Our recent poll on Heritage Line’s LinkedIn page indicates that the cruise destination of Lan Ha Bay, in northern Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin, is still relatively unknown compared to renowned Halong Bay. Over a third of the correspondents were unfamiliar with Lan Ha Bay. This cruise destination may be relatively new to seasoned travellers, but in recent years it has received an increasing amount of attention and awareness compared to its neighbouring ‘big sister’ and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong Bay.
While researching Halong Bay cruises and attractions online, trip planners might stumble across a mention of Lan Ha Bay while being unclear about the differences between the two. When choosing once-in-a-lifetime visit to the region, it may be beneficial to know what makes one bay distinct from the other. This article will provide some explanations and deeper insight into cruising both of these breathtaking destinations in northern Vietnam.
Greater Halong Bay Geography
Glancing at the region from a bird’s eye view, there appears to be just one expansive body of water. But, in fact, there are actually three bays comprising this vast 1,553 square-kilometer water world: Halong, Lan Ha and Bai Tu Long. The trio share very similar geographical seascapes and topographies, with thousands of islets, islands, limestone cliff faces and caves scattered throughout making each of the bays individually stunning. The shorelines of this natural wonder are situated roughly 170 km (105 mi) east of Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, or 2.5 hours by car.
A closer look at the map shows the delineations between the three bays. Halong can be classified as the central, inner bay due to its proximity to the coastline of Halong City. Bai Tu Long is situated to the east, while Lan Ha Bay lies to the south next to the region’s largest populated island, Cat Ba. Due to its greater distance to the mainland, Lan Ha is often described as the more remote, serene and enchanting of the bays.
Notable Differences Between Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay
Many of the dissimilarities between Halong and Lan Ha stem not just from their geographical location, but also from different local governments and regulations regarding boating and tourism. While Halong Bay is governed by Quang Ninh province, Lan Ha falls under the jurisdiction of Hai Phong municipality. Halong Bay has very clear rules about where to cruise, where to drop anchor or which landmarks are open for tourists. Conversely, Lan Ha Bay (including Cat Ba Island) authorities have far more relaxed policies. Boats are free to cruise and anchor at will within the confines of the bay, which allows for very creative itinerary planning and activities.
For example, kayaking in Halong Bay is only permitted in a few designated spots set up specifically for that purpose, whereas in Lan Ha Bay kayaks are stored on-board the boats and can be launched wherever desired, creating truly open and serene kayaking opportunities. Furthermore, in Halong Bay swimming directly from boats is generally not allowed. Instead, swimming is only approved at select beaches, which can in turn lead to a bit of tourist congestion. On the other hand, travelers in Lan Ha Bay are allowed to go swimming straight off their boats. In light of this, Heritage Line ships that operate in Lan Ha are built with spacious, convenient and safe dedicated swimming platforms, which also accommodate kayak launching. Being able to kayak, swim or just float in the middle of the bay is undoubtedly a memorable experience.
In addition, Lan Ha is home to 139 small, secluded and sandy beaches, granting many opportunities for swimming and beach lounging amidst the beautiful landscapes. Heritage Line has used these unique features of Lan Ha Bay to create truly exclusive and memorable itineraries.
Cat Ba Island – A Shining Gem of Lan Ha Bay
Another key distinction is Lan Ha Bay’s access to the largest island in the region, Cat Ba, which is also home to the aptly named Cat Ba National Park. No cruise is complete without visits to several of the island’s fascinating ports of call.
As part of its Lan Ha Bay cruise, Heritage Line includes an outing to a remote and charming village nestled within a valley of the national park, where time feels like it has stood still for generations. From the access point, a quiet lagoon with a picturesque little pier, guests cycle (or ride an electric car) to the village whilst experiencing the island’s natural landscapes: thick jungle foliage, photogenic karst mountain formations covered in lush vegetation, local fauna, and distinctive local village life unlike anywhere elsewhere in Vietnam. This kind of excursion is not possible when cruising the Halong Bay circuit.
Cruising Lan Ha Bay: An Untouched Paradise
Like Halong Bay, Lan Ha Bay’s main selling point is its breathtaking, fairytale-like seascapes. Unlike the former, however, the number of cruise operators and tourists in the latter are much fewer. To allow our guests to fully immerse themselves in this secluded wonderland, Heritage Line introduced its matchless second day of the 3-day/2-night Lan Ha Bay program. Passengers have more time to fully take in the beauty and serenity the bay offers, whether relaxing onboard or partaking in the exciting excursions.
And because there are less restrictions on where the ship can sail (compared to Halong Bay), the captain relishes the opportunity to navigate the bay’s remote corners in search of a tranquil lagoon, empty beach or quiet mooring spot for the day’s activities.
Lan Ha Bay’s One-of-a-Kind Floating Fishing Village
Another of Lan Ha Bay’s unique spectacles is its still-thriving, sprawling floating fishing village known as Ben Beo (or Cai Beo). Here, one can witness hundreds of single-room structures floating on wooden rafts. In each of these homes lives an entire family who survive on fishing and aquaculture.
Though living on the sea may seem like such a foreign concept to most, the thought of living on land is mutual to the inhabitants of a floating fishing village. These families and their ancestors have made spent their lives on the water for many generations, dating back several decades or even centuries. Giving up their traditional way of life in the bay, as well as displacing them from their community of like-minded families, would certainly be no easy feat.
It should be noted that a handful of floating fishing villages still remain in Halong Bay. However, in recent years the local government has relocated these families to the mainland with incentives and subsidies. The villages there are now greatly reduced and will likely disappear over the coming years. One of these settlements, Cua Van, is included in Heritage Line’s Halong Bay cruise itineraries, though the attraction now acts as a floating museum as its residents have relocated to the mainland.
Lan Ha Bay’s floating fishing village, fortunately, is still home to hundreds of families. Its close proximity to Cat Ba (less than 2 kilometres) allows the families access to the island’s education and healthcare, both of which the former residents of Halong Bay’s fishing villages did not have.
Halong Bay‘s Many Tourist Landmarks
But let’s not downplay the natural beauty and well-deserved reputation of the world renowned Halong Bay, which has rightly earned its fame and recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is why tourists in Vietnam have increasingly included Halong Bay as a must-visit location over the years. Which, of course, has had its impacts on the region. There are now many ships plying the bay, which at certain times of the year can make it feel quite crowded. In recent years, restrictions by the local authorities have been introduced to reduce the number of cruise lines operating in Halong Bay. New licenses are no longer being issued for building new ships, as the government wishes to phase out older boats and concentrate on safety and quality over quantity.
On the bright side, Halong Bay certainly has some unique tourist attractions and sightseeing opportunities not available in Lan Ha Bay. There are numerous large caves that can be explored – in particular the largest, Sung Sot Cave, with an astonishing area of 10,000 square meters. There are also interesting pearl farms which are not included in journeys of Lan Ha Bay. Lastly, Halong Bay’s Ti Top Island features an amazing hilltop viewpoint from 110 m/360 ft above the water, equivalent to a 30-storey building, offering spectacular panoramic 360-degree views of the surrounding landscape. All three of these iconic spots are included in Heritage Line’s Halong Bay cruise itineraries.
Bottom Line: Should I Visit Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay?
When the decision comes to choose between these two destinations, it really depends on your preferences as a traveler. Active types and off-the-beaten-path adventure seekers would probably find Lan Ha Bay to their liking, while Halong Bay would be for those who prefer stress-free travel and following a set itinerary to the bay’s most popular landmarks.
But ultimately, whichever bay you choose, rest assured you will not regret your decision as both offer some of the most breathtaking sceneries in the world!