Want some escape and exoticism? Do you have few minutes in your day for a short trip to Southeast Asia? So, let’s go to Vietnam! I invite you to discover our beautiful 10-day stay in the north of the country, in Hanoi, Ha Long Bay and Sapa.
Having visited Asia several times, this was my first time in Vietnam. I wondered what could be different from its neighboring countries, since I had already visited Thailand and Cambodia. Well, I came back pleasantly surprised! It is indeed a country that is developing more and more economically and especially through tourism, it becomes very popular to visit by its history and its natural landscape.
Why just northern Vietnam?
It is still a fairly large country with an area of 330,967 km2 (according to Wikipedia) and traveling from north to south via the center, you can take either the plane, the night train or the bus. Thus, for lack of time, because we had another trip planned after Vietnam, we decided to stay in the north and take full advantage of this region. Therefore we can’t compare the north to the rest of the country, but here’s our story.
We landed in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. The city has a very rich but also recent history with the Vietnam War, which happened only a few decades ago (from 1955 to 1975). Their museums, streets, buildings are still full of its past which should not be forgotten. Its architecture and its people make it a unique city. To get there, we made a stopover in Tokyo before arriving in Hanoi with the company Vietjet Air.
Two tips that I highly recommend if traveling with Vietjet:
1. If your country must have an entry visa to Vietnam, the company will not let you board the plane if you don’t have your visa ready. You can have an express visa in 15 minutes on the website of the Vietnamese embassy, but it will be very expensive.
2. Your cabin suitcase must not weigh more than 7 kg and they check at the check-in. It is recommended to check it in online if you think your baggage exceeds this weight, because at the airport they can charge you 2 to 3 times more than the online price.
Finally arriving in Hanoi, what impressed us was the fascinating traffic with scooters everywhere and a few cars. I had never seen such heavy and messy traffic! Put away your traffic laws, there aren’t any there! Crossing the streets was a challenge, but finally we quickly realize that even if the motorcyclists arrive at full speed, they will not hit you, they will honk to warn you. It’s just their way of life!
Transportation from Hanoi Nội Bài Airport
We have had/seen/read so many bad comments about taxis and transport to Hanoi from the airport that we were on our guard and took a minivan with some other travelers, which allowed to divide the costs and It was reassuring to see other tourists, who were also on their guard. So, we paid for 2 people, $ 10 to our hotel.
There are also very inexpensive buses that you can take, like bus 86 which goes to the city center, but we haven’t tried it. We were tired, with suitcases and heat, we preferred to give the address of the hotel to the driver so that he dropped us off at the hotel. The journey can take 40 to 50 minutes from the airport to the center, depending on traffic.
Another means of transportation that allows you to know the price up-front and avoid scams would be with the Grab app. There is no Uber in Vietnam, but with Grab you can order your car and the price indicated on the application will be the price to be paid to the driver in cash.
Where to sleep in Hanoi?
There are several districts in Hanoi, with the bourgeois district to the north, the French district to the east, the monuments and museums district to the west. We stayed in the Old Town (or Old Quarter) district on the shore of Hoan Kiem Lake, which is an emblematic lake that we visited to discover the famous story of the restored sword and the turtle. We continued to Ngoc Son temple located on an islet in the middle of the lake, which was very pleasant to visit, especially when the rest of Hanoi is teeming with people and abundant traffic, a break at the temple in peace can do good. Admission is chargeable, but it will only cost you 30,000 VDN (Vietnamese Dong) or 1.72 CAD or 1.50 €. Not far away, you have the district of 36 corporations which brings together the types of professions by street. For example, the fabric street, the fan streets or the shoemaker streets. A very entertaining and lively area with a mix of their past and the modernity of the city.
We stayed at Little Hanoi 2 west of Hoan Kiem Lake, very well located. The street opposite is pleasant to walk with a view of the lake. The hotel is affordable since it is also considered a hostel, it offers breakfast and the staff is very friendly. The only problem was the very noisy work in the morning, since another hotel was being built just in front. But they were kind enough to make us change rooms and hotels to a partner establishment, still in the Old Quarter. It was free, with transportation included between the two hotels.
Where to eat in Hanoi?
Our favorite restaurant was Hong Hoailocated at 20 bát dàn, north of Hoan Kiem Lake. Because you eat really well at a more than reasonable price, for only a few dollars. We took Vietnamese specialties, phó soup and a typical dish called ban xao. There are also vegetarian dishes and cool drinks, like the coconut that I took. A true delight!
A restaurant with a nice decor and such good dishes to savor: we name Highway4 on Bat Su Street. Lanterns and a warm atmosphere with a house specialty, the Catfish Spring Rolls to absolutely try!
There is also the Garden House 2 restaurant which offers charming decor and hearty dishes, the portions are very large that I couldn’t even finish. You have several choices of dishes as much for vegans, gluten intolerant as for meat lovers tolerant at everything 😊
For a snack break and/or a coffee on a terrace to admire the abundant streets of Hanoi, we liked the Highland Coffee. A kind of Vietnamese Starbucks, with real good coffee! The view overlooks Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square.
Being a fan of the banh mi sandwich, the best I ate was at Banh Mi 25 located at 25 Hàng Cá. It can get crowded, especially if you eat there, we took it out so we could visit the city and eat it at the same time. A real pleasure for the taste buds!
We have not taken the risk of drinking tap water, but I think that goes without saying, in a country so far away and with which our body is not used, no one would recommend it. Our culinary experience in general in Vietnam went very well, we did not come back sick.
Ha Long Bay
Known for its rainforest-covered rocks and turquoise waters, Ha Long Bay is a must if you are traveling to Vietnam. This is THE cruise not to be missed to discover these magnificent islands. There are several cruise lines that all offer roughly the same activities. It was our first experience on a cruise ship and we wanted to spoil ourselves, so we took the 5 star Doris Cruise for 3 days 2 nights and we did not regret it. It is really worth it!
On the program: in the morning a car or van picks you up in Hanoi, at your hotel itself, if you live in the Old Quarter. It is about 2.5 hours drive to Tuan Chau harbour where you will board the boat.
– Day 1: Lunch is served with a welcome drink. All meals are included except alcohol, it is extra. This is our first day and the weather is beautiful, we were in the middle of a bay with its natural rock formations. The view is fascinatingly beautiful! In the Cat Ba area, we went kayaking without a guide. We had to stay close to the boat and we could go wherever we wanted. A great activity to start this cruise!
In the evening we could watch the sunset, we had access to board games, there was even a squid fishing activity, but it was not successful. A cooking class is also offered every evening. In short, you cannot be bored.
– Day 2: If you wish, you can wake up at dawn and participate in the Tai Chi class. For the activity of the day, we had to take a smaller boat to get to Viet Hai village and Van Boi beach. In the village, we biked and met locals, our guide explained the local culture, including snake drink! We then went kayaking and discovered the floating villages of Lan Ha Bay. We could not swim because the water was not clean enough, in fact, a lot of waste has accumulated, which was quite shocking. Then there is the Van Boi beach which is cleaner for peaceful swimming. It was a cultural day where we learned a lot about the locals’ life who live on the water, but we also got a lot closer to the other cruise tourists during this day. We were from Canada, Brazil, France, Spain, Germany and we were all about the same age. This meeting marked us since we stayed in touch and became friends, some of them even planned to visit us next year in Canada.
– Day 3: If you did not party too much the day before and you do not have too much hangover 😊, the last day we are taken to visit caves on bamboo boats (well they were more wood than bamboo) on the calm waters of Hang Sang Toi. A beautiful getaway that makes you discover the relaxing nature of its caves, a local rowed the boat and started singing in Vietnamese. Change of scenery guaranteed!
Sapa – Vietnam
On the way to go this time to the northwest of Vietnam, very close to the border of China, to Sa Pa. Located in the mountains, it is a city which is differentiated by its rice terraces on the valley of Muong Hoa. Several ethnic groups live there such as the Hmong, the Tay and the Dao. Trekking in the middle of the rice fields there is only in Asia to do it and we were not disappointed, except for the weather, but it was still pleasant and beautiful to discover, for our very first time.
How to get to Sapa
We took the sleeper bus that leaves Hanoi early, around 8 a.m. and arrives around 1 p.m. in Sapa itself, it was the Inter Bus Line, which costs between $ 10 and $ 15 each way. We took the return ticket to drop us off at the airport for the same price. Allow one to two hours difference between the planned time and the real time, since the bus makes two stops of approximately 30 minutes during the journey of 5 to 6 hours on the road and these are not always good roads. The Baolau website helped us a lot to know the different prices, routes and bus companies that went to Sa Pa.
We were pleasantly surprised with the comfort of these buses, since you could lie down and take a nap. There’s even free Wi-Fi that works great!
Where to sleep in Sapa
You should know that a few years ago it was only mountains with villagers who occupied Sa Pa, but today it seems that it is a booming city where luxury hotels, restaurants, karaoke and other businesses grow like mushrooms. The locals themselves no longer recognize their own city, which over the years has grown incredibly, still construction sites in the middle of the streets and the noise of construction.
You can sleep with the locals and there are many guest houses in the area, whether at the bottom of the mountains, in town, or in the mountains even overlooking the peaceful rice fields. For our part, as we did not know what it was like to sleep with the locals, we had found a charming hotel very close to the bus stop, with a very nice host. The Sapa Romance Hotel, very affordable with breakfast and other extra services like laundry. It was very practical, since we left for 3 weeks and we could have clothes washed at the hotel, especially after days of hiking.
Treks in Sapa
Surrounded by nature in the middle of bamboo trees and rustic and authentic villages, we spent 2 whole days hiking. The roads weren’t so muddy, but we had bought hiking shoes and windbreaker coats in Hanoi (for really cheap) in case it was raining, as we were in the north of the country in the mountains and temperatures were lower than in town. We went there in early November and it was around 12-15 degrees Celsius in the mountains.
– Day 1: We did not want to book our trek with a travel agency because we had heard a lot of comments on the tourist routes that they all took, so we were guided by a local from Dao village. She was recommended to us by the receptionist of our hotel in Hanoi, whose hometown was Sa Pa. We wanted to avoid the crowds of tourists by taking a different route and we were right, because we were finally alone on the road with our guide and we asked her lots of questions about her culture, it was a real local experience. She spoke very good English and was accompanied by her sister. She learned English without going to school but just practicing it with tourists from the city.
Our hike was made from Sa Pa to Hang Đá and we continued to Hầu Thào, it’s about 6 hours of walking with roads going up and down. It was a great exercise in the middle of magnificent landscapes overlooking the beautiful rice fields and meetings with villagers.
Despite the beauty of the place, it is true that these villages are inhabited by ethnic minorities who have seen the rise of tourists in recent years and who take the opportunity to ask for money or buy their bracelets, bags and products that they made by hand. Better say no right away and ignore them because they can harass you, adults and children. Do not give in to their begging, as children see the opportunity of making money instead of going to school.
– Day 2: We did not hire a guide for the second day, because there is a hike that we could do ourselves that goes to Tả Phìn. Very few tourists also on this road which takes us between the rice fields and the mountains with waterfalls in some places. It was interesting to speak with the locals because we didn’t understand each other, they don’t speak English and we don’t speak their dialect. Often the paths separated, and you had to ask them whether to go straight, left or right. We received smiles in return. It was a great experience.
The Vietnam adventure ends for us and we loved our boat, hike, kayak, bus, car and bike tour. All these activities made this trip a unique moment that we shared with local and international people, which made the experience humanly enriching.
I would not recommend it to people who are too sensitive to travel because it is not known to be luxurious and comfortable. But if you want to get out of your comfort zone, don’t hesitate!
After Vietnam, we left for another destination, still in Southeast Asia. More in the next article. In the meantime, let me know your opinions, recommendations or questions about Vietnam. I would be delighted to read you.
See you soon!