Karst out in Bai Tu Long Bay - The Bay less traveled

(Updated: 12/28/2015 12:45:51 AM)

The stunning karst pinnacles of Ha Long Bay are one of the jewels in Vietnam's crown, but as Ron Emmons discovers, nearby Bai Tu Long Bay boasts the same beguiling scenery without the crowds. Bai Tu Long Bay occupies three quarters of Halong Bay World Heritage site, as well as many islands in Van Don, Cam Pha District. Travelling to Bai Tu Long Bay is off the beaten track and promises to deliver many unique experiences, far from the heavily touristic sites.

Located east of Halong Bay and closer to the Chinese border, Bai Tu Long Bay is an off-the-beaten-track destination recently in high demand among international tourists. While possessing a similar landscape with the core Halong Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay features clearer water and less-touristy attractions. In this big area, visitors can find pristine natural landscapes. Even now, Bai Tu Long remains an extensive unexplored area. In some ways it is actually more stunning than Halong Bay, since it is only in its initial stages as a destination for travelers. Bai Tu Long has many attractions to visit: Cong Do area, Vung Vieng fishing village, Da Xep Park, Cong Dam area, Thien Canh Son cave and Tra Gioi beach. There are also some populated islands; Quan Lan, Ngoc Vung, Cong Dong, and Cong Tay with many beautiful beaches. In addition, Bai Tu Long Bay National Park is rich in biological diversity, home to many different flora and fauna.

Sails of Indochina is the only company in Halong Bay with extensive experience and was the first to be awarded official permission to take tourists to Bai Tu Long Bay. Indochina Junk fleet has 14 boats including 12 high standard wooden junks, with from 1 to 11 cabins and 2 luxurious ships of 24 cabins cruising to remote corners in Bai Tu Long Bay. Joining a cruise with Indochina Junk, you will experience warm service and many unique packages to choose from. Study the UNESCO protected geological formation formed long ago, and the biodiversity of the site; experience squid fishing; enter deep into the local life in floating villages, dine in a candlelit cave; feast on a BBQ lunch on the beach, or kayak close to limestone islands.

After three days cruising through the jaw-dropping scenery of Bai Tu Long Bay, and taking about 5000 photos of rugged limestone outcrops jutting from the emerald waters, I felt totally karst out. Yet many magical moments of this trip had burned themselves into my brain – I knew it was a journey I’d never forget. Bai Tu Long Bay is located some 30km to the east of Vietnam’s number one attraction, Ha Long Bay, but is less visited thanks to its harder-to-reach location and fewer accessible caves. The rewards, however, are worth the little extra effort it takes to get here. Visiting Bai Tu Long Bay is a more peaceful experience, with extra time for kayaking and swimming among the awesome rock formations that assume all manner of fanciful shapes across this ocean landscape. Some of the larger islands also feature forest reserves sheltering rare species, while dugong swim in the surrounding waters.

I was to spend my trip on the Sails of Indochina, a large wooden junk-come-cruise boat painted white with enormous red sails. Boarding set the tone for the trip: shortly after stepping aboard, I suddenly realised we were under way, though I hadn’t even heard the engine start or felt any rolling movement. Things continued just as smoothly for the next few days, as we glided away from the workaday world and into a dream realm of towering cliffs, gaping caves, lush growth sprouting from limestone peaks and hawks soaring on air currents above.

My shipmates were an intriguing bunch of global travellers, including a pair of cashew nut importers from the Czech Republic, a mountain guide from the USA and a graphic designer from Mexico. Most of them, like myself, had left this experience until the end of their travels: the icing on the cake after exploring this beautiful and welcoming land. Thus our talk over the five- and six-course lunches and dinners of delectable Vietnamese cuisine ranged from the floating markets of the Mekong Delta to the glowing lanterns of ancient Hoi An. We waxed lyrical about the stunning landscapes of the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark in the country’s extreme north, and shared stories of dangerous road crossings in Hanoi and Saigon.

Our guide, Phuc, ran a tight ship. As well as being fluent in English and French, she turned out to be an expert kayaker, leading us into hidden caves and to deserted beaches, where we were free to float on our backs in secluded bays sheltered by towering limestone cliffs. On one occasion, she needed to step in to stop a game of beach football, which was being fiercely contested between crew members and passengers (of which there was about a one to one ratio), in order to get us back to the Dragon’s Pearl in time for one of our memorable meals.

Sadly there was a reminder of the world we had escaped: flotsam (debris), consisting mostly of Styrofoam and plastic bottles, which washed onto these beaches. I was pleased to see members of our crew collecting as much as they could, but such sights made most passengers voice concern for the future of this fragile environment, where birds and aquatic wildlife can die if they accidentally eat man-made rubbish.

On the second day a side trip took us to a floating village of families who lived by fishing and pearl farming, and though their simple houses consisted of a single room with a hammock swinging in front and in some cases a dog on the porch, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in envying the tranquillity and contentment that emanated from this waterborne community.

All too soon our voyage was coming to an end, but on the last evening, Phuc suggested we dress in our best as the crew had prepared a surprise. Instead of sitting on deck for our meal, we were taken to a cool, candle-lit cave, where a table decorated with vegetable and fruit carvings was set for dinner. An excited babble echoed around as we devoured grilled shrimps, tender strips of marinated beef and a tangy salad. The evening’s finale came when a cake was produced to celebrate the honeymoon couples on the boat. We ended the night with a toast to future travel discoveries as magnificent as this one.

While Bai Tu Long Bay is a great place to visit, it gets pretty cold from December to February, and from August to October the bay is subject to occasional typhoons, when trips are cancelled. Also bear in mind that two-day, one-night trips include only an afternoon and a morning in the bay, so three-day, two-night trips are preferable if you have the time. A reliable operator for a customised itinerary is Luxury Travel, while the fleet of boats that includes the Sails of Indochina is managed by SOIC.

According to legend, millions of years ago when Vietnam was conquered by invaders, the Jade Emperor sent the Mother Dragon and her child to help the people. After winning, the dragons did not return to fairyland but decided to stay on earth. The place where the Mother Dragon descended is now called Halong Bay, while Bai Tu Long Bay is where the Young Dragon descended. These names are in Chinese and convey exactly the meanings mentioned above.

Popular sites often included on Bai Tu Long Bay cruises are Vung Vieng fishing village, Thien Canh Son Cave and Hon Co Beach. Its more remote attractions such as Co To Island, Quan Lan Island or Ngoc Vung Island, well known among Vietnamese tourists, are harder to reach by water. Local people usually take a bus or car to Cai Rong Port, Van Don District, Quang Ninh Province and board a high-speed boat at the harbour. The islands come into sight after a trip varying from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours. These islands’ beaches have probably the best water and sand quality found in all of Northern Vietnam. The bay is also home to the large Bai Tu Long National Park, one of seven Vietnamese national parks, which has both a terrestrial zone and an aquatic zone.

As it is not near Halong City, Cat Ba Island or any inhabited island, you can only visit Bai Tu Long Bay and stay overnight on a cruise, floating on the calm water. Normally, a 2 day 1 night cruise cannot reach this bay; only the 3 day 2 night cruise does. Our Bhaya Classic Cruises feature packages which combine Bai Tu Long with other destinations like Halong Bay, Lan Ha Bay and Cat Ba Island.

There’s way more to northeast Vietnam than Halong Bay. The sinking limestone plateau, which gave birth to the bay’s spectacular islands, continues for some 100km to the Chinese border. The area immediately northeast of Halong Bay is part of Bai Tu Long National Park.

Bai Tu Long Bay is every bit as beautiful as its famous neighbour. In some ways it’s actually more stunning, since it’s only in its initial stages as a destination for travellers. Improved boat transport to the scattering of resorts here means the area is quickly growing in popularity with domestic tourists, but the bay and its islands are still unpolluted and relatively undeveloped. For Western travellers, it’s a laid-back alternative to the touristy bustle of Halong Bay.

As with Halong Bay, the best way to experience the full gamut of limestone pinnacle scattered along the seascape is by cruise. Hanoi travel agencies, including Ethnic Voyage, run boat trips into the Bai Tu Long area. Charter boats can also be arranged to Bai Tu Long Bay from Halong City's Bai Chay Tourist Wharf; rates start at around 300,000d per hour and the trip there takes about five hours. To experience a slice of slow island life, independent travellers can head to Quan Lan Island.

Sails of Indochina - Bai Tu Long Bay

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