Dates: October 27 – November 15
Main Language of Country: Vietnam
Transportation Used: Sleeper Bus, Motorbike Taxi, Ferry, Taxi, Cruise Boat, Moped
Currency: Vietnamese Dong (VND)
Accommodation: Hostels and Guesthouses
Number of Photos Taken: 3431
Favorite Place: Hoi An
Average Cost of a Full Meal: 2 – 8 Canadian Dollars
Average Cost of a Night per Person: $7 – $15
Best Foods Eaten: Bahn My, Pho, Stuffed Tofu, Bun Bo Nam Bo
Tap Water Drinkable: No (But we brushed our teeth with it)
Type of Plug-Ins: American 2 or 3 prong
Capital City of Vietnam: Hanoi
Population of Vietnam: 93 Million
The Complete Guide to Travelling Vietnam
Everything you need to know about places to see, things to do, where to stay, what to eat.
Vietnam is an incredible country to travel to and should be on the top of your list if you are planning a trip to South East Asia. We spent some time in both Thailand and Myanmar before heading to Vietnam, and where Myanmar felt really untouched and Thailand felt really busy and touristy, I think Vietnam sat perfectly in the middle.
The travellers route through Vietnam usually involves either travelling the country North to South from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, or the reverse, from South to North. This is because the country is super long and narrow and with a major city at either end, it allows you to see the entire country without having to back track at all.
Even though we had nearly three weeks in Vietnam, we still had to skip a few places that we wished we could have seen. I mention all of these places throughout the trip report, so even though I don’t have first hand experience in these places, I’ll pass along any information I have so that you can research them further yourself if needed. If you do plan to visit Vietnam, however, you can see most of the country in 15 or 16 days, but I would recommend taking longer. Having more like 3 to 4 weeks would give you enough time to explore the northern area of the country a bit more in depth and get to some of the places that we had to miss along the way.
Our itinerary through Vietnam went like this:
Ho Chi Minh City: 2 days
Nah Trang: 1 day
Hoi An: 4 days
Ninh Binh: 3 days
Sapa: 3 days
Cat Ba Island: 2 days
Hanoi: 3 days
Things You Need to Know Before Entering Vietnam:
This is probably an important subject to talk about as there are some things that you need to do before entering Vietnam, so I thought this might be a good place to start.
You will need to apply for a visitors visa before you enter Vietnam. Here is the website that we used to apply and find out what was required. We applied for something called a visa upon arrival.
It cost us $17.00 US and took around 2 days for our approval letter to be sent to us. Make sure to put in accurate dates for your arrival, as your one or three months (depending on which visa you apply for) start based on the date on your application, even if you arrive in the country later than the expected date that you listed. So if you apply for a 1 month visa starting July 1st, but actually end up arriving July 14th, you still only have until August 1st before you have to leave.
The three things that you need to have with you when you arrive in Vietnam are your approval letter, $25 USD, and 2 passport photos (4x6cm). You could get away without passport photos as they can do them in the airport for a fee, and even your approval letter is sent electronically to the airport customs. The $25 USD is a bit trickier as there are no ATM’s until you get through customs (this is for the Ho Chi Minh airport) and it seemed like they didn’t accept cards.
So, if you had none of those things, you could probably figure something out or make something work, but we had all of them so getting through customs was a breeze but we saw many people struggling and waiting a long time because they were missing something.
How to Get Around Vietnam:
Even though Vietnam looks quite narrow and small, it is a long distance between most places and it would take over 30 hours driving straight from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi. Because of this, overnight busses are the most popular and economical way to get across major distances.
The most common itinerary in Vietnam is to travel from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi or the other way around. To do so, you can get an open bus ticket. We got ours through the hostel in Ho Chi Minh and it cost around $58 each. You choose which cities you want to stop in along the way then get a booklet filled with tickets between each place and the cost changes a bit depending where you want to stop. Our itinerary was Ho Chi Minh to Nah Trang to Hoi An to Hue/Dong Son to Ninh Binh to Hanoi. The tickets are then good for any date so the day before you leave for the next place you contact the company (either by going to the office or through the place that you’re staying) and they reserve a seat for you. This seems to be the most cost effective and common way to travel across the country.
TIP: We did, however, get stuck a few times with only one or two options for departure times which didn’t quite work for us. For one of our shorter legs, we actually had to book with another company to get a time that worked for our schedule which defeated the purpose of having the open bus ticket. Because of this, I might be more inclined to just book tickets one by one as we went through the country to have the freedom of going with whichever bus company suits you best instead of being locked in with one. It would be worthwhile checking the costs anyways.
Flying within the country is also an option and, while it’s more expensive than taking a bus, it definitely saves some time and energy.
Within different cities and towns, there are usually several different options for getting around. In typical fashion of South East Asia, renting scooters or mopeds is quite popular, as well as bicycles, walking, and taxis.
Vietnamese Words or Dishes to Know:
You slowly start to pick up on different words throughout your time in the country, but I thought I would start you off with a quick list to give you a headstart.
Bahn My: Awesome Vietnamese Subway Sandwiches
Bia Hoi: Cheap, cheap fresh beer sold on the street
Bahn Xeo: Rice pancakes
Pho: Vietnamese noodle soup
Bun Bo Nam Bo: Beef Noodle Dish
Dau Hu Nhoi Thit: Meat Stuffed Tofu
Cha Ca: Grilled fish
Xin Chao: Hello
Cam On: Thank You (Sounds like Come On)
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon): (October 27 – 28)
I’ve never been a huge fan of cities but with travelling, you can’t really avoid them as your first stop in any given country is usually a fairly large city. In our case, visiting Vietnam began with the city of Ho Chi Minh.
Now, I wasn’t expecting much from Ho Chi Minh as everyone that we talked to insisted that we spend as little time there as possible. I’ll admit that it wasn’t my favourite destination but I’ve definitely been in worse cities and Ho Chi Minh contained far more charm and entertainment than I had expected.
Where to Stay in Ho Chi Minh:
We stayed at the Himalayan Phoenix in Ho Chi Minh for around $6.00 or $7.00 per night. I can’t compare it to anything else in the city as it’s all that we saw, but the location was great and the staff were super friendly and helpful. There is a ton of accommodation in Ho Chi Minh so you should have no problem finding something that suits you. Make sure to stay in District 1 and near the Ben Tanh market as it seems to be the centre of everything that you’ll want to visit.
We usually use Hostel World to book our places to stay, but we found that Agoda and Booking.com worked a bit better for us through Asia. Booking.com was especially useful as it doesn’t require a deposit which things a bit simpler and cleaner to book as you pay the full amount when you arrive at your place. You can also check Airbnb throughout all of Vietnam as well.
Just a heads up as well, some of the links to accommodation are affiliate links which means that if you use them to book your stay, a small amount goes back to me, although it doesn’t cost you anything extra. So if you end up using them, thanks so much!
How to Get Around Ho Chi Minh:
You walk everywhere and then when you need to go further you can take a taxi or uber or grab or bus.
TIP: If you can avoid getting a taxi from the airport you should do so. Your hostel may be able to provide directions to it using the local bus route. We planned on taking the bus and knew which number to get on and where to get off, but when we were buying tickets for it, there was a taxi driver standing next to it that said he could drive us there for only 3000 VND more. This sounded great and would avoid us having to search around for the hostel in the night. When we got loaded up and ready to go, however, he informed us that there was a fee to be able to leave the airport which was about 3 times the cost of the ride. There was some other shady stuff that followed, then we got frustrated, and ended up taking the bus anyways. So if you need to, take a taxi, but there might be an extra fee of 150.000 on top of the fee that they tell you originally.
If you are going to catch a taxi, make sure that it is either Mailinh (with the bright green vehicles) or Vinasun (white with green and red stripes). They are the biggest companies and are the most honest and professional. You can also book through your hostel or wherever you’re staying.
Where to Eat in Ho Chi Minh:
There are tons of cafes and restaurants throughout Ho Chi Minh, and we didn’t eat at any that were particularly good that I would recommend. So I would recommend wandering around and finding a place when you get hungry, otherwise check out the Trip Advisor search for Ho Chi Minh which never leads you wrong.
For good, cheap food, however, we ate in the evenings at a market near Ben Thanh which was good.
Also check out this post on Legal Nomads about where to eat in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon).
Things to do in Ho Chi Minh:
Some of our favourite things to do in Ho Chi Minh City were:
Dodge the Traffic:
Have you ever heard stories about far away places and thought “well that can’t really be true.” That’s what I always thought when I heard people say, “did you know that in some places, people just drive on the sidewalks as well as the road?” Well, this proved itself to be true as soon as we arrived in Ho Chi Minh. The instant that we left the airport on a bus, our first reaction was, “Holy $&@#, look at the traffic!!”
Every street and intersection is a sea of heads and helmets from all of the people riding motorbikes. And sprinkled throughout this sea of motorbikes are the occasional islands of cars, busses, trucks and bikes. It is absolute mayhem. From every direction you can hear the hum of engines and the honking of horns, and everyone is just inches from each other fighting their way forward or cutting each other off. It’s not the kind of commuting for the claustrophobic.
Because the roads are full to the brim, people also ride on the sidewalk to jump ahead in the queue or to cut a corner. This means that the once safe haven of the sidewalk is no longer so. There were many times that we would be walking down the sidewalk and a motorbike would go flying past us from behind with no warning. Other times, we got honked at because we were walking side-by-side on the sidewalk and a bike couldn’t get by. It was pure crazy business!
Other rules like one way traffic, stop lights, and driving on a certain side of the road also don’t apply. The only rule is that anything goes and the bigger vehicle wins.
TIP: When you’re crossing the road, crosswalks don’t really apply. You have to sometimes just step out into the traffic and slowly walk across like Frogger. Don’t get fooled by one way traffic either, always look both ways! Also, red and green lights are only a suggestion so even if you have a green walk sign or if oncoming traffic has a red light, still cross cautiously.
When we were leaving Ho Chi Minh, we had to get to the bus station and our hostel arranged for a motorbike to pick us up. This meant that we had to face our fears and become part of this angry sea of traffic that we had been trying to avoid. There were a few times during the ride that I remember simply closing my eyes as the driver made some fairly dubious high speed maneuvers.
This chaos makes getting from one point to another feel like a huge success and even though it can be a bit stressful and frustrating at times, it adds to the adventure and experience!
See the Sights Within the City:
There aren’t a ton of specific sights to see within the city itself, and we walked around to all of them in the one day that we had in the city. The hostel or hotel that you stay at will likely recommend the same ones, but the places that we walked to were:
Ong Bon Pagoda: Closed when we visited, but it looked cool in pictures.
Cathedral of Notre Dame: Don’t worry, I didn’t accidentally confuse this one with Paris or somewhere in Europe. There is actually a Cathedral of Notre Dame in Ho Chi Minh. It was closed for construction but we were still able to see it from the outside and it’s a pretty cool building. There are some cool photos that people have taken from some of the higher buildings surrounding the cathedral too.
Central Post Office: Right beside the Cathedral of Notre Dame is the central post office.
War Remnants Museum: I’ve never been a big one for museums, but the war remnants museum is definitely worth a visit. It costs about 20,000 VND each to get in. It makes you realize the effect that the Vietnamese War (or American War as it’s known in Vietnam) had on the country. Visiting the museum made all of the stories and things that I knew about the war seem much more real and put it into perspective.
Opera House: The opera house, or municipal theatre, is a french colonial building in the middle of the city. It’s not super remarkable to see by itself but it might be cool to catch a show or performance there if you can time it right.
City Hall (Parliament Building): Nearby the opera house is city hall.
Walking Street: Directly in front of the city hall, and nearby the opera house is a long, wide, walking street. The sides are filled with cafes, shopping, and restaurants. It’s a good place to stop for cold drink or something to eat. My favourite was an entire building the size of an apartment building that was filled with different tea shops and cafes.
People’s Independence Palace: We just checked out the palace from the outside, but you can also pay a small entrance fee to check out the grounds and inside as well.
Play the “Can they Carry” Game:
This was one of Hilary and I’s favourite games. After a few minutes in Vietnam you realize that motorbikes are everywhere and are the main mode of transport. Because of this, they carry any and everything on them in all sorts of interesting and slightly frightening ways. Pretty soon it gets you thinking about what sort of stuff they could try to strap to those suckers and it has you on the lookout for the next craziest thing.
So the game goes like this. Each person names something crazy that you might see them carrying on a bike and whoever spots theirs first wins. I’ll give you a hint, 50” flat screen tvs, 50+ tubes and tires, and entire patio set, a full sized door, 30 foot lengths of rebar, a roll of carpet, any assortment of pigs or chickens, and a stack of bicycles are all great guesses.
Shop at the Ben Thanh Market:
A good place to do some shopping is the Ben Thanh Market. It’s filled with stalls and shops and in the evening there is street food and a night market around the perimeter of the building.
TIP: Our hostel wonder recommended that we try the Banh Xeo, sort of like a rice pancake, from the food stalls of the night market. They are really good, but I realized after that the lettuce that is served with them is meant to be like a taco shell and you cut the pancake and put it within the lettuce. Now you don’t have to make the same mistake I did!
Go to the top of the Bitexco Tower:
My favourite thing to do in a city is get up to the top of a tall building which is easy to do in Ho Chi Minh. The Bitexco tower is one of the tallest in the city and is walking distance from all of the other places that I’ve mentioned above. Just off of one of the main walking streets you can go into a mall at the base of the tower. At the top of the first escalator is a small reception where you can ask to go to the top of the tower.
On the 50th floor is a cafe, the 51st is fine dining and the 52nd is a bar. They are all free to enter but you need to buy a drink or something once you get there. We decided that the cafe would likely be the cheapest so we went there. Once there, they give you an exorbitantly priced menu where we each chose to get a can of coke because it was the cheapest at 90.000 VND. The view is absolutely worth it, however, and is more than worth the price of an overpriced drink each.
Walk Down Bui Vien Street at Night:
Bui Vien street in Ho Chi Minh is lined on either side with bars, clubs, and restaurants. It is aimed at the backpacker partying kind of crowd which Hilary and I don’t really fit into, but it’s a fun street to wander around and check out and grab a drink.
It’s quite narrow and fills up with a sea of people. On either side of the street, bars and clubs try to compete with each other by playing louder music then each other. So the further that you get down the street, the cacophony of bass and shouting slowly crescendos into a deafening wall of sound. But still, it’s fun to wander around the street if nothing more that to see some of the terrible dance moves executed by some white guys.
Other Things to do in Ho Chi Minh:
We only had one full day in Ho Chi Minh, so our sightseeing was fairly minimal. With more time, however, you could explore south of the city or do some day trips outside of the city. Some places to consider would be :
- Mekong Delta
- Cu Chi Tunnels
- Dalat (Could be a good next stop after Ho Chi Minh)
- Pongour Waterfall (in Dalat)
- Phu Quoc (For the best beaches in Thailand, head to Phu Quoc from Ho Chi Minh)
Nah Trang: (October 29)
Our next stop after Ho Chi Minh was to the beach resort town of Nah Trang. We hopped on a night bus from Ho Chi Minh which left at 9PM and arrived in Nah Trang at 6AM. For some reason I couldn’t fall asleep on the bus, so with only a few hours of sleep, we arrived in Nah Trang exhausted, but excited to be out of the busy city.
TIP: If you have a bit more time than we did, you can visit Dalat between Ho Chi Minh and Nah Trang. We decided to cut it out of the itinerary to spend a bit more time in the north of the country.
Really quickly, I’ll tell you a bit about the sleeper busses of Vietnam. Every country in South East Asia seems to have their own sleeper bus situation and Vietnam is likely one of the best. Each seat is like a fully reclined chair with two levels like bunk beds. Then at the back is a bench area with 4 or 5 of these directly beside each other. Either way, they’re quite comfortable and make the 10 or 12 hour bus rides quite easy. Most even have some sort of wifi on board. The best seats for sleeping seem to be the bottom ones so that when the lights on the ceiling turn on they’re not directly in your face. Some have assigned seats but if not, the individual seats (not the ones at the very back) are the best (unless the bus isn’t full and you have the whole area to yourself).
Anyways, onto Nah Trang. So we arrived in a sleep deprived haze and got off the bus in a confused daze wondering where the hell we were. We had expected that we would be dropped off at some sort of bus station, but of course, that wouldn’t be the case. So as we stepped off the bus and picked up our bags off of the curb, the bus pulled away with no words of farewell or instruction as to where we were. With our minds working very slowly, we didn’t know what to do except walk to the end of the street where we could see the sun slowly starting to rise over the ocean. We found a place to sit on a bench and set down our bags and watched the colour slowly appear on the horizon.
Meanwhile, all along the beachfront, people were swimming, exercising, and doing all sorts of funny stretching maneuvers. The stretching and exercising was definitely the highlight of the show and everyone seemed to have their own special brand.
Some people stuck to a plain arm movement, some had a bit of body twisting action, some punched the air in front of them and others had a full body things going on that can only be described as yoga infused with hip-hop. My personal favourite was a man who had pulled over on his moped and parked it on the sidewalk, then proceeded to walk around a tree in circles in a strange type of march with his hips and gut thrust forward, his chin tucked into his chest, and his arms swinging aggressively beside him. All with his helmet and visor still on!! After a few minutes of this, he hopped back on his bike and headed off to take on the rest of his day. Morning exercise…check!
After the morning performance on the beach we finally tracked down the bus station where we could leave our bags for the day before we caught our bus out later that afternoon, we found a place to get a quick breakfast, and we put a healthy serving of matcha tea down the hatch to combat the sleep depravity. And finally, it was time to see some of Nah Trang.
Where to Eat in Nah Trang:
When we arrived in Nah Trang, we were in desperate need of some breakfast after a sleepless night. We grabbed breakfast at a restaurant that I forgot to get the name of with a really friendly owner who chatted with us through our entire meal. He seemed to be relieved that we weren’t Russian for some reason.
For our other meals during the day, we ended up eating at the food court at the Nah Trang Centre which had a wide range of food options which ended up being quite good.
If you want something a bit authentic, and want to avoid wandering around aimlessly for a long time trying to find a restaurant, check out the Nah Trang Tripadvisor page which is always a good place to start.
Things to Do in Nah Trang:
Here are some of the things that we did in Nah Trang:
Catch a Sunrise on the Beach:
I already mentioned it above, but thought I’d officially add it to the list. From the beach you get a great view east of the sunrise over the horizon. Because there is nothing blocking the view you get a lot of nice early colours when the sun is low and there are a few nice hills and islands in the distance to either side. The highlight, however, is taking in the show of the morning exercises and stretching that occur up and down the beachfront.
Watch a Movie at the Cinema:
Alright, so I’ve never actually watched a movie or film in a theatre before while travelling in a foreign country so this was a first for us in Nah Trang. There is a mall right along the beachfront and we wandered in during the heat of the day in search of some AC and a washroom. Little did we know, there was a cinema and it was showing Blade Runner 2049 later in the afternoon.
With our exhaustion levels peaking and our interest in Nah Trang dwindling (there really isn’t much to see), we figured we would get some tickets. Each ticket cost 30.000 VND, around $2, and it was even in English (with Vietnamese subtitles). What a win!!
Take in the Russian Influence:
It’s not very exciting, but nothing in Nah Trang really is, but be sure to notice all of the Russian influences in the town. Some of the vehicles, buildings, and a lot of the people are decidedly Russian. For some reason, a lot of Russians also visit Nah Trang so be warned, you will be sure to see a lot of enormous hairy men strutting up and down the beach in speedos a size or two too small.
Spend the Day at Vinpearl Theme Park:
The obvious highlight of Nah Trang is the Vinpearl theme park resort on the island. It has water slides, a castle, places to eat, beaches, and a Ferris wheel. It even has an over sea cable car to transport you from the mainland. Since we only had around half a day in Nah Trang and didn’t really feel like committing 800.000 VND so we decided to skip it.
Other Things to Do in Nah Trang:
You can also get to some ruins, waterfalls, and pagodas from Nah Trang that are supposed to be not bad so if you’re there for a little while you could look into those.
Hoi An: (October 30- November 3)
Hoi An might have made it to the top of my list for my favourite towns or cities around the world. It’s an old merchant trading town and most of sights around the city reflect this.
We had heard from everyone that we talked to about Vietnam that Hoi An was one of the best places in the city (and in SE Asia in general) so we made sure to give ourselves enough time there and the 5 days ended up being perfect.
Where to Stay in Hoi An:
We stayed in the Rice Flower Guesthouse around 3 km’s out of town and really liked it. The room was great and the owners were super helpful. The only issue is that is was a 10 or 15 minute bike ride into the old town of Hoi An, which isn’t much by itself but it gets old quickly doing it several times every day.
You might be better having a look to see if you can get something closer to town, even if it costs a bit more.
We usually use Hostel World to book our places to stay, but we found that Agoda and Booking.com worked a bit better for us through Asia. Booking.com was especially useful as it doesn’t require a deposit which things a bit simpler and cleaner to book as you pay the full amount when you arrive at your place. You can also check Airbnb throughout all of Vietnam as well.
Just a heads up as well, some of the links to accommodation are affiliate links which means that if you use them to book your stay, a small amount goes back to me, although it doesn’t cost you anything extra. So if you end up using them, thanks so much!
Where to Eat in Hoi An:
For breakfast, we typically ate at our guesthouse which had cheap options available. But one morning we had breakfast at What Else cafe, which ended up being super awesome.
Throughout the day, we typically grabbed something like Bahn Mi (like a Vietnamese sub sandwich) from either Madam Kahn – The Bahn Mi Queen or Phi Bahn Mi.
And for dinners we would head to places like Babas (for the best Indian food ever!) and Cafe 41 for local things to eat like White Rose. We headed to a few others but they weren’t anything worth recommending. I would check out Trip Advisor for specific recommendations, or just wander around and follow your nose.
Make sure to try White Rose, Bahn Mi, Quang Noodles, Com Ga (Hoi An Chicken Rice), Cao Lau (noodles in pork broth).
Check out this post which has some good ideas for food that I wish I had found before we went to Hoi An.
How to Get Around Hoi An:
The nice thing about Hoi An is that everything in town is easy to explore by foot. We were a few kilometers from the centre of the Ancient Town so we took bikes from our homestay and rode them into town. We would then find park and lock them near the “Bridge of Lights” in the middle of town and check on them from time to time throughout the day (there are bicycle parking spots where you are charged to store them there but we didn’t bother). From there we wandered around town completely on foot.
We also used these bikes to get to beaches and some of the surrounding villages which I mention in more detail below.
To get to places further out of Hoi An, such as My Son Temple or if you want to explore all of the surrounding villages, you’re best bet is to rent a motorbike or scooter, or take a taxi.
Things to Do in Hoi An:
Before arriving in Hoi An, we had done a bit of research and asked lots of people about things to see in the city and continually heard that there aren’t a ton of must see sights or places to see, but instead, your time is best spent exploring the city and just walking around. This sounded a bit crazy at first as we were sure that several days exploring a small town would get old fast but it didn’t at all.
Here are the things that we got up to in and around Hoi An:
Check out the Beach:
A few kilometres from the centre of Hoi An is a long stretch of beach. I’ve never been a big fan of the beach myself, but we spent a few hours there one day. We had arrived on an overnight bus from Trang An and had barely slept, but when we arrived at our home stay, we had to wait several hours before checking in so heading to the beach seemed like the most logical thing to do.
On the day that we were there, however, it was quite windy and rainy, which aren’t the ideal conditions for beaching. We also weren’t super impressed with the beach although it did have everything that you would expect. Nice white sand, waves and water, as well as chairs and umbrellas for a small cost. There are several sections of the beach and we went to Hidden Beach after hearing that it was the best and quietest.
Catch a Full Moon Lantern Festival:
We were lucky as one of our last days in Hoi An was November 2nd which was a full moon festival. We were expecting a lot of great things but it turned out that not much was different from the regular nights before except that it was busier and people were selling lots of little paper boats with candles in them that tourists set off down the river. We decided to save our money and also keep one less piece of garbage from being set off into the river, but it was cool to see the river filled with the little candles amidst the boats rowing around with lanterns hanging from their bows.
TIP: On full moon nights, you’re not allowed to have bicycles or motorbikes within the few streets around the town centre after 3PM. We had borrowed bikes from our hostel and left them locked up near the Japanese Bridge earlier in the day and when we checked on them later on we had a small panic when we found that they were missing. We eventually found out that the Police collect any bikes left in the town centre and the owners have to phone to get them back the next day. If this happens to you, your hostel or homestay has to get them because they need to show proof that they own them. A few people told us that they could show us where our bikes had been moved to but we would need to pay them…don’t fall for it.
Lots of people also go for boat rides along the river on the full moon evenings so that might be something to look into.
Go Cafe Hopping:
A few of our days in Hoi An were accompanied with heavy rain. We visited at the end of October which was the start of typhoon season and we got a glimpse of what this meant. One day was so rainy that the streets actually began to flood.
Shops were closed and the river was overflowing its banks so that some of the bridges were almost underwater, a few streets along the waterfront were under a few feet of water, and outside of the front gate of our homestay was knee deep with water. In fact, several days after we left, the town was completely flooded and evacuated with three or four feet of water in the buildings and through the streets.
TIP: They actually have wifi all throughout the downtown area of Hoi An. We didn’t check how far it actually reached but it comes in handy from time to time.
All of this rain made it a great few days for hopping between cafes and restaurants and bars. Besides a few of the more expensive places, it’s usually really cheap to grab a coffee or tea and some things to eat so it’s a super inexpensive way to spend a day. We spent time reading, writing, journaling and chatting.
My favourite place cafe was called the Reaching Out Teahouse whose employees all had some sort of hearing impairment or disability so all communication was done by writing or signing. This meant that the place was super quiet and peaceful. Their motto was “Enjoy the Silence” which sounds pretty good to an introvert like me.
Besides that, we liked the Dive Bar (they had cheap shisha which was nice), Before and Now, and you can check out Rosies, and What Else cafes as well. If you’re into coffee, check out the many roasteries too!
Get Some Clothing Tailored:
Hoi An is famous for its tailors, so if you need some clothes made, it might be the place to do it. It’s a cool experience, so even getting one or two things made might be worth it. Some people go in knowing exactly what they want from the material, the colour, and the design. But you can also walk in and go through catalogues and photos and pick colours and material by sight and feel when you arrive.
TIP: We went to the Boa Diep Tailor shop and they were really good. Make sure to look up how much typical things should cost so that you can go in with an idea of what you want to pay. The prices always start high and take some bargaining.
Hilary and I had a shirt made as a gift for someone and it was very simple and easy. It cost around $30 which we found out was a bit more than we should have payed, but we went back 3 times until they were happy with the fit and had all of the pockets and such were where they needed to be, so you definitely get great service.
Also make sure that you have a day or two to sort everything out as it takes 24 hours to make the clothing, but then some extra time to sort out the adjustments and changes that need to be made.
As you wander around different parts of Hoi An, like the markets and side alleys, you’ll likely see the rooms filled with sewing machines and people working. The shops are just fronts where you pick out materials and get measured, then the clothing is actually made elsewhere.
Explore the Surrounding Villages:
There are a couple of small villages around Hoi An that you can explore in a day or afternoon. It’s probably best to rent a scooter to do this, but we didn’t bother and only went around on bicycles. You can go to a coconut village, vegetable village, carpentry village, silk weaving village and a pottery village.
We only made it to the vegetable village as we weren’t super interested in checking out the others, but it was quite cool. We wandered around a plot of vegetables in the centre of a bunch of houses and ate at a place nearby called Minty Garden that served really fresh food from the garden.
Explore the Lantern Lit Streets at Night:
The most magical part of Hoi An is exploring the lantern lit streets at night. The streets are narrow with lanterns strung across them and near the river the lights dance and reflect on the surface of the water.
TIP: Things tend to quiet down around town quite early in Hoi An and around 9PM the lanterns begin to get turned off.
My absolute favourite street is called Nguyen Thi Minh Khai which is just on the west side of the Japanese bridge or Nguyen Thai Hoc street just off of the waterfront.
Explore the Night Market and Alleys:
Now neither of these recommendations are spectacular, but I have something with narrow alleys, so I had to add it in here. They always seem so mysterious and secretive and there are lots of them in Hoi An. Most are a bit of a let down, but you can use them to shortcut across areas, you can see a more local side of Hoi An as these are often access ways to people homes, and every now and then you’ll find a cool little coffee shop or restaurant down them.
There is also an area on the south side of the river where there is a night market in the evening. It’s not super awesome but fun to walk around looking for souvenirs. The stands where they make and sell the lanterns are a good photo opportunity if nothing else.
Other Things to Do in Hoi An;
My Son Temple: It’s not far to My Son Temple from the town and you can motorbike there yourself or go on a tour. We heard that it’s not really worth the visit and that there are many others throughout SE Asia that are much cooler and much less busy.
Sights in Hoi An: Within the town centre of Hoi An you can buy a ticket that lets you go into a bunch of museums, traditional houses, temples and such. You can’t go into all of them on one ticket but you can pick and choose a few. We decided to skip it though as we weren’t that interested. Here are some of the sights and what is included on the tickets.
We didn’t actually have time to make it to Phong Nha, but I had to mention it because it looks amazing. It’s located just North of Hue and is a stop on the main bus route through Vietnam so it’s easy to access.
It’s a national park that is mostly known for its many caves, but there are lots of other things to see and do here as well. Unfortunately, we had to choose between Ninh Binh and Phong Nha so weren’t able to make it, but if you have a spare 2 or 3 days, hopefully you can.
Ninh Binh and Tam Coc: (November 4 – 6)
Have you ever been to those places that feel as if you’re wandering around inside of the set of a movie? Well that’s what the landscape around Ninh Binh and Tam Coc feels like. You’ve got huge towering cliffs of karst limestone covered in green vegetation sticking out of a flat plain of land that is littered with temples and rice fields, and weaving through it all is a series of rivers and caves. It was also the filming location for the latest King Kong movie so I guess it was in fact the set of a movie, so that explains that one.
First things first, if you’ve wondering what Ninh Binh and Tam Coc are, let me tell you. Ninh Binh is a fairly busy small city and is most likely where you would aim for if you wanted to get to the area by bus. A short distance away (around 7km’s) is the small town of Tam Coc, however, which is much quieter that Ninh Binh. Both of these centres, however, sit on the edge of the karst limestone landscape that makes this area so attractive to visit. Because of this, you’ll arrive in Ninh Binh, but I would highly recommend that you stay in Tam Coc instead.
Our timing to Tam Coc ended up being about as bad as it could be. We arrived a few weeks after the rice was harvested so we saw a lot of brown muddy fields in place of the green or golden fields of rice that you would see at other times. There was also a really thick smoky haze that made everything grey and bleak. Oh, and there was quite a bit of rain during our time there. But even with all of this considered, we enjoyed seeing the area and under different circumstances I think the area around Tam Coc and Ninh Binh would be awesome.
We went to Tam Coc because it was recommended to us several times by different people throughout our travels but we had done barely any research before arriving. We stumbled across a really helpful post, however, which we followed quite closely so you can use it as a reference as well. As well as a helpful travel guide for the Ninh Binh.
Where to Stay in Tam Coc:
We stayed in the Tam Coc Bamboo Homestay and had no complaints. The owner is a bit of a strange cat and can be a bit over the top but is helpful and entertaining. The location is great, there are lots of different rooms available from dorms to private and the family dinner that the owner pushes hard for is actually really really good and some of the best food that we ate in all of Vietnam.
How to Get Around Tam Coc:
The best thing to do is rent a scooter/motorbike/moped to get around. Some people ride pedal bikes as well for something different, but you can see so much more with a motorbike. It’s also easy to ride in the area because it’s not as busy as some of the more populated centres. There is also some serious distance between some places so a motorbike makes a big difference.
To get from Ninh Binh to Tam Coc (if you arrive by bus to Ninh Binh), you’ll likely have to take a taxi which is easily done.
Where to Eat in Tam Coc:
I’ll be honest, we never found anywhere especially awesome in Tam Coc, although we tried a few different places during our time there. Usually we ate a random places as we were out and about during the day and picked different restaurants in the evening. I don’t know that there is any place that is especially great to eat, but checking out Trip Advisor would give you a good start.
I can tell you, however, that if you stay at the Tam Coc Bamboo Homestay, the “family dinner” that they prepare is probably the best food that you’ll get in Tam Coc.
Things to Do in Tam Coc/Ninh Binh:
Here are some of the things that we did in Tam Coc:
Trang An Boat Ride:
By far the most popular thing to do in the Ninh Binh area is a boat ride. There are several ones that you can choose from that go in different areas and have different reputations. The Tam Coc boat ride is the original as far as I know and goes through 3 caves, but is known for having pushy rowers who demand tips and apparently there are other questionable things like this that go on. Van Long is another area where you can take a boat ride which offers far less people and more of nature, but it is quite a long ways away.
The one that we went with was the Trang An boat ride. I believe it is a bit more expensive and is quite busy, but people that have done all of them, it’s the most spectacular. It costs 200.000 VND per person which gets you in a small boat for up to 4 people which is rowed around by a Vietnamese lady.
TIP: There are two different routes that you can choose to do. One that’s a bit shorter and has fewer temples or caves but takes you past the film location of King Kong. And a second that is longer and takes you through 9 caves and past 9 temples. We chose the second one and it took roughly 3 hours.
It can be a bit discouraging at first because you start off from shore in the midst of many other boats which gives the illusion that the entire trip is going to be one long stream of boats and tourists. This isn’t the case, however, and soon into the trip, things thin out and spread out and many times throughout we were completely by ourselves paddling along surrounded by massive cliff faces.
TIP: The best time to go would be earlier in the morning as the light would be nice, it would be cooler than the afternoon sun, and far less people would be around. We went just before noon and I wish that we had gone in the early morning.
The boat trip takes you into the middle of these gigantic karst limestone pillars to places that aren’t accessible any other way and you float around staring all around you in awe. The best part of the whole thing, however, are the caves. Some of them are really long and some have really low ceilings so that you actually have to duck and dodge stalactites and other formations hanging from the ceiling as the rower maneuvers the boat through.
The whole thing just feels like a gigantic amusement park ride and I had to keep reminding myself over and over again that it was real.
There are also several temples scattered that sit in the middle of nowhere and are only accessible by boat. You can hop out at a few of them and have a wander around.
All in all, doing a boat trip is absolutely worth it and if you are only going to do one, then I would recommend the Trang An one as we were not disappointed. It is quite expensive compared to most other things in Vietnam but it is entirely worth it and is by far the best way to get an appreciation for the landscape.
Explore Around Tam Coc:
We had roughly two full days exploring the area around Tam Coc and Ninh Binh and both days we rented a motorbike from our homestay for 100.000 VND. This made it really easy to get off of the main road and check out some of the smaller gravel roads. Some ended up being fairly rough and narrow, but it was a good way to see the area and I would recommend leaving yourself an hour or two to ride a bicycle or motorbike through the rice fields and dirt roads close to Tam Coc.
Wander Around Bai Dinh Pagoda:
Bai Dinh Pagoda is supposed to be the biggest pagoda in South East Asia. Or maybe all of Asia. I can’t quite remember, but the point is that it’s very large. The pagoda itself is just a big tall tower however there are lots of other temples and buildings to explore on the hillside.
TIP: Bai Dinh is quite a ways from Tam Coc so the easiest way to get there is by renting a motorbike. It would be too far to realistically walk, and even riding a bike would be a bit time consuming.
The temples are also massive, and there is a bell house at the bottom of the hill which holds some sort of record as well. Everything is built overlooking the surrounding landscape and starting from the bottom you have the bell house, three temples, the pagoda, and finally at the very top, the statue of happy Buddha.
TIP: There is a large parking lot a little ways from the complex and you can pay a bit to take an electric shuttle to the front gate or you can just walk up the path to enter the complex from the back which is what we chose to do.
We made the mistake of going to Bai Dinh quite late which meant that the sun was nearly setting when we arrived. The light was great for some of our exploring and we saw a bit of the sunset from the top, but it also meant that we did a lot of our exploring in the dark. This ended up being quite cool though because all of the lights began to turn on and we were soon the only ones wandering around. It’s such a massive complex to explore, however, that we weren’t able to see everything. Because of this, I would give yourself around 2 hours to explore and if you can time it so that you are nearing the end of your wander when the sun is setting then even better.
The highlight of Bai Dinh for us, however, was that as soon as we arrived and were making our way to the complex, a young girl names Sophie came up to us to ask if she could walk with us and practice her English. It ended up being so much fun and she stayed with us the entire time! We talked about everything and learned so much and Sophie said some of the funniest things. She told us about herself and her family, about the temples and the pagoda, and we learned things about Vietnam that we never would have any other way. At one point, we ran into her parents as well who also joined us as we walked around. It was so great and if you find yourself in Vietnam I hope you can have a similar experience.
Check Out Hoa Lu:
I would consider Hoa Lu as an optional place to visit if you are nearby. I’m not entirely sure of the history of Hoa Lu but understood that it was some sort of ancient capital. I’m sure that there is a lot of significance with the site but there really isn’t much to see.
The front gate is cool and there are some other things to wander around and check out such as the old palace floor which had been excavated, but otherwise there isn’t much to see, so I would only go if you have a spare 30 minutes or so.
Climb up to The Bich Dong Pagoda:
The Bich Dong Pagoda is a good place for a quick stop. You walk across a small bridge and up some stairs to a temple set into the entrance of a cave. Behind the temple, the cave continues on and eventually emerges into daylight again where there are two more temples. It’s kind of a cool spot and worth exploring for an hour or so.
Climb to the Top of Hang Mua Caves:
Don’t let the name of this one mislead you. There is certainly a cave, but it doesn’t deserve much more than a glance. Instead, the highlight here is the set of stairs to the top of a limestone pillar.
It’s quite steep and seems to go on forever, but I promise you that the view from the top is worth it. Near the top, the trail splits and you can go to the right up a relatively new staircase to a second small peak.
Going up the main one, however, takes you to an amazing viewpoint where you can see down into the valley and across fields all around you. In the distance, you can also see the tops of other limestone pillars stacked up against each other on the horizon. There is also a concrete dragon along the top of the peak which is fun to clamber around on to try to get a photo of.
Hang Mua caves is a definite highlight in Ninh Binh and one that you shouldn’t miss. It’s an awesome spot to watch the sunset as well.
Other Things to Do and See in Ninh Binh:
Because of either weather or time we weren’t able to see absolutely everything in Ninh Binh with our two days. Here are a couple of other things that you might want to check out if you have the time:
Thung Nam Bird Park: We were very close to going to Thung Nam but ran out of time. You’re best to go in the evening when the birds are returning to the sanctuary.
Galaxy Grotto: We didn’t have time to check this one out ourselves but there is apparently a cave near Thung Nam Bird Park called Galaxy Grotto that is supposed to be open for exploration.
Phat Diem Cathedral: We had full intentions of going to Phat Diem cave but didn’t realize quite how far away it was. It would take around 40 minutes each way from Tam Coc so we simply didn’t have time to go before we had to catch our bus on the last day. It looks quite impressive though and might offer some good photo opportunities.
Cuc Phuong and Van Long: These two separate areas are a bit further from Tam Coc but could offer up some great natural sight seeing and would be a sure way to get away from the crowds.
We had big plans to spend a lot of time in the northern area of Vietnam. There is a ton to see north and west of Hanoi and you could spend weeks just travelling in this area alone. Once it came time to make our way north, however, we came to the realization that our plans were going to have to change somewhat. First of all, we were running out of time on our trip and had to cut a few things short. On top of this, the weather wasn’t great and there was a lot of rain expected. Last but not least, all of the rice fields that make the northern areas of Vietnam so gorgeous had just been harvested a few weeks earlier so what we were going to see were the remaining muddy brown terraces where the green and golden rice had been standing tall several weeks before.
All of this was meant that instead of seeing several places that we had planned on visiting, we were going to instead keep things simple and just give ourselves a taste of the area. This meant that we would go where it was super easy to get to and where we knew the planning would be relatively simple. This made going to the touristy town of Sapa an easy decision.
We were a bit disappointed with having to change our plans in northern Vietnam but these kinds of things often happening while travelling so we were able to accept it and move on. If you have some extra time to spend in Northern Vietnam and are able to visit between May (when rice is planted) and September (when rice is harvested), you should check out these areas:
- Mu Cang Chai (in Yen Bai Province): For some of the best photos of rice terraces, head to Mu Cang Chai. It seems to be hard to access, but well worth it from the look of things.
- Ban Gioc Waterfall: Far, far in the north of Vietnam is Ban Gioc waterfall which sits half in Vietnam and half in China.
- Ha Giang: Another area with famous rice terraces. If you’re in Vietnam during autumn (October to November), you can see the buckwheat in bloom.
- Sapa: This is where we chose to go and is an easy place to access.
- Babe Park: Another awesome place to visit in Northern Vietnam.
Unfortunately a lot of these areas are tough to get to (except Sapa which is easily accessible) which means that you may have to take long local busses or if you’re able to, rent a motorbike of your own and settle in for some long drives.
Anyways, after some deliberating, we ended up heading to Sapa for a few days and enjoyed it far more than we had expected. Lots of people that we had talked to throughout the trip had made Sapa out to be a very busy and touristy town, which in some aspects it is. But it can also be very easy to escape this by simply staying outside of the main town in one of the smaller villages.
TIP: The most popular thing to do in Sapa is trekking. Most people hire guides or go on tours but this isn’t necessary at all. I would recommend staying in the valley below Sapa (where all of the tours go anyways) and walking around yourself either by following your own path or asking advice from the staff of where you’re staying. You would need a guide to climb Fansipan but otherwise save the money and get the freedom of doing it yourself.
It seems as though you can have two totally different experiences in Sapa depending on where you base yourself. If you decided to stay in town you will have easy access to plenty of restaurants and bars and can walk around the streets at night. But the town of Sapa is quite crazy and busy and is well-known for people harassing tourists and following them relentlessly trying to get them to buy things. On the other hand, if you decided to stay down in the valley where all of the small villages are, you will be surrounded by rice fields, in the quiet of the countryside, and will be far removed from the busy streets and crowds. Both are two totally different experiences and it depends what you’re after but I would highly recommend staying outside of town.
How to Get Around Sapa:
Because we stayed in the valley outside of Sapa, we had to take a taxi to our place which cost 200,000 when we arrived and another 200,000 when we left. You could also rent motorbikes for quite cheap if you want to explore further around the valley or the surrounding area. We, however, just walked around the trails and rice fields around our homestay and explored our area on foot which was simple and enjoyable.
Where to Stay in Sapa:
We stayed in My Tra Homestay which was the absolute best place in Sapa I am sure. The food was great, it was in a quiet little village, the owners were beyond excellent, and there was ample trekking right out of our doorstep. It was like our home away from home while in Sapa.
Where to Eat in Sapa:
I have no suggestions here as every meal that we ate was at our homestay as it was really really good food. The only exceptions were our first breakfast when we arrived early and our dinner when we caught our bus out. Both of the meals were in the town of Sapa and were not good at all so I won’t be recommending them.
What I can say, however, is that if you take my suggestion and stay at My Tra Homestay, you can be guaranteed some of the best food you’ll eat in Vietnam.
Things to do in Sapa:
Here is what we got up to in Sapa:
Wander Around the Sapa Town:
We spent barely any time in the town of Sapa itself as we were based outside in a small village. But one morning (around 4AM) we were dropped off in town by a bus and one evening (from around 5PM to 7PM) we were in town waiting for our departing bus. Because of this, I can’t really say what Sapa looks like throughout the middle of the day, but I’ve heard that it is crazy busy.
The strange thing about the town of Sapa compared to the village that we stayed at in the valley is that there is a fairly significant elevation change. This means that Sapa has drastically cooler temperatures and can sometimes have different weather altogether.
The other thing that I noticed about Sapa is that it strangely resembles a Swiss ski village. I can’t quite figure out why I had that impression but several other people had mentioned the same thing so it can’t just be me.
Anyways, it’s definitely worth spending a bit of time wandering around the town itself, but I would recommend staying outside of town as it is much more scenic and quieter.
Trekking in the Valley:
The most obvious and popular thing to do in Sapa is trek. It’s not really trekking like you might find in other places, but would be more closely compared to walking around roads and trails along the hillsides and valley bottoms.
TIP: A common complaint with Sapa is that there are women selling things that will follow you around relentlessly trying to sell you stuff. Some people have claimed that they were followed for many kilometres before they finally gave in and bought something. We didn’t have this experience at all, however. When we walked past people on the trail we greeted them politely and shook our heads if they wanted to sell us something but never stopped, made conversation, or showed any interest. So whether we were lucky or our strategy worked, I’m really not sure.
You can pay for guides and tours, but I would highly recommend that you do it yourself. If you stay outside of town and down in the valley you are in the area where the tours go anyway and you can easily find your own way around or ask the place that you’re staying for recommendations and do the exact walk that the guided tours do.
TIP: All of the yellow buildings that you see throughout Vietnam are government buildings. This means they could be anything from hospitals to schools. Not that it’s useful information but kind of interesting.
The only exception is climbing Fansipan which is a high peak in the are that can be done in a one day or overnight climb. This requires a guide, but since they have recently installed a cable car to the top of the mountain it may have lost some of the excitement of climbing it. Can you imagine putting in all of the effort of climbing to the top only to be surrounded by groups of Chinese tourists with their umbrellas and sandals??
From the place that we stayed (My Tra Homestay) we could climb up either side of the valley or do a 2 hour loop along the mountainside, through a cool bamboo forest, and to a waterfall. This loop is the main part of the 2nd day of the 2 day 1 night tours that leave from Sapa.
Watch the Sunset over the Valley:
Most of our time in Sapa was accompanied with rainy weather. There was one day, however, that ended up being clear and I was able to salvage a single sunset that had some visibility and wasn’t completely clouded over.
The two spots that I would recommend are near the head of the valley and almost directly below the town of Sapa. There is a place where the road along the bottom of the valley rises slightly so that it is above the river. There is a concrete wall built that almost looks like a dam of some sort. This is a good vantage point to see over the rice fields and villages into the distance.
The other spot to try would be the lookouts along the road from Sapa down into the valley. Some of them offer great views down into the valley and I’m sure they would be great at sunset. I didn’t get to try them, however, but hopefully you can.
Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay: (November 10 – 12)
We had never really planned on going to Cat Ba Island when we were initially thinking about Vietnam. And Ha Long Bay was never very high on our priority list as we had heard that it was only worth doing by taking an expensive cruise which we weren’t overly interested in. As we were nearing the end of our trip, however, and with a few extra days to play with we decided to squeeze it in. It also helped that with nearly everywhere else in the country either flooding or under heavy rain, the Ha Long Bay Area was the only place with sunshine in the forecast.
Ha Long Bay is probably one of the most well-known places in Vietnam and is one of the first things that you’re likely to come across when doing some research, but we only heard about Cat Ba from a few other travellers that we met along the road as it is less well-known but still very popular. The island itself is quite large and sits just outside of Ha Long Bay but is surrounded with the same landscape and scenery with the karst limestone pillars rising out of the sea covered in green bushes and vegetation.
Everything that we read about Ha Long Bay said that the only way to properly see it was to do a 2 or 3 day cruise with one of the many companies that operates tours. The prices for these trips were anywhere from 150USD to 300USD each which was simply way too expensive for us. We went to South East Asia because it was a cheap place to visit to begin with so expensive trips like this defeated the purpose somewhat. Nevertheless, all of the advice that we read said to not cheap out on a cruise to make sure that you got a decent one and that it is worth it. I’m sure that a cruise in Ha Long bay would be very nice, but we were having a really hard time deciding whether or not to go because it was so damn expensive.
This is when we heard about Cat Ba Island…
We were in Sapa and some friends that we had met mentioned that they had gone to Cat Ba instead of doing the cruise. It turns out that you can get a bus from Sapa directly to Cat Ba which also helped. After talking to them more, it seemed like Cat Ba was the obvious choice over a cruise on Ha Long Bay for the following reasons:
- You can stay wherever you want on Cat Ba Island from a waterfront hotel to a hostel. With a Ha Long Bay cruise you’re stuck sleeping on a boat.
- Cat Ba Island is significantly cheaper per day and you can treat yourself like royalty for far less than the cost of a cruise per day. With the Ha Long Bay Cruise you are spending at least 75 to 100USD per day.
- On Cat Ba Island you can go and do whatever you feel like and there is a ton to do. With a Ha Long Bay cruise you have to stick to the tour’s itinerary and go with everyone else’s pace.
- From Cat Ba Island you can take a boat trip out to the same areas that the cruises go to for far cheaper than doing the overnight cruise.
So with this decided, we were off to Cat Ba Island which surprisingly ended up being one of our favourite places in Vietnam.
I should say that I don’t know anything more about the Ha Long Bay cruises than what I’ve read and heard from others so it’s possible that they might be able to justify the high cost somehow and take you to different places than you can get to otherwise, but for us Cat Ba Island was the most logical choice and far better suited our budget and travel style.
Where to Eat on Cat Ba Island:
For breakfast, you have to check out Like Coffee. It was the only place that we had breakfast because it was so phenomenal. Try their egg coffee, matcha frappuccino, pancakes, French toast, or any of the breakfasts and you won’t be disappointed.
We didn’t have as much luck with lunch or dinner but a restaurant called Dolphin was one of the better and cheaper meals that we had.
If you want to get extra deluxe, you can take a boat out to the floating restaurants on the bay. There is a big phone number above each restaurant which you phone for a pickup to get you to the restaurant.
Where to Stay in Cat Ba:
We stayed at the Phuong Mai Family Hotel on Cat Ba which one of many hotels on the main street looking over the water with great views. It wasn’t fancy by any means and could be considered a bit run down, but the view was great and it was a cheap place at $16 per night for two people.
How to Get to and From Cat Ba Island:
We came from Sapa directly on a bus (you don’t even need to get off the bus while it goes on the ferry across) which cost 550.000 VND. It left at around 7:00PM from Sapa and arrived around 7:30AM in Cat Ba.
Then, from Cat Ba to Hanoi, our bus cost 200.000 VND each and took around 4 hours.
How to Get Around Cat Ba Island:
You can rent a bike on Cat Ba to do some self-guided exploring of the island for around 80.000 VND which is a great way to see beyond the town.
Things to Do on Cat Ba Island:
As we found out, there is a ton to do on Cat Ba Island and here is what we got up to:
Cat Ba National Park:
Near the centre of Cat Ba Island is a national park that you can get to by motorbike in about 45 minutes (you could probably take a taxi here if you wanted as well) and costs 40.000 VND to enter. There isn’t much to do except walk up the trail to a peak. They tell you that it takes an hour to go up and an hour to come down but we were going at a pretty leisurely pace and found it took far less than that. I would budget for 45 minutes up and maybe 30 minutes down, but you’ll likely want to stay at the top for a while because the views are incredible.
The walk up is nice enough but you are under the cover of trees for most of it. This doesn’t lend itself to great views but it is nice to be out of the direct sun because the trail is quite steep and tiresome. Near the top you finally reach the ridgeline, however, where you get your first views around and it’s pretty incredible. There is a little tower that you can climb up for a better perspective too.
Behind the tower is a small narrow trail that takes you a little bit further and higher. This is where you can get the best views and all around you is an incredible landscape of ridges and cliffs of karst limestone all covered with a rolling jungle of green. We sat for a very long time up here taking photos and listening to the sounds of the jungle below us.
TIP: It costs 5000 VND to park a motorbike at the national park.
After it had seemed like every place we went we were followed by bad weather or poor timing, it felt so good to finally have something work out perfectly. It was a beautiful day and the morning had started out quite hazy with a thick misty cloud covering everything. But as we sat on the peak the sun slowly melted the haze away revealing a blue sky. And with a light gentle breeze, it ended up being the perfect day.
Apparently there is another area in the national park that you can access called Frog Lake. This is supposed to be a longer walk which we didn’t have time to explore but might be worth looking into if you have more time on Cat Ba.
Drive Around Cat Ba Island on a Motorbike:
I’ve already mentioned above that driving around the island by yourself is an awesome thing to do, but I just had to say it again. You have to rent a bike while you’re in Cat Ba and get out to explore some of the roads beyond the town. It’s a really easy place to drive and the roads are quite a bit quieter and wider which makes it really relaxing.
We did a loop from Cat Ba to the National Park along the inland route. Then on the way back we drove along the coast line. It was such a great drive and totally different than seeing it from the window of the bus. Along the way we stopped and watched the boats along the coastline, we stopped outside some small villages and watched people tending to their gardens and we stopped just to take in the stunning scenery that we were surrounded by.
So don’t make me say it again, just rent yourself a bike in Cat Ba and see what I mean for yourself.
Go on a Boat Trip/Cruise to Ha Long Bay:
Even though we didn’t go on an overnight cruise through Ha Long Bay, we still were able to see it with a cruise from Cat Ba. It cost us $15 USD each which is far less than a cruise from Ha Long City. We were picked up at 8:00AM and dropped off around 5:00PM so it was a full day affair (in contrast an overnight cruise on Ha Long Bay starts around noon on the first day and drops you back around noon the following day so it’s not a true full two days).
We started out from a harbour on Cat Ba with around 30 people on board so it definitely wasn’t just us, but there was also plenty of room so it wasn’t crowded. Immediately after leaving the harbour, you go through a really cool floating village. I’ve seen floating villages before in other countries that weren’t very impressive but this one was true to its name. It was made up of a bunch of individual buildings built on floating structures with boats anchored to the sides. Some had little fish farms which I’m assuming were their food sources, and some even had dogs walking around on them.
Our first stop was Monkey Island and, while there were a few monkeys, they weren’t as prevalent as you might think. They also weren’t scheming little shit disturbers like we had seen in Myanmar when we climbed Mount Popa. We were dropped off at a little section of beach and some people stayed below to hang out and swim. We decided to head up a narrow path that takes you to a small rocky lookout above the beach. Unfortunately a few other groups had arrived before us so it was really busy along the trail and there was a lot of stopping and waiting for people to pass on the way down. So realistically you could be up and down in 25 minutes but it took us over an hour to get up and down. Luckily, the view is really cool and is worth the effort.
Next, the boat carried on along the edge of the island towards Ha Long Bay and the entire way we were surrounded by the steep karst limestone formations that makes this area so beautiful and famous. We passed little inlets where you could see small buildings tucked away in the back, lots of small beaches clinging to the edges of the rocks, and caves through some of the rocks connecting different bays and coves.
We stopped in the middle of one of these bays and did some swimming where people jumped off of the boat and floated around. There are lots of jelly fish so the guide was on the boat keeping a watchful eye. Following this we had a lunch (which was really good) on board and then set off again.
Our next stop was an area where we did some kayaking. We were dropped at a little floating building where we set off in kayaks to explore a series of bays and coves. Along the way we went through several low caves and even saw some Langurs which are a really endangered monkey that lives only in this area.
After kayaking, we made out way back as the sun was beginning to set. So I can’t compare this day trip to an overnight on Ha Long Bay, but we definitely weren’t disappointed with our trip on the water and it was nice to get off the boat at the end of the day and have to freedom to go where we wanted afterwards.
Visit Cannon Fort for Sunset:
Cannon Fort is just behind the town of Cat Ba perched up on one of the peaks looking down over the bay. I think it’s name is self explanatory as it was a strategic location to mount cannons to protect the island against invaders from the water.
It costs 40.000 to enter and is a cool spot, but the real treat is watching the sunset from the top. We arrived an hour or so before sunset and walked around for a bit first before heading to the viewpoint above the bay. There are some cannons set up, some trenches and buildings, a small cafe, and even a tunnel that you can check out. The views in all directions are quite good, but when the sun began to set, my favourite spot was the point looking out over the harbour with all of the tiny boats dotting the water below.
Check out Hospital Cave:
On our way to Cat Ba National park we stopped quickly at Hospital Cave. It costs 40.000 to enter and may or may not be worth entering. It’s a quick walk up to the cave entrance where there is a guy who checks your ticket and then offers to take you through the cave if you want. Otherwise you can do it by yourself like we did.
TIP: It costs 5000 VND to park a motorbike at the cave.
The cave was used as a hospital during the war when everything was being bombed by the US. So the first floor is a concrete building with a bunch of individual rooms that was built into the cave. Going up takes you to an open floor where you can see the natural ceiling of the cave. It’s quite small, but fun to explore and the entire time your imagination is filled with ideas of what the hospital looked like while it was in use. It’s quite bleak and eerie.
Wander Around Cat Ba at Night:
Cat Ba doesn’t seem to be a huge party place or anything, but there is usually quite a lot going on at night. There are glowing neon signs along the streets and even out on the water from the floating restaurants. You can head out to these restaurant if you want but you need to take a boat to get there. Apparently you can call the phone number on the sign above the restaurants to get a boat or you can talk to someone on the pier that will take you out.
Wandering around, you’ll also probably hear some loud and off-key karaoke coming from some of the buildings as it seems to be a very popular thing not only here, but all across Vietnam.
There is also a small little night market to explore and a few street vendors around.
Other Things to do on Cat Ba:
Nearly the only thing that we didn’t have time to do in Cat Ba that we had intended on doing was check out the beach. Just around the corner from the town, there are supposed to be several beaches that you can walk to. We saw them from above when we went to Cannon Fort and they looked really nice, but we never made it there.
Hanoi: (November 12 – 15)
Our last stop in Vietnam was Hanoi, not to be confused with Hoi An. Although if you’re like us, you’ll probably mix the two up more than once.
Hanoi is the main city centre in the north and is a good place to either start your journey in Vietnam, or end it. It serves as the hub for much of the north with many popular areas being accessed through Hanoi, such as Sapa, Ninh Binh, and Halong Bay.
TIP: We used an app called maps.me throughout all of Vietnam (and especially Hanoi) to navigate. You can download maps to your phone or iPad so that you can find your way around when you don’t have internet access. It saved us numerous times and you can mark places that you want to see on the map.
The good news is that it’s actually a really cool city. It’s a bit busy and hectic, but has more charm and character than Ho Chi Minh in the south. It’s definitely worth spending at least 2 or 3 days in the city.
Where to Stay in Hanoi:
The main area to visit in Hanoi is the old quarter. This is where all of the action is and where most of the things to do are located. Because of this, the old quarter is a great place to stay as well. There is a ton of accommodation and everything is then within walking distance.
We ended up staying at a hostel called Hanoi Centre Hostel for around $15 each per night. It might not be the absolute cheapest that you could find in the city but it was a great place to stay, had a breakfast, free beer in the evening, and was walking distance to everything that we saw in the city.
Where to Eat in Hanoi:
Eating in Hanoi ended up being one of the highlights of the city. We spent a lot of time checking out different restaurants and cafes and trying to get in as much of the local and famous foods as we could.
Breakfasts were a bit unremarkable as we just ate at the hostel most morning and had things like eggs, pancakes, or rice.
Depending on the day, lunches would either be something quick at a restaurant or cafe as we were wandering around the city. Or my personal favourite was grabbing an iced coffee and a Bahn My (Vietnamese sandwich) when we felt our energy dropping, and then we were off again.
And finally, some of the places that are good for either dinner or lunch are:
Cha Ca La Vong: 160,000 VND or 170,000VND each for a grilled fish meal.
Bun Cha Huong Lien: Really good Bun Cha and where Obama ate while visiting Hanoi.
Bun Bo Nam Bo: 60,000 VND each for really good Bun Bo
How to Get Around in Hanoi:
The good things about Hanoi is that everything is within walking distance in the Old Quarter. If you need to get to bus stations or to and from the airport, your best bet is a taxi, or using an app like Uber or Grab.
Things to Do in Hanoi:
We had two full days in Hanoi and were able to put together a couple of good loops which enabled us to see a lot without backtracking or having to walk to the same area twice. Because of this, I’ve put together a list of things that you could see on day one, and a list of things to do on day two. If you have more time, you could always spread the days out a bit or add a few more things to do.
I’ve also put together a map for each of the days just above.
Hoan Kiem Lake (Day 1):
The biggest landmark in the Old Quarter of Hanoi is the Hoan Kiem Lake. There is a nice walking path all around the lake so you can walk the whole edge if you want. On one end of the lake, there is the Ngoc Son Temple built on a small island with a bridge going out to it as well.
We were a bit templed out after 6 weeks in South East Asia by this point so we didn’t bother checking it out, but it makes for some cool photos. At the far end of the lake from the temple, there’s also a nice park where you can sit for a rest from the heat, which is always essential in Hanoi.
If you’re planning to go to watch a Water Puppet Show and are following my Day 1 and Day 2 itinerary, then I would recommend grabbing tickets for tomorrow’s show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre while you’re here. It’s just across the road from the lakefront.
Eat lunch at Bun Cha Huong Lien, Obama Restaurant (Day 1):
After check out Hoan Kiem Lake, you can walk to Bun Cha Huong Lien restaurant, which is famous for being the place where President Obama and Anthony Bourdain ate while in Hanoi.
It’s super busy, and multiple stories high, and you might think that you’re in the wrong place when you first walk in as it’s very basic. But as soon as you see the menu taped to the wall with the “Obama Special” and the pictures of Obama with the owners on the wall, you’ll know you’re in the right place.
The bonus is that the Bun Cha is really good as well. You get a bowl of pork in a broth with noodles and herbs on the side. Then you mix it all together, add some chilli if you’re into that, and have a beer or two on the side.
Giang for Egg Coffee (Day 1):
One of the things that you have to try in Hanoi is an Egg Coffee. It sounds strange but it’s super super good. Unless you drink too many of them like I did and give yourself a bellyache.
It’s basically just a coffee with a whisked egg yoke on top. One of the most well known places to go is Cafe Giang, at 39 Nguyen Huu Huan Street which is run by the son of the man who invented the drink.
You can also check out this recipe to make it for yourself at home.
Wander Around the Old Quarter (Day 1):
After lunch, you might want to spend some time wandering around the Old Quarter. You’ll begin to notice that each street tends to sell on type of merchandise. This is a tradition from a time when each street was named after the guild that traded there. There were 36 guilds, on 36 different streets, and some examples would be:
Hang Dau: Oils
Hang Bac: Silversmiths
Bat Dan: Wooden Bowls
Gia Ngu: Fisherman
Hang Bong: Cotton
Hang Chinh: Jars
Hang Gai: Hemp
Hang Hanh: Onions
Lo Su: Coffins
So you get the idea. You’ll wander down a street that is all hardware type stores, another that sells all glasswares, another that sell all metal racks. When we were wandering around one day, we happened to stumble across our least favourite which we named “Dog Corner,” but don’t be mistaken, it’s not the place where you would buy a pet.
TIP: Some people on the street will point at your shoe and pretend that they saw something wrong with it and put glue on it then try to charge you. Just be aware and don’t fall for it.
Visit Dong Xuan Market (Day 1):
Every city and town in Vietnam has to have a local market on the list of things to do. One of the ones to visit in Hanoi would be the Dong Xuan Market. It’s in the middle of the Old Quarter to it’s easy to access.
Visit the Bach Ma Temple (Day 1):
If you haven’t gotten your temple fix yet, check out the Bach Ma Temple in the middle of the old quarter. It’s one of the oldest and most famous.
Go to the Bia Hoi Corner After Dark (Day 1):
The most well-known area for nightlife in Hanoi has to be Bia Hoi Corner at the intersection of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen streets. It’s busy, crowded, and loud and overflowing with Bia Hoi throughout the evening.
Even if you don’t hang around for a drink here, it’s worth having a wander around and seeing it after dark.
In case you’re wondering what Bia Hoi is, it’s fresh beer from steel or wooden kegs that is sold on the streets throughout Vietnam. It’s not super strong, but it’s likely the cheapest beer in the world at around 3000 to 5000 VND per glass (around 25 cents). Throughout your time in Vietnam, you’ll probably see kegs of Bia Hoi strapped to the sides of motorbikes as they are taken to and from restaurants.
And if you don’t want all the noise and crowds of Bia Hoi corner, there are plenty of other places to get it throughout the city. The first glass we had was when we were transferring busses on the way to Sapa and had an hour to kill. We ate at a side street restaurant in the middle of nowhere and had some Bia Hoi to go with it.
Eat Cha Ca for Dinner (End of Day 1):
Cha Ca is a famous Vietnamese dish of grilled fish. It’s usually served with a small burner and a frying pan where you fry your add your own fish, greens and spices to the pan and cook it at the table. It’s typically around 160,000 or 170,000 for a meal, which is more expensive than most meals, but definitely worth doing at least once.
There are a few places that serve it but the best is supposed to be Cha Ca La Vong. There are a few places that try to imitate Cha Ca La Vong, so make sure that the place that you go is a small little building where you go up the stairs to an area with several tables and chairs. It should say on the table that there is only one meal, grilled fish or Cha Ca, for 170,000VND. Here is a quick post on Cha Ca La Vong that has pictures so that you aren’t led astray.
Long Bien Bridge (Day 2):
To start of your second day, head to Long Bien Bridge. In the centre of the bridge is a set of train tracks, then a lane for traffic on either side that is usually filled with mopeds, and a narrow walking lane for pedestrians.
You can walk to the bridge from the Old Quarter and we found that the best way was to head to the train tracks, which lead you to the bridge. Along the way, you go through narrow little alleys, pass shops and houses built alongside the base of the track (the track is elevated above the streets) and walk along streets that cross under the track.
Finally, there is a long ramped road that you can get to that will take you up to the bridge across the river.
The bridge is a great place to get lost in some history, witness the daily lives of people going about their business, and you can also get some cool photos.
Visit the Presidential Palace, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, and Museum (Day 2):
From the Long Bien Bridge, you can walk west of the old quarter along Phan Dinh Phung street. This takes you towards the Presidential Palace, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, and the Ho Chi Minh Museum.
After a full day spent in the old quarter on Day 1, it’s nice to escape the narrow, crowded streets and get to somewhere with a bit more breathing room. If you’re lucky, you might be able to see the changing of the guard at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum as well.
Get Some Street Food at the Chicken Street (Day 2):
Nearby the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, is a place known as BBQ Chicken Street. We looked around for it, but it seems like it seems to be something that only happens after dark. We didn’t have time to go back to check for ourselves, but it might be something that you want to investigate. Here’s a post to lead you in the right direction.
Visit the Temple of Literature (Day 2):
On your way back to the Old Quarter from the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, you can walk right past the Temple of Literature. You can enter for around 10,000 VND.
Visit the Hoa Lo Prison (Day 2):
If you have some more sightseeing in you, head to the Hoa Lo Prison. It costs 30,000 to enter and is where Vietnam kept prisoners of war and was known for its bad conditions. The Americans named in the Hanoi Hilton. There’s only a small portion of the jail left today.
With that, you’re back in the Old Quarter. Now it’s time for some lunch.
Lunch at Bun Bo Nam Bo (Day 2):
After a lot of walking and sightseeing on the second day, we ate lunch at Bun Bo Nam Bo, a famous restaurant in the old quarter serving really good Bun Bo (a beef noodle dish). Following lunch, we had a quick rest and a nap before heading out for sunset.
Watch the Sunset at Hoan Kiem Lake (Day 2):
A good place to watch the sun go down in Hoan Kiem Lake. We sat on some benches near the bridge to Ngoc Son Temple and took in the scenery.
While we were waiting for the sun to set, we noticed that there were lots of people selling goods along the lakefront. All of a sudden, however, they all started to scatter as two policemen approached from the street. We even saw one lady who was in the middle of selling something to a customer grab all of her things and run. We later found out that Hanoi is beginning ban street hawkers throughout the city which was probably the reason for this. It’s tough to say how much this will affect the city in years to come.
Watch a Water Puppet Show at Thang Long Theatre (Day 2):
If you’re following along with my Day 1 and Day 2 itineraries, then you should have grabbed some tickets for the Water Puppet show at the Thang Long Theatre while you were visiting the Hoan Kiem Lake on Day 1.
Tickets to the show cost 100.000 VND each and we chose to go to the 6:30PM show. This works good because you can watch the sunset at the lake, then grab a quick coffee or something to eat at the cafes or restaurants nearby and head to the show.
The show itself isn’t super entertaining, but it is fun to watch and definitely worth it. I was a bit confused about what the show was actually going to be, so I’ll do my best to quickly explain it to you, in case you’re confused as well.
There is a stage of sorts with a pool of water in front of it and curtains above the water. The puppeteers stand behind the curtains and use long wooden poles with the puppets on the end of them to reach under the water and control the puppets. On either side of the stage are musicians who create the music and sound effects for the show. The show is divided into small sections with each section featuring different puppets and telling a different short story. Of course, everything is narrated in Vietnamese, so you just have to immerse yourself in all of the strange sounds and music and make up your own storyline and narration for the show.
The show is about an hour long, so after the show you’ve got some time to do another wander around the streets of the Old Quarter or check out Bia Hoi corner before concluding your second day.
With everything on offer in Vietnam, it’s hard to not fall in love with the country. From the crazy busy Ho Chi Minh City where motorbikes drive on the streets, to the charming and bustling Hanoi with it’s Old Quarter. And the quiet lantern lit streets of Hoi An to the windy road and terraced rice fields of the North. And of course the famous Ha Long Bay, or the looming limestone pillars of Tam Coc, or even the massive caves of Phong Nha.
You’ve got beaches, tons of culture, awesome food, incredible scenery, and so much to see and do.
After wrapping up our time in Vietnam, our next stop was off to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.
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