07 Aug The highlights of Northern Vietnam
Vietnam is hot. And i’m not only talking about the weather. This long stretched south-east Asian country is on the rise for backpackers and travelers alike. Not so strange when you come to think of the perfectly spiced and easy-to-digest food goodies, bright rice paddies, staggering karst mountains and sandy beaches. Vietnam is the place to be if you want to take in as much different scenery as possible. If you start of in the North of the country, there are a number of hotspots you simply cannot miss.
Happy in Hanoi
Sweat is dripping of your face, not to mention the rest of your body. Around you it’s a hot mess of honking motorbikes, waving salesladies and strange smells. This is Hanoi. One of the two big cities of Vietnam and for many travelers the kick-off of their journey. It’s also the gateway to many of the highlights in the North of the country. Many people use this city in exactly that way, a travel-through kind of city to get to more beautiful places. But Hanoi should not be overlooked. It’s a bustling city with lots to see, feel and do. For all you foodies out there, your mouth will water with the endless options of amazing dishes. From sitting on little plastic chairs on the street to high-class dining it’s all there. My advise: opt for the plastic chairs for intense flavors and a true local experience. Think rice pancakes, filled with shrimp, beansprouts and pork. Fresh springrolls, rice noodles with beef and amazing broth, it’s all heaven. Order a glass of fresh draft beer (starting at 20ct’s a glass!) look around you and enjoy! Besides eating, Hanoi offers enough sightseeing. Go to the Hanoi Hilton Prison to experience what it was like being captured by the French, to the Ho Chi Minh Masoleum to see the body of Vietnam’s great leader (check opening hours carefully to avoid closed doors) and stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake where Vietnamese kids will try to learn some English by starting a conversation (and taking some selfies). Budget wise, Hanoi won’t burn a hole in your wallet. Hotels and hostels are cheap and fine. My advise: the Bluebell Hotel. In the middle of the backpacker district, offering large and clean double rooms with a funny and friendly manager and price tag.
Halong Bay Beauty
Probably the most famous landmark of Vietnam, Halong Bay lies a 3,5 hours drive east of Hanoi. Recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, Halong Bay is full of amazing vista’s, high-rising karst mountains and deep green waters. It’s not an option to go to Vietnam and not see this epic landscape. There are several ways to see the bay. Cheap and less touristy is arranging a bus to Cat Ba and board a tour from there. However, this does take up a lot of travel time that you could have spend on the water. Feeling lazy? Book a tour in Hanoi and everything will be arranged. Some pointers: never book a one day trip, as you will spend most of your day in the bus traveling towards Halong Bay. 2 or 3 days is perfect (also on days 2 and 3 you will enter the less touristy part of the bay). If you want to have a relaxed and clean stay, always go for those that are a bit more expensive. Sailing 3 days for 80 dollars will most likely mean you share your cabin with cockroaches and a fishy smell. The tours that come with a price between 130 to 160 dollar (for 3 days) are worth the splurge. Always ask what you get for the price and what kind of luxury (or not) you can expect. Now all you need to do is chill on one of the loungers on deck and take in the view!
Rice fields as far as your eyes reach, in stunning shades of green. A local ‘mama’ guiding you around on steep paths and into their homes. Sapa, close to the Chinese border, is not to be missed. Unfortunately I did miss it and still regret it deeply. Everyone who has been there, mentions it is one of their Vietnam favorites. You can take a bus or a train there, and local guides will be waiting to take you at the station. This is a cheap way to see Sapa (most of the times this includes two days of hiking and one night in a traditional homestay). If you feel more comfortable knowing who you are going with upfront, book a tour. Do expect lots of begging little children and people trying to sell you stuff, the tourist industry is booming here (not in a good way). You can avoid this a bit by booking a tour that takes you to another part of Sapa and usually only costs a few dollars extra.
Imagine lush green mountains and valleys full of rices fields
Biking Mai Chau
A lot less touristy and still very beautiful is Mai Chau. Those who have limited time, will often skip this area since it is not on the standard route. But that is a mistake. Mai Chau feels more authentic than most of the other places in the north. Imagine lush green mountains and valleys full of rices fields. Add the occasional herd of cows crossing the road and local markets (not advisable for those with sensitive noses and stomachs) and you have a pretty good picture of what to expect. Cycling through the valleys is the way to move forward and to learn about the traditional Thai and Hmong people living here. During your bike ride, you might encounter the 1000 steps stairway, leading to a cave and a great viewpoint. Be aware that these stairs are not for those who are in a bad shape. The steps can be slippery and are quite uneven. Oh right, and there are a thousand of them! The perfect place to spend the night is Mai Chau Sunrise resort.
Tam Coc Adventures
They call it Halong Bay on land and the latest King Kong movie (Skull Island) was shot here. For a reason I might add. The Tam Coc mountains are stunning. To gaze at the mountains you can book a boat ride, but this is expensive and a lot of travelers mention it’s unpleasant due to the demands for a big tip by the ladies rowing the boat. So, why not grab a (motor)bike and see the area on your own terms? It’s the perfect way to explore and enjoy. Climb the stairs at Hang Mua (only 500 this time, and way easier) for an Instagram worthy shot of the karst mountains and the river. If you have the time, make your way to the temple complex of Bai Dinh (about 20 KM from Tam Coc). Even if you are not a temple lover, this place will impress you.
Booking A Tour
‘Book a tour’ is mentioned a number of times above. But in Hanoi, there are almost more tour agencies than there are motorbikes (okay, not sure if that is possible, but still) and not all of them are honest with what they sell. But there is one local angel that will make your trip (and life) a little easier and fun. Lily’s Travel Agency truly is number one. They offer fair prices, but above all: honest advise (they actually listen to what you want and what you don’t want) and the best service I’ve have ever had from a tour operator (including free water and fruit while waiting and a free beer when we stepped back into her office to give some feedback).
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think there are some rice pancakes calling out my name.
Love from Vietnam,