We were on our plane, flying back home from Thailand. We were still daydreaming about all the amazing places that we had seen, all the kind people, the beaches (especially the ones on Koh Yao Yai), and the food. Being a long flight, I started watching a travel documentary. There were not so many options, so I chose one about Vietnam. I always wanted to get there, especially to Ha Long Bay; that place had something that lured me. There was something mystical about it. It wasn’t long after we got back home that we decided to book our tickets to Vietnam. It’s actually spelled Viet Nam, but I think people get confused if I use that spelling. Anyway, once we got our plane tickets, I started doing the research, where to go and what to see in Vietnam. Of course, Ha Long Bay was on top of the list. But then I started reading tons of reviews and blog articles and a new name popped up: Bai Tu Long Bay!
Why travel to Bai Tu Long Bay?
I learned about Bai Tu Long Bay from a TripAdvisor review describing it as peaceful and quiet. I actually imagined the entire Ha Long Bay area to be like this. But the more I was reading about it, the more I realized that maybe Ha Long Bay, despite being one of the top places to visit in Vietnam, had become way too touristy for our tastes. Bay Tu Long Bay had too few reviews to make me think about it as crowded or touristic.
What exactly is Bai Tu Long Bay?
I would describe it as Ha Long Bay’s little brother. It’s actually situated northeast of Ha Long Bay and shares the amazing landscape, the famous rocks that really take your breath away. I cannot actually compare it to Ha Long Bay because we didn’t go there, we decided to skip it, but I can compare it to the stories we heard from travellers. And our stories from Bai Tu Long were pretty different.
Vietnam is all about legends and stories
Before telling you about Bai Tu Long Bay, I guess it wouldn’t hurt telling you a legend, because Vietnamese folklore is full of amazing legends. The story goes that, a long time ago, the Vietnamese had to fight with invaders coming by sea from the North. Help came from the Mother Dragon and her children that defeated the enemies with their fire and emeralds. The emeralds transformed into islets and rocks and the children of the Dragon decided not to return to heaven, but stay and help the people. So actually, Ha Long Bay means the land of the descending dragon and Bai Tu Long Bay means thanks to the dragon’s children.
Choosing your Bai Tu Long Bat cruise operator
However, one downside about Bai Tu Long is the fact that it does not have so many options as Ha Long Bay in terms of tour operators. Because for sure you will want to go for a cruise, the best way to visit the site. And being few operators, the prices are also significantly higher than the ones provided by tour operators and agencies in Ha Long Bay. So we decided to splurge. We chose a tour operator that was more expensive but had the best reviews – Indochina Junk. And boy, were we glad to choose them!
Initially we said we will go on a two-day cruise, but ended opting for the three-day one, because it included a dinner in a cave which from the photos and reviews sounded too good to be missed. So yes, we got to Hanoi and from there we were picked up and taken to the harbour for our cruise. And the first thing that came to my attention was the number of people with whom we would share our boat. Only 11 other people! That’s a pretty good start for a place that is neighbouring one of the top world attractions.
Let the cruise start!
The first day on the boat was exactly how I imagined it would be. From the pier the bay looked mystical as it was filled with some dense fog. But the moment our boat left the pier and started wandering among the impressive rocks, the fog lifted. We were introduced to the crew and they announced a trip with the kayaks in the afternoon. For us, that was supposed to be one of the highlights, because we love kayaking anywhere in the world.
The thing that caught our attention right from the moment we left the rest of the boats in the harbour was the silence. It was really incredible to look around and not see one single boat, to be able to admire the beauty of the place all by yourself: because we were lucky and had very nice people with us on the boat. And they all wanted to relax and enjoy the peacefulness of the place. Every now and then we spotted a small boat with a fisherman. And it was something in their movements that caught your eyes. Our guide told us that there are floating villages where these fishermen live and most children actually start swimming before walking.
It’s kayaking time
After a couple of hours of slow drifting among the impressive rocks, our boat dropped the anchor. And we were invited to choose a kayak. It was a perfect sunset. We paddled softly and just enjoyed the silence and the colours of the sunset. The rocks were now starting to get wrapped up in darkness. The water was still, with only some soft currents. So we didn’t have to struggle with the kayaks, it was more like “chill” kayaking sessions. Because all we wanted to do was enjoy every minute of it. Enjoy the landscape, the views, the water, and the quiet.
After kayaking, we had our dinner on the boat and our guide started telling us stories about Vietnam, about his family, about the Vietnamese people. And a lot of them don’t really have what we would call a good life. But they just face each day and its challenges; they don’t lose hope and work hard to overcome any difficulties that may appear. I always love to listen to locals and their stories. Because I believe that we have so many things to learn from others, from other life perspectives.
The next day was filled with kayaking. We paddled in hidden lagoons in Cong Dam. We even had the possibility of swimming, but we saw too many jellyfish to dare to jump in the water. And besides, the kayaks allowed us to explore more places. There were times when I would just tell Vlad to stop paddling. Because the silence was just incredible, hearing only the wind and the birds. I loved how each time we went kayaking they would stop the engines in order to not disturb us.
A hidden cave and a perfect dinner
In the afternoon we went on a small island, Hon Co Island. It was time for yet another amazing sunset. Vlad chatted a little with Tim, our guide, but then we decided to take the kayaks again. Because the water was calm and we already knew that the best views were actually from the kayak. So yes, we started paddling again and enjoy the solitude. Being so few people, there was no other boat around us, and we literally had no one around us. Which was true bliss!
But the best part was the dinner from our second night on the boat. They prepared a dinner in a cave on the island, the Thien Canh Son cave. They lit it with candles and welcomed us with some Vietnamese songs. The atmosphere is hard to describe in words. If only we could stop time then. We enjoyed one of the tastiest dinners we’ve had in our lives: Vietnamese food truly is to die for! It was difficult to stop eating or to choose between dishes. We also walked a little on the beach, enjoying the moon’s gentle light. If you ask me if there was anything missing, I would reply with a definite no. Because for us it was exactly the way we dreamed about it.
Time to say goodbye
The third day we visited a fishing village in a traditional wooden boat. It was nice because they took us to a pearl farm, explained to us the process of making pearls. We also visited a fish farm and a floating school. The school was my favorite because I got to enter in a classroom and even had our guide as a teacher. He explained to us the different tonalities of Vietnamese and how a simple word like “ma” can have so many meanings, depending on the pronunciation and the accent.
Trust me, the moment we started to head back to the harbor, I started to miss our peaceful Bai Tu Long Bay. And the moment we got back to Hanoi, it was like coming from a different world. All of a sudden everything was loud and hectic. Goodbye, serenity! I would still say that the cruise was the highlight of our trip to Vietnam. Because it didn’t disappoint us in any way, it was actually beyond our expectations.
Why would I recommend Bai Tu Long Bay? Because it is quiet. Because you don’t get all the party boats anywhere near you. Because the landscape is pretty much similar to the one in Ha Long Bay. We never saw any traces of garbage on our cruise. Whereas we met people coming from Ha Long Bay and they were telling us that there were places with dozens of plastic bottles floating around. If you want to relax and enjoy a mystical place in bliss, then go for Bai Tu Long Bay. We usually choose the mountains when we search for quiet moments. And in Vietnam, we also trekked in Sapa, to experience the Vietnamese mountains. But still, Bai Tu Long Bay was the most peaceful place we visited in Vietnam.