Imagine I’m a Vietnamese travel clerk trying to sell you a holiday package. You’ve come into my office with your hulking unwashed rucksack and google maps on the go. You tell me you want to go somewhere different, far from the madding crowd. You’ve come here to experience the ‘real Vietnam’.
Behind my desk is a wall covered in Technicolor pictures of the places we tout: Nha Trang, Sapa, Ha Long Bay. It’s a common sight. You’ve seen it all already. Those places are for the masses, the must-dos’ and tourist hotspots. No, not for you. You fancy yourself as an explorer, seeking the wild open roads and uncharted lands that you can stake a claim on. You’ve come here to find your El Dorado.
Flipping through my rolodex of destinations, I come across a particular place on the map: Bai Tu Long Bay.
Bai Tu Long Bay is a lesser-known area amongst visitors to Vietnam. This is surprising, considering its close proximity to perhaps the biggest destination in the country. The area, like Ha Long Bay, primarily consists of vast ocean and karst landscape. In fact, Bai Tu Long Bay technically covers three quarters of the Ha Long Bay World Heritage Site, which, if you were to crunch numbers, seems to point to the assumption that it got the raw end of the tourist draw.
Part of this may stem from its location. Bai Tu Long Bay can only be accessed from the mainland at its dock, located about a two hour’s drive from Ha Long City. Less tour companies operate here, meaning less competition drives up tour prices. And, quite simply put, the legacy of Ha Long Bay is just too strong. If you only had two weeks to visit Vietnam, you would rather more likely follow the hype.
Yet following the less-travelled road more than reaps its own rewards.
Though part of the same entity, Bai Tu Long Bay is arguably more beautiful and more authentic than its counterpart. The water is visibly cleaner and strikingly blue, with little evidence of rubbish floating on the surface. There’s a quality to it one can only describe as purity. Having dived into it, with towering vibrant green islets surrounding my wading body, the sensation felt almost like swimming in a bottle of Evian – that is, minus the saltwater element.
My tour company of course advises against diving into the Bay for health and safety reasons. But if our boat was to dock and it happened to be a typically sunny Vietnamese day, well I may just look the other way. I mean, the water is so clear you’d easily be able to spot any jellyfish edging around the hull’s perimeter.
You can enjoy the view of the impressive islets from inside a kayak with a paddle in hand, or from the comfort of a deck chair and a Bia Ha Noi.
The islets at Bai Tu Long Bay are incredible natural phenomenon. They give off what can only be described as a vibrant green sheen, projecting colour as if it were chlorophyll. The brightness of the sun and the clarity of the azure water reflect onto the surrounding karst islets, lighting them up as if they were mirrors. This is nature presenting itself in its best light, a pageant of sun, sea and greenery.
Bai Tu Long Bay covers an area over 15,000 square kilometers, encompassing a national park and several inhabited islands: Quan Lan, Ngoc Vung, Cong Dong, Cong Tay to name a few.
Having been to Quan Lan myself as part of a previous tour, it’s impressive to see how tourism in this area is reaching a tipping point. The island is relatively large, with the main town roughly 3km from the pier. It sees a particular influx of domestic tourists, coming to enjoy its beach on weekends and holidays. The area is steadily developing, with restaurants, hotels and karaoke bars popping up. This development however meant that the island felt like more of a construction site than a tourist attraction; turned up dirt, building sites and construction materials accent the area, hinting that someone somewhere has big plans for it.
The islands are not the only inhabited areas on Bai Tu Long Bay. Several folks live on floating houses on the open sea. Yes, floating houses. Constructed from wood and resting on buoyant platforms, these dwellings are anchored to the ground and at times connected to one another with little more than rope. Take a closer look and you’d feel like you were back in Ha Noi or Saigon: Men sit smoking and bellies exposed, the TV is on inside with the latest episode of The Voice Vietnam and the missus may be crouching preparing dinner. Some houses even have dogs – full grown Alsatians who are perfectly comfortable leaping in and out of the water as if it were second nature.
The people living in these houses work on nearby oyster farms or as fishermen, specializing in their trade.
Now, is that different enough for you? No? Well let your travel clerk do some more explaining.
The open ocean is a running theme in Bai Tu Long Bay. To get to islands or the dock, your boat will sometimes have to sail into the vast simplicity of sun and sea. Here, the waves are not tamed by coastline but let to rock your boat at their will. If you are easily seasick this may not be pleasant. However, knock a few beers back, bring a good book and lie on the deck and there in that moment you will feel what is called ‘freedom’. You, the wind and the open sea – a soulful experience in the heart of the Bay.
There is a special peculiarity to Bai Tu Long Bay. Eventually the karst landscape enters the open sea. Then, flanking the sides of your boat on the horizon, lie great bodies of land: rolling highlands native to Northern Vietnam and the Chinese border. These great landscapes emerge and set a very different scene. It almost feels like a different trip altogether. Come here in the misty morning and it even begins to take on a strangely Tolkein tone. Mystical, adventurous and canonical.
This is the road less traveled, and a sight that you, having come into my office, may be exactly what you’re looking for.