Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay?

How to select the right seascape

Picture yourself cruising through emerald green waters, cocktail in hand. Moments ago you saw the sun dip beneath the encircling karst mountains and now you’re absorbing a transcendent sky – an explosion of pinks, purples, and oranges.

As your cruise ship glides through the waters, the scenery slowly morphs around you offering different vistas from different angles. Is this Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay? The truth is that it could be either.

Halong Bay gets all the attention, but few can tell the two seascapes apart. Indeed, some of the images that you see when you put “Halong Bay” into Google are actually Lan Ha Bay. And vice versa.

But as an increasing number of tourists descend on Halong Bay each year and restrictions around the World Heritage Site tighten, Lan Ha Bay is emerging as a fresh alternative. But as a developing destination, Lan Ha Bay is still finding its feet. There’s no definitive favorite. Read on to see which one is right for you.

A note on Bai Tu Long Bay. The Gulf of Tonkin is divided between three bays: Halong Bay, Lan Ha Bay, and Bai Tu Long Bay. The three bays are administered differently. Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay belong to Quang Ninh province and are subject to the same provincial regulations. Lan Ha Bay belongs to Hai Phong province and is subject to different regulations. Today, cruises in Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay remain quite similar, whereas cruises to Lan Ha Bay are different.

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Which one offers the best views and photos?

The karst islands are (probably) the most picturesque in Halong Bay, which is one reason why it has overshadowed Lan Ha Bay for so long. They are taller and more imposing than anywhere else in the gulf, and offer scenes resembling giant turtles, sleeping dragons, and birds engaged in fierce battle.

The downside is the sheer number of cruise ships in Halong Bay. If you’re a photographer, you’ll be hard-pressed to get clear shots of the bay without another pesky cruise ship creeping into the frame. If you prefer a clearer bay and you’re willing to sacrifice some magnificence for the privilege, Lan Ha Bay offers the best vistas.

Aerial view of floating villages around Cat Ba islands. Cat Ba is the largest of the 366 islands, which make up the southeastern edge of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

Where are the best activities?

Visitors to Halong Bay have been steadily increasing for two and a half decades and a wealth of sites and activities have emerged to meet the demand. The caves, floating villages, beaches, pearl farms, kayaking spots and viewpoints are well-equipped to take tens of thousands of visitors each day. The problem is they take tens of thousands of visitors each day…

Halong Bay offers a greater number of activities and itineraries, but the reality is that most cruise ships stick to the same four or five sites. That means that they can get very busy – sometimes to an unpleasant degree. Lan Ha Bay has fewer sites, but they receive only a fraction of the visitors.

Which one is the most convenient?

When it comes to travel, convenience is king. Or is it? Fewer cruise ships is a mixed blessing for Lan Ha Bay. The views may be clearer – but this means less choice. If you have specific requirements, such as child-friendly cabins or disabled access, you’re far more likely to have them met in Halong Bay.

Fewer cruise ships also means less competition and perhaps more expense. It’s a fierce fight in Halong Bay, with hundreds of tour operators vying for your buck and offering great deals and exceptional service to win you over (and get a good TripAdvisor review). With only a handful of operators in Lan Ha Bay, you may find that the cruise companies don’t offer the same value.

Distance is also worth considering. Despite the new highway to Halong Bay, it’s still further from Hanoi. Hanoi to Halong Bay is between two and three hours, while Hanoi to Lan Ha Bay is between one and two. Shorter transfer times for Lan Ha Bay means more time spent in Halong Bay or Hanoi depending on your itinerary – and less time on the bus.

Wild card: Cat Ba Island

Cat Ba is the biggest island in the Gulf of Tonkin and it technically lies in Lan Ha Bay. With a vast national park, charming isolated villages, and an interesting collection of historical sites, you definitely need to consider Cat Ba Island when deciding on itineraries.

Many two- and three-day Lan Ha Bay cruises include Cat Ba Island. But only some three-day Halong Bay cruises do. Therefore, if you want to make Cat Ba Island a priority, you’ll find it easier to look at Lan Ha Bay cruises.

How to choose what’s right for you in less than a minute

Still can’t decide? Take a look at the following and see what matters to you most. Go for Halong Bay if…
  • you’re looking for the most choice and the cheapest price
  • you have specific, out-of-the-ordinary requirements
  • you don’t mind exploring the seascape with countless others
Choose Lan Ha Bay if…
  • you like getting off the beaten track and away from the crowds
  • you want to make Cat Ba Island part of the itinerary
  • you don’t mind limited options and (perhaps) paying a little more