You've managed to book 2 weeks off to explore Vietnam. Hooray! I'm just thinking about the mouth-watering foods you'll try and the cool places you'll see!
I’m even more glad you’ve chosen Northern Vietnam. Seeing images of picturesque Ha Long Bay and Sapa on google images probably sealed the deal. (It did for me). Northern Vietnam is simply a treat for nature lovers.
The mist-shrouded mountains, lush rice terraces and dramatic topography, Northern Vietnam’s striking landscape is arguably its most impressive, which is why I always keep coming back! Between the scenic roads, limestone casts and a hectic yet cultural city of Hanoi, a trip to Vietnam’s capital is worth it!
Having more time to see every city, discover every little-hidden gem and enjoy every local dish is wishful thinking. There’s so much beauty and culture to see, it’s tempting to” squeeze” everything into an itinerary that fits just a week or two. It will only stress you.
The worse part is regretting spending too much time in one place instead of another. Like most people, even paranoid travelers, all arrangements are made way before departure… but if you have never been to a place, how will you manage to delegate your time from your home?
I meet lots of people traveling through Vietnam for 1 or 2 weeks with everything planned out to a tee. When I hear they booked their hotels in the same place for 4 days and how they’re spending their days in one area, I struggle to keep a straight face. Even travelers who haven’t touched down on Vietnamese soil expect to see every landmark in 2 weeks, makes my eyes roll.
Where to go? What to do? How do I get there?
I’ve compiled a handy guide for your epic travel to Northern Vietnam, that will help you optimize your time for the most site worthy places.
How to see the classic sights in Northern without rushing
1 week: Hanoi, Sapa, Halong Bay – use Hanoi as your base to explore other destinations such as from Sapa and Ha long Bay.
2 weeks: Hanoi, Sapa, Cat Ba Island, Halong Bay Ninh Binh – use the extra time to see hidden gems and travel a bit further down by overnight bus.
Hanoi 1 - 2 days
Use Hanoi as a base for points of interests in Northern Vietnam like Sapa and Ha Long Bay. I googled “How many days in Hanoi” and that’s exactly what people search for.
Hanoi is a big and chaotic city that is breathing with character and charm. Walk around the Old Quarter for a day and you’ll see what I mean. An eclectic mix of foreign influences and Vietnamese culture, you get the sense that this city has been through a lot in its thousand year history.
Apart from seeing the sights of the city, trying street food is highly recommended. And you wouldn’t believe how damn good Vietnamese coffee is until you sip their Black Iced Coffee. Just wait till you experience the exciting Beer scene where you’ll get merry on very cheap beer.
Good Tours to book in Hanoi
Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
Water Puppet Theatre
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc SonDong Xuan Market
Hanoi Old Quarter
Hanoi Opera House
Hanoi train street – Twice a day a fast train passes only inches from the homes of a residential neighborhood.
Have a Coconut Or Egg Coffee Cafe Giang.
Attend a Vietnamese culinary class
Join the locals dance, and perform around Hoan Kiem Lake day and night.
Hanoi’s street food is for real and is something you should try. This is a city that prides itself in very delicious “street food.”
Pho – steaming bowl of rice noodles served in a delicate beef- or chicken-based broth.
Bun Cha – grilled chunks of pork patty and roasted pork belly served in a bowl of broth, a mix of fish sauce, vinegar and lime, slices of pickled kohlrabi, green papaya, and carrots – that’s slightly sweet and tangy.
Sapa -2-3 days
Escape Hanoi’s concrete jungle to Sapa’s breath-taking sceneries filled with green rice terraces and mountain peak’s.
Sapa – the northernmost location is home to many indigenous hill tribes and is well known for Vietnam’s trekking destination.
Prepare for an early start and get ready to explore the villages on foot. The mountainous views surrounding the rice terraces look like something from a sci-fi movie and even more majestic in the fog. And, like me, you might have to pinch yourself as a reminder that you’re still on planet Earth!
Head to Ha Giang for more of a natural setting and less tourists. You might need more than 2 days to fully experience. Ha Giang motorbike loop is a very popular motorbike trip in Ha Giang province.
You might like to read Sapa – Trekking in the Rain & Sapa Trekking Travel Tips.
Mường Hoa Valley A Scenic valley known for its hiking trails through undulating rice terraces & traditional villages.
Silver Waterfall The largest, picturesque waterfall is unmissable from the road and trails.
Fansipan Mountain – Take a Cable car to the highest mountain in Vietnam. Around 20 minutes, you’ll see a magnificent landscape: endless clouds, terraced fields of the local villages.
A few days is all you need to enjoy Vietnam’s most popular destination. Book yourself a homestay experience and see how the locals live. The good thing is tours can easily accommodate those seeking a light walk to enjoy the scenery or the hardcore trekkers.
Book with Moon’s Travel Agency
Don’t worry. Planning your own Diy Sapa trek is easy. It’s cheaper and you get to cover more distance than you would with a guided tour.
There are two ways to do this. On foot or by Motorbike. All you need to do is book your hotel or homestay and start exploring! No tour guide needed.
Wandering on foot along the trails and you’re bound to have interesting encounters with locals and discover villages.
Going around by motorbike is better if you don’t like hiking. Plus, you can travel further to the most remote villages.
Renting a motorbike in Vietnam is easy peasy and inexpensive. You can rent one from 5 USD a day!
Little View Homestay
Sapa Homestay Ta May
Tavan Family Homestay
Mountain Clouds Sapa Hostel
Sapa Odyssey Hostel
Venus Hostel Sapa
Olympia Sapa Hotel
Amazing Hotel Sapa
Ha Long Bay 2-3 days
Traveling in North Vietnam will never be complete without a trip to Ha Long Bay.
Its reputation as one of Vietnam’s gems is well deserved because it is truly beautiful. With 2000 islands and islets in various shapes and sizes, of which mostly are limestone, create dramatic silhouettes that dominate the watery landscapes. Overnight cruises or even 1-day trips will be enough to experience the beauty of Halong Bay and to see the islands.
Avoid the Ha Long Bay crowds and go to other islands such as Cat Ba, Bai Tu Long Bay, and Lan Ha Bay. They offer more outdoor activities. They all share a similar climate, cultural, geological characters, but with fewer tourists and cheaper prices. I personally loved Cat Ba than Halong Bay. As an outdoors person, I enjoyed trekking in Cat Ba island’s national park, visiting Cannon fort and exploring the Hospital cave.
“What’s the way to experience Ha Long Bay?” is often difficult to answer.
Travel agents and even your hotel will either give you very good recommendations or very bad ones based on your budget, and their need for commission.
Everyone has different expectations and budgets when they are visiting Ha Long Bay. To help you solve this dilemma, read on for my recommendations based on your type of travel. Are you Honeymooning? backpacking? Looking for an adventure? There is something for everyone.
Most travelers will book from many travel agencies around Hanoi’s Old Quarter. The services range from budget to absolutely posh. So.. you get what you pay for.
Halong Bay Package Tour
Choose from a few hours’ cruises on the bay to a multiple-night stay including a sleep aboard in a cabin on a tourist boat, outdoor activities in the vicinity of the bay, and accommodations in a resort on Cat Ba Island.
- A round trip ride via minibus or bus between Hanoi and Ha Long Bay
- A four-hour tour via tourist boat ride around Ha Long Bay
- Optional kayaks (about $5 extra)
- Lunch aboard the tourist boat
- A round trip pickup Hanoi and Ha Long Bay from your hotel.
- Boat ride around Ha Long Bay and other islands
- Water activities
- Mineral water and wet wipe
- Private English speaking guide
- Entrance fees
- VIP boat fees with air-conditioned
- Seafood lunch on board
- A private room to sleep
Island Hopping and Day trips to Cat Ba Island Dau Be Island, Dau Go Island
Discover Grottos and Caves Row a boat to explore these hidden gems, like Thien Cung (Thiên Cung) Cave, known as Heavenly Palace Cave, which is well-known for its stalagmites and stalactites, and Dau Go Cave (Hang Đầu Gỗ), which is known as the Cave of Wonders.
Climb a Mountain See views of 3000 limestone islands in Halong Bay area. Ban Sen (Bản Sen) Island is forested and probably uninhabited, making it a peaceful getaway . Just take a ferry to the Quan Lan (Quan Lạn) from Cai Rong (Cái Rồng). Hire a tour guide who could tell you about the mysterious stories of local folklore.
Floating Villages and Fish Farms
Ha long Bay is home to a large number of families of the traditional floating fishing villages. These families earn a living from the diversified supply of the marine life. Understand more about the life of fishermen on floating boats by chatting with them.
Swim in clear and calm sea water. Just simply dip in the cool jade-green water of the Bay, you’ll feel relaxed. Beach spots include Ti Top Beach, Bai Chay (Bãi Cháy) Beach, Tuan Chau (Tuần Châu), Beach, Ngoc Vung (Ngọc Vừng) Beach and Quan Lan (Quan Lạn) Beach.
Practice Tai Chi on deck to connect with nature.
Kayak between karsts of limestone perfect for adventure lovers and to take a break from the boat cruise.
Cycle in Ha long Bay enjoy a quiet atmosphere and scenic as you cycle along on the beaches of Halong Bay.
See sunset on the deck during the golden hour. In the evening, the sun slips below karsts, staining the sky in luminescent hues and creating dramatic silhouettes that create a mesmerizing reflection over the water.
Night Squid Fishing Turn your catch to dinner whilst singing Karaoke, dancing and drinking beer.
Scuba Diving has been introduced in Halong Bay recently and is great for underwater lovers. Go between April to December for suitable temperatures.
Ninh Binh - 2 days
Ninh Binh is usually overlooked by travelers and that might be a good thing. Not because it’s not a great place. The region boasts a breathtaking, sometimes surreal, landscape, but sadly the gradual influx of tourists are on the rise. Add it to your travel list soon before tourism explodes.
Known as “Ha Long Bay on Land” it’s one of the best opportunities to see the peaceful rural side and real Vietnam. I enjoyed Ninh Binh even more than Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island, I’d wish I had gone here during my first ever trip to Vietnam.
The best way I can describe being here is like walking through the Discovery channel.
I really enjoyed not having to face the messy streets of Ho Chi Minh, the hawkers in Hanoi or the tourists in Ha Long Bay.
The peaceful village of Tam Coc is where you should be as it’s near all the action. See vivid green rice fields, karst limestone cliffs, and the panoramic Hang Mua (Lying Dragon Mountain) viewpoint, that’ll make your jaw drop.
Hang Mua Cave Viewpoint After tiny 500 steps, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views over the Tam Coc valley.
Tam Coc Rice Fields If you’re planning a boat ride to Trang An, you can skip the one in Trang Coc. Instead, explore the rice fields on a bike. Hassle-free, more adventurous and budget friendly.
Trang An A 2-3 hr boat ride will take you along inspiring scenery surrounded by the huge mountains while on a tiny boat is truly a spectacular feeling. (Entrance fee: 150,000 Vnd + a parking fee for your motorbike)
Hoa Lu Ancient Citadel is the old capital dating back to the 11th century. Close to the Trang An boat ride, the remains of this ancient city include the royal temples and statues of Emperor Dinh Bo Linh and his sons. The scenery gives temples like Hoa Lu an amazing backdrop.
Bai Dinh Pagoda is a large religious complex. The 539-hectare premises consists of 5,000 Buddha statues, a 36-ton bronze bell, and many Buddhist temples. The magic lies on top giving you a bird’s eye view of everything.
Rent a bike and cycle around. This gives you the freedom to explore the fields and back roads around Tam Coc as Vietnamese farming life happens around you.
Motorbike Rent a motorbike for 100,000 Vnd per day in Tam Coc. It’ll give you the chance to explore more in Ninh Binh.
Take your time
You need at least two days to truly feel the essence of Ninh Binh. So don’t rush your daily activities!
Bring enough USD A few ATMs are available in Ninh Binh but don’t expect to find them in Tam Coc, Trang An, or any other rural areas.
You don’t want to go to Ninh Binh (7km away) to withdraw money.
Beware of Crazy drivers
Base yourself in Tam Coc as there’s nothing to do in Ninh Binh Town.
Stay at a decent homestay..the food will probably be better!
Staying in Ninh Binh City is cheaper, but there is not much to do and you’ll find yourself driving further to explore the beautiful countryside on the outskirts. Instead, stay in the Tam Coc area where there are plenty of restaurants designed for tourist.
If you liked the post feel free to comment and share! I look forward to any tips you may like to add. I truly wish you a wonderful trip to Vietnam and hope you won’t be disappointed.
Curious about the rest of the country? Then read Leighton’s Literature tips on Vietnam travel.