I went to Northern Vietnam during the last two weeks of December 2022. In this article I am going to walk you through:
- why northern Vietnam?
- my itinerary
- northern Vietnam weather in December
- my packing list
- places won’t be visiting and why
- How I did my trip research
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. Throughout the post you’ll see “UPDATE” for notes post-trip.
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 (pronounced Bon Zock) 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.
Why Northern Vietnam?
I think some basic geography about Vietnam would be helpful. 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.
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 (the central highlands are supposed to be very beautiful) 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 central and southern parts of the country – just not as much, nor considered as fantastic, compared to the northern regions. This also highly depends on the time of year.
Number of Days for Holiday. For this holiday I sought a nature-oriented, trekking, and hiking holiday – hence northern Vietnam. I only have two weeks, including travel to and from Vietnam. Ban Gioc Waterfall is in the far northeast, on the border with China and it takes a minute to get there. Additionally, Halong Bay is in the north.
I went back and forth on whether to go to Halong Bay (more on that here), but ultimately decided to go so that also contributed to the decision to stick with the northern region, rather than trying to cram in areas in multiple regions.
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 could find). So that means a lot of long drives (2-7 hours) which was another reason to focus on the northern region. The good news is the roads are pretty good.
Hanoi to Halong Bay. Other destinations in northern Vietnam, of course, the famous Halong Bay. It can take anywhere from 2.5-4 hours from Hanoi by car or 45 minutes by seaplane. Most people do a Halong Bay cruise for 1-2 nights. We did 1 night. It’s possible to do a day trip from Hanoi but, in my opinion, that would be rushed and the sunrise in Halong Bay, alone, made it worth staying overnight.
And Hanoi to Sa Pa is approximately 5 hours driving.
So, there’s a lot to see in northern Vietnam alone and that involves a fair bit of driving.
Public Transportation. What I’m doing – focusing on one region of the country, isn’t common practice. We also hired a driver and guide for the trip. Many 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).
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…
what you are more likely to see in December is this:
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 is why I have decided not to visit Sa Pa. But if you find that weather charming then December is a great time to visit.
It’s cold in most places. In the morning in the far north from 6am-8am it ranges from 39-45F degrees. So at Homestays that means you’re having breakfast and all meals outdoors in the Homestay’s common area – it is cold. They will have the fire going which makes a huge difference and makes it feel like you’re at camp – we really liked that. Starting at 8am thru 2pm or 3pm the temperature will rise to mid 60s. And then starts to fall again to mid or low 50s or even high 40s by 8pm. The only time I wasn’t wearing a jacket outdoors was when I sat next to the fire.
Clothing ProTips for Northern Vietnam in December. Bring a proper warm jacket. I brought two. A lighter puffer is good to wear for hiking and a heavier one to wear the rest of the time. Even though I got hot while hiking it was still cool enough to not remove my jacket. Again this applies for the far northern regions.
I brought an Athleta Triumph sweat suit (joggers and hoodie pictured above) for traveling to/from Vietnam as I thought it would be cozy and keep me warm on the plane. I ended up wearing it as my pajamas and so glad I had it!
Halong Bay and Ninh Binh were warmer compared to the far north. It ranged from chilly and even warm 64-72 and sunny! We lucked out on the weather. I read that it can be foggy in December but we had bright blue skies and sun in Halong Bay and Ninh Binh. I was even in a tank top during the day! In the evening I had a jacket on outdoors and a sweatshirt indoors. Hiking up to Hung Mua viewpoint you’ll get hot so layers are key. While sailing through Trang An I was cold so I wore my light puffer jacket. In the evening in Ninh Binh, a sweatshirt was fine.
Costs (USD) in December
Part of the reasonVietnam is a popular country to visit is how inexpensive things are. At the moment, the USD is pretty strong and it went really far. We were in northern Vietnam from mid to the end of December 2022.
Dorm room at a hostel: as low as $3 per night
Homestay: ranges from $10USD – $30USD per night
4-star hotel in Hanoi’s old Quarter: $40-$60 per night, includes breakfast, soap, shampoo, toothbrushes
Ninh Binh 4-star hotel: $50 per night
You can get good, delicious street food for as low as $.50. We didn’t eat street food 1. because we are vegetarian and 2. out of an abundance of caution. We also did not eat any uncooked food. So unfortunately that meant no bunh mi (one of my faves) in Vietnam. I preferred to err on the extreme side of caution. We ate at restaurants and the most we paid for a meal was around $20USD for two entrees and two sodas.
Homemade Ice Cream: $1.40
Dessert: $2.70 at a cafe
Many people rent or buy a motorbike. That is one of the most popular means to get around. And it’s a great way to feel the wind in your hair as you drive along Vietnam’s beautiful countryside. If that’s not your speed, download the Grab app for shorter distances such as within Hanoi. Grab is the Uber for Vietnam. Be prepared to select from a proper car to a motorbike to get you from A to B. For longer drives Vietnam has a network of public buses. We did not use these but ran into travelers that did and said all the things you’d expect – inexpensive, not the most comfortable but not so bad either. The bus drops off at a central location and you have to arrange transport to your final destination. Your accommodation can generally help with that. We booked a private car for the entire two weeks as we had lots of very long drives. We enjoyed that experience.
We went to:
- Ba Be Lake
- Ban Gioc waterfall
- Binh Lieu
- Halong Bay
- Ninh Binh
- Cuc Phuong National Park
We started our adventure in Vietnam in Hanoi. We arrived pretty late at night and left early the next morning to drive to Ba Be Lake. It took about 5 hours to drive from Hanoi to Ba Be Lake.
Ba Be Lake is a serene area that’s known amongst Vietnamese people…in northern Vietnam – very few tourists go there. The only reason we heard about it is because it’s an excursion offered by Mr. Linh’s Adventures. Ba Be Lake is more of a local weekend, getaway spot for northern Vietnamese people. It’s like southern California’s Big Bear – a local getaway destination that few international tourists would go out of their way to visit. But that was something we liked about it.
Ba means 3 in Vietnamese and Be is lake…therefore 3 lakes. Things to do in Ba Be Lake:
- boat ride on the lake
- visit waterfalls
- walk around the village to interact with and see the lifestyle of the Tay people
- ride bicycles around the village
The day we arrived it was late afternoon so we had time to go for the boat ride on the lake and walk around the village. The lake is beautiful but I’ll be honest, the boat ride itself didn’t feel like something worth flying across the globe for. We went in the later afternoon as the temps were decreasing, I wish I had worn a heavier jacket than this one. Luckily I had my gloves in my pocket so that helped.
After the boat ride, we walked around the village. Again a little underwhelming….at first, but then I started appreciating the peaceful country life, meeting the Tay people and seeing a few of their homes and learning about their farming techniques. Also, I think a big part of my enjoyment was that it was just nice to go for a nice long walk after a 20 hour plane journey and so much driving.
The first night we were there there was only 1 other guest staying at Mr. Linh’s Homestay. The 2nd night there were 3-4 other groups. Some people from Singapore and Germany. Even though it was peak tourist season the tourism seemed to be pretty low. We assumed a big part of that was that China was still closed.
Tham Phay (wet) Cave. On our full day at Ba Be Lake, we we hiked to the Tham Phay cave. That was one of the coolest travel experiences I’ve ever had. I came to appreciate Ba Be Lake’s off-the-beaten-path”ness” more and more throughout the day as the hike through the forest was not only beautiful but we were the only ones there (well us our private guide and the local hike guide)! So cool! After hiking for about an hour we put on our waterproof gear, that they provided, to trek through the wet cave. I absolutely loved this intrepid adventure with stunning stalactites and stalagmites. It was pitch black inside save for our headlights and flashlights. There was NO ONE else there.
For anyone who’s been to the ATM Cave in Belize that would be the most comparable experience to this, except at ATM there’s swimming, whereas at Tham Phay the water never went above my waist. But imagine doing the ATM Cave with no one else there! Just you and your group. How cool!
Ba Be Lake to Ban Gioc Waterfall. It took about 6 hours to drive from Ba Be Lake to Ban Gioc waterfall. It’s about 5 hours from Ba Be Lake to Cao (pronounced “cow”) Bang which is the largest town near the waterfall. We stopped there for about an hour to have lunch. And from Cao Bang to the waterfall is about 40 minutes to an hour.
When we were there in mid-December 2022 there were, again, very few tourists. The lack of tourists made visiting Ban Gioc really awesome for taking photos and in general to just enjoy it. December is dry season which means less water flow. But it was still totally spectacular.
Our guide kept telling us that the water flow at Ban Gioc wouldn’t be as spectacular as during wet season. Below you can see the difference. Left = dry season. Right = wet season. There’s an obvious difference but it was still totally spectacular and worth visiting.
When visiting Ban Gioc it’s worthwhile to go to the Nguom Ngao Cave (Tiger Cave) as well as the nearby Phat Tich Truc Lam Ban Gioc Pagoda. We visited several pagodas in Vietnam and this one was by far my favorite. The Tiger Cave is only about a 10 minute drive from the waterfall and it’s a large and beautiful cave with incredible stalactites and stalagmites. This is definitely a tourist attraction – not rustic as you can see below with the pathways and lights inside.
The Phat Tich Truc Lam Ban Gioc Pagoda is on a hill with views of Ban Gioc waterfall and as you can see, the surrounding panoramic views – it was stunning. We were very lucky as we went in the evening, we were there as the sun set and the lights of the pagoda went on.
After Ban Gioc waterfall, we went to another place right on the border with China, called Binh Liu, a border town in the far north of Vietnam. This is a very off-the-beaten-path destination that even seemed like many Vietnamese people have never heard of. It was a very long drive to get there, approximately 5 hours. It was beautiful to drive through the countryside. As we got closer it felt like very Road to Hana-ish with the winding two lane roads overlooking valleys – just sans the coastline and ocean. The surrounding hills and mountains are reminiscent of dinosaur humps.
The destination was stairs up a hilltop with supposedly sweeping, beautiful views at the top. Supposedly because, as I mentioned this is literally on the border with China. As such it is guarded. The day we went, they were not allowing foreigners up the stairs, so we drove all that way and left. I was not disappointed though. To be honest, the drive there was long and monotonous and by the time we got there I wasn’t even up for a steep climb up stairs.
What I was disappointed in was Binh Lieu in general. I was under the impression that we were going to be doing a long hike. If I had known that we were drove all that way, to get to a set of stairs to see a viewpoint, I would not have agreed to put Binh Lieu in the itinerary – I can’t blame the tour company entirely. I should have asked more questions about what it was – lesson learned.
So we piled back into the van and drive another 4.5 hours to Ha Long Bay. It was a long day.
To Go or Not To Go To Halong Bay?
While I was planning our trip I had mixed feelings about visiting this iconic World Heritage site, especially during heavy tourist seasons like the end of December. I had reservations about going because:
- it seemed similar, in many ways, to Koh Phi Phi in Thailand (which I have visited).
- activities on the overnight cruises seemed so-so interesting
- very very touristy especially the last two weeks of December
- uncertainty about options for vegans and vegetarians
It turns out that my preconceived notions about Halong Bay were wrong. The overnight experience is truly wonderful and unique. There’s a reason it’s the crown jewel of Vietnam. The activities on the yacht were very well organized, fun, and relaxing. And Orchid Cruises, did a fabulous job with vegetarian and vegan cuisine.
About Halong City
Halong City. The night before our cruise we stayed one night in Halong City. I did not like Halong City at all. It is a giant tourist trap and the amount of development that’s going on means it’s only going to become an even bigger tourist trap.
Halong City reminded me of 90s Vegas. There’s a huge cable car. The pillars for that thing are a major eye sore. Couldn’t they have made pillars that light up or add to the skyline rather than detracting from it? There are kid zones, endless shops, restaurants. Before our cruise, we walked around the town and a random guy on his motorbike stopped in front of us and motioned for us to get on his bike. Seriously? And another guy in a car, stopped and started yelling at us asking where we’re from. The entire beach is occupied by bars and beach clubs – it felt very Vegas pool party’ish. It was all closed when we walked by as it was early morning.
For families with little kids and those looking for a great party, I can see how Halong City would be appealing. Halong City felt like a great place for a bachelorette party. I was there right before Christmas 2022 and was expecting it to be all bustling with tourists. The reality was the opposite. The city felt dead. There’s this long avenue lined with bars, restaurants, nightlife, and shops and the whole thing was practically shut down.
We stayed at a large 4-star hotel with a few hundred rooms and we think there were maybe 5 occupied rooms. So it actually felt a little eerie.
Halong City Weather. It was warm and sunny on the days we were there. The temperature ranged from mid-60s in the morning up to 70 degrees during the late morning thru the afternoon and then temperatures dropped again in the evening to the low 60s. I was wearing a jacket and a light athletic jacket walking around Halong city and I shed both layers.
Everything To Know About Cruising Halong Bay
Getting To Your Yacht: Process
When we drove to the docks to get to the yachts I said to myself, “ok so this is where everyone in Halong Bay is.” The traffic was bananas. It’s like an airport…but for yachts. Each company has its own gate. We drove around until we found Orchid Cruises.
The check-in process is a bit chaotic as it’s totally manual. There was a line of people – sort of – and a representative from the company will check your name off a sheet of paper (without checking our IDs). They’ll put luggage tags on your bags and whisk them away, hand you a boarding pass and ask you to have a seat in the waiting area.
I observed other people getting checked in and reviewing their dietary preferences and providing more explanation about where their bags were going, so when our agent didn’t do that and given how chaotic it was, I got a little worried that our bag would end up in the wrong place and our vegetarian meals wouldn’t be there. We verified all of this so then we sat outside overlooking the harbor and all the lovely boats and yachts.
About 30 minutes later they called our boarding group and everyone boarded a covered vessel that seated about 120 people. Orchid Cruises operates 3 vessels. Passengers from all 3 vessels were on-board and the boat made stops at each one. Overall this took approximately 20-25 minutes.
The staff at the dock loaded all the bags onto the top deck of this vessel (uncovered). They also unloaded the bags at each stop. By the time we arrived on the Orchid Classic yacht it was approximately 1:30pm’ish.
Cruising Halong Bay
From the moment you get on the yacht until you leave the visit runs like a well-oiled machine. When we arrived we were handed a welcome drink and damp hand towel. Everyone went to the dining area for a welcome and introduction. That was about 5-7 minutes. Then we were handed our room key. We went to our room which was on the 2nd floor – an executive suite which was just stunning. We were surrounded by windows with 180 degree views of the bay, a luxurious, circular bed, luxurious bathroom and so many amenities.
After checking out the room, lunch was served. Breakfast, lunch and brunch were served buffet style. Dinner was sit down. For us, as vegetarians, all of the meals were served sit down as they prepared different items for us. It was a lovely fine dining experience. The servers were all young Vietnamese men and women and they were all cheerful and eager to help guests.
After lunch there were optional activities:
- visit the inner bay via bamboo boat (dry option)
- stay on the yacht
Pretty much everyone opted to do the bamboo boats as it was pretty chilly. That was really fun and beautiful, We went through caves and smaller bays where the large yachts can’t go through. The only thing was the area was pretty crowded with kayakers and loads of other boats. But I still enjoyed it.
The whole experience – activities, crew on the yacht, the yacht itself, the scenery, the vegan cuisine – it was all so beautiful! The sunrise! THAT in itself was a reason to go. Falling asleep in our suite surrounded by the karsts and to have that be what you wake up to = magic. We did a 1 night, 2 day trip and I found myself reluctant to leave. I wish we had booked 2 nights.
After Halong Bay, we went to visit Ninh Binh and Tam Coc.
Where to do the the river tour: Tam Coc vs. Trang An
Ninh Binh, in northern Vietnam, is the former capital of Vietnam. The tall hills and mountains created natural barriers to potential invaders. Ninh Binh is often referred to as Halong Bay on land. What that means is the area is surrounded by tall mountains that are all on land vs. water in-between them. One of the most popular activities is to take a relaxing boat tour to see the mountains and hills. There are two places to do this: Tam Coc and Trang An. The Tam Coc launching point is in the heart of the town and an easy, flat walk from all the restaurants, homestays and backpackers.
Trang An is further away and you need a car/motorbike to get there. We went to Trang An as that one is considered more beautiful. We went through caves, some where we had to duck. Additionally Trang An is organized. The boat rowers are mostly Vietnamese women that wear uniforms and are not allowed to ask for tips. When I read about this adventure online I read accounts of aggressive rowers that made it very unpleasant. I think they were talking about Tam Coc because Trang An wasn’t like that at all. At the end of the tour we were asked to fill out a survey and one of the questions was, “did the rower ask you for a tip?”.
We were required to wear life jackets. We did not get wet. We did not take a dry bag and didn’t feel the need for one either. Along the way there are several stops to see pagodas and the lifestyle of the people who lived there. It was a pretty wam day and I wore Keens. You could also wear sneakers – no need for hiking shoes but I do recommend closed toe shoes vs. sandals.
Hung Mua Cave
Another popular and totally worth it activity in Ninh Binh is climbing the stairs to Hang Mua Cave. The stairs are steep and large (see photo below). Wear sneakers or Keens. I don’t recommend wearing slippers nor hiking shoes (too heavy). I saw some ladies wearing heels and I thought they were crazy. If you’re carrying a backpack or sling of some sort make it as light as possible. I saw a woman struggling as she was wearing a daypack that was full. Definitely take your camera, water and maybe a warm layer. If you have a DSLR, I recommend a wide angle lens. The warm layer is for when you’re at the top as you cool down after climbing.
In my opinion, climbing looked harder than it was. We got to the top faster than I anticipated. When you get to the top of the stairs if you want to get close yo the dragon you have to hike on uneven, steep rocks. I went as far as I could but didn’t make it as far as one could go.
We stayed at the Hidden Charm Hotel in Ninh Binh. It’s a 4-star hotel within a few minutes walk along the main road to the restaurants and shops in Tam Coc. It’s a nice hotel with a good restaurant. The room was large with plenty of outlets that did not require an international adapter. The hair dryer was good and shampoo, bath gel, toothpaste and toothbrushes were provided. The only thing I didn’t like was the super weird shower which flooded the bathroom with every use. If you’re traveling with anyone with mobility issues or elderly, I recommend going somewhere else.
After Ninh Binh, we went back to Hanoi. We arrived there on Christmas Eve. Vietnamese is primarily a Buddhist country to Christmas is not a thing there, except in the cities. So Hanoi was all abuzz on Christmas Eve plus it was Saturday which is when Hanoi really shines anyway. There were concerts in the city center setup with stages. There were young men performing and we saw young Vietnamese teenagers and young people dressed up and super excited about the performers. It was packed and definitely a time to watch your belongings. I kept my phone and credit card in my jacket pocket and opted not to wear my sling bag given how crowded it was.
Don’t get me wrong, I felt safe and had a lot of fun. But, unfortunately Hanoi and Saigon have reputations for a lot of pick pocketing so I just minimized the chances of it happening to me.
As you probably know Vietnam used to be a French Colony. One aspect of French culture which has left its mark on Vietnam is outdoor, street-side dining and people watching. All of the restaurants set up little plastic stools and tables along the roads – there are effectively no sidewalks. All of the space is taken for outdoor dining where you’ll find people doing karaoke and vendors selling wares.
We did a free walking tour of Hanoi which was about 3 hours and I definitely recommend. They took us to several sites and shared history and info we would not have otherwise known. One of the most famous sites in Hanoi is Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. You have to go through security and may have to check in your bag/backpack.
It’s closed on Mondays. On Tuesdays it’s open from 8am-4:30pm and the rest of the days 8am-11:30am. Get there by 7am as the line gets very long.
Vegan and Vegetarian Food in Northern Vietnam
Food is not a reason to visit Vietnam for vegans and vegetarians. Despite being a Buddhist country, it is a very heavy meat-eating country. During the first half of our trip in Ba Be Lake, Lang Son, Cao Bang, Ban Gioc, and Binh Lieu if we did not have a guide with us, food would have been extremely challenging. These are very off-the-beaten path destinations where we were sometimes the only tourists. Once we got to Halong Bay, then Ninh Binh and Hanoi food was easy. We even found good Indian food in all 3 of the latter destinations.
We didn’t have pho in Vietnam until our last two days in the country, at Chay Food, a vegetarian Vietnamese restaurant in Hanoi’s old quarter. Their pho was delicious as was the bunh rieu. We decided not to eat at any of the vegan buffets or multi course meal restaurants. They were rated highly but when we looked at the menus there was a lot of Western food or dishes that we weren’t interested in. We preferred to eat at Chay Food and eat Vietnamese cuisine. We also ate at Maazi and Namaste Hanoi Indian restaurants in Hanoi. Maazi is a bit more expensive but in our opinion, the food was better whereas it was a bit bland at Namaste. We got the best ice cream I’ve ever had – and it was vegan – at 2 Cream in Hanoi. We paid $1.50USD for a small cup that was perfect for 1 person. We enjoyed vegan chocolate cake at New Day Patisserie in Hanoi.
In Ninh Binh we ate at Aroma Indian restaurant twice and really enjoyed it. There are several Loving Hut locations throughout Vietnam. We didn’t get a chance to go, as we usually there here in Orange County as well as San Francisco.
Refer to the latest vegan info for Hanoi on Happy Cow.
Passports, Logistics, and Medicine
US Nationals are required to get a visa to visit Vietnam. Make sure your passport is valid for at least 6 months after arrival date. You need at least one blank page inside your passport. Tourist visas are valid for 30 days and cost about $35USD. It was all electronic and overall took about a week. Refer to travel.gov for the latest requirements. Refer to the CDC for vaccinations, medications, and recommended preventative measures.
The Hanoi Airport was easy to navigate and clean. There are a lot of restaurants but vegan and vegetarian choices are limited. We got french fries from Burger King. We pre-arranged transport from the airport to downtown Hanoi as we arrived pretty late at night. I’ve been to some major cities where the airport was pretty quiet late at night. That was not the case at Hanoi Airport. I’m assuming getting transport to the city, on the spot, would have been easy.
Places in Northern Vietnam Decided Not To Go and Why
Popular destination in Northern Vietnam we didn’t go:
- Ha Giang Province
- Sa Pa
- Mai Chau
- Moc Chau
As mentioned above, we decided not to go to Sa Pa because it’s not the harvest season and because of the higher potential for fog. If we do go I think we’ll try to minimize the time in town and spend more time trekking and hiking. From the vlogs I saw, Sa Pa town seemed very touristy.
The Ha Giang Loop is a very scenic drive. Watching videos of other travelers who’ve done this, it sorta reminded me of the Road to Hana on Maui sans the coastline views. It has winding roads and you’re just completely immersed in nature.
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.
I went back and forth on this several times. Ultimately I decided to go and am
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.
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.
Near Hoi An you will find the My Son ruins of an ancient Hindu temple.
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.
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.
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.
Packing for Northern Vietnam In Mid to Late December
I am taking:
- The North Face fleece down jacket with hood (heavy jacket) – used it throughout and would have been miserable if hadn’t taken it.
- lightweight, rain resistant, puffer jacket with hood – so glad I had this.
- 3 Athleta Uptempo hoodies to wear as tops – ended up not taking as some of Athleta’s clothes that have a polyester and spandex combo were tested to have higher than ok levels of BPA. My “uniform” ended up being leggings, a long sleeve, fitted athletic top and a vest.
- 2 Columbia Tamiami long sleeve shirts – ended up not taking.
- 1 pair of hiking pants (I like Prana’s Halle pants).
- 3 pairs of leggings
- 1 warm jogger lounge set – ended up being my pajamas at the Homestays. Wore this to/from Vietnam.
- 1 set of pajamas
- 3 pairs of hiking socks
- hiking shoes
- Keen water shoes – even though I didn’t end up doing any water activities as it was too cold for me, these are comfortable and gave me a break from sneakers and hiking shoes. shoesto go for a walk or wear around the place we were staying for the night.
- 1 hair brush, hair ties, anti humidity serum (December is the least humid month in northern Vietnam, but still humid). UPDATE: December is not humid. It’s dry. I ended up not taking humidity serum but leave-in conditioner instead and really glad I did. All of the places I stayed had shampoo but not conditioner. All of our accommodations had hair dryers (good ones).
- shower cap – all of the accommodations provided it but, ended up not using theirs as they were the thin ones.
- toothpaste + toothbrush – every accommodation we stayed at provided it.
- shampoo and conditioner bars – ended up not taking these and glad I didn’t. Every accommodation provided shampoo and I packed leave-in conditioner.
- cold weather hat + scarf + gloves + handwarmers – came in handy
- 2 pairs of eyeglasses (in case 1 breaks) + cleaning solution
- costume jewelry earrings (leave the $$ jewelry at home)
- 1 pair prescription sunglasses
- deodorant, moisturizer, hand sanitizer, tissues
- DEET mosquito repellant – ended up not using at all.
- OTC and prescription medicines
- DSLR + lens, memory cards, batteries, battery charger, DJI Osmo gimbal.
- travel clothesline + travel laundry detergent – ended up not taking and glad I didn’t. All of the accommodations had laundry service. Not worth our time to do laundry.
- travel blanket + pillow for the plane – ended up coming in very handy for plane as well as long drives.
- Osprey Women’s Aerial 65 for check in
- Osprey Mira 32 for carry on and day pack
Vietnam in December Protips
If you’re not good at chopsticks and are going to more remote locations, bring some forks with you.
Do not use tap water to drink nor brush teeth. To be cautious we didn’t even use it at nicer 4-star 5-star hotels.
Have a bathroom kit ready in your bag while driving. In northern Vietnam you’re probably going to do a lot of long drives with stops at local convenience stores or gas stations. They may or may not have soap, toilet paper, and definitely won’t have a towel to dry your hands.
If you’re hiking in a forest don’t wear leggings. Wear hiking pants. You’ll get poked and the branches will go right through leggings.
Bring a light puffer/jacket and a heavier one. In the far north at Ban Gioc, temperatures ranged from 39-64 degrees. But in Halong Bay 64-72 degrees and sunny, so it was nice to shed layers.
Before booking any Homestay ask if they have a heater in the room. In the room or only the bed? There are varying classes of Homestays. Some are very simple. Had we not had heaters in the room in the two Homestays we were at we would have been miserable. It was SO cold.
I don’t recommend going to Binh Lieu. It takes a long time to get there and you may or may not be able to go up to the viewpoint. We drove 4.5 hours only to be told that foreigners are not allowed to climb to the viewpoint as it’s right on the border with China and there were some issues at the border. It was a waste of 1.5 days. The views along the drive are beautiful but do not make up for the time wasted.
Things tend to be on time. If our guide said to meet at 8am he was in the lobby at 8am or usually earlier. If our accommodation said dinner at 7pm, it meant 7pm.
Exchange currency in Vietnam. I was told that we’d be able to exchange currency at the airport but when we landed. We didn’t see any place in/near baggage claim to exchange currency. We exchanged at a bank the morning after we arrived.
Bring crisp notes – our hotel wouldn’t exchange money (USD) for us as the notes weren’t crisp.
Get more small notes than big so you can tip and buy a coffee/snacks during breaks on long drives. Sometimes people don’t (or say they don’t) have change.
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!
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)
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.