February 16, 2019

The Power of Water || Ha Long Bay

The Power of Water || Bai Tho Mountain, Ha Long Bay, Vietnam December 2018 || Shot with my Nikon D850, Tamron 24-70mm (f/2.8) @ 68 mm, f/10, 5", ISO 64, Lee 3 stop ND grad filter & Circular Polarizer

How to Summit Bai Tho Mountain (Ha Long Bay, Vietnam)

I dedicate this post to telling you how to get to the top of Bai Tho Mountain. While you might think this should be easy and self-explanatory--its not. And rest assured, this is not easy-- but SO worth it! I did my hike in early December 2018, and while this post generally has information that will help guide you to the spot and other key tips, things change rapidly there so check with locals as well before making this journey. 

If you want to know how to climb to the top of Bai Tho Mountain and take a picture of the sunrise or sunset at this location (similar to the featured image of my post or akin to those you are seeing on social media or the web), then keep reading because I have compiled a comprehensive set of instructions interwoven with my story to show you what you need to do.

Background:

Due to a recent fire on the mountain, and likely the number of tourists attempting this climb in unsafe conditions, the government closed this trail and deemed it illegal. So, to do this hike, you are breaking the law.  This may be one of the greatest things I have ever done! Not kidding. But, also simultaneously initially one of the scariest, dangerous, silliest, and a craziest too, all of that taken together which to me makes it GREAT! And after having done it, really none of that is true--you just have to put aside the fears and DO IT! To view the karsts and Ha Long Bay from high atop Bai Tho Mountain is an absolutely amazing experience and a MUST for any serious landscape photographer, geologist, or nature enthusiast.

Where to Stay:

Stay as close to the entrance as you can to minimize commuting time and maximize climbing, shooting, viewing, and descending.

I stayed very close to the entrance, and cannot tell you how important that is in the overall experience and getting there. Several places nearby exist as best options, I chose Ha Long DC Hotel. While not the greatest, it was cheap and VERY close. I keep stressing proximity because gaining access to this location for sunrise or sunset will be made considerably easier if you are very close. Keep reading, you'll see why.

I went in December. The sun sets fast in this area (at least it did in in Vietnam in November and December, so check your sunrise and sunset times ahead of time and plan accordingly). The lights drop quickly and gets very dark so staying close by will make all of this easier. This area is generally safe, just always keep your wits about you and pay close attention to your surroundings.

This is a view of Bai Tho Mountain from the porch/deck of my hotel room. I stayed at this hotel because it literally was a 5 minute walk to the entrance which allowed me to maximize my time on the mountain and not have to deal with any commute issues or lose time in that regard. At the top of the mountain is a radar tower and to give a sense of scale here it is a very large tower. You will see!

Bai Tho Seen from Hal Long DC Hotel Deck

THE ENTRANCE

Finding the entrance, and where to start this hike, is by far the best part of this story and experience!! The location is on a street called “” between a photocopy service (Dịch Vụ Photocopy Thanh Thuận) and a clothing store (SEA Store).

The entrance to the hiking trail can only be accessed through one local resident’s home. Yes. Let me say that again–you must find, meet, and pay this nice woman in order to first go through her house and garden, and then to be able to get to the entrance gate. This is because of where the trail sits, blocked by urban development, and therefore is accessible only in one spot (I believe and so I was told).

The woman’s front door is depicted in the photo below. When I first arrived, the woman was sitting there washing dishes. I was so caught up in the moment I did not get photos that day. I took the below photo the next morning to document it and to show you where it is located. If she is not there when you arrive, merely wait or ask around and locals will call her for you.

You might ask your hotel to write out a phrase or two to give to locals as a back up (“I am looking to climb Bai Tho Mountain please would you point me there?” or just “Bai Tho” will work…), but generally people are friendly, know enough English, and given the popularity of this hike, they know EXACTLY what you are doing there, why and will point you in the right direction immediately.


Bai Tho Hike & Trail Entrance

PAY THE FEE

Yes, you must pay. To get access to the trail, and through her house, you must pay her. I read on the Internet it should be about 50,000 Dong ($2) and my hotel counseled me to not pay more (as this is an illegal activity–but you are gaining access via her house so she holds the “keys.”) I handed her 50,000 Dong and she immediately rejected it. I tried to negotiate with her for about 10 minutes, using all of the standard methods, but time was ticking and wasting–must get to the top. She has all of the leverage and given the recent fire and the government crackdown deeming it illegal, she will not risk it for any less than 100,000 Dong. (Btw this is $4!). So, I paid it to get moving. You may try to negotiate but likely not worth the risk or fight.

She is very sweet by the way. She then led me into her house (I was very nervous about this to say the least), through her house, up some stairs, along side the kitchen, into her back yard and garden, and towards the gate. This part takes courage to do (I was very uneasy about this trust me with all of my gear and really no one with me), but go with it…she is sweet and nice. If you feel more comfortable accompanied, go with a friend or two then.

I will let you form your own opinion of this experience, and of getting through her house. I am going to focus just on the how to! :)

Bai Tho Trail Entrance Gate

THE GATE

In the past, accessing the trail via the gate I heard was considerably easier. But, because the government shut this down and deemed it illegal they have discouraged this activity by adding barbed wire and making it even harder to climb (especially if you have on a ton of your photography gear).

As you can see, they have locked the gate and added warning and do not enter signs. This is the gate you must climb over to gain access to the staircase and hiking trail. Note the barbed wire adoring the gate. Generally speaking, you must be fairly fit to climb up a gate, a bit of rock climbing and holds are needed, avoid barbed wire, and a bit of agility to get up and over the “gate” and the barbed wire. This was the toughest part of the whole journey–fun, but a bit daunting with equipment.

She led me to the gate and again I was VERY wary and concerned. All kinds of negative thoughts raced through my mind. She even asked to hold my gear for me as I climbed (I wouldn’t let go of my stuff — sorry lady no thanks). So, I got a foothold on the rusted gate, grabbed hold of the rocks, and began rock climbing up through the trees, placing my hands carefully and gently on each move to avoid any cuts (please no cuts or tetanus), and placing each foot gingerly. This took a bit of strength, patience, agility, and gumption to do. It was not easy with my backpack and gear as well. Falling would not be good here at all from this height and given the jagged nature of the rocks, stairs and barbed wire. I made it!!!

About the time I was climbing, another photographer joined (his name was Bang (pronounced Bung) and he became a good friend as I spent the rest of the day with him. Bang must have paid her earlier as he just showed up while I was making my way over the fence. Here is an image to show you him finishing the climb.

THE PATH & TRAIL

Once you have climbed the gate, and safely landed on the other side, the trail begins with a staircase. The entire walk up the mountain, or hike, or rock climb, depending on what you would like to call it, and depending on your fitness level and how much overgrowth is there at the time you go, takes about 30 minutes.

I was very tired at the top but I attribute that to my equipment load, and the 8 months now of travel and hardcore landscape photography. So, in better condition, I could have done this fairly easily.

The first bit of stairs is a breeze and appears that at one time it was fairly well kept. It has degraded significantly though especially after the government has closed this and is not maintaining it. After a while of stairs, they begin to break up and then end where the walk becomes a hike. It is not too steep ever, but some parts are a bit challenging on footing and gripping but it is all doable just takes time, patience, perseverance, and a bit of gumption.

Here are a few pictures of the stairs:

Finishing the Gate Climb

Bai Tho Stairs 1

Bai Tho Stairs 2

Bai Tho Stairs 3

THE TOP

Getting to the top was not easy, but doable. As before, there are difficult spots, easy spots, and lots of just keep going spots–you can make it. It never felt dangerous to me, but it was challenging mainly with the gear and its added weight.

Make sure to wear hiking boots and/or shoes with great tread for hiking.

Keep going because a few times here and there I was wondering, “am I at the top” and probably not–you will know as usual with these sorts of climbs.

At the top, you will find a stone marker (which looks like a gravestone but it is not according to one of the locals I did my walk with) but rather the names of architects and construction crew members (but again I think they might have died but it wasn’t clear from my new friend).

Arriving at the Marker

Bai Tho Summit Marker

Summit's Radio Tower

The best spot to set up is either out on the power station (I chose not to go out there as it does take a little bit more effort and looked a bit scary/difficult with gear on to get there and alone), or in front of the stone marker.

Power Station Roof & Prime Spot

I saw locals that arrived later than me go up to the tower and the other side. I did not go to that side as the best sunset view of the karsts is from the marker area. However, that side is great for city views and long exposures at night (these folks intended to stay there all night they said).

I only stayed for sunset in order to have decent twilight to guide the way down the fairly difficult trail.

MY EXPERIENCE SHOOTING

I shot for about 1 to 2.5 hours. I started the climb at about 3:30 PM, arrived at the top at about 4 PM, and shot until about 6:30 PM. The sun sets to the west of course and this spot faces east so sunrise is better as confirmed by Bang. Its still marvelous anyway. I took hundreds of pictures changing my composition trying to find the best ones. It is pretty endless. Bang took this awesome shot of my working at the summit:

I lucked into the perfect weather for sunset on this my first attempt. The rest of my time in Ha Long Bay was ruined by intense Winter storms, rains, clouds, and overcast conditions I am so glad to have gotten one great attempt and it was my first! Lucky!

While I was lucky that day for good weather as I said, it was still hazy and the sunset was a bit flat.

There was some orange, pink, red and color but generally I think it was a bit flat. I believe it is better at sunrise (which see the above on how to get here is even more challenging–apparently you need to pay the woman the night before so that when you arrive at 3-4 AM the next day she will leave her door open for you and you must go through her house in the pitch black and make the gate climb, and the hike up the hill in the pitch black–bring a lamp/torch/flashlight for SURE!).

Here are a few other shots from high above with my iPhone just to get a sense of the scene:

Karsts Through the Forrest

View of Cau Bai Tho Road

Back Towards Ha Long Bay City

Geology of Bai Tho

Karsts Aglow

Getting back out to the street, you merely need to walk back through the “backyard,” down her steps, through her kitchen area and house, avoid the dogs, be nice to them and be sweet to keep them at bay, and just walk out. I am amazed–no one said anything to me as I exited neither in or through her house, or on the street outside. This is routine there and accepted, but I am still amazed. Especially since it is technically “illegal.”

A few images of how it looked at night–totally different than the day time:

Inside Her House

Doggy at the Front Door

Bai Tho from the Street at Night

Her House at Night

RELAXING AFTER THE CLIMB

Tired, I went to the hotel to ask for a recommendation on food. I couldn’t really find anything that looked that great using my standard ways of finding (i.e., Google Maps, TripAdvisor and other sites). The hotel recommended Wandering Station. I walked. The walk was safe. Ask for Trung, he may be the nicest person in all of Vietnam! Here is his Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/wanderhalong/

This experience ranks high if not the highest of all time. I highly recommend this, but go in with an open mind. You will be tested. Stick with it, keep calm and patient, go with the flow, and the rewards will be so worth it!

What I Carried:

For the specifics as to any one piece of gear, please see my About Gear page.

On this trip, I took these things:

Cameras:

- Nikon D850

- Sony A6000 (my backup camera); and

- iPhone X

Lenses: 

Nikon 14-24mm It turned out I did not use my wide angle, but I could have

- Tamron 24-70mm; and

- Sony 18-200mm

NOTE–I would have LOVED to take my telefoto lens of course–so many incredible shots could have been achieved with that. But, weight is an issue as with other hikes so I went more spare.

Accessories:

Think Tank Bag

- TriPod Filters & Holder

- Triggers/Shutter Release

- Headlamp and flashlight

NOTE–this is CRITICAL especially if you are staying for sunset and making the trek down in the dark–DO NOT forget this!

- Spare batteries for the Nikon and lights

Clothing & Other Related Accessories/Needs:

Even in Winter it was fairly warm here, so dress based on temperature.

It is not considerably colder at the top. Long pants might be needed to deal with some of the brush, but I managed without longer pants. 

Best hiking boots, I think this is key given the jagged steps and terrain Mosquito repellent

Water:

2 bottles (water is always a must)

Food:

I didn’t take much, but if you plan to be up there for a period of time to really capture the right shots, enjoy it, then you really should bring snacks.

Helpful Link:

Another good blog on the how to get there and details:

https://thegingerwanderlust.com/2018/03/25/how-to-climb-bai-tho-mountain/

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