Winter wonder

Don’t let the chilly weather put you off heading out to Halong Bay.

By Loes Heerink on February 10,2015 02:13 PM

Winter wonder

It was November when I visited Vietnam for the first time. It had never occurred to me that it could be cold. I hadn’t even realised that Vietnam had winters. Though even in the north temperatures rarely fall below 5C (unless you’re in the mountains), it feels a lot colder. Is this because of the humidity in the air, or because there are so few places to warm up?

I wanted to go to Halong Bay while I was here, but a lot of people told me it would be quite chilly and I wouldn’t be able to see that much because of the weather. They told me to head to the south instead, where it was warmer, and to visit Halong Bay another time.

Stubborn as I am, though, I booked a trip to Halong Bay anyway.

They were right; I couldn’t see that much. But that what I could see - mist - was more than stunning. As soon as I set foot on the boat I knew I had done the right thing. Halong Bay is gorgeous in the winter.

As we headed out of the port limestone mountains began appearing out of the mist. It was like I had stepped into a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean. It felt like we were completely alone on the bay. Just our boat, the fog, and the limestone mountains, which kept popping out of nowhere. Occasionally other boats and fishing boats would appear. It was surreal. Describing it simply doesn’t do it justice. I spent hours on the deck looking around me, watching mountains and boats appear and disappear.

Winter wonder

I had been told the sunrise was worth seeing, so I got up early the next morning only to find that it was still really misty. I’m not sure why I didn’t see that coming.

During that day the mist eventually cleared, leaving us with a sunny and clear Halong Bay. That was when we could see miles beyond our boat. Seeing hundreds of mountains climbing up out of the water, little floating villages every now and then, pearl farms, little row boats selling goods, and other tourist boats. The limestone mountains were amazing, and it was great to see how people live on the bay.

It really was quite chilly out on the deck, though, but I always travel with warm clothes just in case. So if you are planning to go to Halong Bay in the winter months, be sure to rug up.

One thing I didn’t like about Halong Bay was the amount of trash. There are many little creeks around the bay where trash collects in large, unsightly piles. When our trip came to an end I even saw some tourist boats dumping their trash in the water before they berthed.

Once the fog had cleared I also realised that we were far from alone on the water. Halong Bay is incredibly touristic. I didn’t enjoy going into the cave on the trip, as there were so many other people and the place was lit up like madman.

Cat Ba Island

We also spent a night on Cat Ba Island, which is just on the fringes of Halong Bay. We had some time on a quiet beach and also walked through a little village. We were lucky because the sun was out that day and we could enjoy the beach and dip our feet in the water, though a swim was out of the question given the winter chill.

You can also visit the nearby monkey island and spend some time on the beach over there. Or you could visit the national park and take a walk up into the mountains for a stunning view over the island. The more adventurous can go kayaking or rock climbing. It is a nice and quiet island and there is plenty to do or you can just kick back and do nothing.

You may wonder whether it’s best to spend just one night on the boat, or two nights, or two nights on the boat and one on Cat Ba Island. My personal experience was that one night on the boat was enough. And Cat Ba really does have some nice features. But if your time is a bit limited, then one night on the boat is fine.

Getting there

You can book a tour pretty much everywhere in Hanoi, at your hotel or at a travel agency. It can be a touch expensive, starting at $49 for an overnight trip. I spent more than that, though, thinking that Halong Bay is not something you want to scrimp on, because a lot depends on the food and the boat and the crew that come with it. If you are stuck on a crappy boat the trip may seem to go on forever.

If you are travelling with a large group it’s possible to rent a boat for all of you. This is a lot cheaper as well. Plus you can schedule the trip yourself, stopping at the cave or taking a swim or going canoeing - whatever you choose.

You can also take a bus to Halong city and then arrange a boat once you’re there, which is also less expensive. I have no experience in how this works, but you could ask at your hotel or hostel. If you really want to save some money you can take a bus to Haiphong or Halong city and then just go to Cat Ba Island. The costs of sleeping in a hostel/hotel on Cat Ba should be less expensive than spending a night on a boat, and you will still see Halong Bay on the journey from the mainland to the island.

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