The Ultimate Guide to Northern Vietnam

The Ultimate Guide to Northern Vietnam

This Ultimate Northern Vietnam Guide is for you if you enjoy taking your time travelling through countries, and rather than skipping to all the popular tourist destinations you prefer to experience everything there is to offer from places along the way.

We planned on travelling all of Vietnam but due to travelling slower than expected to take it all in, we only properly explored the Northern half of the country within our 30 day visas. Renewing or applying for a new tourist visa was an option, however we had other priorities at the time. We’d love to go back to Vietnam again to explore the Southern parts of the country next time, but for now please enjoy reading all our top tips for travelling through Northern Vietnam…

Visas

Unlike in other South East Asian countries, when travelling to Vietnam you must have a visa organised in advance. Obtaining a visa varies depending on which passport you hold and whether you plan on entering the country by land or by flight. For us travelling on UK and Australian passports, we were able to organise a tourist e-visa online, which gave us a maximum of 30 days in Vietnam when entering the country by flight.

Fourth Year On The Road Hoi An

Hanoi, Vietnam

We flew into Hanoi to start our new adventure throughout Northern Vietnam. Our first impressions of Hanoi were: “culture shock, extremely hot and humid, and very crazy busy.” Even though we’ve travelled to many different cities in South East Asia before, nothing could have prepared us for the extreme traffic in Vietnam. We had a few days here exploring and mainly taking it easy, though it felt really good to leave for Ha Long Bay.

Getting There

Bus 86 takes you from Hanoi airport to the city centre for just 30k Vietnamese Dong ($2AUD) per person. The Old Quarter area of Hanoi is a good place to stay.

Accommodation

When planning this trip we considered staying in private rooms in hostels but soon realised we didn’t want to be around the backpacker party scene and it was the same price to stay in cheap hotels, which is what we did for majority of this trip. We stayed in Hanoi Stars Hotel for about $17AUD per night including breakfast and walking distance to everything. Though if you are planning on staying in hostels, a couple that were initially recommended to us in Hanoi are Old Quarter View Hostel for about $6 per night in a shared dormitory with breakfast and comfortable beds (that came with premium WhatMattress mattresses), or Box Hostel was recommended as the ‘good non-party hostel.’

Fourth Year On The Road Hanoi

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Food + Drink

When in Vietnam you’ve got to try Bánh Mì, a Vietnamese sandwich, and Phở Soup which you can get basically anywhere, and these two will probably become your every day local meals if you’re travelling through Northern Vietnam on a budget. We also found a really good Western/Mexican restaurant called Taco King, where we ate at a couple of times during our stay in Hanoi. Another unique place we went to and recommend adding to your list is the Harry Potter themed Always Coffee and Butterbeer.

Tip: Always ask for ‘not spicy’ in meals and ‘no sugar’ in drinks.

Vietnamese tend to make drinks way too sweet and coffee with milk is actually condensed milk with extremely strong coffee. So if you’re a coffee snob like me, make sure to go to a Western Cafe for good coffee or don’t order coffee at all (seriously!) Throughout our time in Northern Vietnam we eventually found Highlands Coffee which is a Western style franchise in cities that is convenient, they have a variety fresh milk and good coffee.

Things To Do

Ta Hien St is the main tourist street of the Hanoi Old Quarter area and a good place to find restaurants. You can walk around or explore the town via a touristy bicycle tuk tuk (though keep in mind if you just want transport without the touristy hype then air conditioned taxis are cheaper for getting around).

Hoan Kiem Lake is the perfect place to escape the chaos, and near the lake there’s a main roundabout where you can find rooftop cafes with nice views of the bustling city below. Our favourites were The Coffee Club and Avalon.

For shopping you could check out the local Dong Xuan Market, which is an outdoor market held on weekends. It’s crazy busy and I probably wouldn’t even bother entering as it is pure chaos and hard to get around to look at the stalls. On the opposite end of the spectrum you’ll find Trang Tien, a Western Shopping Centre full of high end shops such as Lous Vuitton, Prada, etc.

For a bit of culture see a Puppet Show at the Hanoi Opera House or the Thang Long Puppet Theatre – it only cost us VND100k ($7AUD) per ticket. Or for history and ancient architecture visit The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. Other temples nearby include the One Pillar Pagoda, the Temple of Literature and The Perfume Pagoda temple complex.

If you’re into museums you could visit the popular Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (though go early in the morning to beat the crowds) or other museums include the Ho Chi Minh Museum, Women’s Museum, Military History Museum, Museum of Vietnamese Revolution and Hoa Lo Prison.

Another reason people come to Hanoi is to visit the famous Train Street, which for some unknown reason we didn’t end up getting a photo there! Or if you have time to venture out of the city you could do a day trip to Ba Vi National Park (1h 25m drive) for a good dose of nature.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

We chose to explore Halong Bay on a 3 day all inclusive tour leaving from Hanoi that combined one night onboard a boat and the other in a hotel on Cat Ba Island, which was a good balance to experience Ha Long Bay from both land and sea. Ha Long Bay truly has that postcard perfect scenery, it’s beautiful and we were very lucky to have a nice sunny day on the first and most important part of the trip.

Unfortunately though it rained heavily on the last 2 days so we missed out on the main hiking trail on Cat Ba Island as well as a trip to Monkey Island. Though to be honest, after we’d already seen many monkeys and hiked many trails in Thailand, we didn’t feel like we missed out on much.

Fourth Year On The Road Cat Ba Island

Tip: Book your boat tour once you’re in Northern Vietnam because it’s a lot cheaper to book at your hotel or at a tour desk in Hanoi than online. We went on the all inclusive ‘Fantasea Cruise’ for about $130AUD per person.

Fourth Year On The Road Ha Long Bay

Sa Pa, Vietnam

Getting There

From Halong Bay we headed back to Hanoi as part of our all inclusive tour and caught a local bus up North to Sa Pa the following day. We didn’t really have any expectations as we were only stoping here to break up the journey to Ha Giang (further North), and most people we met who did the Ha Giang Loop said it was much better than the touristy town of Sa Pa, but we were pleasantly surprised.

Accommodation

The best way to describe the town of Sa Pa is that it has a French influence, cool climate, beautiful rice fields and local hill tribes. It was so nice to be in the middle of the humid South East Asian Summer but for it to actually be cold and feel like we were in The Alps. We stayed at Home Travel Sa Pa Hotel on one of the main streets for about $28AUD per night including breakfast. I’d say 4 nights is a good amount of time to spend in Sa Pa including a travel day to get there, 3 days of exploring without rushing, and heading off to the next destination on day 5.

Food

Most international restaurants are on the main strip that is P.Cau May Road, and most cheap Vietnamese restaurants are at Sapa Square. A few recommendations we were given were: Moment Romantic Restaurant (Vietnamese and vegetarian), Le Gecko (for pastries and crepes), Delta (Italian restaurant and wine bar), Gerbera Restaurant (for Vietnamese hot pot), Hill Station Signature RestaurantCong Ca PheHill Station Deli & BoutiqueSapa O’chauCo Lich (Vietnamese) and Viet Emotion (Italian). You could also drive a bit further up the hill towards Muong Hoa Valley to find cafes with views overlooking the mountains.

Things To Do

Sa Pa is the place where we caught the longest and highest cable car in the world up to the top of Fansipan Mountain (3143 high) and it was so cool and also freezing at the top!

https://www.instagram.com/p/BnpeVPhnuyQ/?taken-by=will.travel

Fourth Year On The Road Sa Pa

It usually take about 3 days to trek to the top of Fansipan Mountain, and it is popular to book one day or overnight treks where you stay in homestays along the way. We gave this a miss as we were going to explore more remote mountain areas further North in Ha Giang, so instead we paid VND700k (about $46AUD per person) to take the Fansipan Legend Cable Car to the top and it was worth it.

It was extremely foggy the day we went so we actually couldn’t see anything from the top, however the views along the way were insane.

Tip: It is best to go between 1pm-3pm to avoid fog, and you can also order food at the top.

At the bottom of the mountain where the cable cars depart there are also many sunflowers, which are an attraction in themselves.

Where there’s mountains there’s waterfalls, and we visited the Thac Bac Waterfalls (also known as the Silver Falls) in Cat Cat Village.

Tip: Don’t forget to bring cash with you as the locals charge VND70k ($4AUD each) to enter Cat Cat Village.

There’s also the Thac Tinh Yeu Waterfall, known as the ‘Love Waterfall’ about 15km out of the city centre.

There are other villages in the area you could visit including Ta Phin Village (17km from town) or a day trip to Ban Pho Village (about a 3 hour drive to get to).

We highly recommend to not skip Sa Pa on your Vietnam trip.

Ha Giang Loop, Vietnam

Now, travelling the Ha Giang Loop was a totally different experience. It was an 8 hour bus journey to get from Sa Pa to Ha Giang where we rented a motorbike that we’d ride 350km along breathtakingly beautiful mountainous roads, completing the Ha Giang Loop over the next 3 days.

Fourth Year On The Road Ha Giang Motorbike

It’s very rural and quite a dangerous route so very easy to have an accident. We’d only recommend it to the adventurous traveller seeking a bit of danger. Though if you’re confident on motorbikes, be very careful and responsible it’s also easy to get around the loop in one piece.

Speaking of dangerous activities, have you got your travel insurance for Vietnam yet? You’re gonna need it. We use and recommend World Nomads because they are the most trusted travel insurance site for travellers and offer the best cover for what we need. Get a free quote here.

Fourth Year On The Road Ha Giang

Here’s our full guide to travelling the Ha Giang Loop with details of all the stops we took and where we stayed.  It was definitely a highlight of our whole South East Asia trip!

Ninh Binh, Vietnam

Getting There

After safely arriving back in Ha Giang we had to allow a full day to catch a local bus back to Hanoi, then another shorter bus journey the following day to our next stop, Ninh Binh. You can book buses at any tour desk in Hanoi, and we organised them at our hotel.

We really liked Ninh Binh as it was a very chilled out rural town that stood out for not having crazy traffic like most other places in Northern Vietnam, but still catered to foreigners. It’s often described as a “breath of fresh air from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi” and we second that. Ninh Binh is also where the latest King Kong Movie was filmed.

 Accommodation

Apparently there’s nothing to do or see in the actual city of Ninh Binh, so the place to stay is in Tam Coc Village. Though keep in mind there are no ATMS in the town, so make sure to withdraw money beforehand.

We stayed at Tuan Nam Homestay which was a very quiet and relaxing place to stay. Other places we saw that looked like they catered for Western travellers were 4 U Hostel, Anna Tham Hotel View, Ninh Binh Mountain View Homestay or Tam Coc Mountain View Homestay.

Fourth Year On The Road Ninh Binh Fairytale

Food

Khoa Dung is the place to eat for good food at budget prices, La Belle Vie is a bit more pricey than the others, and Father Cooking is also a good option. I did got sick here we thought it was the food but at the end it was a flu and travelling with sickness is one of those weirdly positive illnesses; despite feeling rough as anything, you know that ultimately it’s not going to have a lasting effect. Also I had a sore throat that offers the lovely option of gargling with hot water mixed with a spoonful of salt. Do try not to swallow though. I learned from the Elisa Kit Companies that being with a cold how to cope with it, I mean at least you can call upon recently made friends to make you soup and buy you more bottles of water. If you’re in a new place and don’t know people, tell the hostel staff and they might help you out.

Things To Do

There is beautiful scenery and gorgeous rice terraces everywhere so we recommend to hire a motorbike to explore the area for about VND100k ($6-$7AUD per day).

Fourth Year On The Road Ninh Binh

Visiting the Tam Coc Viewpoint at the Hang Mua Cave overlooking Tam Coc is a must! It’s 500 steps up a hill to get to the dragon at the stunning temple at the top. The whole place makes you feel like you’re in a fairytale and has got to be one of our favourite places in Northern Vietnam.

Other temples around Ninh Binh include the Bai Dinh Pagoda (a giant temple complex that’s apparently the largest in SEAsia), Bích Động Pagoda, Hoa Lu and Thai Vi Temple. There’s also the Phat Diem Cathedral and you could even take a day trip to Hoaxing Lu which is known as the ‘Ancient Capital.’

Go on a boat ride in Tam Coc to see 3 Grottoes/Caves that are Hang Cả, Hang Hai, and Hang Ba. It’s about VND150k ($10AUD) to hire a boat driver to take you there and it’s cool to see them paddle the whole way with their legs.

Tip: We did however notice that all the boat drivers would constantly be asking for tips, and if you give them money they are extremely ungrateful and keep asking for more (regardless of how much you give them), so you really don’t have to tip. Also try to go in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid big tour groups.

If you’re seeking more nature you could check out Cuc Phuong National Park (the oldest National Park in Vietnam), the Van Long Nature ReserveKenh Ga Wetland or the Chicken Canal.

Hue, Vietnam

The next stop for us was Hue, known for it’s historic Imperial City and also a popular place to hire a motorbike to ride the Hai Van Pass to Hoi An.

Getting There

During our travels in South East Asia we always tried to avoid catching overnight buses as we really value our sleep and were happy to have a few full travel days here and there, since we had the time. However after a couple of days in Ninh Binh we realised that the only way to get to Hue was on either an overnight bus or overnight train. A train would cost 5x the price of a bus, so we unwillingly caught an overnight bus to Hue, and it actually wasn’t that bad.

Fourth Year On The Road Hue

Accommodation

We stayed in Cosy Hue Hotel. Other recommendations we were given before travelling here were Quan Hostel (private room on a budget and has swimming pool), Jade Hotel, Than Thien Friendly Hotel, or Hue Serene Palace (for a mid range budget).

Food

I honestly can’t remember where we went for food in Hue, but some recommendations I had in my notes based on research include: Nook Cafe & Bar (digital nomad hub), T’House Cafe (coffee shop), DMZ Travel (popular bar), Shiva-Shakti Indian RestaurantGecko PubLien Hoa (cheap vegetarian), Ba Do RestaurantHahn RestaurantNhà Hàng Quán RomCafe Phương Nam and Cơm Ông Chủ.

Things To Do

The main tourist attraction in Hue is the historic Imperial City. If you catch a taxi there make sure to ask them to drop you off at the main gate otherwise you could be walking around in the heat for a while trying to figure out how to get in (like we did).

For an Insta-worthy landmark head to Thien Mu Pagoda, the tallest religious building in Vietnam. Or other museums/temples in Hue include the Hue Provincial Museum, To Mieu Temple Complex, Khai Dinh Tomb, Minh Mang Tomb, Tu Doc Tomb, Ho Quyen Historical Site/Tiger Fighting Arena, and The Brass Works.

When in Hue shop at the Dong Ba Market and stroll along the The Perfume River where you can even do a river cruise. The nearest beach is Thuan An Beach (undeveloped) and Cau Hai Lagoon, or have a swim at the My An Hot Springs.

But probably the main reason you’d decide to stop in Hue instead or heading straight to Hoi An is to ride the 100km Hai Van Pass from Hue to Hoi An on a motorbike/scooter. The Hai Van Pass journey can be done in a couple of hours and is a beautiful and safe way to get to your next destination. It doesn’t compare to the Ha Giang Loop, but it’s a perfect alternative for travellers who skip the Ha Giang Loop to experience riding a motorbike in Vietnam. It’s about $4AUD to hire a motorbike for the day and whoever you rent from will usually bring your luggage to Hoi An for you so you don’t have to ride with it.

Tip: Stop at Elephant Springs for a swim along the way.

Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An really surprised us with it’s beauty. It’s a romantic ancient city with many rice fields and is famous for lantern festivals and the place to get clothes custom made. It is here that we made the decision to cut our South East Asian travels short due to travel burn out, instead of rushing through the next few destinations without being fully present. It was possible to see the Southern parts of Vietnam over the next 10 days, but we decided to spend the rest of our time in Hoi An with some very needed rest days, before flying out of the nearby city Da Nang.

Accommodation

We stayed at Petunia Garden Homestay which was a bit out of the town centre but this wasn’t a problem as the hosts had bicycles we could use to ride in to town. We paid $77AUD for 5 nights, which also included breakfast. Another accomodation option that was highly recommended to us by a friend is Ngo Homestay.

Food

Get street food at the Central Markets and good coffee at Mia Coffee or Fairfo Coffee. My other restaurant recommendations in Hoi An include Morning GloryGood Morning VietnamBaba’s Kitchen (for Indian food), Karma Waters (vegan), Minh Hien Vegetarian RestaurantBanh Mi Phuong, Soul Kitchen at An BangMadam KhanMango Mango, or a sunset dinner at The Field Restaurant & Bar in Cam Thanh.

Things To Do

Cycling is the best way to get around the Old Town, rice fields and along the river. Literally anywhere you look there’s a photogenic back drop including the Moi An Market, Lantern Market and Than Toan Japanese Bridge. There are also free bicycle tours you can join.

Depending on what dates you travel to Hoi An you might be able to witness the Full Moon Lantern Festival. Local light candles that are placed at the bottom of the colourful paper lanterns, that are then set into the river as an offering and to worship their ancestors as well as The God of the land and to celebrate the full moon. A tradition that started centuries ago, where people from all over the region would come here to participate. Unfortunately we got here after the full moon and missed the lantern festival, so we recommend to consider this when planning your itinerary.

Something we already did in Hanoi but is also very popular in Hoi An is to see a Water Puppet Show. It’s also very popular to take a cooking class in Hoi An or other classes including pottery, making lanterns and/or yoga.

A unique experience we had in Hoi An was taking a private round boat tour to see the fishermen at work, and we shared insights from this experience in our Northern Vietnam Travel Video.

The nearest beach to Hoi An Old Town is Cua Dại but for a nicer beach head to An Bang (also known as Bang Beach) and Hidden Beach. It’s also popular to take a day trip to Cham Island where you can go snorkelling.

Some temples you could visit in Hoi An include My Son Temples (day trip), Phuoc Lam Pagoda, Van Duc Pagoda, Phung Hung House, Tan Ky House, and Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation. Museums in Hoi An include the Precious Heritage Museum, Museum of Folk Culture, Museum of Trade Ceramics, Museum of Sa Huynh Culture and the Hoi An Museum of History and Culture. Other points of interests are The Nipa Palms and The Ba Le Well.

Da Nang, Vietnam

After over a week relaxing and wedding planning in Hoi An, we decided to stay a couple of nights in Da Nang, which was the nearby city that we’d be catching our next flight from. While here we visited Marble Mountain, enjoyed the beach and got super excited for the next destination (flying to Bali to book our wedding venue).

Getting There

I think we just caught an air-conditioned taxi from Hoi An to Da Nang and it’s not far and cheap.

Fourth Year On The Road Da Nang

Accommodation

For hostels we were recommended the ‘Best Backer Hostel in Da Nang‘ for $7 per night or the ‘Best Budget Hotel in Da Nang‘ for $15. However when we were looking for accommodation it was very hot and humid so for us it was important to have air-conditioning in our room, as well as breakfast included. We ended up staying at Fun Tour Hotel for $25AUD per night, which was right on the beach. Though what we didn’t realise was that our hotel that mainly catered for Chinese tourists who like extremely hard wooden beds. Apparently it’s meant to be good for your spine but we had the worst nights sleeps there and wish someone had told us in advance that this was common in Da Nang hotels.

Food

We only had two full days in Da Nang and our hotel wasn’t close to many restaurants so we didn’t explore the food scene much here but from reading other blog posts some restaurant recommendations I wrote down were Tam’s Pub & Surf ShopMy Quang Ba MuaTaco NgonFat Fish (fancy restaurant), Waterfront (fancy restaurant on the waterfront), Pizza 4Ps (for good pizza), BBQ Un InMy Casa (Mediterranean food), Happy HeartLe Bambino (French cuisine) and Madame Lan (Vietnamese). Golem Coffee and Cong Caphe for good coffee, and for nightlife: Sky 36 (popular roof top bar), Minsk Bar, Top Rooftop Lounge, Memory Lounge and Luna Pub.

Things To Do

The main must-see in Da Nang is The Marble Mountains, where you’ll find the Juyen Khong Cave, the Hell Cave and temples. It’s also common to do a day trip to The Marble Mountains from Hoi An if not staying here. There’s also Son Tra (also known as Monkey Mountain) on the way from Hoi An which is basically another temple on top of a mountain.

Other temples in the area include the Phap Lam Pagoda, Linh Ung Pagodam, Lady Buddha, My Son Sanctuary, Danang Cathedral, Cao Dai Temple (free) and My Son Holy Land (Vietnam’s Angkor Wat that’s a 40 minute drive). The museums in Da Nang are the Ho Chi Minh Museum, Military Zone 5 Museum and the Museum of Cham Sculpture.

The city has two main markets which are Con Market and Han Market. A must see bridge, which is also one of the main landmarks in Da Nang, is the Golden Bridge (Giant Hands bridge). Some other nice bridges including the Dragon Bridge (which spits fire every Saturday and Sunday at 9pm), Han River Bridge and the Tran Thi Ly Bridge.

Beaches in the area include Non Nuoc Beach, My Khe Beach (Main Beach), Son Tra Peninsula, Red Beach (near the bridge when coming from the Ma Vi Pass) and Pham Van Dong Beach that’s famous for having movies filmed there.

Da Nang is also a big tourist destination for the Asian market, with a lot of theme parks including the Asia Park and Ba Na Hills, where you can ride a cable car there, go paint balling and there’s even a world class gold course. Other unique activities you can do in Da Nang are relax in a mud bath at Galina Da Nang Mud Spa, have a ‘basket boat lesson’ or take a ‘conical leaf hat making class.’

And that’s it! The Ultimate Northern Vietnam Route.

…EXPLORE SOUTH VIETNAM NEXT

It was hard to digest the thought that we’d be missing out on places we wanted to see in the South of Vietnam but we will no doubt be back again in the future. The destinations on the route we originally planned to continue from Da Nang included: Nha Trang -> Dalat -> Mui Ne -> Vung Tau -> Saigon (Ho Chi Mingh City) -> Ha Tien -> Mekong Delta -> Phu Quoc Island and from there cross the border into Cambodia.

If you haven’t already, check out our full guide to travelling the Ha Giang Motorbike Loop as I only briefly touched on those destinations in this post, as well as our Northern Vietnam Travel Video for more inspiration.

I hope this post was of value to you in helping plan your Northern Vietnam adventure!

Sandy x

Have you been to any of the destinations mentioned in this guide? Are there any other tips you would add when travelling Northern Vietnam or must-see places in South Vietnam for us to check out next time?

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