There’s way more to northeast Vietnam than Halong Bay. The sinking limestone plateau, which gave birth to the bay’s spectacular islands, continues for some 100km to the Chinese border. The area immediately notheast of Halong Bay is part of Bai Tu Long National Park.
Bai Tu Long Bay is every bit as beautiful as its famous neighbour. In some ways it’s actually more stunning, since it’s only on its initial stages as a destination for travellers. Improved boat transport means it is quickly growing in popularity with domestic tourist, but the bay and its islands are still unpolluted and relatively undeveloped. For Western travellers, it’s a laid-back alternative to the touristy bustle of Halong Bay.
Charter boats can be arranged to Bai Tu Long Bay from Halong Bay; rates start at around 300,000d per hour and the trip there takes about five hours. A cheaper, and more flexible alternative is to travel overland to Cai Rong and visit the outlying islands by boat from here. An increased frequency of ferry sailings definitely makes this a more viable alternative than in earlier years.
Hanoi travel agencies, including Ethnic Travel, run trips into the Bai Tu Long area.
VAN DON ISLAND
Van Don is the largest (around 30sq km), most populated and most developed island in the Bai Tu Long archipelago. Now linked to the mainland by a series of bridges, it has a few places to stay, but more importanly it’s the jumping off point to other islands.
Van Don’s main town is Cai Rong (pronounced Cai Zong). Nearby, Bai Dai (Long Beach) runs aling much of the island’s southern side and has hard-packed sand with some mangroves. Just offshore there are stunning limestone rock formations.
Cai Rong Pier (Cai Rong Pha), about 8km north of the bridge to the mainland, is the key port for boats to other Bai Tu Long islands. It’s a bustling port, full of karaoke bars and motorbikes, but there are decent hotels if you’re forced to overnight before catching a morning ferry.
Hung Toan Hotel (033-387 4220; r 250,000d) is good value, while Viet Linh Hotel (033-379 3898; r 400,000d) is fancier. Both are around 300m north of the pier. Just opposite the Viet Linh Hotel is a simple, unnamed restaurant that does great seafood and pork dishes – try the pork with ginger, chilli and lemongrass.
Frequent buses run between Bai Chay (Halong City) and Cai Rong on Van Don Island (60,000d, 11/2 hours). Alternatively catch a Mong Cai or Lang Son bus to the Cua Ong turn-off, and then catch a xe om or taxi to Cai Rong Pier.
Quan Lan Island
The main attraction on Quan Lan is the beautiful, 1km-long crescent-moon sweep of Minh Chau beach on the island’s northeastern coast. The water is clear blue and the waves are suitable for surfing. Water-sports action includes kayaks for hire and there are lots of cheap eateries for beer and seafood. There are several other blissful beaches on the easter seaboard, though water temperatures are a bit chilly between January and April.
The northestern part of the island has some battered ruins of the old Van Don Trading Port. Other attractions include forest walks and a beautiful 200-year-old pagoda in Quan Lan Town. Apart from hanging out on the beaches, and cycling or motorcycling around this island, there’s not much to do. It’s a very laid-back place and a terrific detour off the usual tourist trail. There’s no ATM on Quan Lan Island, so come armed with cash.
Sleeping & Eating
Quan Lan Town, the island’s main town, features an improving array of accommodation, from simple guesthouses to new midrange hotels, and a few decent restaurants. Quan Lan’s second-largest settlement is Minh Chau, just a short walk from gorgeous Minh Chau beach. It lacks the facilities of Quan Lan Town, but has a couple of good places to stay, both around 3km from the pier. Note that most accommodation and beachfront restaurants are only open from May to October, and that June and July are more expensive with the influx of Vietnamese domestic tourists.
Ngan Ha Hotel
(033-387 7296; Quan Lan Town; r 350,000d) This corner-front establishment in the heart of town has redecorated rooms and a good restaurant downstairs.
(Quan Lan Town; r US$25) The newish Ann Hotel offers spacious rooms, gleaming bathrooms and balconies with ocean views. It’s located around 200m from the centre of town towards the old pagoda.
Le Pont Hotel
(www.leponttravel.com; Minh Chau; r weekend/weekday US$40/25) This hotel has newish rooms, a downstairs restaurant and also rents out bikes and motorcycles. Minh Chau beach is a short, forested walk away. For more information contact ‘Mr Jim’ at Le Pont in Cat Ba Town.
Minh Chau Resort
(0904 081 868; Minh Chau; r US$80) Bai Tu Long’s flashest accommodation, arrayed across two leafy locations and featuring a very good restaurant. Rates rise by around 15% on weekends.
Getting There & Away
TO/FROM CAI RONG
Boats from Cai Rong dock at two places: the Quan Lan pier, 3km from the main township on the island’s southern tip, and near Minh Chau beach, on the island’s northeastern coast. Fast boats to Minh Chau (120,000d, 45 minutes) depart Cai Rong at 7.30am and 1.30pm. Fast boats to Quan Lan pier (100,000d to 120,000d. 1.5 hours) depart Cai Rong at 8am and 2pm. A slower wooden boat (50,000d, 2.5 hours) departs from Cai Rong to Quan Lan pier at 7am and 1pm.
TO/FROM HALONG CITY
An alternative route to Quan Lan pier is from the Hon Gai ferry terminal across the suspension bridge from Halong City. A speedboat leaves at 1.30pm (160,000d, 1.5 hours). The Hon Gai ferry terminal is adjacent to the Vinashin bus station.
Quan Lan Town has places to rent bicycles (US$4 per day) and motorcycles (US$6 per day). Most of Quan Lan is pretty flat, but it’s a surprisingly large island, so maybe opt for something with an engine.
Tra Ban & Ngoc Vung Islands
One of Bai Tu Long’s largest islands, Tra Ban offers some of the bay’s most dramatic karsts. The southern part is blanketed in thick jungle and provides a habitat for many colourful butterflies. Boats leave from Van Don’s Cai Rong Pier at 7am and 2pm (40,000d, one hour). There’s no accommodation, so check on times for return boats.
Dao Ngoc Vung borders Halong Bay and has some dramatic limestone cliffs and a great beach on its southern shore with some basic beach huts(r 200,000d). Bring along your own food. Daily boats link Cai Rong to Ngoc Vung (60,000d, 2.5 hours, 7am and 1.30pm)
Co To Island
In the northeast, Co To Island is the furthest inhabited island from the mainland. Its highest peak reaches a respectable 170m. There are numerous other hills, and a large lighthouse. The coastline is mostly cliffs and large rocks, but there’s at least one sandy beach.
There are a couple of recently built hotels and guesthouses on Co To, including the Coto Lodge Hotel (www.coto.vn; d 500,000d) The attached Jellyfish restaurant is surprisingly chic, and the hotel can arrange beach barbecues and island tours. Rates include breakfast. The hotel also rents out camping gear including tents and portable stoves.
Slow ferries bound for Dao Co To depart Cai Rong Pier at 7am daily (70,000d, three hours). There are also slow ferries departing Cai Rong at 1pm on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
A faster speedboat departs Cai Rong daily at 1pm (155,000d, 1.5 hours). On Saturdays there’s also a 6am departure from Cai Rong.