I spent just under 2 weeks travelling around North Vietnam, using Hanoi as a launch pad to the surrounding regions. It’s easy to take international flights in and out of Hanoi. Make sure you arrange a visa in advance. Australian citizens can lodge an online application at this site
There are a number of travel agents in Hanoi’s Old Quarter who can arrange bus or train tickets for you. Be aware, if you buy a sleeper ticket on an overnight bus, your seat will be a chair-bed hybrid. If you are really tall or have long legs, this may be extremely uncomfortable for you. Also, the aisles of the bus will be illuminated by weird disco lights.
Sapa and the northern regions of Vietnam
Situated in the mountains of north-west Vietnam (about a 6 or 7 hour bus ride from Hanoi), Sapa is popular for its quaint village life and easy access to trekking paths amongst the terraced rice fields of the Muong Hoa Valley and to the Hmong, Tay and Dao hill tribes of the region. Nowadays, the town of Sapa is dominated by large hotels, tourist buses, and spas. Its small streets are unable to cope with the demand.
You will often hear tourists complain about how touristy Sapa has become, which makes me think of the saying, “You’re not stuck in traffic, you are traffic.” Sapa is becoming a victim of its own success, an all too common outcome of popular tourism in South-East Asia. With popularity, tourism and prosperity comes change and “progress”.
As such, tourists are looking outside of Sapa to find their “authentic”, hill tribe experience. I stayed in Po Mu House, a traditional homestead in the village of Ta Van, located not far from Sapa. If I had more time I would have loved to explore Ha Giang and Dong Van provinces, but unfortunately I had a restricted itinerary.
In contrast to the construction which dominates Sapa, the surrounding regions remain captivating and serene. From Ta Van, I trekked amongst rice paddies, waterfalls, and mountain streams, accompanied by two self-appointed Hmong guides who were keen to have me buy their textiles. Their appearance, customs and textiles were reminiscent of the ethnic minority groups across the border in the Yunnan Province of China.
Pigs, chickens, water buffalos, and twittering birds, orchestrated a soundtrack of nature which made the journey well worth the effort.
If you’re looking for hill tribe textiles, this is the place to go. There is no shortage of artisans in the region and they won’t let you leave without buying something.
Ninh Binh province in the Red River Delta of North Vietnam is a 2-3 hour bus trip from Hanoi. You can visit the region as a day trip but I would recommend at least staying for a few days. I stayed at the Ninh Binh retreat in Trang An, and woke up amongst rice paddies and limestone pinnacles. There are lots of different places where you can stay, such as the Van Long nature reserve. Your bus will most likely drop you at Ninh Binh town, the gateway to the region. From there you can start exploring or make your way to your accommodation.
There are several ways to explore the pagodas, caves and wetlands of the region. Seeing the water caves and river networks by boat is an exceptional start. I was told the boat journey starting from the Trang An Grotto is the best (an UNESCO World Heritage Site, no less) and it did not disappoint. It cost around US$10 for a 2-3 hour boat trip which will include a local guide who rows the boat. This is where they filmed King Kong Skull Island, the film set is still on display there.
You can also ride bicycles, scooters or motorbikes to the various local sites. Special mention must go to the Bai Dinh pagoda (free entry), and the Hang Mua caves (the lying dragon), a steep walk but one that will reward you with spectacular views of the region.
Cuc Phuong National Park
Just one hour from Trang An and Ninh Binh is the Cuc Phuong National Park, the country’s largest nature reserve. I spent an afternoon visiting the monkey and turtle rehabilitation and breeding centres, paying my respects to the remains of prehistoric man (which is supposed to be 7,000-12,000 years old), and hiking 6 kilometres amongst the park’s abundant flora and fauna to see its population of 5 ancient trees.
You can visit the park in a day from Hanoi or from Ninh Binh, but again I would recommend staying overnight. I didn’t have time to spend longer than an afternoon in the park, but I wish I could have spent a day or two trekking into the heart of the forest. You can book accommodation in the national park and for the longer hikes you must book a guide. It’s possible to ride a bike or take a taxi or tour bus into the centre of the park.
Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay’s spectacular region of limestone islands, thick jungles and floating fishing villages is a must see in Vietnam (and yes, it’s also an UNESCO World Heritage site).
I was told the best and only way to see the region was on a tour. Perhaps this isn’t true, but due to my restricted time, I didn’t have the opportunity to explore as much as I would have liked. Instead, I stayed on Cat Ba Island and from there I took a day boat trip around the islands. I used Cat Ba Ventures and had no complaints with their service.
A day trip cost around USD$30 and included lunch, swimming, a kayaking expedition through caves, and a tour of a family’s floating fish farm. Overnight trips vary in cost depending on quality but most exceed US$100. If you want to go fancy I’d recommend taking a traditional junk boat tour.
On Cat Ba Island itself there are lots of hikes and opportunities to rock climb. Walk to the top of Cannon Fort and check out the views of the surrounding limestone islands. At the top you can have a drink and food at the cafe. Or you can explore the tunnels and cannons that were installed by the Japanese during World War II. Hot food tip: the island’s specialty. Head to the market in the main town and ask for a bowl of jellyfish, smothered in sesame seeds, seaweed, rice and sauces.
The downside of Cat Ba: the island is quickly becoming overdeveloped. Lots of construction, high-rise hotels and a boardwalk bejeweled with neon lights. I visited one deserted beach but was disappointed to see it under construction. A new road will connect it to the main town. If you want to stay at one of the more peaceful locations on Cat Ba, try Little Cat Ba. It’s a short scooter ride from the main drag, but it does have an obnoxious hostel across the water from it which blares music all day, every day (if you want a party that seems to be the place to go).
In fact, the impacts of tourism on the region were quite evident. When you tour Ha Long Bay, you do so in the company of many other boats. If you want a more peaceful, less busy experience you should travel further afield to Bai Tu Long Bay.
Of course, these trips are just a fraction of the many, wonderful sites of Vietnam. There are lots more places to visit. I managed to visit all these places in 10 days but could’ve spent more time in each location.
If you want to learn more about Vietnam, check out my article on Vietnam’s modern history.