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BAI TU LONG BAY

Halong Bay is breathtaking and so are its neighbours. Bai Tu Long, immediately northeast of Ha long Bay, is beautiful in each of every centimeter, plus, less touristy and crowdy. Bai Tu Long has become more and more attractive for its primitive beauty. Bai Tu Long Bay, a long strip of islands which was created when the entire limestone plateau sank below sea level, socalled the submerged dragon boasting 3000 craggy and towering islets, is magnificient by its own way. It is a source of inspiration and ancient legends, some of which dating back to the thousands of years which tells a story of a dragon descended into the deep water spitting out gems as he did so.

You will feel surprised when you see house on stilts placing along coastline and ambulatory bar for drink service. A large-sized swimming reservoir has just been finished far beyond a sand dyke.

A day tour to Bai Tu Long is barely enough to discover this area and its surroundings.

Van Don Island is one of the main highlights of Bai Tu Long Bay as it's the first island you come to, the most developed, and is connected to the mainland by bridge. Van Don is the largest, most populated and most developed island in the archipelago However, there remains only very limited tourism development here to date. Cai Rong (pronounced Cai Zong) is the main town on the island, which is about 30km m length and 15km across at the widest point. Bai Dai (Long Beach) runs along much of the southern side of the island and is hard-packed sand with some mangroves, just offshore, almost touching distance away, there are stunning rock formations similar to those in Halong Bay.

Bai Tu Long National Park is a major selling point of the archipelago, a stunning region encompassing many islands that comes with many endangered species of birds and animals, along with dense jungle. Other sights worth seeing in Bai Tu Long Bay are the fishing village at Minh Chau Island, Thong Thien Cave, Phat Co Island, and Cua Ong Temple. Historical and cultural sites

Quan Lan Island is also a popular Bai Tu Long Bay attraction, more laidback than Van Don. The main attraction here is a beautiful, 1km-long white-sand beach shaped like a crescent moon. The water is clear blue and the waves are suitable for surfing. However, there is no shortage of blissful beaches on the eastern seaboard, so take a hike. The best time to play in the water is from about May to October -winter is a bit chilly. The northeastern part of the island has some battered ruins of the old Van Don Trading Port. There is little to show that this was once part of a major trading route between Vietnam and China. Deep-water ports, such as Haiphong and Hon Gai, long ago superseded these islands in importance.

The rowing-boat festival Hoi Cheo Boi is held here from the 16th to the 18th day of the sixth lunar month. It's the biggest festival in the bay area, and thousands of people turn out to see it. There are several cheapies on the island:

Minh Vu Guesthouse (tell:877 479) and Vinh Ly Guest-house (tell: 877 354) both have solar-powered hot water and rooms around the 120,000d mark.

Quan Lan Ecotourism Resort ( bungalows from 150,000-350,000d) has a fine location on the beach, with a choice of comfortable bungalows or a large stilt house fur larger groups. A ferry service between Quan Lan and Van Don runs daily (25,000d, two hours), departing Van Don at 2pm and Quan Lan at 7am, in other words, a trip to the island require an overnight stay. Foreigners usually get charged 50,000d.

Tra Ban Island One of the largest islands in Bai Tu Long Bay, Tra Ban borders Bai Tu Long National Park and offers some of the most dramatic karst scenery in the bay. The southern part of the island is blanketed in thick jungle like Cat Ba and provides a habitat for many colourful butterflies. There are boats to and from Van Don Island at 7am and 2pm (20,000d, 90 minutes).

Ngoc Vung Island is one of the most southerly in Bai Tu Long Bay, bordering on Halong Bay, and offers scenery every bit as good as the more famous World Heritage site. There is some accommodation available here in some basic beach houses (150/OOOd). There are daily boats between Cai Rong (1pm) and Ngoc Vung (6am), costing 50,000d for foreigners and taking three hours.

Co To Island is the furthest northeast inhabited island from the mainland. Its highest peak reaches a respectable 170m. There are numerous other hills, and a cute lighthouse atop one of them. The coastline is mostly cliffs and large rocks, but there are some fine pure sandy beaches. Fishing boats usually anchor off here, and you can walk to some of the boats during low tide. There is a small and very basic guesthouse on the island. Ferries bound for Co To Island depart Van Don Island on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at unspecified times - check the schedule in Cai Rong. They return from Co To Island on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. The one-way fare is 50,000d and the journey takes about five hours, depending on the winds.

GETTING THERE:

Getting there is much easier now than 5 years ago. Charter boats can be arranged to Bai Tu Long Bay from Ha long Bay. Some boat lines offer customised trip to the area, just call and ask in advance at a trustable agent ( call Garden Bay Cruise at 04-3927-5526) for a better deal. The one-way trip takes about four hours.. Cheaper yet more time-consuming option is through the new bridge linking to Van Don

A cheaper alternative is to travel overland to Cat Rong and visit the out tying islands by boat from here. Foreigners are almost always charged double the going rate on the ferries around Bai Tu Long Bay.