Each year, millions of tourists are drawn to Vietnam from the far corners of the world, their minds firmly fixed on seeing the legendary beauty of Halong Bay, a renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site. Surprisingly enough, however, more and more of them end up choosing a different bay instead – a relatively unknown bay within the greater Halong Bay area, Lan Ha Bay.
If you are reading this, you are probably wrestling with the same choice right now. Before you make up your mind, go through our Lan Ha Bay guide and find out everything you need to know about it – what it is really like, how it stacks up against its famous neighbor and why, arguably, this might be the best bay in the area to visit.
Overview of Lan Ha Bay
Located to the south of Halong Bay, Lan Ha Bay is by far the smallest of the three primary bays in the area (with Bai Tu Long Bay, another quiet beauty, completing the trio). It comprises around 400 limestone islets spread over 76 km2, and is just as pleasing to the eye as Halong Bay. Lan Ha Bay features the same jaw-dropping landscape of towering karst outcrops that tourists typically associate with Ha Long and if it weren’t for the conspicuous absence of crowds in Lan Ha, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the two bays.
Because of its distance from Halong City and the main tourist wharf, the popularity of Lan Ha Bay never really took off like it did for Halong Bay in the 1990s, and Lan Ha has remained in the shadow of its celebrity neighbor ever since. What this means for you as a visitor is that in Lan Ha Bay it is much easier to find isolated areas, pristine waters, untouched caves – and last but not least, clean white beaches. With no less than 139 beaches in the bay, it doesn’t take much effort to find your perfect spot for swimming, snorkeling and, for the more adventurous – climbing up a cliff face just to jump back into the water!
Home to the magnificent Cat Ba Island, Lan Ha Bay is also known as a great destination for fans of hiking as well as kayaking. There is ample opportunity to stay overnight in locally owned beach huts at some of the larger beaches throughout the bay, so you can just kick back and enjoy a cocktail at sunset there. Alternatively, you can also spend the night on a junk boat anchored in the quiet waters of the bay. Overall, if you are looking to experience the natural wonders of the area but also pining for some solitude there, Lan Ha Bay is a much safer bet than Ha Long.
Is Lan Ha Bay in Halong Bay?
A deceptively difficult question, the answer really depends on how you choose to look at it. Yes and no at the same time!
In geological terms, Lan Ha Bay is part of the same sinking plateau as both Ha Long and Bai Tu Long, and as you sail around the area, you will be hard-pressed to notice any significant change in the scenery around you as you move from Ha Long to Lan Ha Bay. That said, the 3 bays do have clearly delineated borders, and Lan Ha Bay actually sits in a different province.
For the sake of simplicity but also adding to the confusion, most travel guides and websites put some of the attractions of both Lan Ha and Bai Tu Long under one Halong Bay umbrella.
Should I Visit Lan Ha Bay or Halong Bay?
Make no mistake about it – both bays are absolute stunners, guaranteed to impress even the most seasoned travelers. In both Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay you will be able to feast your eyes on some of the best views Mother Nature has to offer. She certainly took her time to create them; the landscape you’ll see there took over 500 million years to form.
The choice you’re looking at is of a different nature, and it has more to do with your preferred style of traveling. If you are arriving on a tight schedule or a tight budget and need the most convenient, affordable cruise deal out there, then you are likely going to visit Halong Bay. You will have by far the greatest choice of deals and activities at your disposal, and you will also get to enjoy the spectacular headline attractions of Halong Bay such as Ti Top Island or Sung Sot Cave.
If, on the other hand, you are fine with staying away from the famous bay itself and you’d rather opt for a more laid-back, less touristy experience of the place, then Lan Ha Bay is probably much more in tune with your needs.