Lan Ha Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay – Smart Alternatives to Ha Long? A Definitive Comparison of the 3 Bays for 2020

It’s not hard to see why for most visitors to Vietnam, Halong Bay is a lock in their travel itinerary. With a jaw-dropping scenery of emerald waters and towering limestone rocks, Ha Long has been voted one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature and it is among the biggest tourist draws in all of Southeast Asia. Check out our list of top 20 Halong Bay tourist attractions!

But let’s face it – the flip side of its popularity is that it sometimes feels crowded, and in the process it also overshadows other sites in the region, equally deserving of your attention. These overlooked destinations include Lan Ha Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay – two neighbouring bays which, geologically speaking, belong to the same sinking limestone plateau and are as visually stunning as Halong Bay.

Both Lan Ha Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay have recently caught the eye of travelers and travel bloggers from around the world, and are now widely seen as more laid-back, untouched alternatives to Halong Bay. But what are Lan Ha Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay really like, how do they measure up against their star neighbour – and ultimately, which of the three bays should you choose to visit during your trip around Vietnam?

With a detailed breakdown of geography, transportation, main attractions and activities for all the three bays, our in-depth comparison gives you all the information you need to make that decision for yourself.

Let’s get started!

A Bird’s-Eye View

Geography

LAN HA BAYBAI TU LONG BAYHALONG BAY
16 km to the east of Cat Ba Island30 km to the east of Halong Bay170 km to the east of Hanoi
Around 400 isletsAround 3000 islets1969 islets
Area: 76 km2Area: 560 km2Area: 1553 km2

Transport

LAN HA BAYBAI TU LONG BAYHALONG BAY
Embarkation point: Got Ferry Terminal (Hai Phong)Embarkation point: Hon Gai Harbour (Halong City)Embarkation point: Tuan Chau Marina (Halong City)
From Hanoi city centre: 153 km – shuttle bus / car (2h)From Hanoi city centre: 136 km – shuttle bus / car (3h15’)From Hanoi city centre: 146 km – shuttle bus / car (3h25’)
From Noi Bai Int’l Airport: 150 km – shuttle bus / car (2h30’)From Noi Bai Int’l Airport: 157 km – shuttle bus / car (3h20’)From Noi Bai Int’l Airport: 148 km – shuttle bus / car (3h) or seaplane (45’)
From Cat Bi Int’l Airport: 28 km – private car / taxi (40’)From Cat Bi Int’l Airport: 79 km – private car / taxi (2h)From Cat Bi Int’l Airport: 62 km – private car / taxi (1h45’)
how to get to halong bay lan ha bay bai tu long bay

Make sure to also check out our breakdown of your options for getting to the bays efficiently as well as our overview of the 3 airports in the area.

Main Attractions

Lan Ha Bay

Bai Tu Long Bay

Halong Bay

LAN HA BAYBAI TU LONG BAYHALONG BAY
KayakingKayakingKayaking
SwimmingSwimmingSwimming
Rock climbingClimbingDiving
Water boulderingFishingFishing
CyclingCyclingCycling
Beach BBQTuk tuk ridingBeach BBQ
LAN HA BAYBAI TU LONG BAYHALONG BAY
Day Cruise / 2D1N / 3D2N2D1N / 3D2NDay Cruise / 2D1N / 3D2N
Orchid CruiseSwan CruiseGlory Legend Cruise
Azalea CruiseEmperor CruisePelican Cruise
Mon Chéri CruiseSignature Royal CruiseJasmine Cruise
Era CruiseSignature CruiseSyrena Cruise
Peony CruiseDragon Legend CruiseStellar Cruise
Perla Dawn CruiseStarlight CruiseAclass Legend Cruise
Stellar of the Seas CruiseOriental Sails Cruise
La Regina Cruise
Ginger Cruise

A Note on Day Cruises

Overnight cruises with either 2D1N or 3D2N itineraries used to be far more popular than day cruises. These days, thanks to the newly constructed highway from Hanoi, it takes much less time to get to the bays, so you will still get a reasonable amount of time onboard even if you only visit the area for a day cruise rather than an overnight one. If that’s the only option you can afford in terms of your time or budget, we believe it’s still worth it. Read more about day cruises here.

Overall Impression

LAN HA BAYBAI TU LONG BAYHALONG BAY
Tranquil and unspoiledLess visited due to its secluded locationEasily the most crowded of the 3 bays
Far less touristy than Halong BayFewer accessible cavesHundreds of boats, especially in the peak season
Relatively smallUnspoiled and pristineMore polluted than the other bays

A Closer Look

Lan Ha Bay – A New Star on the Block

With more and more foreign travelers coming to realize that Ha Long’s amazing limestone outcrops stretch beyond the actual Halong Bay Park, Lan Ha Bay has become something of a badly kept secret in the recent years. If you’re not obsessed with the Halong Bay “brand” but are mainly after the experience itself, you may find that it more than pays to stray off the beaten path of Ha Long cruise liners and head for Lan Ha Bay instead.

Located to the south of its famous neighbour, Lan Ha Bay belongs to a different province but is in fact a seamless extension of Halong Bay. Spreading over 7,000 hectares, Lan Ha Bay is by far the smallest of the trinity of bays but still boasts some 400 karst formations and it comes with an added bonus of no less than 139 white-sand beaches – a clear competitive edge over Ha Long.

Home to the majestic Cat Ba Island, Lan Ha Bay falls mostly under the management of Cat Ba National Park and gives ample opportunities to adventure-minded visitors. It has the best conditions among the three bays in terms of snorkeling, diving and swimming, and it is a wonderful destination if you enjoy trekking, deep water soloing or rock climbing (with Cat Ba Island in particular offering a number of great hiking trails). And if you can bring yourself to it, in some designated places at the end of your trek you can jump off the cliff face into the bay’s emerald waters!

Rock climbing in Lan Ha Bay
Biking on Cat Ba island Lan Ha Bay

Lan Ha Bay is also known as “a kayaking paradise” – and you can even paddle through a cave! As for overnight stays, your accommodation options in Lan Ha Bay include hotels and hostels on Cat Ba Island, in Viet Hai Village or on Monkey Island (Cat Dua Island) – and needless to say, you can spend the night on a junk boat too.

Where Lan Ha Bay is going to absolutely win your heart, however, is the tranquillity of the place. Unlike Halong Bay, Lan Ha Bay has managed to preserve its untouched, pristine character, and has a decidedly less touristy feel to it. So as long as you don’t dread missing out on Halong Bay’s headline attractions such as Sung Sot Cave or Ti Top Island, you should give serious consideration to a Lan Ha Bay cruise.

Recommended activities in Lan Ha Bay:

  • Kayaking
  • Deep water soloing
  • Rock climbing
  • Trekking
  • Cycling
  • Swimming

Notable places of interest in Lan Ha Bay:

  • Trung Trang Cave
  • Ao Ech Area
  • Cai Beo floating village
  • Viet Hai fishing village
  • …and many more

Cruise ships that go to Lan Ha Bay:   

Bai Tu Long Bay – A Hidden Gem

If Lan Ha Bay’s tranquillity and laid-back atmosphere sound appealing to you, then you need to consider another bay in the area before you make your final choice. Located immediately northeast of Halong Bay and stretching along the coast towards the border between Vietnam and China, Bai Tu Long Bay possesses a similar landscape to its famous neighbour – as a matter of fact, it is every bit as wonderful but comes with much less bustle than Ha Long.

Still relatively undeveloped and unpolluted, Bai Tu Long now offers better transport to a handful of its emerging resorts, and it is a big favourite with domestic tourists. Western visitors, however, have so far mostly avoided it, for the simple reason that because of its more secluded location, Bai Tu Long is more suitable for itineraries longer than a one- or two-day cruise.

For those ready to spare a bit more time, however, Bai Tu Long offers clearer water and a range of attractions that will surely feel less touristy than their Halong Bay equivalents. These include kayaking in the charmingly peaceful Vung Vieng fishing village, swimming and snorkeling in the crystal-clear waters of the secluded Ban Chan beach as well as trekking and climbing at the Ang Du area, with wide-ranging vistas and majestic lakes in the background.

bai tu long bay

The legend has it that when Vietnam was invaded by sea, Emperor Jade pleaded with gods for help – and the gods listened. Mother Dragon and her children came, razed the wretched invaders in a blaze of fire and created impassable barriers to future invasions with their emerald teeth – the present-day bays. To commemorate that deed, the two bays were named Ha Long, or the descending dragon, and Bai Tu Long, literally meaning “bowing down to dragon’s children.”

Divine interventions aside, these days Bai Tu Long still offers plenty of ethereal beauty – and the best thing is, you’ll mostly have it all to yourself. If you’re not coming to the area on a tight schedule (or a tight budget), then you might as well shoot right past Ha Long for the hidden charms of Bai Tu Long Bay.

Recommended activities:

  • Kayaking
  • Swimming
  • Snorkeling
  • Climbing
  • Cycling
  • Tuk tuk riding

Notable places of interest:

  • Co To Island
  • Cap La Island
  • Bai Tu Long National Park
  • Thien Canh Son Cave
  • Vung Vieng fishing village
  • …and many more!

Cruise ships that go to Bai Tu Long Bay:

Co To Island Bai Tu Long Bay

Halong Bay – The Crown Jewel of Vietnamese Tourism

A question you might be asking right now is – if Bai Tu Long and Lan Ha Bay are really so wonderful, what’s all this craze for Halong Bay then? How come Halong Bay is a household name all around the world, and Lan Ha Bay isn’t?

The answer is almost as fascinating as the bay itself and exposes some of the inner workings of global tourism. Ever since it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, Halong Bay has been promoted as one of Asia’s premier travel destinations, and over the years it has seen its popularity go through the roof. It is now an absolute fixture in all travel guides to Vietnam and in all travel catalogues, and countless tourists from around the world have visited it, marveled at its beauty and then spread the word to even more people, further cementing Halong Bay’s reputation as a “must-see”.

Halong Bay cruising
Halong Bay nightlife

It certainly helps that as a tourist destination, Halong Bay is nothing short of perfect. With a landscape of limestone outcrops, tiny islets topped with forest and surrounded with emerald waters, the beauty of Halong Bay requires no advertisement. But on top of that, it is easily accessed from Hanoi, Hai Phong and Halong City, and with so many years of experience in the business, it now boasts a complete, polished package of tourist attractions.

And this is where Halong Bay easily outduels its competitors in Bai Tu Long & Lan Ha Bay, two bays which have started to challenge it only recently. It caters for the needs of all types of visitors – families, couples, groups of friends and solo travelers, and provides an entire range of activities and sports such as climbing, kayaking, diving and so on, in a far greater abundance of form than Lan Ha Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay. Halong Bay also has a far superior offer for foodies, with an endless list of freshly-caught seafood as well as all the staples of Vietnamese and international cuisine, and it is equally unrivaled with respect to nightlife and parties (both on land and off-shore).

After all, zillions of tourists can’t be wrong, right? If you don’t mind them being with you there at the same time, you are going to have an absolute whale of a time in Halong Bay!

best time to visit halong bay in spring

Notable places of interest in Halong Bay:

Recommended activities:

List of cruises that go to Halong Bay:

Don’t tell anyone, but we think these might be the best cruises going to Halong Bay right now!

Decision Time!

Assuming you want to visit just one of them, you now have a choice to make – a choice between three absolutely stunning bays. Relax! It’s a win-win-win situation in that sense, and whichever of them you end up choosing, you’ll get to stand face-to-face with a dazzling, otherworldly landscape that took 500 million years to form – the sort of a landscape that looks like a set for a Lord of the Rings film. This is a land of dragons after all, right?

The choice you’re facing is not about what you’ll see, it’s how you’ll see it. Are you more of an independent traveler and an adventure-seeker, not fond of tourist crowds? Are you also ready to spend more time as well as money to reach your destination? Then your safest bet will be either Lan Ha Bay or Bai Tu Long Bay.

But perhaps you don’t mind giving up on those romantic visions of poetic solitude in exchange for, well, everything else – the most affordable deal, the most convenient transport from the doorstep of your hotel to the deck of your junk boat, the greatest choice in terms of food as well as parties, sports and activities in the bay. If that’s the case, then you’re likely headed for Halong Bay!

Lan Ha Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay, Halong Bay. Which one is it going to be for you?

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