Short answer: probably not.
Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s most popular tourist destinations; dotted with hundreds of towering limestone cliffs, the bay is a beautiful place to stay aboard a “traditional” Vietnamese junk ship for a night or two.
Before arriving in Hanoi we were SO EXCITED to visit Halong Bay. We were looking forward to the stunning views, ample time to snorkel and kayak, and hours to laze around on the ship’s sunny deck.
But what we didn’t consider was that enjoying all of those things requires decent weather, and northern Vietnam in the winter is very unlike the rest of Southeast Asia. Northern Vietnam in the winter is COLD.
Cold, foggy, and very likely rainy — exactly the type of weather that’s most UN-conducive to hanging out on a boat in Halong Bay.
98% of travelers (yep, I totally just fabricated that statistic) who visit Halong Bay do so from the northern capital of Hanoi.
Tour companies all over the city offer day trips or overnight packages, which always include transportation between Hanoi and Halong Bay. Why? Because it’s a four-hour drive one way, and other than these organized tour buses there isn’t any easy alternative way to get there.
This may seem like a minor point of information, but that four hour (one way!) bus ride is a crucial detail when considering whether or not it’s worth visiting Halong Bay when the weather is bad.
If you’re in Hanoi and want to visit Halong Bay, but you’ve checked the weather and the forecast predicts clouds with a 60% chance of rain, you have three options:
1. Stay aboard a junk ship for one or two nights.
The eight hours of driving is less wearisome if it’s broken up, so staying overnight helps make the transportation situation more palatable.
If you can’t participate in most of the water excursions (swimming, snorkeling, kayaking) due to inclement weather, you’re going to be bored out of your mind. What the heck else is there to do?! Eating fresh fish can only keep you busy for so long.
Honestly, it seems like a waste of a few good days to me. At the very least, if you really want to stay overnight on a junk ship in Halong Bay but the weather sucks, only book a single night tour instead of two nights.
2. Do a day trip out to Halong Bay from Hanoi.
You spend only a few hours on the boat, which is the perfect amount of time to see the bay if you’re not going to get into the water.
For those four hours you get to spend on a junk ship, you also spend four hours driving there plus ANOTHER four driving home. That’s eight hours of driving to four hours of fun. Can you handle it? Only you can answer that question (but remember, roads in Vietnam are likely not up to the standards you’re used to at home!).
This is the option we chose, and in hindsight I’m not sure we’d do it again. The floating village and limestone caves that comprised our afternoon activities were very touristy and seemed staged and rather inauthentic.
I’m glad we got a chance to see the cliffs, but in our opinion it just wasn’t worth the eight hours of driving on the terribly bumpy (and congested) road between Hanoi and Halong Bay… and we got lucky that it wasn’t foggy. If it was foggy, it would have been an 8 hour drive to see absolutely nothing.
3. Don’t visit Halong Bay.
You don’t have to waste time or money on something you won’t be able to see in its full glory.
You don’t get to see Halong Bay, which IS pretty cool.
To be honest, Halong Bay is interesting… but maybe not sufficiently interesting to warrant two days being bored aboard an old boat or eight hours spent on a bus rather than enjoying the beautiful area.
Our trip to Halong Bay wasn’t earth shattering or life changing. I’m sure it would be different if we had visited during warmer weather, but as it was I wouldn’t even count Halong Bay in our Top 10 Adventures in Southeast Asia (we haven’t actually made a top ten, but you get the point).
Obviously we can’t provide you with an easy, one-size-fits-all recommendation. It depends on your budget, amount of time available, level of enthusiasm for boats and limestone cliffs, ability to entertain yourself when bored, luck with the weather, and the extent to which you suffer from carsickness.
But for us?
If we could have a do-over, we’d go with option #3.