We all know Halong Bay… But have you heard of Lan Ha Bay?
When we think of Vietnam we can’t help but picture the iconic Halong Bay. With its stunning scenery and the lure of spending a magical few days sailing through the mysterious mountains, it’s no wonder it’s on everybody’s bucket list! However, the problem with Halong Bay? It’s on everybody’s bucket list.
This means that it can get crowded, to say the least! But did you know that there exists a fantastic alternative to Ha Long Bay? It’s called Lan Ha Bay, it’s no less STUNNING and it’s right next door. The thing is – not many people really know about it! Except now, you do…
Lan Ha Bay is the lesser-known, but no less beautiful, neighbour of Ha Long. Made up of 400 limestone cliffs dotted throughout its ethereal green waters lined with white sandy beaches, it’s definitely worth checking out this secluded bay when visiting Northern Vietnam! Here’s all you need to know about why Lan Ha Bay makes such a great alternative to its famous twin!
How we discovered Lan Ha Bay
We first heard about Lan Ha Bay through a fellow backpacker who had recently been there on a cruise. Without her, we might never have heard of Lan Ha Bay (although research would hopefully have pointed us there eventually)! Her information was invaluable. She told us about her experience in Lan Ha Bay: about how quiet it was, how good the cruise she’d been on and how the scenery was absolutely stunning, and this led us to do our own research.
In amongst all the articles and tour companies advertising trips to Ha Long Bay, we managed to find out enough information about this underrated alternative bay; in no time at all, we were sold! As well as the popular hotspots, throughout our travels in Southeast Asia, we have always aimed to explore the places away from the crowds. After hearing about Lan Ha Bay, it seemed like the perfect place to do this, not forgetting the chance to have a once in a lifetime cruise experience!
Looking for an off the beaten track cruise to Lan Ha Bay? Check out the Real Lan Ha Bay Experience.
Lan Ha Bay vs Ha Long Bay
So if it’s just as beautiful as the bay it borders, why is Lan Ha Bay not as popular? Well, the simple answer is that Ha Long Bay gets much more publicity. Ha Long Bay has been named one of “The New 7 Wonders of Nature” and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As a result, visitors to Vietnam are much more aware of this destination than any of the neighbouring bays. Ask anyone, and the chances are they will have heard of Ha Long Bay – it’s impossible not to when just a short wander through the streets of Vietnam’s Capital, Hanoi, will offer up endless cruise tours to Ha Long leaving you spoilt for choice!
But this over popularity is the reason why many are starting to look for alternatives to Ha Long Bay. As its fame grows, Ha Long has become much more developed than any of the surrounding bays, including Lan Ha, and that makes it easily accessible to the crowds; and crowded it gets! Hundreds of boats visit the bay every day, churning out pollution into the water and air, causing kayaking queues through the caves and filling the once peaceful surroundings with thumping music and noisy boat engines. All these factors are sadly making Ha Long Bay much less a relaxing getaway and more a place for overcrowded booze cruises and tourist traps!
Lying just to the south of its famous counterpart, Lan Ha Bay lies right on the border of Ha Long and takes around 2-3 hours to get to from Hanoi. It’s easy to visit this alternative bay from the nearby Cát Bà Island, but it’s also possible to book a package tour with round trip transfers from the capital city. As well as cruises and day trips, there are many activities available to visitors whilst in the bay, including kayaking, caving, bike riding and swimming.
There are loads of reasons why Lan Ha Bay is a great alternative to Ha Long Bay…
5 Reasons Why Lan Ha Bay is BETTER than Halong Bay
1. It’s Less Crowded
While hundreds of boats make their way into Ha Long Bay daily, a fraction of this number sail into Lan Ha. The only boats you’ll see are local fishing boats and maybe a couple of other cruise ships! This is mainly because over 50km squared of Lan Ha is included in the Cát Bà National Park, meaning its beautiful landscape is strictly protected. As such, tour companies must have a licence to operate boat trips within the bay, and the good news is, only a handful of companies currently hold these licenses!
It’s also less crowded because the bay is not often spoken about. Many are unaware of its existence, putting it firmly under the tourist radar. Therefore, there isn’t as high a demand for boat trips anyway. Rather than meaning it isn’t worth the visit, this actually makes it the perfect place for those seeking to escape the crowds and have a peaceful boat trip. The quiet surroundings are emptier and it feels as if you are one of the only people to have ever explored those waters!
2. There’s Less Pollution
With fewer boats and less habitation than Ha Long, Lan Ha Bay is far cleaner and doesn’t receive constant pollution from huge numbers boats and the oil and smoke they release. It’s often described as “unspoiled” and this is clear from the lack of rubbish in the water and contaminated air.
3. There are Loads of Activities
Lan Ha Bay is known as the ‘adventurous bay’ – because there are loads of activities to get involved in! From swimming, kayaking and caving to rock climbing, trekking and even cycling on some of the larger islands of the bay, there’s something for every adventurous spirit! Many cruise packages and boat trips include kayaking, swimming and more, so you can probably combine the two! If it’s wildlife you want to see, it’s also possible to see the critically endangered Cát Bà Langur while sailing through the bay.
4. It’s maybe even MORE Beautiful
Have we mentioned this enough yet?! The landscape in Lan Ha is pretty much identical to that of Ha Long Bay: the karsts are just as impressive, there are beaches around every corner and even opportunities to kayak through tidal limestone caves with not a crowd in sight. You really won’t be missing out on stunning scenery if you visit this bay instead on Ha Long! In fact, with fewer people, less pollution and cleaner beaches, it’s even more beautiful in our opinion!
5. It’s MUCH more relaxing
Being such a quiet and calming place, Lan Ha Bay would definitely appeal to those looking for a relaxing getaway amongst peaceful surroundings. It’s great for couples looking for a romantic escape and families looking to avoid the partying backpackers doing Halong Bay Full Moon Party Style! No matter what your budget, Lan Ha Bay is definitely for those who are looking to take in the tranquillity of the surroundings without the distraction of music blaring from touristic party boats such as those commonly found in Ha Long Bay.
The Best Time to Visit Lan Ha Bay
So, you’re sold on a trip to Lan Ha Bay, but when is the best time to visit? This all depends on what kind of weather you prefer: October – April: Cooler weather, less rain but also less sun. Visiting in the months of October to April will mean you experience cooler weather and fewer monsoon rains, but it is also less sunny and the water is brisk and cold, yet refreshing. This is the peak season for the area as visitors seek to avoid the humidity and high temperatures of other regions, so busy tours are more likely (especially in the neighbouring Ha Long), however, this isn’t much of a problem in Lan Ha as it is generally quiet most of the time.
April – September: Summer sun, hotter temperatures but more rain. Between April and September, it is the summer months, which bring higher temperatures to the bay (around 35°C/95°F), as well as a higher chance of rain and frequently changeable weather due to the monsoon. However, there is also a better chance of sunshine during these months and the water is warmer for swimming in. During this time of year, prices increase because it’s the low season and companies charge more to make their quotas.
SEA Backpacker Recommends: Visit Lan Ha Bay during the cooler months of October – April. Even though this is the high season and the bay may be busier, we were there in April and the only people we saw were those on our cruise and one other, as well as local fishermen! Also, the cooler temperatures during this time of year were welcome after the sticky humidity of southern Vietnam, and the bay looks just as amazing whether it’s sunny or not.
How many days do you need to explore Lan Ha?
Of course, how many days you choose to spend there depends on your budget and how much time you have. The more time the better we say!
- 3-days, 2-nights: A 3-day 2-night cruise is a fantastic amount of time to see the bay and what it has to offer. Cruises that leave from Hanoi will usually include transport from Hanoi, one night on the boat, one night on an island in Lan Ha Bay and return transport to Hanoi.
- 2-days, 1-night: If you can’t manage the full 3-days, you can also see a lot of the bay in two days and get to spend the night on a boat in the middle of the bay. However, we would not recommend this option if you are travelling from Hanoi. You will spend half of your first day getting to the bay from Hanoi, as well as half of your last day getting back to Hanoi, which leaves little time to relax and enjoy the amazing scenery and tranquillity of your surroundings.
- Day trips: While a longer trip will give you even more time for exploring, a day trip will also allow you to get a great feel for the bay, experience the beautiful surroundings and have a go at some of the activities on offer. Day trips are also perfect for those who are short on time and looking for a cheaper option than an overnight cruise. (We only recommend day trips if you are already on Cat Ba Island. A day trip from Hanoi is not possible.)
How to visit Lan Ha Bay?
While many tours cater for those seeking a luxury experience on the water, Lan Ha Bay also has opportunities for backpackers on a budget as well as the adventurous spirit.
2-3 Day Package Trips from Hanoi
There are many companies, such as Serenity Cruises, Sapphire Cruises and Perla Dawn Sails, that operate upmarket overnight cruises from Hanoi for those looking to cruise in comfort. The multi-day trips cost anything from $145 – $600 and beyond (although you can haggle!) depending on the suite you choose, how many days and how many people you book for.
These cruises generally cater to holidaying couples and sometimes families, but this doesn’t mean that backpackers aren’t welcome! On these trips, guests get the chance to journey around the bay on a luxury cruise ship and spend overnight on the water in a choice of opulent cabins with views of the magnificent surroundings. Many of these cruise packages also include adventures around the bay, for example kayaking through caves and taking a dip off the back of the boat.
SEA Backpacker Recommends: The Real Lan Ha Bay Experience. At $285 US per person for 3-days and 2-nights, this tour is great value for money and also offers travellers the chance to spend the night in a charming homestay in Viet Hai Village.
Day Tours from Cat Ba Island
Not keen on shelling out on your visit to Lan Ha Bay? Well, there’s no need, as the bay is also a great destination for backpackers on a shoestring! It’s possible to book a tour on the ground in Cát Bà Town as there are several highly rated companies that offer day trips (as well as overnight excursions) at a great value for money.
One tip when booking is that it might be worth avoiding a tour that visits Monkey Island – we’ve heard from other backpacker friends that it gets super crowded with tourists and the monkeys there can be really aggressive! Two companies we’ve heard good things about are Cát Bà Vision and Cát Bà Ventures. Both offer adventurous day (and multi-day) trips around Lan Ha Bay for under $30, and even journey into the quieter, less touristy areas of Ha Long! They also provide tours that do not go to Monkey Island.
Floating Homestays – Lan Ha Bay’s Alternative Accommodation
Are you looking for something a bit different to the traditional cruise? Lan Ha Bay also offers an alternative type of accommodation which allows you to experience the bay like a local. Scattered around the tiny islets and fishing villages are a handful of Vietnamese homestays, and not just any homestays – these ones are floating on the green waters of Lan Ha Bay!
They are basic, remote and there aren’t many of them, but that’s what makes a stay in them completely unique for this area. Friendly hosts, uninterrupted views of the stunning limestone karsts and opportunities for exploring on your own by kayak are all features that make these homestays one of the most interesting places to stay!
Our top picks for floating homestays in Lan Ha Bay are Xinh Floating House, InnerX Floating Homestay (Airbnb) and Manh Nu Floating Homestay. All have wonderful surroundings, offer kayaking and swimming on the doorstep and are amazing places to experience the local way of life – and best of all, they won’t break the bank! The prices vary depending on the season, so check out the property listings on booking.com or Airbnb for up to date prices. For a truly authentic and very different experience of this region, why not spend a night or two in one of these floating homes?
Xinh Floating House
With karsts covered in green as a backdrop, Xinh Floating House is the perfect place to experience life with a local Vietnamese fishing family living in Lan Ha Bay. Whether you spend your days soaking up the views, fishing with the family, climbing the nearby cliff faces or exploring the surroundings by kayak, this is a place where you can really experience authentic culture. The family cooks delicious meals and also run boat trips to some less crowded areas of the bay in their small fishing boat. Keep in mind that the hosts don’t speak English and the rooms are basic. Prices start from $43/£35/996,000 VND for one person in a queen room.
Manh Nu Floating Homestay
Surrounded by some impressive scenery, Manh Nu Floating Homestay offers basic rooms with a sea view and free breakfast included. Known as one of the first floating homestays in Lan Ha, it’s a great place to swim in the cool waters of the bay. It also serves as a stop-off for tourist boats during the day, giving the perfect opportunity to get out and use their free kayaks to explore the deserted beaches nearby. Prices start at $42/£34/974,000 VND for one person in a double room.
InnerX Floating Homestay (Airbnb)
The house of Charles and his brother Duc, InnerX Floating Homestay is a place where you can really feel the calm of life on the water. Guests are provided with free kayaks and dry bags during their stay and the opportunity for waterfront yoga or a morning dip in the bay can’t be missed! Charles loves to cook and you’ll get to try some of his yummy Vietnamese cooking during your stay. Again, the accommodation is basic, but if you want to experience authentic local living, then this is the place for you! Prices on Airbnb start at $35/£28/808,000 VND for a double room.
How to get to Lan Ha Bay from Hanoi
From Hanoi, getting to Cát Bà Island and onto Lan Ha Bay is simple and cheap, but first things first, if you are booking a cruise with a tour agency in the capital of Hanoi, don’t forget to check if they offer round trip transfers – many companies do this and some even include it in the price (and even if they don’t, ask if they’ll throw it in!), so it’s worth asking before booking transport. If you would rather make your own way to Cát Bà Island and jump on a tour from there then check out our guide to Cat Ba Island here.