Destination 2/3 of our ‘honeymoon tour’. Arriving after A week in The Philippines meant we could hit the ground running – no jet lag!
We landed in Hanoi knowing three things: where we were staying that night, where we wanted to go next, and when our departure flight was booked to leave.
Other than that, we had nothing organised. We did have some great advice from friends and family on where to go though, so we weren’t short on ideas. And there is so much to see! So the hard part was prioritizing how to spend our limited time there in the best way possible. Of course we (I) got a spreadsheet going… my adventurous side only goes so far…
Roaming the streets of Hanoi you are consumed by the buzz of the city. Particularity in old town – there are scooters everywhere. Nothing is still. Crossing the street is like an organised game of chicken: You cannot overthink it or second guess yourself. You’re almost better off not looking at all and just going; confidently crossing the road at a predictable speed so the scooters can just flow around you… like a stream of water would as if you were crossing a river. It is wild! There are loads of markets, art galleries, independent retailers via storefront/cart/market stalls, tourist shops, restaurants and hostels all over the old town.
The first thing we did was wander around and look for a place to eat. We quickly got lost. Definitely recommend getting a sim card while you’re there and taking cash out for spending. We came across a restaurant called Cha Ca La Vong that we HIGHLY recommend. They serve one dish and one dish only – grilled fish. So good.
And at night we stumbled across a women making Pho at the side of the road. It was Halloween so after or roadside dinner we had some roadside beer… another older women was selling cups of beer from a keg at the side of the road with a bunch of little chairs set out to enjoy it in. We sat there, drank beer, and people watched almost all night haha there was a lot going on. We joined in on a hostel Halloween party, because, why not? And we got a late night Bahn Mi before heading back to the hotel.
The next day we checked out of our hotel – leaving our big bag there – and taking just a small piece of luggage with us for the rest of the trip. Before heading to our next destination we tried the famous Vietnamese egg coffee at a cafe called Gau. It was so sweet and delicious.
Mai Chau is a White Thai village in the mountains surrounded by terraced rice fields – you can feel the temperature difference as you drive up. All of the houses are on stilts as their tradition is to sleep high to be safe from the animals. We stayed in a traditional White Thai house at a homestay called Little Mai Chau.
When we arrived it was dark and there was no signal to get maps going. Driving up to the stilted house in what seemed to be the middle of a field was a little unnerving. But somehow we we ended up at the right place and we were floored at how beautiful the location was when we woke up the next morning.
Our host, Hường, made a family dinner every night for all those staying. She’d put all the tables together and serve up a feast alongside some Rice Wine and you get to know everyone. There was beer in the fridge and if you took one, you simply marked down how many you drank each night in a nearby notepad. Every morning breakfast was made fresh and you could rent bikes for free or a scooter for a small fee from the homestay directly. Over three days, we did all of these things and we spent under £40 (accommodation, meals, rentals)…
Yes – it was basically a hostel with a shared bedroom and bathroom. But I mean… it was such a homey experience, clean and comfortable; and considering the price we paid it was such a good deal. They had some private bungalows too, but we actually didn’t mind the shared space.
Our first day in Mai Chau we rented bikes and cruised around the small country lanes. We checked out a couple nearby caves that were pretty epic. I had no idea how many massive caves were in Vietnam – a lot of them were used tactically during the war. We ate lunch in the neighboring village and checked out the hand crafted clothes on display. This was where I learned that in Vietnam I am a size 6 XL!!!
On our second day we hiked through the terraced rice fields. Hường coordinated a private guide for us and we embarked on a 6hr hike up the mountain. It was such a cool experience and our guide was really nice; he’d tell us about their way of life and introduce us to the locals in the area. These mountain villages are so remote – I can’t imagine living so far away from things. It would take over an hour to walk into town to get to a market…
One thing was clear – all the people working in the rice fields were women. They are hard ass workers. We didn’t see a single man working.
Lots of people will go to Sapa to see the terraced rice fields that Vietnam are known for. We were recommended to go to Mai Chau instead for a similar experience but with less tourists and we’re really glad we did. Mai Chau was such a highlight.
On our last morning before leaving we rented a scooter. It was a good place to test driving a scooter together because there’s not much traffic. It was a bit of a shit show haha but we got the hang of it which was good because we ended up renting a scooter in just about every place thereafter.
Tam Coc, Ninh Binh
Compared to Mai Chau, where we felt like we had such a nice and authentic experience, Tam Coc felt extremely touristy. But once we put that past us, you can see why it’s so touristy. Tam Coc has such a unique and beautiful landscape. We rented bikes and toured around. We found this cute cafe off the beaten track and we just enjoyed the down time.
We rented a scooter on the next day and drove to Trang An for a boat cave tour. Again, all the workers rowing the boats were women! In some parts of the river, you turn a corner and you feel like you were exploring a part of the world nobody had ever seen before. Proper Jurassic Park feels.
Ha Long Bay
There’s nothing to do at Ha Long Bay except go on a cruise. We opted to do a 3 day 2 night cruise because we read that the 2 day 1 night cruise was rushed. Our expectations were set for a very touristy experience. I did LOADS of research trying to find a cruise that went to Tu Long Bay because we were told it would be less touristy… but it was difficult to find without paying an arm and a leg.
In the end I booked the Indochina Sails Cruise for us because they promoted going to Tu Long Bay on day two and they had good ratings for food – which was important seeing as there will be no escape for 3 days! I also read that when you go to Surprise Cave that the Indochina Sails Cruise gets you there first.
I still don’t know what the “best option” is… all cruises do the EXACT same route. So it kind of comes down to the ships facilities that might add to your experience. They also might do a different day trip on day two, but it seems like it’s just a different area of the bay to do some kayaking and see the floating villages.
Overall, it was really nice to be in one place for a while and when the sun set, the scenery was breathtaking. But you feel shitty for contributing to the masses. There’s just so many ships and it’s because of all the tourists that there is so much regulation – which is good. But it’s so much more polluted and overrun then I realised. You can’t even swim in the bay now – you can only swim in one buoyed off designated area. It’s strange. Beautiful. But strange.
We met a fun group of people though and it added to our experience massively. We played cards one night to the wee hours – bullshit, asshole… all the classics.
Cat ba island
We loved it here. If you want to avoid contributing to the masses in Ha Long Bay, you could go to Cat Ba island and see the same beautiful rock formations on the ferry over for less than five bucks.
It’s about 45 minutes on the ferry and when you get off there are a few vans you can pile into that bring you to the city at the opposite side of the island (another 45 minutes).
We stayed at Aroma House which was about 20 minutes walking away from the main area but our hosts were so kind and they offered a lot of advise on where to explore, what to avoid and their favorite local restaurants. They were a young married couple – the wife from Hanoi and the husband ran a lot of the Cat Ba Island tours. They also offered the scooter for free which felt like a bargain.
We decided to go chill at the beach and relax for a bit. But this stage, we were getting a little tired of researching what to do and where to go. We took the scooter over to “Beach 3” apparently the best of the three beaches. It was nothing special – in fact there was construction on a nearby building that made it very unappealing at the time actually. So we wandered around and followed a walking path along the cliff-side looking out to the water. We ended up finding a little hidden gem of a beach tucked away. It was perfect.
The next day we drove to the Cat Ba National Park for a hike. Only problem was, we had no idea where we were hiking too. We doubled back a couple times and then eventually just followed the path in front of us and trusted that it would lead somewhere. We were in an area called Kim Giao and we eventually found the Dinh Ngu Lam look out point. It was pretty special.
We ate at a recommended local restaurant that day – we tried mantis shrimp – so good. And went back to our secret beach to catch some rays. We went out out that night – met a few people and sported a decent hangover for the ride back to Hanoi for our last night in Vietnam.
Overall here’s our itinerary….
- 2 nights in Hanoi
- 3 nights in Mai Chau
- 2 nights in Tam Coc, Ninh Binh
- 2 nights on a cruise in Ha Long Bay
- 2 nights in Cat Ba
- 1 final night in Hanoi
We hired a private driver to not spend too much time on the road getting from place to place. Highly recommend doing the same if you are short on time. During each drive we’d spend most of the time researching what to do next and where to stay. It looks like a small blip on the map but to get from Hanoi > Mai Chau > Ninh Bihn > Ha Long Bay / Cat Ba Island > Hanoi…. it’s about 4 hours driving every time. We booked this service through Ninh Binh Tourist Centre and it cost us $125 USD all in.
If we had more time we would have liked to do a foodie tour in Hanoi, the Ha Giang loop and maybe get down to Hội An and then fly out from there.