Northern Vietnam in December

I am going to Northern Vietnam during the last two weeks of December 2022. In this article I am going to walk you through:

I like to post articles before my trip to share how I made my travel decisions. And I update the article after I return with what I would have done differently or kept the same.

Why Vietnam?

Actually I wanted to go to Laos — especially for the waterfalls. I’ve been wanting to go there for years. But it takes about 10 hours longer to reach and with a limited amount of time, Vietnam makes more sense. Also, recently (summer 2022) Laos has wavered between level 2-3 in the US State Department’s travel warnings. Level 2 means, “travel with caution” and level 3 is “reconsider travel”. And unfortunately, Laos’ economy is in a very poor state, so because of all of this, I didn’t think it a good time to visit Laos.

So I started looking into Vietnam – another place on my bucket list.

As I mentioned, I am excited about waterfalls, so I Googled “waterfalls in Vietnam” and when I saw the Ban Gioc waterfall, I had a jaw drop, “yes, please” moment. It is one of the largest waterfalls in Southeast Asia and the 4th largest border waterfall in the world. So, I officially decided to go to Vietnam and then began the fun part – learning about the country.

Ban Gioc waterfall, Vietnam

Why Northern Vietnam?

In order to explain why I decided to focus on northern Vietnam, I think some basic geography is in order. Vietnam is a long, S-shaped country which for travel and tourism purposes is divided into 3 main regions – Northern, Central, and Southern.

Hanoi, the Capital, is in northern Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) is in southern Vietnam. To give you a sense – it’s a 2h 10m flight from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.

Major tourist cities in Vietnam

In general, northern Vietnam is where you’ll find more nature, lakes, rice fields, waterfalls and Vietnam’s ethnic groups. Central Vietnam is a combo of nature and city life and southern Vietnam is the place to go for those seeking city life and islands.

Again, these are generalizations. I don’t mean that you won’t find beautiful nature, hiking, and trekking opportunities in the southern parts of the country – just not as much, nor considered as fantastic, compared to the northern and central regions.

Number of Days for Holiday. For this holiday I am seeking a nature-oriented, trekking, and hiking holiday – hence northern Vietnam. I only have about two weeks, including travel to and from Vietnam. Ban Gioc Waterfall is in the far northeast, on the border with China. Additionally, Halong Bay is in the north. I went back and forth on whether to go there (more on that here), but ultimately decided to go so that also contributed to the decision to stick with the north.

Long Travel Days In Northern Vietnam.Within the northern region there are long distances between destinations and there aren’t options to fly, that I found. So that means a lot of long drives. Another reason to focus on the northern region.

Hanoi to Ban Gioc Waterfall. It takes 9-12 hours to get from Hanoi to Ban Gioc waterfall depending on how you travel: car, public bus, motorbike. So that’s at last a 3 day 2 night commitment.

Hanoi to Halong Bay. It can take anywhere from 2.5-4 hours by car or 45 minutes by seaplane. Most people do a Halong Bay cruise for 1-2 nights. We are doing 1 night. It’s possible to do a day trip but it’s rushed and a very long day, if you’re traveling by car.

And Hanoi to Sa Pa is approximately 5 hours driving.

So, in northern Vietnam a fair bit of time is spent traveling to each destination.

Public Transportation. What I’m doing – focusing on one region of the country, isn’t common practice. Most people fly into one city, either Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, and depart from the other. From what I’ve read and seen on many blogs and vlogs, is that public transport (bus, train, planes) in Vietnam is fantastic. There are several domestic airports throughout the central and southern parts of the country, making flying from region-to-region very accessible without breaking your wallet. You can find one-way flights for less than $100USD (as of September 2022).

I chose not to travel around to various regions of the country because….priorities. The places I want to see most are in northern Vietnam. I’ll have to go again to see the many other places I want to visit.

Northern Vietnam Weather in December

The weather in northern Vietnam in December is dry and cold. December is considered one of the best, if not the best, time of year to visit northern Vietnam…but I think that is subjective. The dry part is great – little or no chance of rain. But what does cold mean? The average temperature in December is 66F. For this California girl that’s cold; but someone from Boston might disagree. December also means more foggy days and nights. If you’re expecting to see the stunning rice fields, full of greenery in Sa Pa…

Panorama symbol of Vietnamese rice terraces

what you are more likely to see in December is this:

Rice terraced field in clouds. Sapa in Lao Cai province, Vietnam.

or this…

Cable car sightseeing Sapa village in valley through fog

December is not the harvest season. The rice paddies will be brown with lower visibility due to fog and may even be even covered in snow. This’s why I have decided not to visit Sa Pa. But if you find that weather charming then December is a great time to visit.

Where I Am Going, Not Going, and Why

I am going to:

  • Ba Be Lake
  • Ban Gioc waterfall
  • Binh Lieu
  • Halong Bay
  • Ninh Binh

Popular destinations in Northern Vietnam I am not going:

  • Ha Giang Province
  • Sa Pa
  • Mai Chau
  • Moc Chau

I am flying into Hanoi. The next day, I will make the journey to Ba Be Lake. Ba Be Lake is, as the name implies, a beautiful lake area with caves, hikes, and waterfalls. It’s a great place to stop to break up the journey to Ban Gioc waterfall from Hanoi. I am staying for two nights. From there, I will go to Ban Gioc Waterfall, visit nearby caves and pagodas and then make our way to Cao Bang.

Cao Bang is a small town and serves as a stopping point to/from Ban Gioc. From there I will go to Binh Lieu which has scenic hikes and will break up the journey to Halong Bay.

To Go or Not To Go To Halong Bay?

I went back and forth on this several times. Ultimately I have decided to go. I have read, watched and heard very mixed reviews about visiting this iconic World Heritage site, especially during heavy tourist seasons like the end of December. I had reservations about going because:

  • it seems similar, in many ways, to Koh Phi Phi in Thailand (which I have visited).
  • activities on the overnight cruises seem so-so interesting
  • uncertainty about options for vegans and vegetarians
  • very very touristy especially the last two weeks of December

In the end, I made the decision to go because…FOMO. I’m already traveling all this way and it’s in northern Vietnam. Regarding vegan and vegetarian, the food is not the reason to go on a Halong Bay Cruise about it is a factor. But I found one company, Orchid Cruises, which had consistently good reviews on TripAdvisor.

Panoramic aerial view of Halong bay, Vietnam

After Halong Bay, I am going to visit Ninh Binh and Tam Coc. I want to see the Hang Mua peak and caves. I read very mixed reviews about the boat tours in Ninh Binh. They ranged from absolutely stunning to way too touristy and unpleasant experiences of overly aggressive guides peddling souvenirs. I’m going to take my chances.

Hang Mua viewpoint at Trang An scenic area near Ninh Binh, Vietnam
Traveler sitting on peak Mua Cave. Ninh Binh province, Vietnam.

Places in Northern Vietnam I Decided Not To Go

As mentioned above, I decided not to go to Sa Pa because it’s not the harvest season and fog.

The Ha Giang Loop is a very scenic drive but also more fun if you’re on a motor bike. Traveling by motorbike is VERY popular in Vietnam. It’s just not for me.

Mai Chau and Moc Chau, especially the latter, are off the beaten path; southeast of Hanoi. Mai Chau is a quiet town that is known for the White Thai ethnic group. You can learn about their culture, music and textiles. Moc Chau is also a scenic town with ethnic minorities, lots of hiking, and waterfalls.

Other Places Throughout Vietnam
Decided Not To Go (on this trip)

Phong Nha National Park. Because flying domestically is so accessible I did consider flying to Phong Nha National Park, in north-central Vietnam. And I’d say out of all the places I researched, this is the one place I’m bummed I am going to miss. I decided not to go because of weather – namely potential for rain and cold which didn’t sound fun for wet cave expeditions. There are several caves – not all are wet – but those are the ones I want to see.

Da Nang in Central Vietnam. This is another place I will have to put on the list to visit during the next time trip to Vietnam. Da Nang has a little bit of everything – nature and hiking, snorkeling, beaches and city life. I decided not to go due to higher chances of rainy days and cooler weather in December – approx. 1/2 of the month. The beaches, the Golden Bridge (Ba Na Hills), the Dragon Bridge, the Hai Van Pass, and the Marble Mountains are some of the most popular attractions here. At first glance, I thought the Golden Bridge was a “must-see”. But when I researched, I found it’s inside a theme park – just not my thing. The Cham Islands (approx. an hour by boat from the city) look nice for snorkeling.

Da Nang, Vietnam, the Golden Bridge is lifted by two giant hands in the tourist resort on Ba Na Hill in Da Nang, Vietnam. Ba Na mountain resort is a favorite destination for tourists.
Da Nang City, Vietnam – Dragon River Bridge (Rong Bridge) on a beautiful cloudy day.

Dalat in Central Vietnam. This is a popular honeymoon destination for Vietnamese people. The Datanla waterfall is another one for the next visit to Vietnam. December is the dry season and what I read is that the flow of water is likely to be pretty small.

Hoi An in Central Vietnam. This is a very popular, historical, quaint town with a lot of cultural significance. Hoi An is famous for its lanterns and a very popular thing to do here is get clothes custom made. From what I read, it’s also VERY touristy, to the point of being overrun by tourists.

Cau An Hoi bridge in the Hoi An ancient town in Quang Nam Province of Vietnam

Near Hoi An you will find the My Son ruins of an ancient Hindu temple.

Ruins of Old Hindu temple at My Son, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon. So what I learned is that in southern Vietnam and people from southern Vietnam call it Saigon and everywhere else it’s called Ho Chi Minh City (I believe – I will find out of this is accurate once I get there). This is Vietnam’s big bustling city. People love to indulge in food, shopping, nightlife, entertainment and last and definitely not least learn about Vietnam’s history, and the city’s namesake leader. A popular day trip from the city is to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels which is part of a larger network of underground tunnels throughout the country that served as hiding places, escape, transportation, communication and supply routes during the Vietnam War.

HO CHI MINH, VIETNAM: City Hall in a French colonial style.
Tourist at the entrance of Cu Chi Tunnels in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, close up

Mui Ne in Southern Vietnam. Mui Ne is approximately a four hour drive west from Ho Chi Minh City. From what I read, Mui Ne has 3 top attractions: beaches, sand dunes and and the Fairy Stream. You can visit the Fairy Stream and the sand dunes on the same day. When I watched vlogs about Mui Ne it seemed like a great post-trekking place to relax, a romantic getaway or a weekend with your girlfriends.

Mekong Delta in Southern Vietnam. This network of rivers and swamps is known for its floating market. It’s the rice bowl of Vietnam, as this region produces a significant portion of Vietnam’s produce. From a tourist perspective, pretty much everything I came across painted the Mekong Delta tour in a very negative light – extremely touristy, dirty, disappointing, with aggressive guides demanding you for tips or to buy souvenirs and snacks.

Aerial view of Mang Thit brick kiln in Vinh Long. Burnt clay bricks used in traditional construction of Vietnamese. Mekong Delta, Vinh Long, Vietnam

Phu Quoc Islands in Southern Vietnam. If you are seeking a beach vacation this is the place to go in Vietnam. Apparently it’s very popular amongst Eastern Europeans to escape winter. I read some reviews that said the beaches are nice, but not the greatest – especially if you’re from or travel to beach destinations. One unique thing is you will find the world’s largest 3-way cable car here.

The longest 3 way cable car situated on the Phu Quoc Island in South Vietnam. You can see traditional fishermen boats lined in the harbor of Duong Dong town in the popular Hon Thom island.
Green coconut palm trees and sun loungers on white sandy beach near South China Sea on the island of Phu Quoc, Vietnam.

Packing for Northern Vietnam In
Mid to Late December

I am taking:

  • The North Face fleece jacket with hood (heavy jacket)
  • lightweight, rain resistant, puffer jacket with hood
  • 3 Athleta Uptempo hoodies to wear as tops
  • 2 Columbia Tamiami long sleeve shirts
  • 2 pairs of hiking pants (I like Prana’s Halle pants)
  • 3 pairs of leggings
  • 1 warm jogger suit
  • 2 sets of pajamas
  • 3 pairs of hiking socks
  • hiking shoes
  • Keen water shoes
  • 1 hair brush, hair ties, anti humidity serum (December is the least humid month in northern Vietnam, but still humid)
  • toothpaste tablets + toothbrush
  • shampoo and conditioner bars
  • cold weather hat + scarf + gloves + handwarmers
  • 2 pairs of eyeglasses (in case 1 breaks) + cleaning solution
  • 1 pair prescription sunglasses
  • costume jewelry earrings (leave the $$ jewelry at home)
  • deodorant, moisturizer, hand sanitizer, tissues
  • DEET mosquito repellant
  • OTC and prescription medicines
  • DSLR + lens, memory cards, batteries, battery charger
  • travel clothesline + travel laundry detergent
  • travel blanket + pillow for the plane
  • Osprey Women’s Aerial 65 for check in
  • Osprey Mira 32 for carry on and day pack

How I Did My Research?

When I get into trip planning mode I spend 2-3 hours a day for several weeks (months) learning about the country, destinations, logistics, access to vegetarian and vegan food, weather and more. I don’t want to regret not visiting a place because I didn’t do my homework. There’s so much amazing info right at your fingertips…cheers for the internet! I really appreciate the bloggers and vloggers who create incredible content to share travel their experiences in real time. It’s very helpful. I also try to gather info from varying perspectives. It’s so important because just when I thought I researched the heck out of a place, I find myself learning something new. I read content from people:

  • who traveled by motor bike
  • who traveled by public transport and planes
  • solo travelers, couples, families
  • budget backpackers vs. mid tier vs. luxury
  • women and men – as well as people who are really into hiking
  • seasoned vs. novice travelers
  • people who actually hiked vs. visited without hiking

And after doing all of that research I decided to focus the holiday in Northern Vietnam. But before making that decision I worked through itineraries to all 3 regions of the country – northern, central, and southern, then others that focused on a combo of two regions only. In the end they were rushed trips.

From a weather standpoint southern Vietnam makes the most sense in December, as it is a tropical climate so it will be warm and dry compared to cold (or very cold) and dry in northern Vietnam. Central Vietnam is cooler and humid in December with temperatures ranging from 66F-71F (16-22C). And in the far north (Sa Pa and Ban Gioc) it ranges from 46F-60F (9C-16C). But the places I want to see are in the north and December is the only time I have in the near future where I can go…so the north it is and I’m excited!

Summary

This post is about traveling to northern Vietnam in December, specifically mid to late December. Topics covered include:

  • why I’m going to northern Vietnam only
  • destinations by region: northern, central and southern
  • why I chose the destinations to go as well as why not to others
  • weather in northern Vietnam as well as central and southern in mid to late December
  • packing list for northern Vietnam in mid to late December
  • walk through of the decision to go/not go to Halong Bay (decided to go)

About Me

Hi! Thank you for visiting Passport Pages! I hope this article has been helpful! I have travelled to approximately 50 countries over the last twenty years and have visited every continent, except Antarctica. I have solo backpacked, travelled with my husband, as well as with family.

I love to talk about travel and share travel experiences (in a detailed way), so I created this blog. I don’t make money nor gain any other benefit from the products I review or recommend – they’re just my honest opinion.

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