With towering limestone karsts rising from the sea, Halong Bay is undoubtedly one of the most visually striking destinations in Vietnam, if not the whole of Southeast Asia. However, with this reputation comes an influx of visitors looking to take in the incredible scenery. But, there are a number of alternative destinations in Southeast Asia that are equally as beautiful but not so well trodden.
El Nido, the Philippines
Its easy to see the similarities between Halong Bay and the El Nido area in the north of the Philippines. However, while it mirrors Halong Bay in terms of its sheer limestone karsts and islands jutting out of the water, El Nido sees a fraction of the boat traffic.
Located within the Pacific Oceans Coral Triangle, the areas marine life includes five species of sea turtle and over 800 fish species, such as Spanish mackerel, barracuda and clown fish. You may also spot manta rays, whale sharks and the rare dugong (sea cow) while snorkeling or diving. These activities can easily be arranged through local operators, along with kayaking, paddle boarding and island-hopping boat trips.
Getting up early to watch the sunrise gradually illuminate the islands, casting pink and orange hues over the water, is a highlight of any time spent here.
Hpa An, Burma (Myanmar)
Set on the eastern bank of the Salween River in Burmas southern Kayin State, Hpa An is a small, laid-back town surrounded by limestone karst mountain scenery. Best accessed by boat, few visitors travel here compared with Halong Bay. It makes for an interesting stop between Yangon and Mawlamyine, an old colonial port where you can visit the pagoda that Rudyard Kipling wrote of in his poem Mandalay.
Atop one of Hpa Ans surrounding karsts is Kyauk Ka Lat Pagoda, whose golden, goblet-like spires contrast against the rock. You can get a better view of this from the summit of Mount Zwegabin, Hpa Ans highest peak at 2,378ft (725m). While its a steep ascent up seemingly never-ending steps, the views from the top, over cascading mountains and down towards Burmas coastline, are a just reward.
The area is also honeycombed with naturally formed caves, including Kawgun, which contains thousands of tiny clay Buddha images and carvings dating back to the 7th century.
Chao Larn Lake, Thailand
Although artificially created in 1982 with the construction of Rajjaprapha Dam, the 165sqkm Chao Larn Lake is just as beautiful as any naturally formed lake. It boasts a near-vertical shoreline in parts and a labyrinth of connecting waterways, limestone islands and bays. Part of Khao Sok National Park, there are far fewer sightseeing boats here than in Halong Bay, and its location makes it a good destination to combine with a Thai beach break.
Surrounded by rainforest, you can enjoy kayaking out on the water and light treks around the lake, or head into the jungle, where gibbon calls fill the air and hornbills fly overhead.
The area is habitat to a wide range of mammals, including tigers, elephants, tapirs and many species of primate, as well as rare birdlife such as lesser fish eagles, Wallace’s hawk eagle and bat hawks.
You can make the most of the lakes scenery by staying at a floating tented camp such as Elephant Hills, waking up in your tent to watch the sun rise from behind the limestone mountains before you kayak out to explore remote parts of the lake.
Ninh Binh, Vietnam
The limestone karst formations that make up Halong Bay continue inland for hundreds of miles into the region of Ninh Binh, which is often referred to as an inland Halong Bay. Located on the southern end of the Red River Delta, Ninh Binh is blessed with scenery that encapsulates the best of rural Vietnam.
Green paddy fields are tended to by farmers with water buffaloes and rivers snake through rolling valleys. The hunched silhouettes of limestone mountains create an impressive backdrop.
Receiving only a fraction of Halong Bays visitors, Ninh Binh is a particularly good option during the typhoon season when the bay is prone to closure. The area also offers the chance to explore the rural villages dotted along the valley and the ancient temple ruins at nearby Hoa Lua, Vietnams capital during the 10th century.
There are also many cave formations, and local guides can gently row you through a network of waterways leading to lakes dwarfed by the surrounding mountains.
Raja Ampat, Indonesia
Remaining largely unexplored despite its striking natural beauty, the Raja Ampat archipelago consists of over 1,000 islands. The four main islands are Waigeo, Salawati, Batanta and Misool, where you can find ancient rock paintings. As with Halong Bay, jungle-clad limestone karst formations are scattered across the turquoise waters, but with fewer visitors it feels distinctly untouched by the western world.
Lying within an area of the Coral Triangle where a mixture of hard and soft coral grow, Raja Ampat is one of the worlds top diving and snorkeling destinations, with many marine species endemic to the area. Pygmy seahorses, manta rays, white and black tip sharks and the elusive unicorn fish all frequent the water, along with the occasional sea turtle.
The archipelago sits on the Wallace Line, which separates the ecozones of Asia and Australasia, so the flora and fauna is exceptionally diverse. Only accessible by boat, you can sail through the ever-changing landscape, spotting marine life in the clear waters before jumping in for a closer look.
Craig Burkinshaw is Founder of Audley Travel.
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