Vietnam has never been much talked about among travellers and backpackers. Most people just know it for the war. As time has gone by, more and more people have picked Vietnam as their choice for a budget holiday destination. So, we decided to go see if it’s really worth travelling through Vietnam. We started in Hanoi.
During the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel, we noticed the Vietnamese architecture. It’s something that we haven’t seen before. All these tall, skinny buildings each have their own unique style but fits together perfectly. Almost like different pieces of cake all placed together to create a masterpiece.
The hotel we booked, was located in the Old Quarter and we couldn’t have been happier with our choice. As we arrived, they greeted us with smiles and some traditional snacks. We checked in and it was the perfect time to explore a bit.
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We set our sights on the Hoàn Kiếm Lake. After only a few minutes of walking, we made it there. We had to quickly master the art of crossing the roads. A simple task you may think, but imagine standing on the sidewalk, you see where you want to be and the only thing you have to do is to cross the road. Wait there’s one thing you didn’t know, vehicles will be coming from the North, East, South, and West. ALL AT THE SAME TIME! We don’t know how they manage not to kill each other, but it just seems to work for them.
With a lot of excitement still on our faces, we took a walk around the lake. Taking pictures of the Turtle Tower and trying to get used to the hot climate. We had lunch and then had to take a nap because we woke up at 3 am because of our flight.
After our nap, we were ready to take some more pictures, but we realised our GoPro Hero 7 was gone. We were so tired we didn’t even notice that it was missing. After calling the airport, searching the hotel and backtracking all our steps, we finally came to the sad realization that we are never going to see our GoPro again. This was probably the most heart-breaking moment of our travels. After crying for most of the night (well mostly me, I think Jon was still hoping that he was going to open one of his bags and find it in there), we made the best of our time here.
The next day we were well-rested and decided to take on the town on foot. This might have been a mistake due to the 70% humidity, but we had to see everything we wanted to. Driving a scooter in this madness wasn’t an option for us. The first stop of the day was the Maison Centrale HoaLo Prison. This gave us the opportunity to experience some of the rich history of Vietnam.
After spending almost two hours strolling around we made it to the end of the prison. It was definitely an eye-opener. We decided to stop for some lunch. The famous Phó Soup, this dish was high on our list of things to try. We don’t particularly enjoy soup, but part of travelling to different countries is to be open to their local food. Pho soup consists of rice noodles, simple herbs, vegetables and meat such as chicken or beef. To us, it was nothing to write home about. After lunch, we did some sightseeing around the St. Joseph’s Cathedral and then made our way back to the Old Quarter.
Most of the tourism in Hanoi is located in the Old Quarter. Even though we weren’t able to avoid the crowds, it’s still an amazing place to get a taste of Vietnam. One thing that shocked us was how hard it was for us to find cold water in convenience stores. They preferred to keep their beer cold and their water at room temperature. With so many street vendors, restaurants, bars, and shops you can easily get lost in all the small streets. Hidden in one of these streets is the popular restaurant called New Day. Their food is a bit more expensive but we couldn’t deny that it was the best food we’ve had in a while.
Today we woke up feeling like doing something that’s different and unique. Something that we haven’t seen on many attractions lists before. We enjoy discovering new things. We were excited when we discovered the ceramic mosaic street and the street murals.
This is a 6 km street that was handmade on the capital’s 1000th anniversary. It isn’t Halong Bay, Sapa or Ninh Binh, but we couldn’t look past its man-made beauty. This also counted for the Street Murals, here we were a bit more creative in our pictures, but the beautiful backgrounds made it so easy. For lunch, we had to try our first Banh Mi. This is basically just a sandwich with a French influence. They can basically be found everywhere and quickly became our favourite meal for lunch since they are so cheap.
Then we had to, of course, go see the famous Halong Bay. It’s a bit more expensive than all of our other excursions. It rounding up to a total of $52 per person but definitely, money well spent. We decided to do a one day tour as it is cheaper but we wonder if we’re going to regret not staying a night or two.
Most excursions include pickup from the hotel. With sunscreen on, sun hats in hand, and towels over our shoulders we waited excitedly. Because of all the small and narrow streets in the Old Quarter, we had to walk to get to our bus. They try to pick you up as close to your hotel as possible. As we were walking to the bus with the tour guide we had quite a giggle about how pick up at the hotel actually meant pick up where the bus can fit. Halong Bay is about 4 hours outside of Hanoi, making it quite a ride to get there. Luckily for us, we had the best tour guide ever, who made the 4-hour trip seem like only 3 hours.
Halong Bay consist of almost 2000 limestone islands and islets surrounded by emerald green water. Although pick up from the hotel was around 07:00, we made it there just on time for lunch. Rice, morning-glory, fried fish, clams and so much more, a 5-star meal. After lunch, we were excited to get started with the itinerary that they had planned.
Sung Sot cave is one of the biggest caves in Halong Bay and where we were heading to first. As beautiful as it is, it gets very crowded. As always we tried to miss the crowds. It was difficult, but with some patients, we enjoyed the cave with the well-deserved attention it needed. The Chinese tourists definitely take over here in Vietnam.
After the cave, we were greeted with a breath-taking lookout point. We had about a minute to take pictures as we heard the next group of Chinese tourists approaching fast. Enjoying the view too much we completely underestimated the time we had. After barely making it out we were back on the boat and ready for the next activity.
The next thing on the itinerary was an hour of kayaking or taking a bamboo boat. We decided to do the kayaking since we can go wherever we want to and see what we wanted to. Life jackets on and paddles ready we waited for our turn. Getting into the kayak was quite a mission. Have you ever tried to get into a small boat while standing up?
We had to kayak through this small cave in the mountain which opened up into this beautiful paradise which allowed us to experience the limestone tower islands from up-close. We made our way through the opening and the further away we got from the cave, the quieter it got. It was truly magical and an unforgettable experience. We were making our way back when we passed a lot of trash in the water. After ignoring it for a while, I started to pick it up out of the water and kept it in our boat.
On our way out of the cave, we spotted some monkeys. They are always so cute to look at. We were enjoying the show they were putting on for us and then a plastic bag with some bread in it came flying from behind our small kayak. With anger in my eyes, I looked at the trash in my boat and at the plastic bag that was now floating in the water. As wrong as it is to feed wild animals, I don’t mind it but next time it will be a good idea to remove the bread from the damn plastic bag before throwing it to the monkeys.
Find all hotels to stay in Hanoi Vietnam.
Our final stop before sunset was a choice between a hike or a swim. As much as we love hiking we picked the swim instead. The last time we only had a limited amount of time for a hike, we almost died. The water was so cold, but I forced Jon to go in. The day ended with some seasonal fruit and wine while we enjoyed the sunset cruise back.
We were satisfied with our one day tour. They didn’t rush us at all, and we had more than enough time for each activity. At only $52 per person, it was a day well spent but if you have an extra few dollars to spend try a one night stay.
The second trip that we spoiled ourselves with was a day tour to Ninh Binh. Although we left Hanoi around 08:00 we only arrived in Ninh Binh around 11:00. Our first stop was Hoa Lu Ancient Capital. Here we followed in the footsteps of so many others in history including the king. First, we had lunch. Eating strange things is common in most Asian countries, where we had the opportunity to try some goat. Even though we picked the smallest piece we could find we didn’t like it.
After lunch, we took a bicycle out through the mountains. The last time I was on a bicycle, it still had training wheels. It was really beautiful but for some reason, I didn’t want it to stop. Unfortunately, it had to because there were so many things still on the agenda.
Mua Caves was next and for this one, we were quite excited. With almost 2000 stairs laying in front of us and the blazing hot sun, we weren’t too eager. We’ve learned to always carry sunscreen, water, and an umbrella, without these three things, we wouldn’t have almost made it. We were halfway to the top when we realized we actually wanted to be on the other side of the mountain. By this time it was too late for us to turn around. We didn’t have enough time to go to where we wanted to be. We actually didn’t even make it to the top of our side because we ran out of time. It was starting to get a bit annoyed. The whole day felt rushed and we spent a lot of money on this tour.
The next and final activity for the day was Trang An. This was absolutely breathtaking and had to be one of the most beautiful places we have ever seen. Trang An is a spectacular landscape of mountains and limestone caves with wild streams flowing through the caves. We started our bop along the Sao Khe River by getting into the bamboo boat with these two lovely Japanese ladies. We spend two hours just enjoying our surroundings. Passing through many caves which opened up exposing the next most beautiful part of the valley. We had to admit that this is the best part of the whole day.
With many islands and stops around we only stopped at skull island. This island is famous because it was used for shooting a few scenes of the movie King Kong. Walking from one side of the island to the next was really nice. Pass through a beautiful jungle and also the set of the movie. We waited quite a while for our boat to pick us up from the island. Turning it into a fun guessing game as we didn’t think of looking at our boat number… oops! After about 15 minutes, the lady from the boat recognized our annoying umbrella. Probably because she kept on yelling at us in Vietnamese because she can’t see where she was going.
This was an absolutely amazing experience, but if we could redo it, we will pick to stay in Ninh Binh for a few days instead. The whole day was just a little bit rushed and we paid quite a lot of money. If we ever return to Vietnam we will rather stay in Ninh Binh for 2 or 3 nights.
As we, unfortunately, reached our last day here in Hanoi, we checked out of our hotel. Very sad to be leaving as they just made us feel so at home. We booked an overnight sleeping bus, which we were quite excited about as it’s something that we have never done before. The bus was only going to pick us up around 18:00 so for our last activity in Hanoi, we decided to go have lunch next to the railway tracks with some of our dearest friends. This was such an amazing experience. Enjoying some spring rolls, Pho soup, drinks and laughs with our friends. We didn’t get to experience the train passing by, but there’s a train schedule in most of the restaurants.
Overall we really enjoyed our stay in Hanoi, so we are quite eager to see what the rest of Vietnam is like.