Best things to do in Halong Bay during the cool dry season include many of the things you can do on a Halong Bay cruise all year round – touring the fishing villages, kayaking, cycling, and touring the fishing villages – along with winter favourites such as curling up with a good book and glass of red wine. Just go prepared: it’s cold!
December is the start of the cool dry season and winter in northern Southeast Asia. That can mean wonderful spring-like weather by day in destinations such as Siem Reap, Hoi An and Bangkok, where temperatures might average 20-22°C (68-71°F) in December and January – it’s a very cool 18°C (64°F) as I write this here in Siem Reap this evening – and can still reach highs of 25°-31°Celsius (77-86°F) in the middle of the day.
However, in cities further north, such as Hanoi and nearby Halong Bay and Sapa in Northern Vietnam, temperatures can drop much lower. It’s a chilly 12°C (54°F) in Hanoi at the moment and I remember when we rented an apartment in the Vietnam capital for a few months in the winter of 2012-13 that it dropped chillingly close to zero degrees Celsius one night. The next morning we went out and bought thermals and woollen scarves and gloves.
December is also the start of the peak tourist season, when southern hemisphere residents on their long summer holidays, and visitors from cold northern hemisphere countries escaping their icy winters, descend upon the warmer tropical region. Their expectation is that it’s still going to be hot in places like Hanoi and Halong Bay.
I remember seeing goose bumps on the bare limbs of suntanned travellers arriving in Hanoi from the sultry south in shorts and tank tops, shivering as they searched the streets for warm clothes. Fortunately the savvy Vietnamese women were expecting them. Settled into low-slung seats, hands busy with knitting needles, big bags of wool by their sides, the old ladies would point their heads, grey hair pulled back into tidy buns, in the direction of their unbelievably-soft long scarves which dangled like curtains around them.
Cardboard boxes overflowed with freshly-knitted woolly gloves, mittens, and socks. Crocheted hats and beanies with pom-poms hung from hooks. They were bargain-priced, too. I know, because we had also arrived in Hanoi a month earlier with a summer wardrobe. My fluffy lavender scarf bought from a little old lady in Hanoi just minutes after she finished making it rarely left my neck that winter.
But don’t let the winter weather deter you from visiting Hanoi and Halong Bay. The cool change is generally welcomed by travellers in need of respite from the warmer temperatures of the south, which can still come as a shock to travellers arriving from a freezing northern hemisphere winter. Just come prepared and be aware of the best things to do in Halong Bay during the cool dry season – and the things that you probably won’t be able to do, such as work on your tan.
Best Things to Do in Halong Bay During the Cool Dry Season
The best things to do in Halong Bay during the cool dry season include many of the things that you can do on Halong Bay cruise boats the rest of the year, you just need to be prepared for the cool of the northern Southeast Asian winter, and you need to choose your Halong Bay cruise carefully, as not all boats offer every activity.
Cruise Less Busy Lan Ha Bay
One of the best things to do in Halong Bay is to cruise Lan Ha Bay which is north of Halong Bay. What many people don’t realise when they talk about Halong Bay is that cruises cover can several different bays, including Ha Long, Bai Tu Long and La Han Bay. Adjacent to Ha Long Bay and east of Cat Ba Island (below), Lan Ha Bay is home to Van Gia floating fishing village, Monkey Island, Nam Cat Island, Van Boi beach, and Luon Cave, yet far fewer boats cruise through Lan Ha Bay, which means it’s significantly quieter and feels more exclusive than Halong Bay. Yet it still has some 400 limestone karsts and islands blanketed with lush vegetation and boasting pristine sandy beaches, serene lagoons, and traditional fishing villages.
‘Lan Ha’ means ‘landing orchid’, which refers to orchid petals falling to the ground. Apparently there are over 25,000 species of orchids, many of which are found in Lan Ha Bay. Orchid Cruises claim to have pioneered Lan Ha Bay cruises and to have been the first to offer cruises there. We tested out the Orchid Cruise boat and La Ha Bay route soon after it launched and can confirm that the bay is less crowded than Halong Bay although equally dramatic, and the boat is stunning. Au Co Cruises, which has one of the most luxurious Halong Bay cruise boats, also goes to Lan Ha Bay, as well as Halong Bay, and Bai Tu Long, another quieter area. Of the mid-range boats, the Stellar Cruise focuses its time on Lan Ha Bay while the Glory Legend Cruises and Paloma Cruise spend their time in Bai Tu Long, which is also less crowded.
Row Around A Floating Village
Firstly, you don’t have to row yourself around a floating village if you don’t really want to, but it looked like fun and some Halong Bay cruises give passengers the option of rowing themselves. We’ve visited a few floating villages on Halong Bay cruises on sampans, the low, narrow, wooden fishing boats, which their owners rowed and we sat back and enjoyed – and photographed – the ride. It’s easily one of the best things to do in Halong Bay, whether you are rowed or you row yourself. You get an insight into how locals live their lives on water – you get to see their houseboats, often with a fish farm attached, and their floating schools and shops, which you get a chance to visit.
The floating shops sell everyday items the village residents require, as long as souvenirs for tourists, as well as snacks, beers and even bottles of wine – for less than you’ll pay on your cruise boat, so you’re giving back to the lives of locals whose backyard you’re enjoying. Bhaya Cruises, Aphrodite Cruises and the petite Heritage Line Violet Cruise visit Cua Van fishing village, pictured above. So does the Emeraude Classic Cruises boat, a recreation of an old paddle-steamer, which is the Halong Bay cruise boat that Anthony Bourdain took in the Parts Unknown Hanoi episode in which he eats bun cha with US President Barack Obama. Of the mid-range boats Glory Legend Cruises and Paloma Cruises both take in floating villages. You’ll definitely need some warm clothes in winter. Again, see the photo above, taken in December 2012.
Kayak Close to Limestone Karsts and Rocky Outcrops
It’s one thing to take photographs of Halong Bay’s famed limestone karsts and rocky outcrops from the top deck of your Halong Bay cruise boat – it’s one of the best things to do in Halong Bay, especially in the late afternoon with a gin and tonic in hand, when the light starts to soften, through to sunset when that big golden ball of fire drops beneath the horizon. But it’s something else altogether to get so close to those limestone karsts and cliff faces that you can reach out and touch them as you glide by on a kayak. Kayaking is easily one of the best things to do in Halong Bay, yet surprisingly not all Halong Bay cruises offer the opportunity to kayak Halong Bay.
Bhaya Cruises (link above) and Emeraude Classic Cruises offer the opportunity to kayak to Luon Cave on the last morning of the itinerary. On Bo Hon Island, beautiful Luon Cave isn’t really a cave at all, rather it’s a crater-like lake surrounded by walls dripping with cycads, ferns, orchids, and Benjamin’s fig trees. If you’re lucky, you may spot some cheeky monkeys fooling around on the cliffs. For most of the year you can kayak in swimwear and shorts, but you’ll definitely need some warm clothes in winter and a waterproof jacket with hood, just in case it rains. While it’s the cool dry season, it rained a little when we were there in December 2012. It also rained a little in July and October when I’ve been on Halong Bay. But it never rains for long and it’s all the more gorgeous when the clouds clear to reveal blue skies.
Explore Cat Ba Island By Bicycle
Cat Ba is not only the largest island in Halong Bay, it’s actually part of an archipelago of the same name and is the largest of 367 islands that stretch some 260 square kilometres (or 100 square miles) along the south-eastern area of Halong Bay. Most visitors to the beautiful wooded island, much of which is a national park that was listed by UNESCO as a biosphere reserve in 2004, have no idea of its size, nor that it’s home to a large town. Halong Bay cruise boats such as Au Co Cruises (link above) dock on the quieter side of the island (on their 3-night cruise) where bicycles await passengers who can do a guided bike ride of part of the island. We stuck with the group in one direction, but as they moved at a fairly slow pace we cycled back to the dock on our own, stopping to take pictures whenever we wanted, which was more fun.
Aside from the island’s natural beauty, the island is home to a diverse range of habitats that host a long list of different species, including but not limited to 1,561 recorded species of flora, including 406 species of trees, 661 medicinal plants and 196 edible plants, along with 279 species of fauna, including 53 mammal species, 160 bird species, 66 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 274 species of insects. Of the 23 Endangered and Critically Endangered species, the endemic golden-headed langur is sadly one of the most endangered primates in the world. You can buy t-shirts of the adorable langur at a stand near the dock and funds from sales go towards the langur’s protection.
More of the Best Things to Do in Halong Bay
For many travellers, some of the best things to do in Halong Bay are the excursions to caves and nearly every Halong Bay cruise itinerary includes time exploring caves. Some of the more stupendous include Sung Sot Cave or Surprising Cave, one of the largest at around 10,000 square metres. The most spectacular caves, are obviously on more itineraries and are therefore more crowded. While the lesser-visited caves naturally won’t be as busy they will be less impressive. Other things to do in Halong Bay include bamboo boat rides, swimming, and beach barbecues, while on-board activities can include sunrise tai chi classes, yoga classes, cooking classes, squid fishing, and movies. If you like the idea of being pampered, then make sure to book a boat with a spa that offers treatments and massages.
Have you been to Halong Bay? Do you have any suggestions for the best things to do in Halong Bay during the cool dry season?
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