There’s more to northeastern Vietnam than Halong Bay. The sinking limestone plateau, which gave birth to the bay’s spectacular islands, continues se 100km to the Chinese border. The area immediately northeast of Halong Bay is known as Bai Tu Long Bay.
Bai Tu Long Bay is every bit as beautiful as its famous neighbor. Indeed, you could say it’s more beautiful, since it has scarcely seen any tourist development. This has its positives and negatives. The bay is unpolluted and undeveloped; however, as yet there’s no tourism infrastructure. It’s pretty hard travelling around and staying here, and unless you speak Vietnamese, it’s difficult to get information.
Charter boats can take you to Bai Tu long Bay from Halong Bay; a boat suitable for 20 passengers coasts US$10 per hour and the one-way journey takes about five hours. A much cheaper alternative is to travel over-land to Cua Ong pier, catch a public ferry to Van Don Island and visit some of the remote outlying islands, or charter a boat from the island’s Cai Rong pier.
Van Don Island (Dao Cai Bau)
Van Don is the largest and most populated and developed island in the archipelago. However, there is no tourism development here yet.
Cai Rong is the main town on the island, which is about 30km in length and 15km across at the widest point. Bai Dai (Long Beach) runs along much of the southern side of the island and is hard-packed sand with some mangroves. Just offshore, almost touching distance away, there are stunning rock formations similar to those in Halong Bay. At the time of writing, a hotel was being constructed right on Long Beach, and should be open by the time you read this; presently this is the only planned beach-frontage accommodation.
Places to Stay & Eat
The only hotels are at Cai Rong pier, about 8km from Tai Xa Pha, which is where ferries from the main-land dock. Cai Rong is a colourful, busy area, with lots of fishing boats and passenger vessels, and a backdrop of limestone mountains in the bay. It’s also full of karaoke bars and motorbikes; the racket starts about 5am and you might want to get a room with air-con to block out some of the noise. There’s no beach.
Hung Toan Hotel ( 874220; fan rooms 60,000d) is about 100m before the pier. The three rooms on the top floor are best – they share a huge balcony – but they’re small and fairly grubby.
Duyen Huong Guesthouse ( 874113; rooms with/without air-con, 100,000/60,000d) is a clean little place. Its decent-sized rooms have attached bath and hot water, and some have balconies.
Nha Nghi Nhu Hoa (air-con rooms 80,000d) is next door and pretty much the same in style. It’s fine, but keep away from the excruciatingly loud karaoke room on the 2nd floor.
Khach San Sy Long ( 874854; fan rooms 70,000d) is situated in a nice location, right on the corner of the pier, but the rooms are small and facilities more basic than some of the other hotels. It’s clean though, and that’s a plus.
There are a couple of other guesthouses, and some reasonable restaurants at which to eat, in the same street.
Getting There & Away For the moment, the island’s inhabitants mostly rely on ferries that run between Cua Ong Pha (Cua Ong Pier) on the mainland and Tai Xa Pha ( Tai Xa Pier) on Van Don Island. The passenger ferry (which also carries bicycles, motorbikes and chickens) runs every 30 minutes (1000d, 20 minutes) from 6am to 5pm. The car ferry (15,000d per car; 15 minutes) leaves Cua Ong every two hours between 6.30am and 4.30pm ( 1 October-31 March) and between 5am and 5pm (1 April to 30 September).
There’s also a daily hydrofoil between Van Don Island and Halong City (US$6,70 minutes) leaving at 3.50pm, and between Van Don Island and Mon Cai (US$12, 2 ½ hours) leaving at 8.30am.
A warning – these boat schedules may change and are, of course, dependent on the weather. Be prepared to hang around there a day or so.
Frequent buses run between Hon Gai (Halong City) and Cua Ong bus station, 1km from the pier on the mainland. You’ll pass plenty of coal mines en route – your face (and lungs) will receive a fine coating completed. Just pity the folks who live here and have to breathe this in every day.
You can get a motorbike to take you the 8km between Tai Xa Pier and Cai Rong town (10,000d).
Other Islands Cai Rong Pier (Cai Rong Pha) is just on the edge of Cai Rong town. This is where you catch boats to the outlying islands. You can charter a boat from here to Hon Gai or Bai Chay for around US$10 per hour (the one-way journey takes five hours).
You can also charter a tourist boat (du lich) at Cai Rong to cruise the nearby islands for a few hours. Ask at the pier. The hourly rate is between 70,000d and 80,000d.
Quan Lan Island
(Dao Canh Cuoc)
The main attraction here is a beautiful, 1km-long white-sand beach shaped like a crescent moon. The water is clear blue and the waves are suitable for surfing. The best time to play in the water is from about May to October – winter is too chilly. However, at present there are no tourist facilities.
The rowing-boat festival Hoi Cheo Boi is held here from the 16th to the 18th day of the sixth lunar month. It’s the biggest festival in the bay area, and thousands of people turn out to see it.
The northeastern part of the island has some battered ruins of the old Van Don Trading Port. There is little to show that this was once part of a major trading route between Vietnam and China. Deep-water ports, such as Haiphong and Hon Gai, long ago superseded these islands in importance.
A ferry service between Quan Lan and Van Don Islands runs daily (17,000d, two hours), departing Van Don at 2pm and Quan Lan at 7am; in other words, a trip to the island requires and overnight stay. As there are no hotels, you’ll have to camp and bring all your own gear and supplies.
Van Hai Island (Cu Lao Mang)
Ancient Chinese graves have been found here, indicating that this region has seen considerable maritime trade. There are many good beaches, but a sand-mining pit (used to make glass) is destroying the place. There are boats to and from Van Don Island at 7am and 2pm (17,000d, 80 minutes).
Ban Sen Island (Dao Tra Ban)
Also known as Tra ban Island, this is the closest major island to Van Don Island, making it easy to visit. However, there are no tourist facilities and as a visit will mean an overnight stay, be prepared to be slf-sufficient.
Boats depart from Van Don Island at 2pm and arrive on the northern side of Ban Sen Island between 3pm and 3.30pm (10,000d). Going the other way, boats leave Ban Sen Island daily at 7am and arrive at Van Don between 8am and 8.30am.
Co To Island (Dao Co To)
In the northeast, Co To Island is the farthest inhabited island from the mainland. Its highest peak reaches a respectable 170m. There are numerous other hills, and a large lighthouse atop one of them. The coastline is mostly cliffs or large rocks, but there’s at least one fine sandy beach. Fishing boats usually anchor just off here, and you can walk to some of them during low tide. There is a small and very basic guesthouse on the island.
Ferries bound for Co To Island depart Van Don Island on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at unspecified times – check the schedule in Cai Rong. They return from Co To Island on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. There are no boats on Sunday. The one-way fare is 30,000d and the journey takes about five hours, depending on the wind.