We have made it back from Vietnam and are finally able to start sorting through our photos and videos as our new hard drive has arrived allowing us to be able to transfer our vacation photos and finally look at them on a full screen! There’s always that bit of anxiety when our photos are in limbo like that and we cannot back them up. I always dread the worst like our memory cards spontaneously combusting or our house getting robbed by a thief that is solely interested in other people’s vacation photos.
But I digress. You are clearly here to be inspired by photos of Northern Vietnam. Our two week itinerary took us through the capital of Hanoi where we explored the busy and colorful streets. We then stayed three days out in the middle of the Bai Tu Long Bay on a boat that was far fancier than I expected. From there, we took a train up into the mountains of Sapa where we followed a girl named Little Mu through the terraces of rice for four days. Finally, we traveled further south to Ninh Binh where the outcropping of limestone rocks sit among stretches of rice paddies. We’ll be sure to write a bit more about each of these locations later on, but for now, scroll down and be dazzled.
While in Hanoi, our driving force behind getting out of our wonderfully air conditioned hotel room and out into the sweltering heat of the city everyday was the hunt for all. the. food. Ryan’s number one mission in every place we travel is to eat, sleep, repeat and if he doesn’t get to check all the foods off his list, he can get a little salty. In Hanoi he was madder than a wet hen with me because I bailed on our 7 kilometer walk in the pouring rain with no umbrella to the Bun Cha restaurant where Obama ate with Anthony Bourdain. Seriously, he’s intense with his food cravings, but who doesn’t love a good vacation centered around food, food, and more food?
Must Eat in Hanoi
- Phờ Gà – I had never tried this version of phờ until coming to Hanoi. Apparently the chicken noodle soup is much more famous in the capital than its beef counterpart.
- Bún Chà – Hands down our favorite food we had in Vietnam. This soups has thin rice noodles, fatty grilled pork, and loads of green leaf vegetables piled on top.
- Bánh Mì – Literally translating into baguette, this is a sandwich stuffed with pork or chicken, varying vegetables, and mayo sauce.
I also almost bailed on this trip up to Sapa too. Man, I’m starting to sound like a real drag on vacation. To be honest, walking for seven hours everyday in the 40° heat didn’t sound all that appealing, but Ryan swooped in and bought us train tickets and a guided trek anyway. He needs to learn better negotiating skills. Once we arrived in Sapa, the weather was actually much cooler than in Hanoi so my spirits were lifted. Once we started our trek, the views were simply out of this world and I was so thankful that Ryan didn’t let me naysay my way out of going. Even when the monsoon-like rains poured on us for more than half our time, we were both completely blown away by the stunning vistas and the amazing people we met.
Check Out Sapa Sisters for Guided Treks
- Sapa Sisters is an amazing company for guided trekking in Vietnam. The guides are local Hmong women who know Sapa like the back of their hand. They are the only female and Hmong owned business in Sapa and they provide their guides with a fair salary and opportunities to provide for their families. There are 30 girls ranging in age from 16-45 and they all speak English.
Now this is my way of enjoying vacation! I can be adventurous, but never underestimate my ability to buy a plane ticket and still be totally fine with relaxing (read: napping at the hotel). Fast pace travel is the surest way to exhaustion for me and sometimes you just need a cold drink in hand while lounging about doing nothing. The rural areas of Northern Vietnam are the perfect place to chill and feel 100% guilt free because you are also surrounded by dreamy landscapes in every direction. Our suggestion is to book a hotel that has those prize winning views so you can just daydream away without having to go anywhere. Or sleep, if you’re like me.
Best Rural Getaways in Northern Vietnam
- Sapa – Rice terraces for days. You can choose to go trekking or just do a homestay in the middle of a village surrounded by fields of green.
- Ninh Binh – Limestone outcroppings and lazy rivers that wind their way through stretches of rice paddies. We suggest checking out the Nguyen Shack for good vibes and a great staff of really talkative and funny young women.
- Cat Ba National Park – Many people just choose to see this island as a part of a day tour whilst on Halong Bay. We suggest a longer more relaxed stay in this beautiful national park, on a private beach preferably.
The Busy City Life
Even though I am typically anti big city because I get high levels of anxiety anytime someone invades my personal bubble and accidentally grazes my arm, I really enjoyed Hanoi. The city feels like you have stepped back into a strange timeline where French colonial architecture meets communist propaganda posters and cops in military fatigues from the war. It was strange, hot, busy, and completely charming. My favorite day in the city was when we were waiting on our red eye back to Korea and forced to hop from place to place with no hotel for copping out of our city adventure. We people watched while dodging the throngs of scooters, planted ourselves in the refreshing air conditioning of a communist themed café, visited a history museum which for some inexplicable reason left out the whole bit about the American war, and gained back all the weight we lost trekking by eating as much food as we physically could.
Some Hanoi Highlights
- Eat all the things on Food Street
- Early morning tai chi at Hoàn Kiếm Lake
- Watch a train roll right through the city on Train Street
- Visit the Old Quarter
The UNESCO World Heritage Sites
There are eight UNESCO heritage sites in Vietnam, five of which are located in the northern parts. Basically, if your goal is to see the most culturally important places in Vietnam, you’d better head north. We managed to see three different sites while on our trip. Well, we actually skipped the greater Halong Bay area in favor of less boats and less midnight loud Chinese karaoke boat parties and headed for Bai Tu Long Bay. We highly recommend it. Unless you are low key into jamming to Chinese karaoke at 2am. Then go for it, we won’t tell anyone.
Our Favorite UNESCO sites
- Old Quarter in Hanoi – Just find a hotel here because it’s where all the charm is at!
- Halong and Bai Tu Long Bay – If you’re going, spend the extra money on Bai Tu Long Bay. Much more secluded and environmentally responsible.
- Trang An Grottoes – A series of limestone outcropping amidst miles of rice paddies. Also a river and several caves run through the area. Show up at 7 am. Skip the crowds and the heat, trust us.
I’ve heard that while in Hanoi you should be cafe hopping like you would in Paris. Cafes are very popular in Hanoi and similar to Paris, cafes here have small outdoor tables that are perfect for watching the city pass by. I, on the other hand, decided it was better to sit inside next to the a/c unit but, hey, to each his own! There are actually a ton of different coffee styles to try out and when you are trying to recover from your cheap red eye flight (okay, maybe that’s just us?) there really is no better way than jolting your system with enough caffeine to kill a small bear.
The Most Popular Cafes in Hanoi
- Cộng Cà Phê – Drink the coconut coffee smoothie and thank us later. Also, find out their recipe.
- Cafe Pho Co – This is a hidden gem near the roundabout in the Old Quarter with loads of charm and a great view on the roof.
- Trill Rooftop Cafe – A really hip new cafe on a rooftop overlooking the city.
Have you been to Northern Vietnam? Is there anything we missed out on?