Hanoi, Halong Bay, and Sapa were part of our 17 day trip through Vietnam a few years back. We started our journey in the north flying into Hanoi, and worked our way south flying out of Ho Chi Minh City. It was a great way to see the whole country without backtracking.
Days 1 & 2: Hanoi
Morning comes very early in Hanoi. Our flight got in late the night before and this was our first morning in the city. This morning I didn’t wake to the sounds of roosters crowing or the sun peeking through the windows, instead I was jarred awake by the sound of a loud abrasive male voice spouting what sounded like morning announcements interspersed with patriot music. All this was coming from the old communist loudspeakers that still hang in the city streets. I jumped out of bed, and swung open the balcony doors to find the sounds and the smells of a city that has already been up and tackling the day. This is Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
Looking down upon the street and seeing the endless parade of scooters, I also realized where the constant honking was coming from throughout the night. Here nearly everyone rides a scooter and by the sounds of it, each scooter is equipped with about 20 horns that each go off simultaneously. Seriously… Hanoi’s Old Quarter is loud, and it is loud 24 hours a day, so if you are a light sleeper be sure to ask for a room in the back of your hotel. We were right in the front of ours and I knew we wouldn’t be getting any sleep anytime soon, so we got up and started our day.
Most of the hotels in Old Quarter are reasonably priced. We stayed at the Sunshine Hotel for $24US a night. It was comfortable, clean, and best of all, it was in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the Old Quarter. After getting ourselves ready we headed down to have breakfast. One of the best ways to start the day is a delicious bowl of Pho. Actually, I think we had Pho for many of our meals, but we aren’t complaining. Pho, which is a Vietnamese noodle soup, is now one of our favorite meals.
This was our first experience of Vietnam, so we wanted to immerse ourselves into daily Vietnamese life, and there is no better place to do that than the Old Quarter. The old quarter has an aura to it that makes you feel like you are getting a glimpse into the past. There are no skyscrapers, malls, or chain restaurants, instead you will find open air markets, pagodas, cafes, and locals living their lives somewhat similar to how they did 100 years ago.
The old quarter sits on the northern end of Ho Kiem Lake, and is a labyrinth of 36 narrow streets which were each named back in the 13th century after the trade which was sold on that particular street.
Something to try when visiting Hanoi’s old quarter is the street food. Street food is an experience not to be missed, as long you are up for popping a squat on a plastic stool along one of the quarter’s busy streets. And when I say street, I literally mean street. Here locals serve up some of the best dishes right there on the curbs of Hanoi.
Another must-try while visiting anywhere in Vietnam is the Vietnamese coffee. It’s very rich, very strong and is sweetened with condensed milk. Absolute perfection!
Our second day found us branching out of the old quarter and visiting many of the monuments, temples, and museums the city has to offer. Our first stop was the Temple of Literature. The Temple of Literature is a 1,000-year-old temple to education and the site of the country’s oldest university.
Other stops throughout the day included the One Pillar Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum (which we didn’t go in due to the incredibly long lines), and one of our favorite spots in the city, Hoan Kiem Lake.
I was advised to take some time during the day to find a local travel agent to book our side trips to Halong Bay and Sapa. I found it was a lot cheaper and easier to book side trips once we were in Vietnam than booking beforehand online. There are tons of competing travel agencies looking to snag your business, so no need to worry about not finding a trip.
That evening we attended the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater to experience a traditional water puppet show. These traditional shows date back over 1000 years. Afterwards, we ended our evening with one last a stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake. Tomorrow we head to Halong Bay.
Some of our Hanoi Favorites
- Old Quarter
- Temple of Literature
- Vietnamese coffee
- Hoan Kiem Lake
Day 3 & 4 – Halong Bay
We got up early to catch our ride to Halong Bay. It is about a 3 hour drive from Hanoi. We decided to stay over night and we are so glad we did. The part of the overnight experience that attracted us to this trip, was that we would be spending the night on a junk boat. It was an incredible experience. We had most of the boat to ourselves, there was only us, two other couples, and the crew heading out for the night.
Halong Bay is an amazing natural wonder and was made an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. This brilliant bay is dotted with more than 1500 limestone islands and looks like something right out of a movie. In fact multiple movies have been filmed here, due to its unique and dramatic natural landscape.
The ship took us deep within the bay to tour a few of the limestone islands, some with caves which we were able to explore.
We also visited one of the area’s four remaining floating fishing villages. These villages have been home to generations of fisherman and their families who have earned their living from the bay’s marine life.
Again, I can’t recommend enough to take the extra time to spend the night in Halong Bay. Aside from being an amazing experience, it is also incredibly relaxing and serene, which is a stark contrast from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.
Halong Bay Tips and Sights
- Stay over-night on Junk Boat
- Enjoy the Natural Beauty
- Visit floating Villages
Days 5-7 : Sapa
After arriving back to Hanoi from Halong Bay, we took an overnight train up to Sapa. The train ride takes about 9 hours. We booked a sleeper car which allowed us to get a good night’s rest and be ready for a day of trekking and exploring.
Tip: if you can afford it, try to book all 4 beds in your sleeper car, otherwise be prepared to share your room with other travelers.
Sapa is a gorgeous mountain town close to the Chinese border, and was originally a hill station set up by the French in 1922. The town itself is cute and picturesque, but what really draws the tourists to the area is its natural beauty, and the opportunity to trek down to visit with some of ethnic tribes of the area.
We set up our entire 3 night tour through the travel agent in Hanoi. Our trip included our train rides, hotel stay, and two days of extensive guided hikes to the surrounding villages.
- Hire a local guide or go with a guided group
- Need at least two days
- Make sure you have good hiking footwear
- Don’t spend too much time in Sapa Town itself
We truly enjoyed our time trekking in the hills surrounding Sapa. After our visit, we boarded the night train back to Hanoi to catch our flight to Da Nang. Our next stop would end up being my favorite spot of the entire trip. Hoi An: Vietnam’s Very Own City of Lights
I’m a Bay Area mom with midwestern roots. Born and raised in Indiana, I have always had an affinity for travel, adventure and the arts. Before my days of playdates and homework, I worked as a television host, reporter, producer, and actress in Los Angeles.