A Week in Northern Vietnam
Stunning natural beauty, teeming streets, fresh flavors, and a rich cultural history - a week in northern Vietnam is a complete sensory overload. From the chaos of crossing streets in Hanoi, to the peaceful moments watching a farmer tend to her rice fields in Sapa, to the soothing hum of a traditional junk boat sailing through Halong Bay, I felt alive in this corner of the world. There is a unique vibrancy and way of life in Vietnam, but to enjoy it one must step out of their western comfort zone and embrace the unknown.
Things to Know
For US citizens, and many other citizens of other countries, a Visa is required to visit Vietnam. Luckily, the process can be started online and the Visa will be provided "Upon Arrival." Start the process here. You will receive back a multi page official document with your name and information. Print this document, print out and fill out the application they send you with the document, have passport photos taken, and bring $25 in US cash with you to Vietnam. Upon landing, you will see a passport area near immigration. Drop off your documents/passport and wait for your name to be called. When you receive your passport back, the Vietnam Visa will be pasted into your passport (it takes up a full page so make sure you have space). All in all the visa costs $33+ as there is a small fee for the initial online documents as well and is good for 30 days of travel.
The water is not potable in Vietnam. I did, however, brush my teeth with the water and had no issues, but proceed at your own risk.
You will be a millionaire in Vietnam. Currently, $1 USD is 22,700 Vietnamese Dong. Pay attention to the bills as it is easy to confuse a 5,000 note with a 500,000 note etc.
Crossing the streets in cities is mayhem. Just go and the scooters and cars will weave around you. After you do it a couple times, it becomes easier and kind of fun.
Tipping is not expected.
Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is a bustling city where tradition, history, and modernity collide. Walking the streets of Hanoi, memories of the French & Chinese occupations can be seen in the architecture and the fabric of the city and its people. Negotiate the streets of the Old Quarter and see locals enjoying their noodles for breakfast, vendors hawking their varied wares, full pigs being transported by scooter, and baskets piled high with fresh herbs. Sensory overload? Yes. Must visit? Absolutely.
What To Eat
Perhaps the best way to get acquainted with Vietnamese food is to do as the locals do and take to the streets. Street food is cheap, tasty, and literally can be found everywhere. Most places are named for the dish they serve. Do make sure the water (soups) is boiling and opt for places with a crowd. If you want a more traditional restaurant, these too can be found. Although a tad more expensive, they offer a refined, yet still tasty interpretation of Vietnamese cuisine.
Pho Ga 26
Bun Cha Ba Duc
Banh Cuon Gia Truyen
Bun Thang Ba Duc
Hanoi Food Culture
Bun Cha Ta
Banh Cuon Ba Hanh
Coffee culture is strong in Vietnam. Whether you grab a traditional ca phe da (Vietnamese coffee) on the streets or pop into one of the numerous hipster chic cafes throughout the city, the coffee in Hanoi is excellent.
Cua Hang Ca Phe
Tranquil Books & Coffee
What To Do
Walk through the lively Old Town. Peruse the shops, grab a coffee, or sit down for a steaming bowl of noodles as you watch the world go by.
Take a lap around the Hoan Kiem Lake. From Fridays - Sundays in the evenings the surrounding street is closed to traffic and is full of locals.
Indulge at the Weekend Markets. Around 7pm in the Hang Dao area, the weekend market begins with tons of stalls selling goods and mouth watering eats.
Visit a Temple. Notable ones include the Quan Than Temple, the Hai Ba Trung Temple, and the Temple of Literature (dedicated to Confucius and the site of Vietnam's first university).
High in the mountains of Northwestern Vietnam is Sapa, a verdant green area characterized by its terraced rice fields, soaring mountains, and plunging valleys. Although the town itself leaves something to be desired, Sapa is known for its trekking and hiking, and getting into nature is where the dramatic beauty of the region truly lies. Much of the local population is made up of hill tribes, with 51% being of the Black Hmong tribe - their villages are easy to explore on many of the treks through the rice fields.
To reach Sapa, either take the overnight train from Hanoi (tickets can be purchased at the station or booked for you by a tour operator like Buffalo Tours) or take an organized van transfer from Hanoi. I opted for the latter as I had limited nights available. Once in Sapa your hotel or local tour outfitters can organize a guide to lead you through the mountains and into various villages. I recommend doing a couple hikes to get a sense of the area and to truly immerse yourself in the outdoors. The weather is often misty and eerie up in the mountains, but even with thick fog the views are impressive. On a clear day a visit to Fansipan mountain would be worthwhile.
**I organized my transfer from Hanoi, hotel stay, and local guide with Buffalo Tours. They were easy to work with and tailored the hiking and schedule to our needs, recommended! **
Where To Eat
Hill Station Signature Restaurant
Moment Romantic Restaurant - Ignore the name and 90% of the menu and flip straight to the last page that features Vietnamese style hot pot or lau.
An archipelago of some 1600 towering limestone islets and islands emerging from emerald waters, Halong Bay is natural beauty at its best. Unsurprisingly, it is also the number one tourist destination in Vietnam, but is still, in my opinion, a must visit. The best way to experience the bay is by boarding a traditional junk boat for a one or two night cruise.
Many tour operators offer overnight cruises with bus transfer from Hanoi. I used Buffalo Tours and was happy with the overall service and the quality of the boat, although I do think the food could use a bit of improvement. The cruise offers roundtrip transfer to Hanoi, all meals, and a variety of excursions and activities onboard and around the islands.
In the future, if I were to visit Halong bay again, I would spend a little bit more for an even more lux cruise. Some cruises recommended by close friends who recently visited as well are Indochina Cruises or Aphrodite Cruises.