As a traveler who likes to experience local places, culture & people, I am constantly looking for places, that are unspoilt by buses and hordes of humans spoiling their natural beauty and charm. Whilst there is always a question of whether any form of tourism is good for a country or it is just adding to the climate change burden of the place, I think if we make conscious choices in our travel plans, it would probably balance both sides of the argument.
I was in the same dilemma while planning a trip to Vietnam. The big question was whether to visit Halong Bay or not? A lot is written about how travelers have gone and spoilt this wonder of nature, but at the same time, it’s a natural wonder that should be seen if you are visiting Vietnam. Looking for the right alternatives, I landed up finding Bai Tu Long Bay, which is in the same area and as beautiful as Halong Bay, but a lot less touched by human intervention, which leads to lesser crowds & therefore more peace. However, was it that I was choosing a less popular option but at the same time adding to future destruction of it? Therefore, the next quest was to look at some sustainable ways of exploring the bay if any existed. And thankfully I did find the right partner.
But first, a bit about Bai Tu Long Bay, It’s the lesser known cousin of Halong Bay which is a Unesco World Heritage site, the area is made up of 1600 plus islands & islets of limestone which stand tall like walls and make for a unique landscape. It is technically called a Karst – i.e. a landscape created by underground drainage of sinkholes & caves. The repeated regression and transgression of the sea on the limestone karst over time has produced thousands of limestone isles in various shapes & sizes, which look stunning. Due to their unique structure, these islands are uninhabitable by humans other than some fishermen who have created floating villages.
Quoting Wikipedia – According to legend, an immense dragon descended to Hạ Long Bay (meaning ‘’Descending Dragon’’) millions years ago, dropping numerous eggs. These eggs hatched forming thousands of rocks and islands. The tail of the dragon extended far to the sea, forming Bach Long Vi island (meaning “The Tail of the White Dragon”). As she returned to heaven, she said good bye to her offspring at the Bai Tu Long Bay (means “The dragon parts the offspring”). Now the park is part of Van Don District, 20 km distant from Cai Rong town.
The only way to explore this area is by taking an overnight (or a longer) cruise with one of the many operators. And here is where the difference between Ha Long and Bai Tu Long Bay starts to show up.
1. Crowds:To start with, the number of cruises that go to Bai Tu Long Bay are perhaps 1/25th of the number that go to Halong Bay, automatically making Bai Tu Long Bay a different experience altogether. There are only 2-3 operators that currently operate in this bay as it is a little further away from Halong Bay as a result of which we found ourselves in extremely serene environs, the only sounds are of the cruise itself, the water and some birds! There were hardly any other cruises around us till the time we reached the night docking area. When we heard stories of some people who visited Halong and how crowded it was, we heaved a huge sigh of relief.
2. Cleanliness: The bay is clean and tidy with no trash or any other human impact visible anywhere. While this is a factor of the fewer number of people visiting, I think the majority of the credit goes to the operators like Indojunk (which we used) and others who are working along with the authorities and ensuring that they do whatever it takes to keep the bay in its original avatar with extremely low pollution and dirt spoiling it.
3. Small boats vs large boats: Most cruises in Bai Tu Long bay are small cruises – starting with a private, couple-only cruise to 15-20 people. We took a 5-room cruise, which was perfect for us. Larger cruises are just too noisy and impersonal. We made great friends with like-minded people on our cruise and at the same time, we had the guide and the chefs working to give each one of us a bespoke experience.
4. Sustainability: Indochina Cruises did everything possible to make the trip as sustainable as possible. For example, no plastic bottles were allowed on the cruise – they provided us with refillable bottles and water was available in the cruise for refilling. The trash was not thrown anywhere else but in a designated raft that was meant for that purpose. I wish there was some replacement for the fuel that was used to make the experience 100% sustainable!
5. Attractions: While Bai Tu Long may have fewer “activities” to do than Halong Bay, but there is enough and more to do and see in a short period of time, and the best part is that they are all not crowded at all. Fishing villages, beach, kayaking and a beautiful cave along with unique biodiversity – I don’t think I missed anything.
So, if you are planning your Vietnam, take this route less travelled & experience nature in its true glory, after all what are the chances you will visit this area more than once. And of course how this zone maintains it’s integrity will depend on the operators to a large extent, but do be conscious & do your bit to save this true gem still accessible to us.