One minute you’re marveling at the countless towers of rock rising up from the emerald green waters of Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay. And that’s all you get. Just one minute. Because every other second of your two-night boat excursion has you surrounded by countless other tour boats rather than the natural wonder you came to observe. Even at night, the serenity is usually shattered by an ‘OOMPH, OOMPH, OOMPH’ echoing off the moonlit cliffs from a closely anchored party boat.
There is a better way to experience Ha Long Bay (also referred to as Halong Bay) and enjoy its beauty. After years of living and working in these very parts, I’m about to reveal a trade secret (or six) that the merchants in the city don’t want you to know. Here’s how to explore Ha Long Bay the way others don’t.
1. Skip the junk tours.
“Junk” is actually the name for the enigmatic Asian ships that ply the waters of Ha Long Bay — not a tour rating. Nonetheless, you shouldn’t rush to buy your tour boat tickets while in Hanoi. Most of the tour operators in the nation’s capital, a four-hour bus ride from Ha Long, will tell you that you need to purchase tickets to the natural attraction with them. But those junk boats all set sail at the same time, jostle for first position out of the harbor, and ultimately all moor in the exact same spot every day. Skip the junk tours and opt for these experiences instead.
2. Meet the locals in Hai Phong City.
Few foreign tourists make the trip to this city on the edge of the bay — yet locals think of it as such a hot spot that they call it, Bãi Cháy, or “beach fire.” Although your backdrop is a city, Hai Phing’s beaches and sprawling harborfront promenade come with ample views of the jagged island bay that sprawls out across the horizon.
The city also comes with vibrant local traditions. You’ll be able to interact with vacationing local Vietnamese here who greatly outnumber sweaty, sleeveless backpackers. Come in late April and you can partake in the Carnival Ha Long, the city’s homage to the area’s beauty and sacred past. The “carnival of the descending dragon” explodes onto the streets in a mass of cultural vibrancy in the form of fire-breathing beast effigies. With a smile and a xin chao (hello) it’s almost impossible not to make a local friend who can translate for you the float-filled parade’s depiction of Ha Long’s history.
3. Disappear in a kayak from Cat Ba Island.
If you’re catching the ferry from Hai Phong to Cat Ba Island, be prepared to eventually get dropped off in the middle of nowhere and use a xe ôm, or motorbike hug, service into the main town 20 minutes away. The ensuing ride will be nothing short of spectacular as you two-wheel through lush rolling hills punctuated by sheer limestone cliffs. You’ll find plenty of hotels and eco retreats dotted here and throughout the 110-square-mile island.
While it’s a beautiful spot to call home base, the real appeal of visiting Cat Ba is the chance to rent kayaks and disappear into private corners of the bay. A strong, 30-minute paddle will get you deep into Ha Long Bay and its 1,600 islands — and, if you have no navigation skills, into serious trouble. Make sure you know how to use a compass, waterproof map, and the sun for guidance through this maze of identical-looking twists and turns.
Paddle beneath any number of wave-worn arches to enter lagoons that feel long lost in time, as long as you yourself are not! Some kayak providers in the main town will rent kayaks overnight for an unlisted price — as it’s not technically allowed. Just make sure to plan such excursions in advance as they will call the coast guard for kayakers who don’t return by a set time.
4. Go with locals who really know the bay.
Cat Ba is is still very much a fisherman’s island, which is evident by the armada of boats in the main harbor, masts strung with light bulbs in preparation to night-fish for squid. These captains can be found during the daytime in the island’s main town and will more often than not be happy to accommodate tourists on free-roaming daytime tours — if the language barrier can be broken. While these seamen will undoubtedly keep you from getting lost, remember that they’re not licensed tour operators, so proper safety precautions must be taken. Go with a group, tell people back home who you are going with (perhaps send a photo), and let them know when you will be returning.
5. Stay at the Castaways island.
Yes, I’ve tucked a “commercial” option in this off-the-beaten-path guide. But the Castaway Tour’s private island is extremely remote and comes complete with a white-sand beach cloaked by limestone cliffs. It’s also far from any other tourists — except the 50-plus backpackers in your group, that is.
Local fisherpeople who live “a few blocks down” in quaint floating huts are the only other people within reach of the free-use kayaks. Daytimes are spent indulging in wholesome outdoor activities inclusive of your ticket, such as whizzing behind a speedboat either in tubes or on your feet, most importantly through the fantastical landscapes. That said, the night times are anything but wholesome — with parties fueled by cheap booze sold in one of the world’s most remote and picturesque beach bars.
6. Discover where the baby dragon slept: Bai Tu Long Bai.
In local mythology, this is where the descending dragon’s children came to sleep, and this is the best option for real adventure seekers. Ha Long Bay’s immense fame is a sparkling attraction to the average traveler, blinding them to the untouched treasures lying only 12 miles to the northeast: Bai Tu Long Bai.
Here, numerous looming limestone walls coated in shrubs emerge from a peculiarly green ocean, thanks to the area’s high mineral content. It’s enough to satiate anybody’s desire for the renowned scenery of its more famous kin in Ha Long. More remote and less visited, Bai Tu Long Bai has few hotels or guest services. Tours also tend to be much pricier — but intrepid thrill-seekers will have all the skills and ingenuity needed to easily gain access, without the need of a tour guide. And without any of the crowds.