Northern Vietnam: Rice Terraces and Limestone Karsts

I could have spent the entire month of my Visa in Northern Vietnam if I had the time, there’s so much to do! But knowing that I wanted to make it all the way down to the South I had to pick my top highlights: Sapa, Halong Bay, and Hanoi were definites on that list. The North has a cool climate during winter so I was hesitant about visiting in February – so much so that I thought about changing around my plans to come here later in my trip! I would suggest coming during shoulder season when the temperature starts to warm up but rainy season hasn’t gotten in full swing (April-May).

Duration: 11 days

Season: Winter (February, 2018)

My Itinerary:

  • Day 0: Arrive in Hanoi in the evening
  • Days 1-2: Explore Hanoi
  • Day 3: Bus to Sapa in the morning; trek and home stay
  • Day 4: Trek in morning; get dropped off in Sapa in afternoon
  • Day 5: Explore Sapa during the day; bus back to Hanoi in the evening
  • Day 6: Explore Hanoi**
  • Day 7: Bus/ferry to Cat Ba in the morning
  • Days 8-9: Explore Cat Ba
  • Day 10: Bus to Ninh Binh in the morning
  • Day 11: Explore Ninh Binh

** We stayed an extra day to sort out some things that couldn’t be done during Tet (getting a SIM card, getting a phone screen fixed, hair cut, laundry, get another coffee bun, etc.) – you can cut out a day and head straight to Cat Ba if you’ve seen enough of Hanoi.

Hanoi

I first arrived in Hanoi during Tet (Chinese New Year) and was thrown off by the city. Many locals return home to their villages during this time so the streets were less busy, but popular places such as the lakes and temples were filled with families dressed up and posing for pictures for the new year. Many restaurants and stores were closed and those that remained open had a surcharge. When I returned a week later and Tet was over, the city felt alive again. More people and scooters filled the streets but somehow the chaos felt more ordered and the city felt more alive. My favorite part of the city was just wandering along the streets.

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Things to Do:
  • St. Joseph’s Cathedral: Some call this Hanoi’s Notre Dame due to the architectural style. While not quite as impressive as the original, it is an interesting contrast to the buildings surrounding it. I didn’t bother to go inside.
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  • Ngoc Son Temple, Tháp Rùa, and Hoàn Kiêm: Located in the center of the city is Hoàn Kiêm Lake which is lovely to stroll around and find some peace and quiet from the hectic city that surrounds it. You can stop by the Ngoc Son Temple, a pagoda that sits on an island and is accessed by an iconic red bridge, though you will have to pay an entrance fee. If you plan to visit I suggest aiming for early in the morning to avoid crowds – every time I passed by the bridge was completely covered in tourists taking selfies. A second tiny island has Tháp Rùa (“Turtle Tower”) on it which can’t be visited but is a beautiful contrast to the modern city behind it.

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  • Ho Tay and Trân Quôc Pagoda: Northwest of the city is a larger lake, Ho Tay, that is probably better for running around than walking. The Trân Quôc Pagoda, which is the oldest pagoda in Hanoi, sits on a small island that can be accessed from the main bridge that crosses the lake.
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  • Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum: This area isn’t beautiful in the typical sense, but it’s a site to see. The large concrete building has an enormous grid of concrete pavers and green grass in front of it which gives it a very militaristic feel. It’s definitely not green space where you’ll want to pull out a book and read. In the same area is the One Pillar Pagoda and Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House which you can also visit.
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  • Hanoi Botanical Gardens: Located past the Mausoleum are the botanical gardens. They are nothing impressive but it is a nice green space to grab a bench and relax. There’s also a small exercise area where locals and tourists can be spotted using the machines. At the end of the visit we saw a small cage which houses monkeys and left a sour taste in my mouth – the cage was dirty and they didn’t seem to be well cared for which was disappointing and heart breaking.
    Cost: 2,000 Dong ($0.10)
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  • King Roti: I’m not sure how I didn’t take a picture of this, but trust me and go check it out. It’s a warm coffee bun and it’s delicious, and this is confirmed by the long line that first drew me to them. My personal favorite flavor was salty cheese.
    Cost: 15,000 Dong ($0.66)
  • Hanoi Street Train Tracks: If you’re looking to find some character and escape the rush of scooters, take a turn down the Hanoi street train tracks. The most enjoyable section is near the intersection of Ðiên Biên Phù and Phô Tôn Thât Thiêp.
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  • Beer corner: The streets of Hanoi transform at night as food carts and plastic furniture come out to line the streets with restaurants. The beer corner, located near Backpackers Old Quarter Hostel, is taken over with plastic furniture and kegs of Bia Hoi! For 5,000 Dong a cup ($0.25) this is a steal.
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  • Thang Long Water Puppet Show: If you’re looking for a unique experience head over to the Thang Long Theater to check out the water puppet show. You’ll be treated to an unforgettable performance that will leave you laughing as puppets float through the water acting out stories while accompanied by talented musicians.
    Cost: 100,00 Dong ($4.40)
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Useful Information:
  • Getting in and out: Many people fly into Hanoi as their starting point for the country. Make sure that you have your Visa paperwork in order before trying to board your flight or cross the border. I opted to take an overnight sleeper bus from Vientiane, Laos which ended up being about an 18 hour journey. Note that the bus station is outside of town and will require getting a taxi to bring you to the city center.
  • Getting around: Getting around Hanoi is more tricky. You can rent a motorbike but you should only do this if you are extremely comfortable – the traffic here is crazy! Thankfully most things are within walking distance. You can also get a taxi, but make sure that they agree to run the meter. If they don’t make sure that you are aware of the price they will be charging and that it is a fair price.
  • Where to stay: I recommend staying near the Old City as it’s walking distance to almost everything you want to see as well as good food and beer corner. I stayed at The Signature Inn Hostel and would highly recommend it – 115,000 Dong ($5.00) for a bed with free beer from 6-8pm (or until the keg runs out).

Sapa

Anxious to get out of the city I was excited to head North to Sapa where I pictured myself walking through endless rice terraces and escaping the tourists to live with the locals. I was half right in my expectations – there were endless rice fields that I got to walk among and I was able to escape the tourists and stay with a local family during my home stay which was incredible. However, my time in Sa Pa (the city, after my home stay) felt more touristy than Hanoi!

Things to Do:
  • Home stay and trek with the locals: The one thing I recommend doing most in Sapa is a home stay where you are able to spend a night with a local villager and trek with them during the days through rice fields and surrounding villages. You can book these online prior to your arrival (be sure that you know what you’re signing up for since some guesthouses put “home stay” in their names but don’t actually include trekking and have many other guests), or you can book once you arrive. When we got off the bus we were approached by two local woman offering us a one night, two day trek and home stay and we decided to take them up on their offer. (Note, this was an easier decision since I was with a friend and not solo.) We left our large backpacks with one woman who would bring them to her house where we would be staying that night and followed the other through town to begin our trek.
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    The trek was not strenuous and was mainly slightly rolling hills with some short, steep inclines. The steepest part was right at the beginning and it quickly opened up into an incredible view of the city with the mountains in the background. Since there were only two of us we were able to walk at our own pace and stop for water and pictures as we pleased which made the experience much more enjoyable than being in a large group. Along the way we saw children riding water buffaloes, rice fields, and adorable children from the nearby villages who occasionally joined us on our trek.

    Once we arrived at her home and our accommodations for the night we had some down time while dinner was prepared for us. We chatted and played cards while the kids ran around chasing a cat. Dinner was absolutely delicious and there was so much food that we couldn’t finish it! Our beds were located upstairs in the loft, equipped with mosquito nets and large blankets to keep us warm since the temperature drops at night. We woke up early for breakfast (the best pancakes I’ve had my entire trip) and packed our bags which would be delivered to us later.

    Tu offered to let me try on her traditional outfit (she had hers from last year that fit although it was a little short) and then insisted that I spent the rest of the day trekking in it (it was very, very hot in all this fabric!)
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    We hiked for a few hours until lunch time when a pair of motorbikes picked us up with our backpacks to drop us back into town. This was one of my highlights of Vietnam – Tu was so authentic and genuine and it was incredible to learn more about her customs, her perspective on the world, and her day to day life.
    Cost: $35/person

  • Sapa museum: It’s not a large or elaborate museum but it provides some great insight into the Sapa ethnic minorities. There are some traditional artifacts, models, and lots of information boards. It’s located above a small gift shop in Sapa town and a good use of time if you have an hour to spare. Note that they close for an hour during lunch time.
    Cost: Free
  • Hikes from the city: There are a number of short hikes that you can do on your own leaving from Sapa Town. We took one that went into a local rice field and had a stop at a nice terrace overlooking the valley. I recommend using maps.me to find the trails and locate the trailheads so you don’t get lost.
    Cost: Free
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Useful Information:
  • Getting in and out: Buses leave regularly to and from Hanoi. Arriving we booked through our hostel for 345,000 Dong ($15.20) which might have been slightly overpriced due to Tet. Leaving Sapa we walked to the bus station to book and paid 200,000 Dong ($11.00).
  • Getting around: Since we did the home stay straight from where the bus dropped off we didn’t need to arrange our own transportation. There were a number of motorbike taxis willing to drive you around – be sure to negotiate prices.
  • Where to stay: If you’re looking to do a home stay that you book online, a number are located in the neighboring villages so make sure that you know how to get there and be prepared to fork over a small chunk of charge for a ride. If you’re staying in Sapa Town there are a number of hostel and guest house options.

Cat Ba Island

I had seen the pictures of Halong Bay and I knew that I wanted to see the limestone karsts for myself. There are numerous tours available out of Hanoi (ranging from a day trip to overnights where you can either sleep in a hotel or on a boat), but I’m not much of an organized tour type of girl and they were all rather expensive. I decided to make my way to the coast and find a day tour from there in order to have more flexibility and to save money. Halong City didn’t get glowing reviews so I opted for its neighbor: Cat Ba Island.

Things to Do:
  • Explore Town: I came in off-season so I can’t say too many positive things about the city itself. There are a number of beaches that you can walk to (it was too cold to go for a swim when we were there), some paths along the bay with nice views, and a hike to a view point in the center of town. A lot of construction was going on (or had been started and was unfinished) that ruined some beautiful views.

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    From the view point in the center of town
  • Cat Ba National Park Hike: If you’re into hiking, Cat Ba Island also contains a national park with some easy hiking trails. If you’re staying in the main part of town you’ll need to rent a scooter for an easy drive to the park entrance, or you can look into hiring a driver for the day (I would recommend arranging for the driver to wait for you if you do this since getting a cab from the park could be difficult.)
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    There is one main hiking trail that will lead you to the peak for an excellent view of the park. Most of the trail is a concrete path with hand railings so most levels of fitness should have no problem. Once you reach the pagoda continue following the dirt path to the next peak – this is where the great views really are!
    Cost: 40,000 Dong ($1.75) park entrance fee, 5,000 Dong ($0.25) bike parking
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  • Boat Trip: The highlight of Cat Ba, and the reason why we went, was to book a boat ride to see Halong Bay. There are a number of tour companies that organize day tours, so be sure to do some research to make sure you’re getting what you want. Our package was a day trip that started in Lan Ha Bay and brought us to Halong Bay, included kayaking and a visit to Monkey Island (with an optional hike), and also included lunch and water. Since we went in offseason we got this for a discounted rate, but the weather was also chilly and overcast, which kept us from jumping in the water but not from enjoying the views!
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    Lan Ha Bay is South of Halong Bay but has the same beautiful green water and limestone formations – just with less boats and less tourists! Our first stop was the traditional floating fishing village in Lan Ha Bay. Approximately 300 families live on the water here, each with there own “farm” around their house, and each with their own guard dog.
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    We continued to boat through the bay until we reached our kayaking destination. We kayaked around for about an hour, going through caves and popping into deserted lagoons.

    We finished the day with a stop at Monkey Island, named for the monkeys who rule the beach. As always remember that they are wild monkeys and not pets, and you should always be alert. If you are carrying a plastic bag, food, or plastic water bottle they will likely try to get them. There is a hike to a great viewpoint here – it’s moderate with some steep drop offs and climbing over sharp, pointy rocks. All ages made it to the top (and I did it in my Birkenstocks because that’s all I had) but be prepared for a challenging climb.

    The final stop was to anchor near a small beach where we had the option of jumping in to go for a swim. A couple brave people went in, but I opted to stay dry since I was already chilly without being wet. In the warmer months this would have been the perfect ending to the trip.
    Cost: 400,000 Dong ($17.60) off-season discount

If I had more time…

  • Cannon Fort is easily walkable from the city center and is supposed to have good views of the bay. We skipped this due to time and weather. There is a small entrance fee.
  • The Hospital Cave is located about 10km North of city center on the way to Cat Ba National Park. During the Vietnam War this was used as a secret hospital and safe house, safe from the bombings. There is an entrance fee.
Useful Information:
  • Getting in and out: Getting to Cat Ba from Hanoi is easy, with the option of booking through a company (mini bus to Haiphong, ferry to Cat Ba Island, then drop off at your hotel) or organizing the transfers on your own. The money savings didn’t seem worth the hassle to me so we booked our tickets through Sapa Express for 270,000 Dong ($11.88) door-to-door. Another bonus of visiting Cat Ba over an organized trip to Halong Bay in and out of Hanoi is that you can travel on straight to your next destination without going back to Hanoi.
  • Getting around: If you’re not planning on visiting the National Park or the Hospital Cave you should be fine just exploring the city center on foot. Otherwise you can rent a motorbike for about 80,000 Dong ($3.50) – the roads are quiet and well maintained.
  • Where to stay: There are a few hostels available, but it was less expensive to get a cheap hotel since there were 2 of us. There are a number of budget options available, and I recommend getting something in the city center.

Ninh Binh

Also known as the inland Halong Bay, Ninh Binh is one of the less visited and less touristy locations in Vietnam. A number of view points, lakes that offer boat rides through caves, and temples will leave you with plenty to do. Many guests stay in the nearby village of Tam Coc (you can get dropped off here directly, so make sure that you’re sure where your bus will leave you to save you an unnecessary and expensive cab ride.) Unfortunately when I was there it was raining nearly every day so we cut our time short and continued South before doing everything on my to-do list.

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Things to do:
  • Trang An Boat Ride: One of the top things to do is take a boat ride on Tam Coc or Trang An Lake. We opted for Trang An because I read it was less visited (based on the number of people who were pushing their way onto boats, I am not sure that this is true) and because you are taken through a number of caves that can only be reached by boat. Our group of five bought tickets and then got into line where we were given our boat with an unfortunately very grumpy driver.

    For the next two hours we were brought around the lake which was beautiful even in the overcast weather and through endless caves where our guide had to carefully maneuver us to squeeze through some tiny places!
    Cost: 200,000 Dong ($8.80)

If I had more time…

  • Tam Coc Boat Ride is the alternative to the Trang An boat ride. You can see these boats floating around as you walk around Tam Coc, and you’ll notice that the drivers are paddling and steering with their feet! It’s quite the site to see.
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  • Hang Mua is a temple that is reached by climbing 500 steps – but the highlight is the view over Tam Coc rather than the temple. This was a highlight that I was sad to miss due to rainy weather.
  • Cuc Phuong National Park can be done as a day trip or as an overnight trip by scooter.
  • Bich Dong and Bai Dinh Pagodas for some viewpoints with less steps than Huag Mua!
Useful Information:
  • Getting in and out: Buses are available from Hanoi as well as Cat Ba Island. We paid 200,000 Dong ($8.80) from Cat Ba to Tam Coc and it took about 5 hours. Buses from Hanoi should take about 2 hours.
  • Getting around: Your best bet to see all of the sites is to rent a motorbike. We paid 80,000 Dong ($3.50) but they weren’t the best bikes. You can also rent a pedal bike but it’s going to take you significantly longer to get around and some of the places are just too far to visit this way. As always you can hire a car to bring you around, but it will cost more.
  • Where to stay: We chose to stay in Tam Coc, but there’s really not much going on in the city besides a couple of bars.

Wish List:

Where else I would have went in Northern Vietnam if I had more time… 

  • Bac Ha, a village next to Sapa, is known for its lively Sunday market that is full of color and energy. If you can plan your trip around it or find yourself in the area on Sunday, I recommend checking it out.
  • Motorbiking around Sapa is also an option if you are feeling adventurous and are comfortable on a motorbike! There’s a loop between Sapa, Lai Chau, and Sin Ho (read more details at this blog post: http://vietnamcoracle.com/the-sapa-sin-ho-scenic-loop/)
  • Ha Giang is close to the border with China and I have a friend who went there – it convinced me I should have added it to my list.
  • Ban Gioc waterfall is also on the border with China and it looks pretty impressive.

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