The Best Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise: A Halong Bay Alternative

Looking for the best Bai Tu Long Bay cruise (a great alternative to Halong Bay)? Read on for my recommendation!

tall limestone cliffs rise up from the sea in Halong Bay.
A woman in a flower dress stands on the side of a boat, smiling at the camera, with karsts from halong bay and the water in the background.
The front of a ship with the Vietnamese flag flying (red flag with yellow star) is in the foreground and halong bay is in the background.

Halong Bay is truly one of the most otherworldly, stunning, jaw-dropping, picture-perfect places I have ever visited.

It’s one of the most recognizable and popular destinations in Vietnam, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site , and it just takes your breath away.

The way that the tall, limestone mountains, or karsts, dot the sea, rising up dramatically and steeply out of the water, is truly incredible. When you’re in the bay and surrounded by cliff after cliff after cliff, it’s easy to feel like you’re in a dream, like how could this all be real??

short on time? here’s the tl;Dr:

I’m convinced that this is the hands-down best cruise in Halong Bay. It takes you away from the crowds into neighboring Bai Tu Long Bay, has excellent food, fun activities, beach time, a beautiful wooden boat, and a fantastic tour guide.

However, Halong Bay has become incredibly popular in recent years, with tourism exploding. Today there are hundreds and hundreds of junk boats (aka tourist cruises) out in Halong Bay, which include everything from smaller, quieter boats to large party boats with thumping music.

We knew that we just HAD to do a cruise in Halong Bay, but we really wanted an exceptional experience – no party boats thumping, no overcrowded areas chock full with other tourist boats, no being herded around like sheep on a big cruise full of people. We wanted quiet, serene; an intimate experience enveloped in nature, and not surrounded by dozens of other boats and people.

So I was absolutely delighted to learn about Bai Tu Long Bay, an alternative to Halong Bay.

Bai Tu Long Bay is right next to Halong Bay and is virtually the same in every way, except for the fact that only a handful of boats come out to Bai Tu Long Bay. The area is calmer, the boats that are around are small and quiet, and you really can just stop, breathe, and take in the beauty of the bay.

We spent a lot of time looking at possible cruises to do and hoping that we were making a good choice, so, you can imagine my happiness when we had just the absolute perfect experience.

In this post, I’m going to tell you all about the Bai Tu Long Bay cruise that we chose, why it’s an excellent choice, and all sorts of details about what it’s like to cruise in the Halong Bay area. Let’s dive in!

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The Halong Bay/Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise We Chose

In the foreground are leaves of a tree, in the background is Bai Tu Long Bay, the cruise ship, and tall mountain karsts

We booked this 2 day/1 night cruise that leaves from Halong Bay and goes immediately out to Bai Tu Long Bay. As mentioned above, Bai Tu Long Bay literally right next to and is virtually indistinguishable from Halong Bay, but just a few cruise boats go all the way out.

This Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise is just a fantastic alternative to Halong Bay, because in addition to venturing to parts of the bay where few boats go, the ships are small and number of passengers limited. This allows for a much more relaxed and intimate feel. Our group had about 25 people on it, which allowed everyone to get to know each other very well.

Fun Fact: Ha Long Bay means Bay of the Descending Dragon, and Bai Tu Long Bay means Bay of the Baby Dragon.

What 24 Hours on the Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise Was Like

The greenish blue water of Halong Bay is in the foreground, with several ridges of mountain karsts, some covered with greenery, are in the background.

Arriving in Halong Bay

The specific Bai Tu Long Bay cruise we chose also offered round trip transportation from Hanoi, which was really convenient! However, we actually were coming from Ninh Binh, so we opted to skip the provided transportation from Hanoi, and instead took the bus up to Halong Bay ourselves.

Another person in our group did the opposite thing after the cruise – she booked a bus to take her from Halong Bay to Ninh Binh, and was picked up right at the dock by the driver. If you want to visit Ninh Bing (which you totally should!), I would highly recommend you visit right before or after Halong Bay.

There isn’t a train directly from Ninh Binh to Halong Bay, but there are a lot of bus and luxury van options that will take you there. The bus is a great way to get around Vietnam – you can browse options and make a reservation on 12Go Asia.

The Port and Boarding the Boat

The Bai Tu Long Bay cruise ship we were on - a traditional wooden ship with a small number of passengers.

Your cruise starts in Halong Bay at noon. We met up at the Halong International Cruise Port with our group and the tour guide, and then took a tender out to our boat with Renea Cruise Line.

Today, there are more than 1000 cruise ships (also known as junk boats) that go through Halong Bay, but only 7 of them are still the traditional wooden ships. The Renea Cruise Line operates two of the seven wooden ships, and we were on one of them! This gave the whole experience just a little bit more of a classic and authentic feel.

 Going Out into the Bay

We loved the cruise because it passed through Halong Bay and into Bai Tu Long Bay, and cruised in areas where there wasn’t a lot of other boats, and into more remote spots of the bay. 

Truly, it was just insane to look out the window and see these massive cliffs rising up out of the water everywhere you looked. It was a little bit foggy when we started, so it almost felt like something out of a fantasy novel, with the outlines of ridge after ridge of sheer cliffs rising out of the fog.

The mountains, or karsts, are made of 90% or more limestone. The bay is very shallow – only 15-20 meters deep, which, combined with the dissolved limestone in the water, gives it a green tint. There are coral reefs in the bay, but the water is too murky (thanks to the dissolved limestone in the water) to see it. 

Greenish water of Bai Tu Long Bay, wth limestone cliffs and green shrubs in the background.
Pretty green water!

The sky was pretty overcast during our cruise, so the water was more of a gray tone, but there were times when the green color came through. It would be even more pretty on a clear day!

What Was the Cruise Boat Like?

Our cabin on our Bai Tu Long Bay cruise. Hardwood floors, rich dark wood walls and floors, a cozy bed, and a small balcony overlooking the water.

When we booked our room, we chose the 4 star option (out of 3 star, 4 star, or 5 star options). This gave us a very comfortable, cozy room with a bathroom, plus the upgrade to a private balcony where we could stand or sit on the little chairs and watch the scenery go by.

This little balcony felt so luxurious and we were very happy to have chosen the 4 star option. Every room also came with two refillable water bottles.

A woman in a flower dress sits on a balcony and watches the scenery pass in this Halong Bay alternative cruise.

The boat wasn’t huge, but it was charming and the dark wood throughout added to the cozy and intimate vibe. The main level had an interior dining room with floor to ceiling windows so you could enjoy the scenery while you were eating.

The dining room of the Halong Bay cruise. There are several tables set for 4 set up, deep wooden floors, a bar in the background, and floor to ceiling windwos.

On top, there was a rooftop terrace with a lounging area, and another covered eating area with tables. This part of the ship was really beautiful. You could also go down to the bow of the ship to look over the water.

All together, the cruise boat had the amenities you needed, showcased the scenery brilliantly, and had space for a small group, that made the experience truly memorable.

Already convinced? Check availability for this Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise with Renea Cruiseline here!

The Food Onboard our Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise

Okay, so I expected to eat good food while cruising in Bai Tu Long Bay (I mean, we ate well everywhere we went in Vietnam!), but I wasn’t expecting the absolutely decadent and 5 star worthy, multi-course meals we were served!

We enjoyed lunch, dinner, breakfast, and lunch on the cruise boat, and the lunches and dinners were all 8 and 9 course affairs!

Fresh prawns that were shucked for us right at the table. I didn’t think I liked prawns, but these were really good!
A refreshing veggie salad

All the food was fresh, high quality, and perfectly prepared, and fish and seafood caught right from the bay featured prominently in many of the courses.

These vegetables were surprisingly sweet and delicious
Fish soup
Fresh spring rolls that we got to wrap ourselves

For example, for lunch the first day we enjoyed fish soup, a fresh salad, a stuffed crab, a platter of prawns, and rice, chicken, and curry dishes, and a fruit plate for dessert. 

Dinner was served on the top deck, with string lights up, music in the background, and open air seating – the ambiance was just lovely. For dinner, we enjoyed spiced squash soup, grilled oysters, extra tender beef in a peppery sauce, chicken in passionfruit sauce, sticky rice, and coconut pie. 

Breakfast was a western style buffet, featuring several varieties of fruit and pastries and bread, plus eggs, bacon and sausage.

Believe me when I say, you will eat extremely well on this cruise!

Activities on the Cruise Ship

Onboard the cruise, we enjoyed a mix of downtime to relax and admire the landscape and experience, and organized activities. Here’s what you can expect to do on this cruise in Bai Tu Long Bay:

Kayaking and Swimming

In the afternoon, of the first day, we took the tender boat over to a protected area of the bay to go kayaking. We kayaked past several mountain karsts, into a small cave, and to a small beach. Kayaking through the bay and in between all the karsts was really cool and one of our favorite parts of the entire cruise.

We pulled the kayaks up onto a beach on one of the karsts, and then had a little over an hour to relax and swim. This spot was suuupper prettty, the water was warm and calm, and we were able to swim out pretty far at the beach.

Squid Fishing

In the evening, we got to try our hand at squid fishing! Unfortunately, we did not do any squid catching, but hey, it was still fun to try.

Come to me, little squid!

Tai Chi

The morning of your second day wake up to tai chi on the rooftop terrace, a soothing way to start the day among the cliffs and the water. 

Visit a Cave

You can kind of see the top and sides shimmering in the light – it’s much more obvious in person

There are two caves in Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay that visitors can visit – one in each bay. The one we visited in Bai Tu Long Bay is definitely the less busy cave, and was also extremely interesting! The cave has rock formations made from fossilized coral, so it shimmers and glistens as light passes over it. 

This cave, and other caves like it around Halong Bay were used by Viet Cong soldiers to hide and shoot down airplanes during the Vietnam War. The caves were also used by villagers in floating villages in Halong Bay to shelter when bad storms came through!

The Crew and Tour Guide

The crew of the cruise were all very nice, and the logistics were handled very smoothly. However, it was the tour guide, Cong, who was really the star of the whole excursion.

He was the one who interacted and directed the group, and he was super friendly and funny, spoke excellent English, and was great at getting the group to interact with each other. Even though he has led this exact tour dozens (if not hundreds) of times, he really made it feel like it was so special and new and exciting for us (which it was!) and that he was so excited and delighted to be there with us.

Chatting with Cong and with other travelers on the cruise was one of the high points of the experience, for sure!

Leaving the Cruise

We arrived back at the port right around noon and then got back on the tour bus with the group to go back to Hanoi. Everyone was individually dropped off at their hotels in Hanoi- very convenient!

Remember, if you’re heading to Ninh Binh next, I would recommend booking a bus or a van to pick you up at the port and take you directly to Ninh Binh from Halong Bay. They can pick you up right at the doors of the Port Office!

Check availability, routes, and prices for transportation from Halong to Ninh Binh (or other cities farther south) on 12Go Asia!

FAQ’s and Practical Information

Is an Overnight Cruise Worth It?

An alterative option to a Halong Bay overnight cruise is to just do a day cruise, which lasts several hours. While this isn’t a bad option per se, I do think it’s absolutely worth it to arrange your schedule to do the 2 day/1 night Bai Tu Long Bay tour. It just gives you so much more time to go farther into the bay, as well as do fun activities like kayaking, caving, and fishing!

What is the Best Month to Visit Halong Bay?

The best month to visit Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay is the fall/early winter – October to January. This is the driest and the coolest part of the year, with lows around 60 F and highs 80-85 F. However, this is also the peak season for tourism, so expect higher crowds.

The summer months of May to August is the low season, as temperatures soar over 100 degrees F and the humidity is extremely high. This is also the rainy season. While the weather is not as nice as the fall, crowds are lower and the prices for cruises can also be quite discounted.

How Far is Halong Bay from Hanoi?

Halong Bay is about 2.5 hours by car or bus from Hanoi. It is about 4.5 hours from Ninh Binh by bus or car.

While technically you could do Halong Bay as a day trip from Hanoi and just do a day cruise for a few hours, I wouldn’t recommend it – Halong Bay is so incredible, it’s worth spending more time here!

Is Halong Bay/Bai Tu Long Bay Clean?

Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay are actually very clean and nice! Several years ago the bay was becoming extremely polluted, to the point where there was trash everywhere in the water, and it was apparently really gross.

However, in the past 4 years, the city has made significant efforts to clean up the bay, and it looks really good now! There was occasionally a piece of trash here or there in the water, but for the most part it was really clean.

The water itself is never going to be super clear thanks to the limestone dissolving from the karsts. Thankfully, the water is not murky from pollution, its just from the natural sediment from the rocks all around the bay. Plus, the color of the water had a beautiful green tint when the sky wasn’t too cloudy!


Is Halong Bay/Bai Tu Long Bay Too Touristy?

Halong Bay is a very popular destination in Vietnam and there are a LOT of companies offering cruises. This is definitely not an off the beaten path destinations.

We had heard from other people even in Vietnam that they didn’t like Ha Long Bay and that it was too touristy, but our own experience in Halong Bay, and particularly Bai Tu Long Bay, was nothing short of incredible.

While the cruise had a definite itinerary it followed and took you through, it still felt like a personalized experience. We didn’t feel like we were among dozens and dozens of other cruise ships – we often were by ourselves as we cruised around the bay.

The area where we stayed at night was in a protected spot (several karsts formed a small circle, which protected from outside wind), so a few other ships did dock there too, but as night fell, you felt like you were alone amongst the stars, mountains, and sea. It was perfect.

Can Children Go on the Cruise?

Yes, children can definitely go on this Halong Bay alternative cruise. Kids 5-9 have a reduced rate, and our tour also had a couple with a toddler as well!

Final Thoughts – Is Going on an Overnight Cruise in Bai Tu Long Bay Worth It?

100% absolutely! This experience was one of the best in Vietnam and for sure a highlight amongst all of my travel memories. I was extremely happy with the quality of the luxury cruise, and how awe-inspiring it was being among the karsts, and I would recommend it to anyone.

While you can find cruises in Halong Bay for less money, I was extremely happy with the value and experience that we got on our cruise, and would book it again and recommend it to anyone.

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