Halong Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay - What’s the Difference?

The three points of a triangle that visitors can see in Vietnam’s north-eastern corner comprise the country’s most striking beauty. The Halong area is famous worldwide for its unique and stunning nature, made up of remarkable limestone mountains piercing a calmly rippling sea. Life-long memories are made amongst the caves, beaches, fishing villages and open water of Halong, but when it comes to booking a cruise here, the confusion usually sets in early.

Those three points of Halong each have different names – Halong Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay. Each offer a continuation of the same outstanding seascape but have definitive borders between them, meaning that visitors can only enter one during a trip. So which one to visit? What is the difference between Halong’s bays and which itinerary is right for you? Follow Indochina Sails as we take you through each of the pros and cons of Halong, Bai Tu Long and Lan Ha bays.

Halong Bay

The original and some may think, the best. Halong Bay is well-deserving of the reputation it has given to itself and Vietnam as a land of immense natural beauty. The pull it holds for many visitors is incredible; it is responsible for a huge amount of tourism to Vietnam and is one of the (many, many) reasons that its home country is regarded as one of the most naturally blessed in the world.

Why, then, go to any other bay? Well, exactly that. Halong Bay’s pull is so immense that tourists flock in increasingly higher numbers to what was once an undiscovered gem. That reputation has since been lost amongst the crowds, starting in the mid-2000s when the potential in Halong Bay became an unmissable opportunity for Vietnamese businesses.


Immense natural beauty

The largest and most impressive caves

Largest selection of white-sand beaches

Only bay with a fully inhabited floating village

At base level, Halong Bay contains the most amount of beauty out of the three bays on offer. Of course, this is subjective for every visitor to Vietnam, but it is undeniable that Halong Bay contains more islands than its sister bays and along with this, hosts most of the region’s caves and beaches.

Certainly, the quality and quantity of caves is a noticeable difference between Halong Bay and both Bai Tu Long and Lan Ha bays. Caves such as Sung Sot, Me Cung, Trinh Nu and Luon offer incredible sights, historical geology, ancient local legends and diversity of exploration. On a walk through Sung Sot Cave, for instance, visitors will learn about the scientific and folklore explanations behind the vast system of limestone, while visitors to Luon Cave will discover similar appeal on a kayaking expedition beneath its overhanging stalactites.

One of the biggest appeals of Halong Bay is its floating villages, which open the window for visitors to a completely different way of life. Halong Bay is the only bay remaining with a fully inhabited floating village of more than 300 residents, all of whom live in colourful houses atop wooden rafts. Not only is the architectural and natural beauty truly something to behold at Cua Van fishing village, but the way of life here is something unlike anything most cruise passengers will have witnessed before.

Indochina Sails is one of Halong Bay’s longest-standing clients, having been the first company to offer overnight cruises here over 20 years ago. Our 5-star luxury cruise has been one of the most well-received of all cruises – find out why by learning more about us here.


Risk of overcrowding

Mostly artificial beaches

Requires the longest travel time to reach

In an ideal world, visitors would be able to enjoy Halong’s beauty in reverential silence. That, unfortunately, will never be the case again, as hundreds of cruise boats now contest for space every day in one of Asia’s most popular tourist attractions. Especially in the peak seasons of spring and autumn, Halong’s waterways can seem tightly packed and the beauty can feel a little less intimate. Halong Bay’s overcrowding is the number 1 complaint levelled at the site, but those able to tune out the other cruises are still able to find a lot to be awestruck by.

The white-sand beaches around Halong Bay are pretty numerous, including Titop, Soi Sim, Tuan Chau and Bai Chay. However, the latter two of these are artificial beaches which, while still highly beautiful, contain a different feel quite far removed from the castaway experience visitors expect of the bay. Most other beaches visited by Halong Bay cruises are subject to the same overcrowding as the ocean, meaning that relaxing is best saved for the sundeck of your own ship.

One of the big differences between Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay is the time required to travel to each from Hanoi, from where 99% of all tours depart. Even after the construction of a new highway, travel time from the capital is 3.5 – 4 hours, meaning early starts and late returns to the hotel can be expected. Compare this with Lan Ha Bay, which can be reached in around half the time, and it becomes obvious why daytrippers short on time would opt for this much more accessible bay.

Credit: Lonely Planet

Bai Tu Long Bay

Occupying the furthest flung corner of the Halong triangle, Bai Tu Long Bay was originally made accessible to try and ease the traffic flooding into Halong Bay. The waters are certainly calmer here, with fewer tourist boats and another natural world of breath-taking rock sculptures to enthral its guests. There are certain differences, however, that become apparent on one of the many cruises here.


More relaxing atmosphere than in Halong Bay

A huge amount of quiet beaches

Excellent areas for kayaking

Open water and the absence of queuing for tourist attractions certainly gives Bai Tu Long Bay the edge over Halong. Fewer tourist boats mean a more relaxing atmosphere, where passengers can revel in the beauty on display without the fear of overcrowding. This is especially beneficial at night, when cruise passengers can soak up the idyllic silence and moonlit aura, safe in the knowledge that Halong’s party boats are many miles away.

In terms of beaches, Bai Tu Long can boast some of the best and most isolated of the three bays. Between Ngoc Vung, Quan Lan, Minh Chau, Tra Gioi and Ban Chan, Bai Tu Long offers the closest representation of undiscovered sands in the region. However, many of these beaches are difficult to reach and rarely feature on cruise itineraries, meaning that while most cruises head to Ban Chan Beach, those seeking further white-sand isolation will need to arrange for private transportation.

Visitors choosing between Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay for activities might also find more reason to book their cruise in the latter. Bai Tu Long’s many areas for tranquil kayaking include Cap La, Tra San, Cong Do and Cong Dam, all boasting remarkable scenery that ranges from close-quarters inlets to wide and open seascape. Passengers will be closely watched by staff, so even those new to kayaking can feel both safe and free while exploring coves and coasts at will.

Indochina Sails offers charter cruises to Bai Tu Long Bay at your request. Our in-house activities in a tranquil landscape are perfect for those celebrating something special or getting together for a business conference or team building trip. Click here for more info.


Fewer interesting caves

The longest distance required to reach

A single floating village offering

There are a few reasons for Bai Tu Long’s quieter atmosphere. It certainly lacks the same gravitas as the Halong Bay ‘brand’, which is why many passengers are wary of spending hundreds of dollars to visit it. Another reason is the fact that when comparing Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay, those doing research will discover that not only does Bai Tu Long have fewer caves and fishing villages than Halong, but it actually contains just one of each. Thien Canh Son Cave, while still impressive, is far from the same magnitude as Sung Sot and acts as the only cave in Bai Tu Long with access to cruises. As well as this, Vung Vieng floating village offers a meagre snapshot of local life here, but its smaller size and lack of residents makes it more of a sad relic of the past.

Those short on time should sooner head to Lan Ha Bay, as Bai Tu Long Bay is the most distant from Hanoi. Though cruises for Bai Tu Long leave from a nearby port to that of Halong, the time it takes to reach the first of the limestone mountains is quite considerable. After the bus transfer, checking in at the waiting lounge and sailing along the mainland coastline, visitors are looking at about 5 hours of travel time before they can lay eyes on the famed beauty – certainly not an option for daytrippers.

Lan Ha Bay

To the final and most southern of all bays in the Halong area – Lan Ha Bay. Lan Ha has a bit of a ‘newcomer’ reputation, with most of its current cruises having appeared in 2018 and 2019. Because of this, passengers here can be guaranteed of a wonderfully tranquil time, where entire hours of cruising can pass by without the sight of another cruise ship.

How long this will last, however, remains to be seen. Lan Ha’s prestige is ramping up fast and its capacity to deal with the ever-increasing amount of tourist boats to its waters is yet to be tested. If there is ever a time to visit Lan Ha Bay, it is most certainly sooner rather than later.


Wonderfully quiet waterways

Fabulous and accessible beaches

Hosts Cat Ba Island

Shortest travel time required

Understandably, cruise companies’ main selling point is that those asking for a quieter alternative to Halong Bay will find it at Lan Ha Bay. Until very recently, Lan Ha was a sleepy seascape speckled with fishermen and local boats, but interest in the bay surged when the government halted new cruises from registering in Halong and Bai Tu Long. At the time of writing, Lan Ha Bay remains the quietest bay and contains the highest chance that passengers will be about to absorb the raw beauty and explore via kayak in peace.

Quite possibly the biggest advantage to choosing Lan Ha Bay over Halong and Bai Tu Long bays is one single island – Cat Ba Island. Cat Ba is by far the largest island in the Halong archipelago and is vast enough to explore over a few days. It contains some of Halong’s best beaches (Cat Co 3, Tung Thu and Woodstock), a wealth of historical attractions (Hospital Cave, Canon Fort, Viet Hai village) and tops it all off with a stunning landscape of towering cliffs clad in thick jungle. Finishing your trip to Halong atop Ngu Peak in Cat Ba National Park is sure to round off a magnificent trip in jaw-dropping style.

Comparing to Halong and Bai Tu Long, Lan Ha Bay is easily the most accessible, with a travel time distance around half of that required to reach the other two bays. Just 2 hours is needed to take passengers from their hotel in Hanoi to Got Pier in Hai Phong city, where they will check in and embark on the boat in a timely manner. For those looking to do a daytrip cruise, Lan Ha Bay offers the best option as passengers here can enjoy up to 8 hours of cruise time compared to Halong’s maximum of 6.

Indochine Cruise is our newest 5-star venture, sailing through Lan Ha Bay and the peaceful atmosphere to be relished here. Click here to see how our cruise is making waves in the unbridled green world of Lan Ha.


Virtually no floating villages

Risk of overcrowding is growing

Quite simply, you won’t find many reasons to not set your sights on Lan Ha Bay. It is the new focus of tour companies simply because of its serene splendour, though there are a few negatives to consider before booking.

The first of these is that floating village excursions are practically non-existent on Lan Ha Bay cruises. Floating village culture sadly ran out of steam amid the modernisation of Halong and its most ancient village, Cai Beo in Lan Ha Bay, is essentially the only one of its kind remaining. Like Vung Vieng in Bai Tu Long Bay, Cai Beo lacks permanent residents and does not convey much about the old way of life that existed here for centuries.

Another negative to consider is that Lan Ha is currently under a huge drive to introduce mass tourism to the area. This includes the building of a gigantic port in Hai Phong city and the near-monthly announcement of another new cruise to its waters. At the time of writing, Lan Ha Bay is still far quieter than both Halong and Bai Tu Long, but a year is a long time in tourism and no one knows how crowded Lan Ha could be during the 2020s.

There’s a lot to consider in Indochina Sails’ answer to the differences between Halong Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay. For the ultimate trip that suits your wants specifically, some further research will need to be done. Yet, we hope that this has laid out some of the essential things to consider when contemplating a holiday to the enchanting northeast of Vietnam.

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