Hanoi and Ha Long Bay (3 days)
Having Hanoi as first stop and first impressions of Vietnam was wonderful. It is one of the most vibrant cities in Southeast Asia. Plus it is a perfect hub to explore the wonderful mountains in Sapa as well as starting point for a trip to Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba Island. Unfortunately for this first part of my trip in Vietnam the weather wasn’t the greatest, thus decided to leave Sapa out of my itinerary this time. However, I am coming back for it!
Hanoi (Day 1)
After having a restful night from our 30 hours bus trip from Laos, we had a full day in Hanoi which gave us enough time to explore some of the main spots in town. We decided to join the free walking morning tour that our hostel (Hanoi Backpackers) offered as a way to have a quick introduction to the city. The tour covered some of the main sights including: the St. Joseph Cathedral (catholic neo-Gothic church), the Bach Ma Temple (oldest temple in the city), the Don Xuang Market (biggest market in town), the Hoan Kiem Lake (make sure to ask about the myth) and the Ho Chi Mihn’s Mausoleum.
Besides covering the main landmarks the greatest part of the tour and of walking around Hanoi, is to discover what each lane in the Old Quarter has. Each street is named after the product that is sold on that street. So you are going to walk by streets which have a row of shops of bolts, and the next one of signs, the next one of toys, etc etc and goes like this forever. Add to that the thousands of motorbikes and food stalls and you get a very lively chaotic but charming city.
As a pit spot in our tour we went to try the famous egg coffee (a coffee with a sweet egg white foam on top) in the Giang Cafe. Please make sure you visit this café hidden at the back of a tiny lane. I’m no coffee fan, but this one was absolutely delicious, super sweet but really good. If you really really can’t drink coffee you can also try it with hot chocolate.
After finishing the tour we headed to have lunch in one of the back lanes of the Don Xuang Market that has plenty of street food stalls.
Here we tried the Hanh Hu Tiu, one of my favorite dishes in all Vietnam. It was a type of Pho or noodle soup with tamarind and shredded pork, absolutely delicious.
In the afternoon, after some agency shopping for Ha Long Bay tours for the next day, we headed to the more modern part of town to check the Vietnamese Women’s Museum. I can’t really emphasize enough how worth it this museum is.
It has 3 floors that divide the different galleries: Women in Family, Women in History and Women’s Fashion. The display is really well organized and explained. It really is a great introduction to Vietnamese culture and history, emphasizing the important role women play in Vietnam. On the entrance they had a temporary photo exhibit of a great photographer called Rehahn.
After the museum we wandered around town some more and had an early night as we had to leave early to Ha Long Bay the next day.
Ha Long Bay (Day 2-3)
Before getting into details of Ha Long Bay I want to make a little side note to explain the process and options for choosing a tour for Ha Long Bay. There are different types of tours, with different price ranges. We went for a mid range one called the Golden Bay Cruise. It depends on what you are looking for. First of all you can choose from a day trip tour (which I don’t recommend as the bus ride from Hanoi to the bay is almost 3.5 hours, so off the bat you get 7 hours on a bus packed in a day), 2-day tours (which is the one we picked) or 3 days. Some tours also do a combination between the bay and a stay in Cat Ba Island (this could be a nice option if you have some time to spend on Cat Ba Island). Besides the time difference there is a range of options regarding price/ comfort. We didn’t get the greatest reviews on the cheapest options, thus decided to go for a midrange cruise for 2 nights which was great price-quality relation (around 70 USD for 2 nights with all inclusive). Finally, there are also themed tours, aka party cruises. So really you have a wide range of options, it all depends on what you are looking for and your budget. Another option, which was recommended to me by a lot of travelers, was to check out Bai Tu Long Bay as an alternative for Ha Long Bay (it is farther away, which means you might need more time).
So we got really lucky that day with the weather and had a wonderful sunny day for our tour. Once you arrive to Halong City, you will transfer to the cruise and have lunch on the boat. After lunch you will be taken to visit the Sung Sot Cave and kayaking through the bay. On the transfer to the cave you will already start to be amazed by the imposing limestone formations on your way.
It reminded me a little of El Nido in The Philippines, but still was very unique. My favorite part of the day was the kayaking, especially since we got an amazing sunset that day.
After the kayaking adventure you will return to the cruise for dinner and drinks.
The next morning you will visit a pearl farm and some fishing villages. Then you are back in the cruise where you can get a quick cooking class and just relax the rest of the ride back to the marina on the deck while you get the infinite amazing views.
My overall impression of Halong Bay was positive. I was a little scared it was not going to satisfy me (I think I have mentioned, I am not a fan of all inclusive tours). However, kayaking surrounded by that landscape was absolutely worth it. I am sure with more time there are other ways to enjoy the bay, but its status as Unesco World Heritage Site also makes it harder to do a solo trip as there are some rules to follow.
Hanoi (Day 3)
On our way back from Halong Bay we had the rest of the afternoon/night to breather and enjoy the chaos of Hanoi one more time. This time we stayed in a different hostel, which was really close to the famous Beer Street (Ta Hien St). As the nickname says it, it is a street full of bars and restaurants with outdoor sitting in the classic small stools and plastic tables you see everywhere on Vietnam.
Although you will see a lot of backpackers, it is also a place for locals, which makes it a great place to enjoy a night out. On our final morning before catching out flight to Hue that afternoon we strolled more around the Old Quarter, did some North Face shopping (all around Vietnam you will find shops of some famous western brands like North Face which are produced there, thus there are outlet type shops all around town, where you can buy super cheap amazing quality jackets, bags, etc.) and enjoyed the city.
Hanoi definitely stuck with me as one of my favorite cities in Southeast Asia.
Hue (1 day)
Although we had very bad luck with the weather in Hue, it was still worth having one full day to see the famous citadel. Hue is a World Heritage Site that still has some of the most amazing palaces, pagodas and temples of the great Nguyen Empire.
Despite the rain, we got our rain ponchos and ventured to walk around the main spots in the citadel.
Once you cross the river, you will see the citadel surrounded by a big moat. Inside the walls you can find the Imperial Enclosure, a smaller compound inside the citadel.
Here is where most of the popular sites are located. Although the rain did not brought out the best side of Hue, you could see it is was an amazing place back in the time.
The ticket you pay to enter the imperial enclosure also includes some of the tombs outside of the city. We decided not to go because the weather was really not on our side.
However, on the afternoon we walked back to the modern part of the city and found a really cute street. Pham Ngu Lao has very nice cafes, restaurants and bars lined up. So make sure you take a break there and enjoy a hot cup of coffee or a nice cocktail.
Our original plan was to ride a motorbike from Hue to Hoi An, which is highly recommended, however we didn’t do it because of the rain and just took the bus to Hoi An on the next day.
Hoi An (5 days)
Again rain kept following us down south, however, Hoi An is one of those cities that would be charming under the sun, rain or fog. All the streets have amazing colorful lanterns, cute cafes, restaurants, street vendors and shops.
Moreover the food in Hoi An is amazing! Originally we were going to stay less days here, however as another friend was joining us we decided to extend our stay so she could also get to see Hoi An. Although by the end we knew the entire town by heart, it was the perfect place to stay put for a couple of days and see it slowly by parts with no hurry. Moreover, the rain really didn’t stop for almost all the time we were there, which made us stay in more than we usually would.
Just a small warning for those travelling in the rainy season, Hoi An gets flooded very often as the river overflows when it rains too much, so prepare to go around town in small canoes if this happens! We saw some streets a little flooded but a couple of weeks after we left it was flooded up to the top.
On our first day we decided to just walk around town and embrace the beauty of this town. Since we had arrived late, we only had a couple of hours to stroll. At night we went to the night market, which is located on the other side of the river, across from the footbridge. This is where you will find the amazing lantern shops, believe me you want to buy them all!
For dinner we decided to go to this vegetarian restaurant and try some of the local dishes including the famous Cau Lau and the White Roses.
Minh Hien, is a cute little restaurant surrounded by walls of books and plants. Moreover, the food was absolutely amazing. I am not a vegetarian myself, but I have to say the food was one of the best in Hoi An.
After a good night sleep on our second day we rented bikes and decided to head to the closest beach in town, An Bang.
We knew we were not going to have a full on beach day, but still it was nice to go and have a nice walk by the sea. I am sure it is great with some sunshine!
From there we rode our bike to Cua Dai, another beach town where we had some lunch. On the afternoon we got lost through the rice fields just outside Hoi An and then headed towards this little town called Thanh Ha, or also known as the pottery village.
The village itself is very touristic, but it is nice to walk through the small street and workshops and see the potters work.
From point to point, the distance was about 4km, so don’t worry if you are not super fit, it is completely doable and a really nice stroll (we enjoyed it even in the rain).
After our bike day, back in Hoi An we headed to check some of the tailoring shops as we knew we needed to get things done with a couple of days to spare before we left town. We found the cutest ladies in a shop inside the clothing market called the Sewing Bee Tailor. I can really recommend them, they are not only very professional and would remake your clothes until you are completely satisfied, but also are the nicest people ever. My friend and I got tailored bikinis and dresses, and they really did a great job!
At night we had dinner at Cham Cham restaurant by the river. Here we tried to roll our own spring rolls for the first time. After dinner we went for drinks at Q Bar a very nice and glam cocktail bar. And from one cocktail to another we ended up having a good night out, heading to Dive Bar (which was just besides Q bar), to Tiger Tiger and closing the night in Why Not? with some dancing. Definitely Hoi An has a decent night live to enjoy.
Our third day was definitely a slow, hangover day. Another of my friends was arriving that afternoon so we didn’t really do much that morning other than change hostels, as we were moving into a three bed private room in a new place. And I have to stop here a minute a put a good word for this guesthouse. If you are traveling in a group and can share a bedroom Quynh Chau Homestay is really amazing. It has hotel like rooms for a price of a hostel. And the family who runs is really amazing, so check it out if you can.
After some tailor fitting we just had dinner and deserts in one of the cute cafes in town.
A special recommendation I have in terms of cafes in town is to check the Cocobox café for some amazing smoothies and coffee. Their sister café in town the Hoi An Roastery is also a good spot to chill and have some dessert and tea or coffee.
With my new friend in town we decided to dedicate that day to some proper sightseeing of the historical World Heritage Sites in Hoi An. With one ticket you get a choice of 5 heritage sites to visit.
Among them we checked the Japanese Covered Bridge (an old bridge with Japanese design), the Fujian Chinese Assembly Hall or Temple for Tianhou, Tan Ky House (one of the oldest houses in town with both Chinese and Japanese influences) and the Quan Cong Temple (Confucian temple). All of them are very beautiful and well preserved, showing both the Chinese and Japanese legacy.
That day we went for some street food in the central market, which was great as all the food in Vietnam is.
In the late afternoon we decided to check a local photograph exhibition. It was the same photographer that had his pictures in the Women’s Museum in Hanoi: Rehahn. Check his work on Vietnam, it is really amazing!
That night we had dinner in one of the top restaurants in Ha Noi, the Cargo Club. It has a great rooftop terrace with a lovely view of the river and the food is great. It is part of Ms. Vy Group of restaurants. Ms. Vy is one of the most famous Vietnamese chefs who owns a couple of restaurants in town. She also leads a cooking school, which was our plan for next day.
For our final day in Hoi An we decided to join Ms. Vy cooking school. It starts early in the morning around 7:30 with a boat trip to the local fish and vegetable market.
The tour through the market is great to identify some of the local ingredients that you will be using later in the kitchen.
After the tour you will visit Vy’s Market Restaurant, which is a small market that has different stations with different types of Vietnamese food.
Here you get to taste each one of them, including the “Weird Food” section. Don’t get scared all of it was good! It’s all about the seasonings.
Finally, after getting a real and close introduction to all the Vietnamese flavors you will have a two-hour hands-on cooking lesson. I really enjoyed the whole experience and can recommend it.
It is very well organized and you really do get closer to Vietnamese culinary culture. After having lunch (what we had cooked), we had to head to get our bags and to catch our taxi to the Danang airport to catch our flight to Ho Chi Minh City.