Discovering Bai Tu Long Bay
December 15, 2014
Dodging the crowds of Halong Bay, Duncan Forgan sails in solitude through the neighboring waters of Bai Tu Long Bay. Photographed by Aaron Joel Santos.
Published on Dec 15, 2014
We've barely set sail from Indochina Junks' private jetty outside Halong City when the charm offensive begins. "This is Mr. Cong," says Nam, our guide, as he introduces the crew of the Prince IV junk, a compact three-berth vessel that has been plying the oceans of northeastern Vietnam since 2009. "He will be cooking lots of delicious food for you." This promise will be borne out by the succession of sumptuous multi-course Vietnamese banquets in which we indulge during our three-day cruise.
Strumming guitar on a traditional junk boat.
After reaching the end of the roll call with a shout out to the venerable Mr. T—"the man who will help you with anything"—the crew shuffles back downstairs leaving us alone with the wondrous scenery that is starting to unfold as we head into Bai Tu Long Bay. The tableau is famous: hundreds of proud, moss-dappled limestone karst cliffs cut a labyrinth through the boundless blue. Oh yes, you've seen this iconic view on countless postcards of Halong Bay, and technically Bai Tu Long, our destination, encompasses the easternmost three-quarters of the tourist favorite. However, the longer itinerary required to cruise the further reaches of these waters keeps the crowds away—the majority of the estimated 5.5 million tourists who visit Halong Bay each year stick to an area roughly 25 kilometers west of where we are headed. With a tiny fraction of its westward neighbor's traffic, Bai Tu Long retains the majesty of Vietnam's premier bucket-list attraction, but you can experience it in near solitude.
Nam tells us that the limestone outcrops that jut out of the emerald waters of Bai Tu Long are not as lofty as the ones at Halong, but you would have to be a seriously obsessed karst aficionado to notice the difference. In addition to the scenery, the topline itinerary is also near identical to the average Halong Bay trip: a bit of kayaking here and a visit to a cave there with a stop by a "traditional" floating village equipped with a souvenir shop and a pearl retailer thrown in for good measure.
Vegetables grow in a floating fishing village.
What is striking about life on the Prince IV is how laid-back it is. The Halong Bay ships tend to be bigger and more crowded, and there's a tendency towards the hard-sell with tourists being marched up to caves and cajoled into buying goods from local villagers. By contrast, there are only six of us on this junk and—as Nam tells us soon after boarding—we are not beholden to any schedule except for mealtimes when the talented Mr. Cong works his magic, whipping up tangy herb salads, plump shrimp fresh from the bay and thit kho tho (Vietnamese claypot pork). Between feasts, we're left grappling with weighty dilemmas like choosing between a languid paddle through the karst or a horizontal session with a book on one of the boat's sun loungers. Below deck, the wooden-paneled quarters are tasteful, if not opulent, and large portholes offer a view of the scenery in air-conditioned comfort.
Kayaking is an undoubted highlight of the trip. We cast off late in the afternoon as the sun throws long shadows on the water and bathes the karsts in a soft-focus glow. Nam leads us directly towards an outcrop where a low chasm reveals itself. We busk our way through, using our paddles to fend off encroaching stalagmites and stalactites, before emerging in a lagoon enclosed by steep limestone walls. The high tide has brought in some unsightly garbage—"a growing worry," admits Nam, that's rising with the number of visitors.
Kayakers take to the sea
Halong Bay's increased saturation has spurred several companies to set sail to Bai Tu Long over the past two years and, indeed, Indochina Junks will soon be debuting a new large-scale luxury boat in the area. There is certainly room for more boats on this quiet stretch of ocean, but the concern, Nam explains, is that operators will be looking to make a fast buck instead of considering the long-term impact. "Right now Bai Tu Long is a new destination and only a few reputable operators bring tourists here," he says. "What we don't want to see is lots of companies coming here with no concern for the environment. The authorities need to make sure that doesn't happen and do more to keep the water clean."
There is good reason to be hopeful. Following international pressure (the entire Halong Bay area, including Bai Tu Long, is UNESCO protected), the Halong Bay Port Authority, the board responsible for regulating cruising and shipping in the area, has toughened up on safety standards, vowing to clamp down on littering.
Sun sets over Bai Tu Long.
Paddling back to the ship, it's hard to imagine anything but a bright future for Bai Tu Long. The six of us are afloat in the only kayaks in sight, and the view of eagles soaring above the forested peaks gives nature the opportunity to prove its superiority. Even at the height of summer, the seascapes of northeastern Vietnam are perennially shrouded in mist. Today, though, the skies are a spotless blue and the sunset goes through a vivid repertoire of red, gold and purple. You've seen the picture blanketed across travel agent offices throughout Hanoi's Old Quarter. The only things missing from the scene are the dozens of tourist junks crowding the karsts. The absence is spectacular.
Paddling by limestone karsts.
It is a three-hour drive from Haiphong Airport to Indochina Junks’ private jetty outside Halong City, or a four-hour drive from Hanoi. Backyard Travel can arrange the car transfer for you from either city, for no extra charge.
Book the three-day Bai Tu Long cruise through Backyard Travel. backyardtravel.com.