ha Bay? If you’ve not heard of either of these Halong Bay alternatives, you now have two more reasons to visit the Gulf of Tonkin in the northwest corner of Vietnam.

Overview of Bai Tu Long Bay

The most northwesterly corner of this northwest corner is occupied by Bai Tu Long Bay, claimed to be the place where the mother dragon’s many children rested after they helped her defeat the foreign invaders in Halong Bay. Lan Ha Bay, by comparison, is relatively new in terms of tourism and has yet to develop a mystical backstory to aid the influx of wide-eyed visitors. Both areas contain hundreds of the exact same rugged limestone mountains that Halong Bay sports, with caves, beaches and fishing villages to boot. If Halong Bay is truly off the table for you, then let Incredible Asia Journeys guide you through the battle of the alternatives: Bai Tu Long Bay, or Lan Ha Bay?


Bai Tu Long BayBan ChanNgoc VungQuan LanMinh ChauTra Gioi
Lan Ha BayBa Tra DaoCat Co BeachesTung ThuVan Boi

One of the biggest draws to Halong Bay is the perception of castaway beaches with uncombed white sand and rugged casuarina pines poking out of the bases of cliffs. This, unfortunately, is not an accurate portrayal of beach life in Halong Bay, but both Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay contain stretches of sand with much more of a resemblance to that idyllic scene.

The scene in question can be found best at Ban Chan Beach, Bai Tu Long’s most stunning beach and the absolute paragon of a castaway spit of sand. While, like most of Bai Tu Long Bay’s beaches, Ban Chan is lacking a bit in the size department, the small stretch of golden sand is flanked on three sides by perfect tree-topped mountains, with one eye open onto the shimmering sea stretching to the horizon. If it’s a longer beach you’re after, head to Quan Lan, which doesn’t usually feature on Bai Tu Long Bay tours, but can be reached independently. This accounts for the fact that it is so ridiculously quiet, and remote homestays on the island can keep you in utter paradise for days at a time.

Ban Chan Beach

You could not find a more opposite scene at the Cat Co Beaches on the major island of Cat Ba in Lan Ha Bay. These beaches are close to the main town and receive droves of tourists and locals, who sometimes completely eclipse the sand when viewed from atop the neighbouring cliff. Avoid these, but don’t be disparaged. Ba Trai Dao (Three Peach Island) is a beautiful sandy offering in Lan Ha Bay, set amongst three plump limestone rocks (or “peaches”). Kayaking is highly popular in this area, as is lying in the shade of the peaches on the secluded beach. There’s not a lot of space for other tourists, but being the complete antithesis of the Cat Co Beaches, it is hard to feel overcrowded here.

Escape Sails Halong Bay Cruise 

Bai Tu Long Bay or Lan Ha Bay?

• Bai Tu Long Bay has to be the winner here for overall serenity and wealth of choice.

Cruises that go to Bai Tu Long Bay: Signature Cruise, Signature Royal Cruise, Huong Hai Sealife Cruise, Starlight Cruise, Dragon Legend Cruise, Emperor Cruise, and Calypso Cruise.


Bai Tu Long BayThien Canh Son

Lan Ha BayDark and Bright CavesHospitalTrung TrangThien Long

If Bai Tu Long Bay is looking a bit outnumbered in this round, that’s because it is. There is only one cave available for visiting here, whereas Lan Ha Bay’s prolific Cat Ba Island houses three of its interesting systems, with one out in the water. Neither Bai Tu Long Bay nor Lan Ha Bay enjoys the same depth of cave options as Halong Bay, but you’re certain to find more freedom from tourists here.

It’s not hard to know where to start in Bai Tu Long Bay. There isn’t a single standard itinerary of the region that doesn’t go to Thien Canh Son Cave, translating to the impressive-sounding ‘Mountainous Landscape in Heaven’ for the stone staircase that leads from inside the cavern to a viewing platform outside. The stalagmite and stalactite formations within the cave are impressive, and some do indeed bare small resemblances to the animals they purport to, but the general size of the cave is a little small and tours that try to spend half an hour here are really stretching the limits of imagination by the end.

Thien Canh Son Cave

In stark contrast, you could easily fit a swimming pool and a cinema in the cavernous Hospital Cave in Lan Ha Bay. The Viet Cong who operated this cave from 1963 thought much the same thing, as this is exactly what they did. The cinema room and swimming pool were abandoned after the war in 1975, as were all of the other medical rooms in this hidden hospital, which went completely undiscovered by the Americans for the duration of the war.

While Hospital Cave covers the history of the region, the Dark and Bright Caves cover the beauty. These two caves of contrasting light levels are beautiful wet caves, traversable by kayak or local sampan boat, which emerges onto in enclosed lake shimmering with light and protected by high-rising streaked mountains on all sides.

Bai Tu Long Bay or Lan Ha Bay?

• By virtue of having more than one cave, Lan Ha Bay wins this one.

Cruises that go to Lan Ha Bay: Perla Dawn Sails, V'Spirit Premier Cruise, Maya Cruise, Era Cruise, and Mon Cheri Cruise.

Fishing Villages

Bai Tu Long BayVung Vieng
Lan Ha BayCai Beo

A bit sparse on both sides here, and a foreboding sign considering that if this article was written just 20 years ago, we wouldn’t have had space to list even half of the floating villages around both bays. Fishing communities around the Gulf of Tonkin have declined to the point where the only ones permitted to visit are showcase villages, where a few locals remain to display to tourists the ancient way of life that used to prevail in these seas.

Vung Vieng Fishing Village

That offering in Bai Tu Long Bay is Vung Vieng Fishing Village, a small, colourful commune of houses, schools and shops floating in the placid waters on huge buoyant drums. Locals make their money by showing tourists around the various waterways, pointing out a rural way of life that still exists around the country, just not authentically in Bai Tu Long Bay anymore. Still, it is a very interesting place to learn of this completely different way of life, and a very beautiful one too.

Cai Beo in Lan Ha Bay is perhaps one a bit more representative of the other fishing villages in the region. From the top of Cat Ba Island, you can see many fishing villages still resolutely plying the waters in search of food and a livelihood, with many utilising the same techniques that their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. Cai Beo is the only one that’s viable to visit and archaeologists believe it to be the oldest fishing villages in the country.

Cai Beo Floating Village

Bai Tu Long Bay or Lan Ha Bay?

• For proximity to Cat Ba Island’s harbour, as well as a more genuine feel, Cai Beo and Lan Ha Bay take this round again.


Bai Tu Long BayCap La and Tra SanCong DoCong Dam
Lan Ha BayBa Trai DaoTra BauViet Hai Village

All that water in the Gulf of Tonkin is just begging to be explored by kayak. Both bays feature many wide-open spaces, a few of which are accessible to tourists who want to explore the placid waters and forested mountains at a touchable distance. Kayaking in Bai Tu Long Bay or Lan Ha Bay is one of the most tranquil activities that you can do in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Kayaking in Bai Tu Long Bay

Of course, a lot of this tranquillity owes itself to the area in which it is found. For Bai Tu Long Bay, it is probably found best in the areas of Cap La and Tra San, twinned bodies of water with wide expanses and the constant backdrop of an undulating mountain seascape. There is much to explore here and tour companies will often allow you the leisure of half a day to fully get acquainted with its wonders. Nearby Cong Do is a beached area with serenity at its heart. Many an hour can be spent relaxing in the calming waters here, and you’ll probably find yourself drifting, enraptured by the scenery, more than you will actually paddling.

There’s not much difference in the area of Tra Bau in Lan Ha Bay. This is another wonderful example of the Gulf of Tonkin at its best and goes some way to helping Lan Ha Bay get the UNESCO World Heritage recognition for which it is currently applying. Ba Trai Dao is a nice place to kayak, but lack of things to look at makes this a maximum 30-minute activity. There is also some kayaking to be done around the village of Viet Hai on Cat Ba Island, but waters aren’t far from the ferry port, meaning scenes can be a little busier than a relaxing kayaking journey should be. 

Ba Trai Dao is a nice place to kayak

Bai Tu Long Bay or Lan Ha Bay?

• The persistent beauty of Bai Tu Long Bay just about nips Lan Ha Bay in this round.

Tourists number

Recent overcrowding in Ha Long Bay led tour companies to open cruises in Bai Tu Long Bay. As Bai Tu Long Bay begins to fill up in the same manner, companies have begun to fix Lan Ha Bay in their sights. It’s not hard to see an ominous pattern forming here.

Despite the beautifully secluded image of Bai Tu Long Bay that the Quang Ninh Tourism Board like to promote, the reality is that tourist levels between here and Halong Bay have almost reached an equilibrium. That isn’t to say that Bai Tu Long Bay is a write-off; far from it. Moments of quiet contemplation are not hard to come by in the bay, as there are fewer day trips here than in Halong Bay. Overnight stays in Bai Tu Long Bay still yield an engrossing silence during the night, and a visit during one of the many months of the off-season mean clearer waterways for a lower price.

Tourists in Lan Ha Bay

However, it’s impossible to refute that Lan Ha Bay sees much fewer tourists than Bai Tu Long Bay. At this time, it is Lan Ha Bay’s biggest asset and the reason why the question of Bai Tu Long Bay or Lan Ha Bay has cropped up so many times in recent years. The waters are much less congested and beaches and caves away from Cat Ba Island contain a very pure serenity, not one as easily found in the bays of Quang Ninh. Hai Phong Province realises the potential of Lan Ha Bay and full-scale construction efforts are currently in place to build a harbour that can accommodate the ships of the many tour companies that will be operating here soon. If there’s any time to visit Lan Ha Bay, it’s now, while its tranquillity is still fully intact.

Bai Tu Long Bay or Lan Ha Bay?

• Peace can certainly be found in both bays, but it will come much easier in Lan Ha Bay.

3 to 2 in favour of Lan Ha Bay overall, but of course, experiences are subjective. If you’re not particularly looking for tranquillity, but more of an itinerary full of activities like cave visits, beach visits and kayaking, then Bai Tu Long Bay might be the bay for you. Potential passengers looking for a relaxing time will probably find it in Lan Ha Bay, but don’t delay for a few years, because the outcome of this little contest could be very different by then.

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