What's the difference between Halong, Bai Tu Long & Lan Ha Bay?

Halong Bay has two other twins - Bai Tu Long & Lan Ha Bays. Here's how you decide between them!

Last updated: 21 Sep 2023 - 8 min read
What's the difference between Halong, Bai Tu Long & Lan Ha Bay?
What's the difference between Halong, Bai Tu Long & Lan Ha Bay?
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Not many people know this, but although the whole area is known as Halong Bay, there are in fact 3 different bays: Halong Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay. As the three bays are all accessible from the same port (Tuan Chau harbour), and all three bays have virtually indistinguishable karst landscapes, cruises to the area will all be advertised as Halong Bay cruises.

It's often difficult to know which route a cruise will take because they're all advertised as Halong Bay cruises! But if you look into the itinerary, you'll find that some cruises stay within the more crowded Halong Bay route, whereas others will take you further out to the less-crowded Lan Ha Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay.

Here's what to expect on the three different routes and how to choose between them!

1. Halong Bay

The most famous bay out of all, Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also a Wonder of The world. You’ve probably heard about it if you’re planning a trip to Vietnam.

Most cruises take the Halong Bay route, so regardless of whether you’re a budget traveller or a luxury traveller, you’ll find a boat for you here.

The Halong Bay route is best suited for travellers looking for a luxury experience since almost all the five-star boats will take this route. We’re talking about serious luxury here - from jacuzzis on deck, to 360-degree floor to ceiling views overlooking Halong’s iconic landscapes. So if you’re looking to pamper yourself, go for the Halong Bay route. 

The activities on the Halong Bay route are broadly similar to those on the other routes, with two notable differences.

Sung Sot Cave, the largest cave in the area, and Titov Island with panoramic views across the bay are both located in Halong Bay. So if you’re looking to check those two sights off your bucket list, then go for the Halong Bay route. 

Titov Island on the Halong Bay Route

The downside of Halong Bay is that you can’t really avoid crowds here. If you prefer a more private experience, choose cruises that time their land excursions to avoid peak times, or the cruises with private piers for embarkation, or even better, head to the further out Lan Ha Bay or Bai Tu Long Bay for identical landscapes with fewer tourists.

For those who want to squeeze in as much as possible, look out for the cruises that combine a Halong Bay cruise with a visit to Bai Tu Long or Lan Ha Bay.

Getting There: To get to Halong Bay, you would need to travel from Hanoi to Tuan Chau Port. Most cruises will offer transport from Hanoi for an additional charge.

TLDR: You should choose Halong Bay if you

  • are looking for a luxurious getaway from the city (as the boats are nicer on this route)
  • want to visit the viewpoint of Titov Island or the mega caves on the Halong Bay route 
  • don't mind a more crowded experience

2. Lan Ha Bay

Located South of Halong Bay, Lan Ha Bay is a lesser known alternative. While it may not be a UNESCO Heritage Site, it has a virtually indistinguishable landscape to Halong Bay.

You can take a Lan Ha Bay cruise from either nearby Cat Ba Island (the cheaper cruises go from here), or take a Lan Ba Bay cruise that provides transport from Hanoi (these tend to be more expensive). 

Light & Dark Cave at Lan Ha Bay

For backpackers and travellers looking for a more interesting cruise itinerary, we would recommend staying on Cat Ba island and taking a Lan Ha Bay cruise from there. The cruises that depart from Cat Ba tend to be more basic, but better-priced and with more varied activities on their itinerary (like rock-climbing and kayaking with bioluminescent plankton).

See bioluminescent plankton on Cat Ba

Regardless of whether you’re doing the Lan Ha Bay cruise from Hanoi or from Cat Ba island, you’ll find fewer boats here than you would at Halong, and more adventurous excursions.

The excursions on a Lan Ha Bay cruise include trekking in Cat Ba National Park, cycling, visiting a historical war cave on Cat Ba island, and also snorkelling to see diverse marine life, from colourful coral reefs to crustaceans.

Hiking in Cat Ba National Park

If you’re looking for luxury, Lan Ha Bay probably isn’t for you as the cruises that take this route tend to be more basic and rugged. However if you’re looking for a more social atmosphere and a younger crowd, this is the best route to choose out of the three bays.

Getting there: To get to Lan Ha Bay, you would need to travel from Hanoi to GOT Port (2 hours by bus). From here you’ll take a speedboat ride (10mins) to reach Cat Ba Island where Lan Ha Bay is. 

*Many of the Lan Ha Bay cruises include pick up from Hanoi so you can choose to go from Hanoi or from Cat Ba if you want to spend more time there.

TLDR: You should choose Lan Ha Bay if you

  • are coming from Cat Ba island, as the cruises from Cat Ba island primarily go to Lan Ha Bay 
  • want more adventurous excursions such as longer hikes, rock climbing and night kayaking 
  • want a cruise experience with a more social atmosphere - since Lan Ha Bay tends to attract a younger crowd and backpackers

3. Bai Tu Long Bay

Far from all the tourist sites and located East of Halong, Bai Tu Long Bay is yet another lesser known alternative to Halong.

Just like Lan Ha Bay, the limestone karst landscape at Bai Tu Long Bay is virtually indistinguishable from Halong Bay. And huge bonus for us - Bai Tu Long Bay is probably the least developed compared to its sister bays so this bay sees the least number of tourists out of the three!

Bai Tu Long is the quietest bay with a similar karst landscape to Halong Bay

The boats here, similar to Lan Ha Bay, are comfortable but not as luxurious as those in Halong. They also tend to be slightly more expensive (difference of about $30-50) because of how few cruises come here. If you’re looking for a nice, quiet spot to retreat from the busy city life, then Bai Tu Long Bay is for you.

View of Bai Tu Long view from above

For those who are looking to visit Bai Tu Long, we recommend a longer itinerary (2 days or more). This is because it is a little further out and we don’t want for you to waste your time travelling all the way without getting the best out of it!

This is a great route for those travelling in small groups (such as families) because you can bond through cooking classes, squid fishing and kayaking. All of which is quite similar to what Halong offers, just with fewer crowds!

For those who have heard about Vietnamese fishing villages and are keen on visiting one, don’t worry as Bai Tu Long has its very own Vung Vieng Fishing Village. It may be less populated compared to Cua Van on Halong Bay, but it's authentic.

Vung Vieng Fishing Village at Bai Tu Long Bay

Another reason why we say Bai Tu Long is great for small groups is because of the beaches it offers, which happens to be the best and most isolated beaches in the area. Ban Chan beach is a great one with plenty of space for you to play beach volleyball or just chill!

Getting There: To get to Bai Tu Long Bay, you would need to travel from Hanoi to Hanoi’s International Cruise Port Gai Port. Most of the cruises will offer transport from Hanoi at an additional charge.

TLDR: You should choose Bai Tu Long Bay if you

  • want to spend time on beaches without struggling to find a spot
  • have plenty of time and want to explore at your own place
  • want the most secluded location (out of the three!)

Bonus: Vinh Hy Bay

Small and untouched. Vinh Hy Bay may not be a UNESCO site or boast similar limestone landscape as others. But instead, it offers great coastal views with beach backdrops, mountains and vineyards.

Being an eco-tourist spot, this bay has preserved its rural beauty with high mountains, extensive green forests, waterfalls and a small fishing village. With a good book and a chair in front of the view, you’re bound to forget all your stress. 

The activities in Vinh Hy, compared to the ones in Halong are much more chill and require less commitment and energy. Take a walk around town, have conversations with locals and go out on day trips. In fact, one of their most popular activities is going on a glass bottomed boat where you can look at the coral reefs in clear waters. Due to Vinh Hy’s lower popularity, you’ll be able to experience the local life much more. Witness the locals fishing, sorting their catch and finish off with a visit to the nearby markets. No doubt, it makes for the perfect short summer escape where you can relax and soak in the coastal views. 

Getting There: To get to Vinh Hy Bay, you would need to get to Ho Chi Minh and drive to Vinh Hy, alternatively, you can fly Cam Ranh Airport and take a taxi to Vinh Hy. 

TLDR: You should choose Vinh Hy Bay if you

  • want a no-frills, no commitment vacation
  • want a great coastal landscape without having to travel out of Asia
  • want to experience local life and living

Frequently Asked Questions

Where is Lan Ha Bay located?

Lan Ha Bay is located in the Cat Ba Archipelago, adjacent to Halong Bay in northern Vietnam. It is part of the larger Halong Bay UNESCO World Heritage Site.

What makes Lan Ha Bay unique compared to Halong Bay?

Lan Ha Bay is known for its pristine beauty, secluded beaches, and emerald waters. It offers a more tranquil and less crowded experience compared to Halong Bay, making it an ideal destination for nature lovers and those seeking a peaceful escape.

What activities can visitors enjoy in Lan Ha Bay?

Visitors to Lan Ha Bay can engage in a variety of activities, including kayaking through hidden lagoons, swimming in crystal-clear waters, snorkeling to discover vibrant marine life, fishing with local fishermen, exploring limestone caves, and trekking through lush forests on nearby islands.

What is Bai Tu Long Bay?

Bai Tu Long Bay is a stunning natural wonder located in the northeastern part of Vietnam, adjacent to the famous Halong Bay. It is known for its pristine beauty, limestone karsts, emerald waters, and tranquil atmosphere.

How does Bai Tu Long Bay differ from Halong Bay?

Bai Tu Long Bay is often considered a less crowded and more peaceful alternative to Halong Bay. It offers similar breathtaking landscapes but with fewer tourist boats, allowing visitors to enjoy a more serene and secluded experience amidst the limestone islets and floating fishing villages.

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