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A Kayaker's Guide To Choosing Halong Bay Or Lan Ha Bay

Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay both look more like the set of Avatar than bodies of water off the coast of Northeast Vietnam. These two bays have thousands of towering limestone islands that are topped with lush tropical forests. Many of these forests are populated by monkeys and other animals, some of which are only found on these islands.

This area is home to humble fishermen and luxury cruise ships alike. The area also has some incredible kayaking routes. Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay are geologically almost identical and are separated by just a few miles, but these two bays have noticeably different appeal. If you are planning a kayaking adventure in this Vietnamese aquatic wonderland, keep reading to find out which of these two stunning bays is right for you.

Halong Bay is more famous than Lan Ha Bay, but it is also much more crowded. In turn, it is more polluted and difficult to navigate in a kayak. Lan Ha Bay, located off Cat Ba Island, is more challenging to reach, but much better for kayakers. In Lan Ha Bay you can kayak by floating villages and wildlife, all while paddling through crystal clear protected waters.

There are many safe places to rest in Lan Ha Bay. Photo by Tom Gaffey.

What Is The Difference Between Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay

I recently had the privilege of exploring both Lan Ha Bay and Halong Bay by kayak and on a cruising vessel. The beauty of both these bays is undeniable, and while there are differences, visiting either one will allow you the chance to see the breathtaking beauty of this area. The iconic towering limestone islands, hidden caves you can explore with a kayak, and flora and fauna that combine to look like something from another planet.

There are, however, some key differences to note about these two bays that are just a few miles apart from each other. For one, there is the fame and popularity element to consider. Halong Bay is by far the most famous of the two bays. It was designated as a “new wonder of the world,” and is the more frequented destination. This also makes Halong Bay less safe and appealing for paddlers.

Lan Ha Bay is a bit longer of a journey to reach. Most boats leave from Cat Ba, a relaxed island that you need to take a ferry to get to. The water in Lan Ha Bay is cleaner, and with so many islands and lagoons, the waters are much safer for kayaking and other water activities. Lan Ha Bay is also much more authentic. There is a floating village and lots of fishermen working and living on the water.

Both places are worth visiting, but there are clear pros and cons to both places worth looking into further.

Towering limestone islands are a signature of this area. Photo by Tom Gaffey.

Halong Bay Versus Lan Ha Bay: Which is Better?

Pros And Cons of Halong Bay

Pros of Visiting Halong Bay

  • It’s One Of the Seven Natural Wonders Of The World: Perhaps the biggest draw to Halong Bay over Lan Ha Bay is that Halong Bay is one of the New Seven Natural Wonders of the World, according to New7wonders. It is also famed for its appearances in many Hollywood movies including “Skull Island.” So some people like to visit Halong Bay specifically to check it off the epic bucket list destinations list.

  • You Can Take A Day Trip From Hanoi: Another great perk of Halong Bay is visiting it on a day trip from the capital city of Hanoi. It takes about three hours to reach the port at Halong, and then another hour or so on a boat before you enter the bay, but you can make this a full-day trip.

  • It’s Cheaper To Get There: You don’t need to take a ferry to get to the city of Halong, and there are also tons of companies to choose from. This helps make Halong a much cheaper way to see these towering islands than visiting Lan Ha Bay via Cat Ba Island.

  • There Are A Lot More Tour Options: There are more than one hundred different cruise boats to choose from when you decide to visit Halong Bay. You can choose a giant ship or an intimate private vessel. There are also tons of liveaboard vessels, where you can spend one or two nights on a cruise ship (of various levels of luxury and comfort). This makes Halong Bay the winner for those who like lots of options.

Cons Of Visiting Halong Bay

  • It’s Very Crowded: The biggest downside to Halong Bay is its popularity. This area is packed with tourists throughout the year. There is no low season, and even if you book a private tour you will still be in a Bay with more than 100 other boats. This isn’t the end of the world, but with so many large vessels and people everywhere, it does take away from the natural wonder of this incredible location.

  • You Can’t Easily Rent A Kayak: Kayaking here is possible, but usually only when you are on a tour. There aren’t guided tours with just kayaking for the most part, and you can’t just rent a kayak and head into the bay. As Blue Water Adventures said when I asked them about kayaking here

  • The Water Is More Polluted: Another downside to all the crowds of people and tons of boats is dirtier waters. The aquamarine and even emerald waters found in some bays of this region are mostly absent in highly-frequented areas of Halong Bay. Instead, the waters are a bit more dull, and visibility is poor. This makes swimming in this bay a less appealing option.

  • The Conditions Are Windier: Due to its location, Halong Bay faces rougher waters and windier conditions. Being less protected means fewer areas are safe to kayak and disembark on some days.

Paddling around unique rock formations in Lan Ha Bay. Photo by Tom Gaffey.

Pros And Cons of Lan Ha Bay

Pros Of Visiting Lan Ha Bay

  • It is Well-Protected And Safer For Kayakers: One of the biggest perks of Lan Ha Bay’s tucked-away location is it is much more tranquil than Halong Bay. It tends to be less windy, and the waters are frequented by far fewer large vessels. This means tranquil waters that are great for kayaking.

  • The Water Is Cleaner: If you visit both Lan Ha Bay and Halong Bay you will be struck by how much cleaner the water is in Lan Ha Bay. It has a lovely emerald color, and many areas boast fantastic visibility. Some areas are cleaner than others, but if you venture into secluded lagoons you are bound to find clear waters.

  • You Can Experience Local Island Life: Lan Ha Bay has a much more authentic vibe. There is a floating fishing village where hundreds of locals live and fish. There are also many fishermen seen in the coves and lagoons. Cat Ba Island, especially the secluded Viet Hai village in Cat Ba National Park provides a wonderfully unique and authentic Vietnamese travel experience.

  • You Can Escape The Crowds: There are still plenty of tourist boats in Lan Ha Bay, but it is a handful compared to the hundreds you see in Halong Bay. Plus, with so many shallow coves, there are many places you can enjoy in a kayak that most boats can’t reach.

  • The Views Are Just As Epic As Halong Bay: Sure, you aren’t “technically” in Halong Bay, but the rock formations and geology are the same. You can experience very similar beautiful landscapes and take incredible photos from your paddling vessel, all without the irritation and pollution caused by tourism at Halong Bay.

Cons Of Visiting Lan Ha Bay

  • You Need To Stay Overnight In Cat Ba Island: Arguably the biggest downside to Lan Ha Bay is that it is out of the way. Different from Halong Bay, it is not easy to do a day trip to Lan Ha Bay. Most day trips only visit Halong Bay, and most Lan Ha Bay trips leave from Cat Ba Island. Therefore, to truly enjoy this area you must stay overnight on Cat Ba Island.

  • It’s More Challenging To Get To: To reach Lan Ha Bay, you usually need to take a bus, then a ferry, and then another bus to your accommodation. Then you also need to sort out where to stay (I recommend Lan Homestay in Viet Hai village for an authentic Cat Ba Island experience away from the crowds), and kayak rentals (Blue Swimmer Adventure is a fantastic option for kayak rentals and guided kayak tours).

  • It Isn’t “Technically” A Wonder Of The World: For those who care about labels, Lan Ha Bay does not share the same prestige as Halong Bay for being a new wonder of the world. But as previously mentioned, they look strikingly similar and are only a few miles apart, making this more of a technicality.

Authentic floating village in Lan Ha Bay. Photo by Tom Gaffey.

Kayaking Lan Ha and Halong Bay: Five Things To Know

Lan Ha Bay is the clear winner for a paddling trip in this stunning Vietnam aquatic region. It is safer, cleaner, and far less crowded. Plus, paddling in Lan Ha Bay might be less popular, but it is easier to rent a kayak or join a guided kayak tour here than it is in the busy and borderline-dangerous waters of Halong Bay. Before you book your flight, however, there are some things you should know about paddling in Lan Ha Bay.

1. Inspect The Equipment Before You Paddle Out

There are lots of different ways you can book a kayak trip in Lan Ha Bay, but regardless of how you decide to kayak, make sure you inspect your equipment first. Some kayaks and paddles get used constantly throughout the day and aren’t diligently checked after each use. This is especially true if you are on a day cruise and find yourself paddling with hundreds of other kayakers. Make sure you grab a good paddle and have a reliable PFD.

2. Book Your Accommodation In Advance

For those who like to wait until the last minute, consider booking more in advance when traveling to Lan Ha Bay. If you want to book an overnight boat cruise, floating homestay, or farm stay, keep in mind spots are limited. Booking in advance will secure you a place to sleep in the most desirable paddling accommodations.

3. An Early Start Is Highly-Recommended

The best way to avoid boat traffic and the noise of tourists is to start early. Most tour boats leave after 8:30, so if you can be in your kayak by 8 a.m. you should be able to stay ahead of many larger boats. Even if you can’t, you should be able to reach shallow lagoons easily, where most large boats can’t safely venture.

4. Bring A Fully-Charged Phone

Your smartphone will be working overtime when you travel around Lan Ha Bay. This area is a real maze, with the towering islands often confusing even those with the best sense of direction. You will need your cell phone (and a waterproof case) to not only take photos but to use your GPS to navigate the waters from one stop to the next. Ask local guides to share top kayak routes and stops on their Google Maps so you can save them, and create your own adventure map.

5. Take A Guided Tour With A Group

A kayak tour with a guide is a bit more costly than just renting a kayak, but you get your money’s worth. For one, a guide will take you to hidden spots (and there are many) that you will almost certainly never find without someone who knows the area. Furthermore, a guide can fill you in on rich history, and special stories about the nature and animals native to this protected region.

Keep in mind a guide fee is usually a flat rate, so the more people you have on your tour, the cheaper it will be per person.

A ferry boat leaving Cat Ba, with Lan Ha and Halong Bay in the distance. Photo by Tom Gaffey.

Summing Up Paddling In Halong Bay versus Lan Ha Bay

Both Lan Ha Bay and Halong Bay are bucket-list-worthy destinations for all world travelers. The iconic limestone cliff islands, emerald waters, and unique flora and fauna all make this region of Vietnam a miracle of nature. If you are a paddling enthusiast, it is best to head to Lan Ha Bay, and book accommodation on Cat Ba Island.

While Halong Bay is more famous and technically a “wonder of the world,” Lan Ha Bay is better for kayaking. With cleaner and safer waters, far fewer tourist boats, and a much more authentic and local feel, kayaking in Lan Ha Bay is by far the better option between these two iconic Vietnamese bays.

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