Unwinding Amid The Tranquil Environs Of Bai Tu Long Bay

The less-traversed cousin of the iconic Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, the neighbouring Bai Tu Long Bay beckons with enticing emerald scenery, serenity, indigenous culture, and introspective encounters with nature’s wonders.


It’s a cloudy afternoon as I kayak through unbelievably vivid, teal-hued waters, dotted with several rainforest-covered limestone pillars of varied shapes and sizes. While my fellow paddlers start picking up pace, I have the urge to pause every other minute to absorb the misty, other- worldly seascape in silence. I am on a one-night cruise trip in northeastern Vietnam’s Bai Tu Long Bay. This absolutely gorgeous destination is a natural extension and part of the famous Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in the Gulf of Tonkin in Quang Ninh province. Encompassing an area of approximately 158 square kilometres, the protected archipelago boasts some of the most impressive karst formations that started taking shape millions of years ago when land-based carbonate sediments made their way into the ocean. What you see today is an endless maze of towering cliffs characterised by jagged peaks and notches, and hundreds of undisturbed islets with immaculate beaches, secret tunnels, and grottoes blending seamlessly with mangroves, coral reefs, and tropical jungles. Teeming with rare species of flora and fauna and endangered marine species, the area is an exquisite bubble of life, which I, as a slow traveller, can’t wait to experience! With limited internet access in the wild, I’m looking forward to two days of mindful tuning into raw nature minus throngs of tourists. I must say, the place has already captured my heart at first glance!

A Scarcely Explored Gem

Indochina Junk’s cruise ship Dragon Legend glides through Bai Tu Long Bay.

Although Ha Long and Bai Tu Long are almost identical in beauty and geological characteristics, the latter remains unspoilt and relatively undiscovered; perhaps because only a few cruise companies are allowed to operate here. My cruise adventure begins with a three-hour journey by road from Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi, to the cruise port terminal in Ha Long town, which is a jumping-off point for all single- and multi-day expeditions in the region. After a quick boat ride from the harbour, it’s time to board Indochina Junk’s Dragon Legend, a boutique ship that resembles an old-fashioned Chinese sailing vessel. Oriental magic all the way!

Kayakers passing beneath a famous arch in Bai Tu Long Bay.

Our small group gathers in the restaurant lounge-cum-welcome area, where the cruise manager gives us an overview of our itinerary before we’re taken to our cabins. Mine is spacious and furnished with creature comforts like a plush bed, armchairs by a large window, and a bathtub with a view. What I particularly love are traditional Vietnamese décor elements like wood carvings, handmade blue and white Chu Dau (ancient Vietnamese pottery art) ceramics and embroidered wall hangings in deep red and black.

By now it’s time for lunch, and I head to the on-board restaurant to relish a meal of local seafood specialities, fresh salads, and seasonal fruits. While enjoying my feast, I begin to lose myself in the changing scenery as we gradually move away from the bustling pier and head northeast towards rugged, uninhabited islands.

Of Hidden Caves And Beaches

The mesmerisingly surreal setting of Thien Canh Son Cave.

It’s soon time to embark on our exploratory tour of Bai Tu Long, and we go bobbing on a small boat towards Thien Canh Son Cave on Hon Co Island in the Cong Do Nature Reserve. After arriving on its shores, we climb a few steps under lush foliage to reach the unassuming entrance to the cave. This spot also makes a splendid vantage point to savour the vistas of the bay and I immediately pull out my camera to capture the poetic beauty before me.

Our friendly guide, Đinh Van Quân, reminds us that the paradisiacal Bai Tu Long Bay was once a deep sea and its islands were formed by tectonic movements across millions of years. Its many caves have been sculpted by wind and water over time. As per Vietnamese legend, however, the Mother Dragon (a sacred and powerful creature in Vietnamese culture) and her children were sent from heaven to fight intruders, whom they attacked by spitting emeralds from their mouths. These jewels took the form of about 1,600 unique islands of Ha Long Bay, where the Mother Dragon settled; her children remained in Bai Tu Long Bay, which translates as ‘bowing down in respect to the dragon’s children’.

A visitor ventures deeper within Thien Canh Son Cave.

Coming back to the present, I’m eager to step inside the much- talked about Thien Canh Son Cave. Ducking low, we enter the cave, and follow the narrow, slanted path to a chamber of caverns that can only be described as ethereal! Each is strewn with stalactites (icicle-like structures hanging from the cave ceiling) and stalagmites (deposits growing from the cave floor), and illuminated by natural and artificial light like a veritable fairyland. I come out of my trance to see Đinh pointing out some mineral deposits in flower and animal shapes; I can easily recognise a baby elephant. It almost feels like I’m playing ‘I Spy’, as we all begin helping each other identify the various mineral formations. With no other vacationers in sight, we have the mystical place to ourselves, giving us ample time and space to go deeper inside the cave and observe its many entrancing features.

It was difficult for us to tear ourselves away from the cave, but we did so and a short descent took us to the other side of the dreamy island. Here we found a small, sandy beach that instantaneously brought to mind an iconic scene from the Bollywood film Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai, where actors Hrithik Roshan and Amisha Patel are seen stranded on a pristine island. While I am neither marooned nor in romantic company, I decide to plonk myself on one of the rocks and find delight in solitude and birdsong. Peace washes over me as I feel the sand hugging my toes.

And Away We Float

Colourful floating villages, set amidst verdant cliffs, dot the tranquil waters of Bai Tu Long Bay.

Back on our cruise ship, I am ready for a well-deserved soak in the privacy of my room. I draw myself a bath and simply unwind. All the tiredness from a long, busy day seems to melt away and the calming effect lasts well until I wrap up my dinner and hit the bed. The next day, I feel completely refreshed as we set out for the idyllic and charming Vung Vieng Fishing Village. Set in the heart of the bay, this is one of the four remaining floating villages in the area.

Nature’s beauty surrounds the quaint floating homes of the Vung Vieng Fishing Village.

After disembarking at a small pier, we get onto traditional bamboo boats that are effortlessly rowed by the village’s hospitable fishermen eager to take us to their home and give us a glimpse of their lifestyle and culture. Soon enough, we find ourselves amidst several peacefully floating colourful homes, surrounded by picturesque craggy islets and green limestone arches. Most have vibrant planters as adornments, pet dogs as gatekeepers, and large nets slung outside for fishing and pearl cultivation, which serve as the villagers’ main sources of income. But the most noticeable element here is the serenity and the silence of the region. It’s truly an escape from the noise of the outside world.

I’m genuinely impressed by the eco-tourism and sustainability initiatives of the local community and tour companies operating in this little hamlet, as well. In addition to being paid for ferrying visitors in rowboats, the fishermen are compensated to remove trash from the sea. A basket- like net bag attached at the tail of every boat helps them collect any litter floating on the water. Talk about a holiday that inspires you to do better! From here, we move on to the neighbouring Ha Long Pearl Farm, where we get the opportunity to witness multi-tiered cages holding oysters suspended on the water’s surface and learn a thing or two about pearl cultivation. As part of the demonstration, a skilled harvester delicately opens the oyster’s shell and embeds it with an artificial nucleus (a seed that impregnates an oyster to produce a pearl). “A radiant pearl is formed when the mollusk tries to protect itself from the irritant by covering it with pearly layers of nacre,” he explains. Pearls are the only gem that are formed inside a living creature. How marvellous is that! When our group is asked to open a nurtured oyster, I volunteer spontaneously and am dumbfounded when I slit the mantle to have an exquisite pearl pop out in one go. I was tempted to ask them if I could keep it!

Final Impressions

Back in my cabin on the ship, it’s time to pack up and enjoy a hearty brunch at the restaurant as we navigate our way back to Ha Long town. Digging into a plate of juicy dragon fruit, I realise that Bai Tu Long Bay offers a lot more than scenic splendours to feast one’s eyes on. Enriched with authentic experiences, it is a short yet incredible voyage that works like profound magic for the heart and soul.

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