When you talk to fellow travellers about Vietnam, it’s a weird mix of answers. People either loved it or hated it. I am in the former group, I had a great time in Vietnam! Sure it’s a popular destinations and there’s a lot of tourist traps. But if you’re able to avoid them you will find a beautiful country that has so much to offer, friendly inhabitants, amazing landscapes and delicious food.
3 reasons to go
- Halong Bay. Considered one of the New 7 Natural Wonders of the World, Halong Bay truly deserves the award. However, choosing the right cruise supplier will make or break your experience there. A few extra bucks will go a long way and help you avoid the terribly disappointing tours targeting broke backpackers.
- Vietnamese Food. Pho and spring rolls are famous worldwide for a reason. But there’s much more to it, each region has their typical dishes and foodies will immediately fall in love with Vietnam.
- Affordable. Food, transportation (even flights) and accommodation are all very affordable in Vietnam. Even compared to neighboring South East Asian countries, Vietnam is actually much cheaper.
Destination 1: Hanoi
The country’s capital, and second largest city after Ho Chi Minh City (previously Saigon), is a good introduction for your trip. The old part of town feels very traditional (except for souvenir shops) and the city is quite walking-friendly.
Destination 2: Halong Bay
You NEED to book at least a two days cruise in the bay. Spending the night on a junk boat is a unique experience and waking up surrounded by hundreds of karst rocks is even more exceptional.
Destination 3: Ninh Binh
Often referred to as the ”inland Halong Bay”, Ninh Binh is a good base camp to explore the area. Rice fields, ancient cities, and natural wonders are all located within a few kilometers.
Destination 4: Hoi An
Definitely the most charming city in Vietnam, you will not resist to its pedestrian streets and hundreds of lanterns.
How to book your vacation?
If you enjoy organizing your own trips.
Start booking hotels:
Day 1: land in Hanoi
Once you land in Hanoi, you will probably be amazed by the number of scooters and motorbikes driving in every direction. It’s quite overwhelming! And when you’ll try to cross the road, keep in mind that they will adapt to you, keep walking and it will be all fine ?
Day 2: Explore Hanoi
In one full day, and a few km of walk, you will be able to see the highlights of the city.
Start with the Old quarter, where each street used to be specialised on one product. You can still see it in a way but it has evolved over time. Then you can head to the lake Hoàn Kiếm. It’s the real center of the city, where people gather on weekends for a walk, or a live concert. There’s a fun atmosphere at night when Vietnamese play games and dance, really cool to see.
You also have time to explore around the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Presidential Palace and embassies area to see great examples of French colonial architecture.
Day 3: Halong Bay
For the Halong Bay, your best bet is an organized tour from Hanoi. Sure you can go to the harbour yourself and try to find a ship there but you will have to go through multiple scams along the way.
Most cruise lines follow the same road and start as low as 90$ for two days, but if you want quality you need to budget around double that price. I have heard too many stories of vacations ruined because the Halong Bay cruise was a disaster. What I used and recommend is the company Legacy Cruises, that I arranged by email with the Sapa-based agency Nomad Trails. Booking with this reliable agency felt right as even website scams exist in Vietnam. For example if you just type in Legacy Cruises in Google, several results show up with minor variations in the URL. All playing on the name of this reliable company.
Once again, even if Vietnam is a lovely country, you have to be extra careful for potential tourist scams. The agency mentioned has be recommended to me by a former colleague and I am glad I used their services. Legacy Cruises run raltively small boats with about 20 guests on board.
Day 4: Halong Bay
During a two-day tour, you will see a fishermen floating village, learn to cook spring rolls, enjoy wonderful views of the bay and visit an overcrowded cave.
If you have one extra day, the 3-day cruise is a bit better. First, you get to wake up one more morning in the bay, and on the second day you have some kayaking, swimming, a visit of an oyster farm, and more sailing time where you can relax on the deck.
After the tour, you return to the harbour around noon, and instead of heading back to Hanoi with the group, you can take a direct bus for Ninh Binh (approx. 4 hours).
Day 5: Ninh Binh
In Ninh Binh, you can either decide to stay in the city, that has nothing special, or in the touristic area, Tam Coc. The point is, you will spend most of your time exploring the area so it does not really matter where you sleep.
Plan to spend the entire day exploring the region. If you’re not comfortable with renting a scooter, you can also hire a taxi for the day or join a group excursion organized by your hotel.
The highlights include the ancient capital city of Hoa Lu, the caves of Trang An or Tam Coc, Bich Dong Pagoda (with a fantastic view at the top of the small mountain behind it, accessible in 10-15min), and Phat Diem Cathedral (a unique mix between Western and Asian architecture). You cannot fit all in one day, but three of those places would be reasonable.
Day 6: Hoi An
Hop on a morning bus back to Hanoi (a bit less than 2 hours) and go straight to the airport for your flight to Hoi An. Flying is very inexpensive in Vietnam and it will save you a lot of time. Spend the rest of the day exploring the relatively small city center on foot. Make sure you also go back at night when all the lanterns are on.
You can purchase an activity pass allowing you to visit some of the main sites like old traditional family houses or temples.
Day 7: Hoi An
Spend more time in the city and/or explore the surrounding countryside by bike. Easily accessible nearby you will find rice fields and beaches.
Day 8: return home
Fly back to Hanoi to catch your flight back home. If you can extend for a 9th day, consider taking the 3-day Halong cruise and keep the rest of the itinerary the same way.
Tips and advice
- For the Visa, please refer only to the official website of the Vietnamese embassy of your country. Some citizens need one, some don’t, and it also depends on the length of your trip. But keep in mind that many fake visa agencies exist so make sure you deal with the embassy directly.
- The best time of the year to visit Northern Vietnam is around Spring time, April to June, and November as well. For the center (Hoi An), Spring is good but November (and Fall) should be avoided because of typhoons.
- To buy your bus tickets:
- Halong to Ninh Binh, ask the tour guide on your boat, he’ll be able to call ahead and show you the right bus at the harbour.
- Ninh Binh – Hanoi: show up the morning, it’s a regular bus, no advance booking required.
- Why did I choose the North? Vietnam has many, many places to visit. I personally spent one month there and I picked the most ”wow” experiences in relatively close regions. If you go on a longer trip, or a second time, you can consider visiting Ho Chi Minh City, the Delta Mekong, Phu Quoc Island, Hue, Sapa and other great places that Vietnam has to offer.
- One nice thing to try in Hanoi are the free walking tours run by students. They depart from the tourism office near Hoàn Kiếm lake (North side, close to the Old Quarter). You can get the timetables and book your spot there.