Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay
Understandably, every tourist coming to Vietnam wants their holiday to be as perfect as possible. Many factors have to be balanced in decisions made about specific destinations, but none more so than those involved in choosing Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay as their cruise trip in Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin. Popularity has been slowly growing for Lan Ha Bay, which forms the much more tranquil route in the southern expanses of Halong Bay, one lined with beautiful caves, beaches, kayaking opportunities and luxuriant, emerald islands. Here, we will explore the question that many people ask upon arrival to Vietnam – Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay?
Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay for Cruising?
There is a misconception that Lan Ha Bay, because it is far less famous that Halong Bay, looks in some way inferior. The truth, however, that if anyone were to wake up on the deck of a boat in Vietnam’s northeastern corner, they would have no idea which bay they were in. Halong Bay’s well-known limestone painting is almost perfectly reflected in Lan Ha Bay and on beauty alone, both are indistinguishable from each other.
One of the few differences between cruises around Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay is the traffic, and this is often championed as Lan Ha’s prize asset. The more intense serenity of Lan Ha Bay is a product of the fact that many tourists simply do not know it exists. The waterways are clearer, the attractions are much less crowded and the splendour of a genuine natural wonder shines for just a handful of cruises and their passengers at a time.
In Halong Bay, by comparison, tens of millions of arrivals every year have depleted some of its grandeur and left tourists jostling to see its sites. Canals clogged with cruise ships and long queues for its most famous attractions have skimmed the top layer of enchantment off the bay, but the twice-recognised UNESCO World Heritage Site is known much more for its incredible natural apperance than for the cruises that ply its waters.
Halong Bay: ***
Lan Ha Bay: *****
Presently, Lan Ha Bay is an absolute dream of a seascape; a product of the formula that ‘fewer tourists equals more tranquility’ and hence, more time and space in which to soak up all of the majesty.
Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay for its Quiet Areas?
So the question now is, is Halong Bay busy in all areas or are there still pockets of tranquility to be found dotted around? The government authorities offer restrictive paths for cruise ships, aimed at reducing the chances for Halong Bay to turn into a water-based equivalent of congested Hanoi. Cruises cannot simply sail wherever they want around the bay, and this creates some congestion on the more popular of its routes.
Despite this, there are some more isolated spots where traffic is lessened and the beauty of the bay appears more vivid in the quiet. This is the case in places like Fairy Lake Cave, Trinh Nu and Dau Go Cave, all of which are the off-the-beaten-track alternatives to the bay’s overloaded spots like Titop Island, Sung Sot Cave and Cua Van fishing village. Cruises that go to these places typically give their passengers an extended amount of time there in order to absorb the peace and leave Vietnam with amazing memories of the silence of Halong Bay.
This is a silence known very well by passengers to Lan Ha Bay. That same feeling can be gathered on a cruise along any of its karst-lined waterways, but intensified even more so in its more secluded areas. One of the most authentic of these is Tra Bau, where a small fishing community has lived off the fruits of the sea for thousands of years. The area is pressed right up against the border of Cat Ba Island and thus has a forested wall to contain the stillness it offers, one which passengers on the V’Spirit Premier Cruise are consistently blown away by on our 2-day itinerary or 3-day itinerary in the bay. Along with Ba Ham Lake, Hon But, Ba Trai Dao, as well as many of the areas on Cat Ba Island, Lan Ha Bay is a peace-lover’s paradise.
Halong Bay: ***
Lan Ha Bay: ****
The chance to relax is often one of the most important factors in choosing Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay, but the latter has more and better quality spaces in which this attractive isolation can be found.
Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay for the Beaches?
No embodiment of heaven on earth would be complete without white-sand beaches, stretching from tree-clad mountain to tree-clad mountain and looking out onto a sea of lightly shimmering water. Across Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay, this is a scene that repeats itself over and over, some across hidden inlets and others proudly on display for the admiration of cruise passengers.
The most famous in Halong Bay subscribes more to the ‘loud and proud’ category. Titop beach is the bay’s central, artificial beach and hits all of the right notes in terms of its beauty, but its very obvious appeal is why scores of tourists descend on it each day, searching for a far-off paradise that can be found much easier in other areas. Soi Sim Beach is a small but less-crowded option and the two artificial beaches in Halong City, Bai Chay and Tuan Chau, offer a great way to relax before or after a tour.
In comparison to the largely artificial nature of Halong Bay’s beaches, Lan Ha’s are all natural, formed over millions of years of unhampered erosion. This doesn’t count for much, as Halong Bay’s beaches are well-constructed, but the atmosphere of quiet on Lan Ha’s are, again, the bay’s biggest appeal. Most find themselves on Cat Ba Island, where visitors are treated to more accessible beaches than all of Halong Bay’s together, coming in the forms of Tung Thu, Woodstock and Cat Co 1, 2 and 3. Of these, the Cat Co beaches are the most accessible and therefore popular, but a small amount of effort to reach Woodstock or Tung Thu is rewarded with smooth sands, hammocks, swaying palm trees, a cove walled in by mountains and most importantly, a blissful silence.
Halong Bay: ***
Lan Ha Bay: *****
There is no shortage of white sand choices for Cat Ba Island in Lan Ha Bay, as well as many more in the bay itself, like Ba Trai Dao, Van Boi and Dao Khi beaches.
Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay for the Caves?
1,600 islands in the entire Halong Bay region provide a lot of scope for enticing caves, hewn into the karst rock by tens of thousands of years of rain and tidal erosion. The secret inner worlds of caves in either Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay have carried an immensely high appeal for visitors coming to Halong Bay, and a stroll around their fabulous insides has meant that no one leaves disappointed.
Cat Ba Island is another trove of natural beauty and geological wonder for Lan Ha Bay. Most of its caves can be found here, all strung together by the one inland road that connects the top of Cat Ba Island to the bottom. Visitors can learn of local wartime history at the Hospital Cave, before moving onto Trung Trang and Thien Long caves, where limestone splendour comes to the fore. In the waters of the bay, the Dark & Bright Caves provide an excellent chance to see a quiet and enclosed lake from the seat of a kayak, connected to Lan Ha via a limestone tunnel with stalactites drooping down.
In Halong Bay, most caving activities are centered around Sung Sot, one of its most impressive and dramatically lit, with a wealth of history and local legend that attracts tourists from all over. The size of Sung Sot cave is astounding, but smaller caves, including Luon, Thien Cung, Me Cung, Trinh Nu, Bo Nau, Trong and Dau Go offer a similar mix of gorgeous scenery, interesting history and local legend.
Halong Bay: *****
Lan Ha Bay: ****
It is not just the quantity of Halong Bay’s caves making the difference here, but also their aesthetic and historical value. Sung Sot cave, while often very busy, is the most comprehensive cave in either Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay for offering tourists the most for their money.
Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay for Kayaking?
To enhance the serenity surrounding Vietnam’s number 1 attraction, visitors need only to climb into a kayak and push themselves slowly through the water. Kayaking is an included service on the vast majority of tours, but some require a small payment for rental. The world that this opens up to passengers is key to their enjoyment of the bay, one where they can glide freely through the still waters with beauty erupting on all sides.
There are many pristine areas to do this in Lan Ha Bay, including Tra Bau, Ba Ham Lake, Van Boi beach and Ba Trai Dao beach. Of these, Ba Ham Lake offers the most intrigue, as this is a system of lakes connected by three tunnels (‘Ba Ham’ in Vietnamese), which are enclosed on all sides by a series of karst mountains dressed in lush vegetation. Benjamin figs, casuarina pines and several types of orchid comprise the verdant scene here, one in which the V’Spirit Premier Cruise takes its passengers on our 3-day Lan Ha Bay itinerary.
Kayaking in Halong Bay is a rather different experience, as much of the quiet appeal found atop the smooth waters of Lan Ha is lost amidst the increased activity of Halong. Kayaking here still presents a great way to get onto the water and to soak up incredible views, but an excursion around Cua Van, Tung Sau, Luon and Ba Hang is likely to be one with a lot of background noise and perhaps even some congestion amongst the kayaks.
Halong Bay: ***
Lan Ha Bay: *****
Lan Ha Bay contains more quiet areas of intrigue, which unveil themselves as passengers pass through them in the seat of a kayak.
Overall – Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay?
Not many can refute the monumental impact that Halong Bay has had on Vietnamese tourism in the last few decades. The bay has brought tourists from all over the world to a 1,550km2 area crammed with unbelievable beauty both flamboyant and hidden, but times are changing and Halong Bay should be ready to pass the torch. The slowly growing numbers of tourists to Lan Ha Bay come for its identical appearance and much decreased traffic, with many finding the answer to the eternal question – Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay – directly in its waters.