I didn’t know what to expect when I booked a ticket to Vietnam. When I arrived, Vietnam flooded my senses. The ever-present sound of honking, the emerald green fields, the smells of the fresh fruit and flower shops, the first sip of a steaming bowl of Pho, and the hot, humid air on my skin. I was in love.
Vietnam is a diverse country with each village and town different from one another. The northern region of the country is no exception.
Hanoi is the big city in the north but it lacks the typical big city feel with its laid-back vibe and easy-going spirit. This historical city has a winding maze of streets that are fun just to get lost in and explore.
The Old Quarter is the tourist hot-spot with boutique shops, cafes, and bars living the streets. Visit the impressive Thang Long Imperial Citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage site, complete with an archaeological dig. One of the most informative and captivating museums in Hanoi is the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, explaining the woman’s role in day-to-day life as well as their roles in the workplace and Wars.
- Stay at Vietnam Backpackers Hostel – The Original This hostel is a hit with backpackers with free beer, free breakfast, daily activities, and a travel desk that sells a number of different tour packages.
- Go to the Hoàn Kiếm Lake on weekend evenings for local music, food, and shopping. The best part is to join the town while they play traditional Vietnamese games in the streets.
- Prices can be negotiated for just about anything. Assume most prices have been doubled, especially in the tourist areas.
- Look for “bia hơi” (fresh beer) all over town that costs about 15-20¢ a pint. Yes, it’s really a thing.
- The street called “Tạ Hiện” is where you’ll find the most bars and clubs jam-packed with tourists and locals alike. Watch for police raids.
- Eat banh mi in the alley on the street Ngõ Huyện near Lý Quốc Sư.
- Eat at Pizza 4P’s – try the cheese pizza with honey – trust me, it’s a life changer.
- Eat at Bun and Roll on Lý Quốc Sư: try the bún trộn chay with tofu.
- Anna’s Booking Office on 50 Ngõ Huyện has lovely staff and better prices than many travel agents.
- Get some coffee from Highland‘s Coffee overlooking the roundabout called Quảng trường Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục and watch in wonder as the organized chaos of the drivers dances below you.
Sapa is in a more mountainous region about five hours northwest of Hanoi and is covered in rice terraces. This area is remarkable for its beautiful landscape and hospitable people.
Many people do a homestay, like Zizi’s Homestay, where you stay in a local home with a family, rather than a hotel or hostel. This is a great way to see the life and culture of the villagers and meet some of the sweetest people in the world.
There are many trekking routes through the area, amongst rice fields, bamboo forests, and hills. Many people also like to motorbike along the mountain passes to see the waterfalls and awe-inspiring views.
- Depending on the season, bring warm clothes and shoes good for trekking and mud. It gets quite cold and wet.
- Homestays can be booked through tour agencies, hotels, AirBnB, Booking.com, or in person, as many locals await your arrival in town to offer their place to stay.
- The Hill Station Signature Restaurant in town is fantastic and has one of the few microbreweries I’ve seen in Vietnam.
Cat Ba, a large island within the famous Halong Bay, is a great destination if you want to avoid the more hectic mainland of Halong city.
This island is home to an emerald green national park full of caves and jungles.
The main village by the port and beaches is filled with seafood restaurants and boutique hotels. It’s a great place to stay while visiting Halong Bay if you want a more relaxed, island feel.
Hotels can book tours of the Bay with a bus to the port. Cannon Fort is a historical vantage point helpful during the Wars and a great way of seeing the Bay from above.
Cat Ba tips:
- ATMs can work intermittently and only 3 exist on the island, be prepared.
- Oasis Bar has good prices for amazing food and great atmosphere.
- Eat at Dolphin, which is super cheap and very delicious!
- Don’t miss out on the island’s three beaches for a nice day in the sand.
The spectacular trademark towering schist and limestone islands of Halong Bay are hard to beat as far as beauty and wonder. Your boat weaves through the islands, covered with jungle-like foliage, sandy beaches and secret caves. The hardworking fishers of the fishing villages are tucked away all through the Bay.
Be ready to kayak, snorkel, and swim in the turquoise waters. You can relax on the beaches and scale the rocks and mountains of the bigger islands. Frequently quite foggy, the islands have an ominous and mystical quality.
Just like Halong Bay, Tam Coc has many immense islands, but instead of oceans of water, the islands rise up over oceans of rice fields. Located just outside the more popular and city-like Ninh Binh, Tam Coc is more rural and closer to the sights.
Lots of tourists come to have a local villager row a boat (with their feet on the oars, not hands) through the fields on one of the many rivers weaving through the “islands”.
Many people also climb to the tops of the mountains to see the expansive mountain range through the area. Sunset atop Hang Múa is a sight to see, with flocks of birds returning to the nature reserves for the night.
Tam Coc tips:
- Eat at Minh Toan Restaurant (aka Father Cooking). Everything is amazing, you can’t go wrong.
- Tam Coc Backpacker Hostel has wonderful staff, a great location, and comfy beds.
- Keep an eye out for local festivals, where the whole town participates.
- Rent a bike and leisurely explore the majestic countryside.
On my first trip to Northern Vietnam, I fell in love with the place, so much so that I packed up my stuff and moved to Hanoi.
Within a small radius around Hanoi, one can visit a number of very unique locales, unlike anywhere else in the world. The rich culture, the mouthwatering food, the kindhearted people, and beautiful sights make this region of Vietnam one you shouldn’t miss!
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