Any traveler in Vietnam will undoubtedly be told to visit the scenic area of Ha Long Bay. For decades, the limestone peaks of this coastal region in northern Vietnam have attracted tourists from far and wide. Sadly, its popularity and designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site have turned this natural wonder into an absolute zoo.
For us, there was nothing peaceful about the place; dozens of tour boats crowd the bay, tour operators aggressively try to fill their trips, and the water has become polluted from the thousands of people who visit each week. But don’t despair, another option still exists for those willing to put in a little extra effort. Adjacent to Ha Long is the area known as Bai Tu Long Bay. Like its neighbor, Bai Tu Long is home to countless limestone islands that rise sharply out of the turquoise waters and is relatively unaffected by the tourism industry.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, we don’t like tour groups. Several people in Hanoi tried to convince us that exploring Bai Tu Long on our own was impossible, but we took some advice from one of Amy’s brothers, did a little research and found a public ferry. We boarded a small wooden boat with locals that live on islands in the bay and set off into the landscape of towering peaks.
Because we are constantly moving, it can be easy to lose sight of the amazing expedition that we are on. Ironically, the same thing happens to travelers that happens to people at work…days blend into weeks and weeks into months. However, being out on the waters of Bai Tu Long brought back our sense of adventure. The thrill of being on a rickety boat headed to a sparsely populated island with no idea of where we were going to sleep reminded us why we left home in the first place. Watch our video from the ferry ride through Bai Tu Long Bay here or by clicking on the image below.
After a four hour boat journey, we docked at Quan Lan Island (pronounced Gwan-ah). This island is so remote that we were unable to find a map online prior to leaving the mainland, so we arrived with no idea of the layout of the land. Not surprisingly, there were numerous tuk-tuks waiting at the pier, so we jumped aboard and attempted to communicate that we wanted to go to a hotel, any hotel. The driver spoke zero English and gave us a blank look. He showed us 30,000 Dong and pointed to some small buildings in the distance. Having no other choice, we agreed to the price and were on our way.
Turns out there is no real town on the island, but there is one street that is home to a few mini-hotels, ALL of which double as restaurants, convenient stores and motorbike rental shops. They are very entrepreneurial people. It was quickly apparent that aside from the limited lodging, there is little to no tourist infrastructure in Quan Lan, a refreshing change from Hanoi and Ha Long.
In the morning, we rented a motorbike from our hotel (we are pretty sure that it was the owner’s personal motorbike) and took off down the road. While we would never have attempted driving on the crazy streets of Hanoi, riding on Quan Lan was a piece of cake. Little to no traffic helped put us at ease, and having only one main road made getting lost on the island nearly impossible. Peaceful is the best word to describe this place; water buffalo roam the fields, rice paddies glisten in the sun, and waves crash onto white sand beaches.
Our trip to this island can be summarized as a relaxing time on the beach. We didn’t do much else. The people of Quan Lan were some of the most friendly that we have encountered in Vietnam. Even though most do not speak a lick of English, we managed to have full conversations with people using impromptu sign language, and we were even invited into a family’s home for a crab dinner one night. It is clear that the influence of tourism has not yet ravaged this island, and we hope it stays this way. However, we weren’t the only tourists there, and we know that more will make the journey with each passing year. If you find yourself amongst them, please tread lightly.
The public ferry from Hon Gai, through Bai Tu Long Bay, to Quan Lan Island was spectacularly beautiful. When combined with the laid back atmosphere and friendly people of the island, we found it to be a worthwhile alternative to Ha Long Bay.