There are smaller bays and islets beyond Halong Bay “with far less of a human footprint,” says Vogue. They include Bai Tu Long Bay and nearby Móng Cái, which boast “lush jungle scenes, picturesque beaches, and those infamous limestone drop-offs.” Halong Bay is “a victim of its own outstanding beauty and sadly, it's being loved to death,” writes Traveller, which is why Bai Tu Long Bay is the north-east section of Halong Bay is “a better bet if you want to escape the crowds, although you won't be alone.” Bai Tu Long Bay, and islands such as Quan Lan, Tra Ban, and Van Don “offer a laid-back alternative to Halong Bay that makes traveling the extra distance from Hanoi worthwhile,” recommends Fodors.
“We chose Lan Ha Bay over Halong Bay and loved it,” says Budget Travel Talk. “From all accounts, Lan Ha Bay has less boats and pollution plus Cat Ba island has beaches, caves and restaurants to explore between trips out into the limestone green waters of the bay.” Lying south and east of Cat Ba Town, the “300 or so karst islands and limestone outcrops of Lan Ha are just as beautiful as those of Halong Bay and have the additional attraction of numerous white-sand beaches,” explains Lonely Planet.
Ninh Binh province is nicknamed “Halong Bay in land,” says Geeky Explorer. Located about 100km south of Hanoi, there are “hundreds of limestone cliffs emerging from the ground scattered across the rice fields,” and apart from its “stunning scenery,” Ninh Binh is “a great opportunity to peek into the rural way of living … all very laid-back and serene.” There’s “barely any traffic, the roads are wide and flat, foreigners are few and far between, touts are minimal and it felt extremely surreal,”observes Just Globetrotting. Ninh Binh City, the capital of that province, is a quiet town, says Stray Travel, but it’s “a great base for exploring beautiful surrounding countryside.”
Mua Caves provides the highest view in Ninh Binh and features “a huge stone dragon” at the top, says Stray Travel. There are 450 steps to the peak, which offers “panoramic views of the rice paddies as you climb up the zigzags stairs,” notes Go Go Budget Travel. The “path” is pretty narrow and steep, “so you really have to be very careful” -- but “the experience and the view is really rewarding.” Be advised, says Webfoots Wanderlust, “the hike is pretty crowded,” space at the top is “first come, first serve, and folks tend to linger,” but the “mix of tourists from all over the world huffing and puffing up the stairs makes for some great people watching.”
Trang An is an “equally as impressive landscape” as Ha Long Bay, according to Time Travel Turtle. Located about 150 kilometres from the famous bay, it’s where “the mountains are connected by rice paddies, not water.” The scenery along the boat ride through the various waterways of Trang An was “spectacular,” says Thrifty Family Travels -- “it was like being in another world … we passed the beautiful limestone cliffs and even through them via a fantastic system of caves … some caves were so low that we had to lie back in the boat … it was surreal that this was all natural.”
“The chanting is very soothing and serene” at the Bai Dinh Pagoda, writes Go Go Budget Travel. From the highest point of the pagoda you can “enjoy the peaceful back view of the Buddha statue and even more awesome scenery,” while inside the pagoda there are “so many Buddha statues,” all of them gold plated, which is “why they are glowing with a mysterious grandeur.”
“If you haven’t heard of the Citadel of the Ho Dynasty, don’t worry,” says Time Travel Turtle. “I am pretty sure nobody has … it is in the middle of nowhere and is rather unimpressive.” Built in the 14th century as the capital for the Ho Dynasty, “there wasn’t time to build anything too dramatic” because that dynasty only lasted “for six years so.” The citadel is empty -- “no palaces, no temples, no monuments -- just four walls surrounding nothing but farmland,” explains CNN. But according to UNESCO, the citadel represents "an outstanding example of a new style of Southeast Asian imperial city.”