Halong Bay is one of the New Wonders of the World and tourists flock to sail its karst-dotted waters. However, a few miles away there’s another bay – just as beautiful but minus the crowds
The islands were sprinkled across the bay like roughly cut diamonds on a jeweller’s counter. Dozens lay immediately ahead, each pure and perfect and wild, with exotic foliage clinging to vertical walls that soared skywards from the water. Beyond, many hundreds more: they sat on the hazy horizon like ghost ships. I wondered which was to be mine.
The boat’s engine spluttered and fell silent. Momentum propelled us onto the shore, the fine grains of Thien Canh Son’s beach scratching against the timber underbelly. “What does the name mean?” I asked my guide, Tony. “It’s Vietnamese for Paradise Island,” he replied. Ah, yes. Paradise Island would do nicely.
Aside from a washed-up starfish, two excitable dogs and a yawning caretaker, Thien Canh Son was deserted. It was, for an hour or two at least, my own private island. But I hadn’t stumbled across some secret nirvana, far out at sea. No, just to the west crowded boats were ferrying tourists around one of the world’s most famous natural wonders. Yet here, a few short miles away, there wasn’t a soul to be seen.
Halong Bay hogs the limelight. This sweep of north-east Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin, scattered with 1,600 craggy limestone karsts, is on many a traveller’s bucket list. Yet just next door, Bai Tu Long Bay offers the same jaw-dropping scenery but sees only a fraction of the visitors.
Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam (Dreamstime)
At any given time, more than 500 boats are cruising the waters of Halong Bay, revealing its ethereal beauty to more than 8,000 tourists. According to Tony, Bai Tu Long receives around 1% of that traffic. “Everyone goes to Halong Bay,” he said. “It’s a special place but very busy and commercial now. When I was a boy, my friends and I would climb the cliffs there. It was only us and the fishermen. Then, suddenly, people started coming.”
The wider world cottoned on in 1994 when Halong (and parts of Bai Tu Long) was named a Unesco World Heritage site. Today it’s one of Asia’s most popular – and spectacular – sites, with miles of beaches and traditional fishing communities. However, much of its early charm has been eroded.
I sailed around Halong Bay some years ago, instantly captivated by its beauty. Sadly, though, that wasn’t my only memory. I recall docking at an island, my boat jostling for space at the lopsided pier, and joining a long line that shuffled into a cave where a despondent guide pointed out phallic rocks with a fading laser. That evening I’d stood on deck watching the sun set the sea and sky ablaze when a small dinghy interrupted the scene and its skipper – the Vietnamese Del Boy – proceeded to tout his entire inventory. It was like watching the shopping channel live at sea. He remained until I begrudgingly handed over some dong. I wasn’t buying biscuits but a precious few minutes without the hard sell. Only then did he leave me to my sunset.
This time promised to be different.
Halong Bay, Vietnam (Shutterstock)
The three-hour drive from Hanoi to Halong City took us from the capital’s choked streets and through rural scenes of farmers and water buffalos, waterlogged paddy fields and tiny cemeteries. An endless stream of stalls selling steaming pho (noodle soup) flashed by. Cars, trucks and motorbikes laden with pigs played games of gà (chicken), speeding towards oncoming traffic before abruptly swerving to safety with a long blast of the horn.
As the cranes and car showrooms of Halong City materialised, so too did the first of many limestone karsts, rising like bulbous tree-cloaked humps from the water. The diesel-scented harbour was chaotic, a mix of lavish yachts, cargo containers and wooden fishing boats. Somewhere among them was my home for the next two nights: a teak Chinese-style junk boat modelled on those that once traded silk, cotton and ceramics here in centuries gone by.
Setting sail aboard the Princess, it was hard not to feel just a little smug as we journeyed in the opposite direction to almost every other vessel. At the helm was our laidback and laconic skipper, Nguyen Hoang Hiep, who guided us through the labyrinthine waterways using his feet to steer the boat.
The three-hour voyage was slow and leisurely, mostly spent identifying shapes in the rugged isles: the hunched silhouette of a gorilla, the statues of Easter Island, the profile of Abraham Lincoln. Row upon row of islands consumed the entire scene, merging into one mangled land mass and creating distant optical illusions.
Caves in Vietnam (Shutterstock)
Experts believe the spectacle is a result of more than 500 million years of geological changes, but the Vietnamese have another theory. According to legend, Halong Bay was created by a dragon sent to earth to protect the country from early sea invaders. The beast landed and sprayed pearls from its mouth that later formed these rugged towers. Bai Tu Long (‘Bay of Baby Dragons’) is where the kids hung out.
But, why, I wondered did so few people venture here despite the many obvious pleasures? “Halong is closer to the harbour, and the islands there are taller and less spread out. Plus the government has spent millions developing the infrastructure to cater for mass tourism,” explained Tony. “Bai Tu Long is what Halong was like before. It reminds me of my childhood, those early days spent climbing and swimming.”
We moored for the night at Cong Do, a spot ringed by cliffs more than 100m high. Like skyscrapers designed by Mother Nature, they were riddled with deep gashes, smeared markings and other beautiful imperfections. Dusk was in a hurry, upon us and gone in the blink of an eye. As the stars set in, the only illumination came from three other boats that cast rippling columns of light across the bay.
Halong Bay cliffs, Vietnam (Dreamstime)
By morning, the other boats had gone. We bobbed alone on the milky green waters as fog swirled at the peaks. Over a breakfast of steamed rice and freshly caught squid, Tony spoke of secret lagoons deep within the islands, reached via narrow channels accessible only by kayak. My eyes widened. “Sadly,” he said, checking charts and forecasts, “the tide is too low to reach them.” Instead we sailed to Vung Vieng, the largest fishing village within Bai Tu Long.
Hidden from view as we approached, the community of 300 sits in sheltered waters almost completely surrounded by cliffs. A sharp port turn revealed clusters of tiny turquoise huts tied together and floating on large blue barrels. The breeze waltzed through the drying laundry. Dogs dozed in rowboats filled with fishing nets.
Most of the 71 families were nowhere to be seen, either tucked away indoors or out chasing grouper and sea bass. But Vung Vieng isn’t always such a subdued place. The full moon festivals are, by all accounts, vivacious while the heated dragonboat races attract competitors from across the bay.
The school run was in full swing. A young girl travelled from house to house collecting her pals, deftly rotating the long oars of her boat with the soles of her feet. With lessons about to start, she moored up outside the one-classroom school and vanished inside.
Nearby, and enjoying a rare day off with his fishermen friends, Vu Van Hong was sipping green tea from a cup barely bigger than a thimble. His face creased when he laughed and long strands of hair dangled from his chin.
“I was born on the water and have fished all my life,” he said, refilling my cup. “I’m proud of Bai Tu Long. It is very special and I see its beauty every day. More people should come here.”
But Bai Tu Long isn’t an entirely tourist-free zone any more. Signs of growing popularity were plain to see in Vung Vieng.
There was a dusty museum, a small stand selling local art and, most tellingly, a shiny gift shop filled with expensive pearl jewellery produced by the sprawling oyster farm on the outskirts of the village.
Souvenirs at market in Vietnam (Dreamstime)
It’s a sign of locals finding new means of income, as fishing is not the fruitful industry it once was. The community has always combined its efforts for the greater good; households would each bring their hauls to the chief’s house where it was collected and taken to the markets on the mainland. But with seafood stocks dwindling due to bigger vessels and modern methods, fishing here is harder than ever.
The strategic location of Vung Vieng has ensured its survival since the early 19th century when it started as a humble anchorage for passing junk boats seeking shelter from the unforgiving winds. Slowly but surely, homes were built and a community took shape. Many families, however, choose to live at sea on tiny fishing boats of wood and bamboo but made the move to more permanent dwellings around 20 years ago.
More importantly, the guardian rocks that wrap a protective arm around this isolated enclave have shielded it from unimaginable horror.
“Typhoon Haiyan was scary,” recalled fisherman Vu. “The wind was strong and noisy, the rain heavier than I’ve ever seen it. We put the children to bed and stayed up all night in case others needed help but we knew our islands would keep us safe.”
The village now faces a threat of a different kind with talk of the government relocating families to preserve the integrity of the bay. Concern is running high. “My family have fished here for centuries. I can’t imagine living on the mainland,” added Vu, mournfully.
Fishing village in Bai Tu Long Bay (Shutterstock)
After a final refill I said goodbye to my new friend, leaving him to his tea and quietly wondering how many more cups he will sip in this idyllic spot.
And so, to Thien Canh Son. On the beach, I scrambled over algae-covered boulders and paddled in the sea, all the while indulging in an inner Crusoe fantasy. Robinson, though, didn’t have a private chef firing up a barbecue to make his lunch.
Darkening clouds ended our plans to eat on the beach so, instead, we dined in the vast chambers of the island’s cave. The interior, a cathedral of stalactites oozing from the ceiling like melting candle wax, was silent and warm. Threads of daylight seeped through deep cracks. As the prawns sizzled on the grill I explored the cave, eventually emerging onto a high vantage point overlooking the greying seascape below. Drained of light, the sheer limestone pillars – usually verdant with unruly vines and overgrown Halong palms – had been demoted to monochrome. But even in such mist there was great majesty.
The sky wept. Drizzle drifted downwards and the circling sea hawks sought refuge in the rocks. Visibility remained poor well into the evening but our trusted Captain wasn’t particularly fazed. “Sailing here is easy,” he laughed, twirling the ship’s wheel with a flick of the ankle.
Fishing boat in Bai Tu Long Bay (Shutterstock)
Still, these waters are to be respected. Many early trading vessels ran aground here, striking rocks in the shallow waters.
Treasure hunters seeking ancient ceramics have pillaged these wrecks; some got more than they bargained for, discovering unexploded bombs dropped by American planes during the Vietnam War. The thought of sailing over shipwrecks and ordnance was an uneasy one but the small Buddhist shrine tucked in the corner beside the skipper was reassuring.
Halong City beckoned early the following morning. At first the only boat sailing alongside us was a tiny launch belonging to an old lady in a pointy straw hat; she sat hunched, diligently feeding long fishing lines into the water, the frayed nets unravelling through her clenched palm like a magician’s hankie.
Fishing boat in Halong Bay (Dreamstime)
However, more and more boats appeared as we neared the harbour until, suddenly, it seemed we were part of some river pageant. As the high-rises began to form on the shore, so too did tiny figures, eagerly awaiting the starts of their Halong adventures. Many, I imagined, were destined for the gargantuan cruise liner moored nearby. Poised and pointing west, there were no prizes for guessing to which of the two bays it was heading.
Nick Boulos travelled with InsideVietnam on a Private Halong Bay Charter Cruise
Main Image: Floating fishing village in Vietnam (Shutterstock)