NORTHERN VIETNAM TRAVEL GUIDE | My partner and I spent more than a month of exploring and motorbiking the northern reaches of Vietnam. And we did not regret our decision one bit, rather I personally wished we stayed longer in northern Vietnam. Some of the places we’ve been to don’t have existing travel guides online yet. Especially when it comes to traveling from Point A to Point B and to Point C. Our northern Vietnam travel guide covers this route (which you can always break and modify to suit your need and style.) We covered Hanoi, Ninh Binh, Ha Long Bay, Sa Pa, Lao Cao, Ha Giang, Dong Van, Cao Bang, and Lang Son in that order.
Well, initially we thought of renting a motorbike in Hanoi and biked our way to Vietnam’s northern edges. But our guts cowered every time we saw the life-threatening traffic (well, to the outsider’s point of view) in Hanoi. So we bused in going to those provinces and rented a motorbike in each place.
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If you are confident with your motorbiking skills, go ahead and rent one in Hanoi. It is cost-effective that way. It is cheaper to rent a motorbike in weekly or monthly basis than in daily basis.
If you intend to go to Ha Giang and Dong Van by motorbike though, be warned that the road is like a slit on the shoulder of rocky and winding gorges. But dang, the place is beautiful, so it is worth the unsteady beating of one’s heart. And oh yeah, get used to the Vietnam’s horn branding. You will know it once you hear it. 😉
Well, it is hard to tell. We spent a lot of days in Ninh Binh and Sa Pa (almost a week each). Some places simply speak to you and you end up staying longer than you intend to. Just make sure that your visa covers the length of your stay in Vietnam. We spent exactly one month in northern Vietnam. My partner crossed the border to China on his last day in Vietnam, while I headed back to Hanoi for a teaching volunteer program.
Just make sure, you have enough time to cover the places you want to visit. To be safe, three nights in each place should be enough so you can have an overview of the beautiful landscapes of this lovely country.
QUESTION: How about southern Vietnam and central Vietnam, you may ask. Of course, we’ve been there. And the lazy butt me is just proudly lazy to write everything. We spent three weeks (oh yeah) exploring the south, including the southernmost parts (we covered HCMC, Can Tho, Ca Mau, Ben Tre, Soc Trang), and two years ago, we covered Danang, Hoi An, Hue, and pretty recently Dalat. So yes, just pure laziness of writing about these places
How to get from the airport to Hanoi:
1. By Uber or Grab
Beware of the taxis in northern Vietnam! So instead of taxiing around Hanoi, I highly recommend you download Uber or Grab (Southeast Asia’s version of Uber).
2. By Minibus
Outside the airport, there are several minibuses that ferry you from the airport to Hanoi.
Driving around the beautiful karst formations in Trang An
1. If you are a Filipino, you can visit Vietnam visa-free for 21 days. Is that enough to tour the whole northern Vietnam? Nope, it is not. But I know, most Filipinos don’t have the amount of time to travel that long. So pick the destinations you want to experience.
2. If you stay longer than that, you need a tourist visa.
3. I was traveling in southern Vietnam for three weeks, crossed the border to Cambodia, and processed my three-month visa there for $54.00. I stayed almost four months in Vietnam. Long, huh?
So this Northern Vietnam Travel Guide covers:
1. Things to Do in Hanoi
2. Things to Do in Ninh Binh
3. Things to Do in Ha Long Bay
4. Things to Do in Sa Pa
5. Things to Do in Lao Cai
6. Things to Do in Ha Giang including Dong Van and Meo Vac
7. Things to Do Cao Bang
8. Things to Do in Lang Son
9. And most importantly, how to go from each place to the next destination by public transportation
1. Hang out in Hoan Kiem Lake. The road surrounding the lake is closed on weekends. Expect a volume of tourists on weekends. A lot of activities around. Singing. Dancing. Eating. And other activities you can expect in a touristy place. Visit Hoan Kiem Lake in a weekday morning, like around 6:30-8:00. It is an entirely different place. Locals often start their day doing some stretches, zumba, dance, badminton matches, and tai chi here. If you are traveling somewhere May-July, expect the fragrance of Barringtonia acutangula tree flowers, locally known as lộc vừng. Of course, the lovely fire trees bloom this time of the year too.
2. Eat Bun cha. Because you cannot find it elsewhere in Vietnam. It is a plate of glass noodles, pork balls, and herbs. Is it good? Yum!
3. Explore the Old Quarter. It can be touristy, but it is my favorite place in Hanoi. It bustles and hustles. There are a lot of quaint cafes to choose from that I myself got confused. I ended up frequenting the same coffee shop again and again.
4. Visit the Temple of Literature and National University. I must admit I haven’t been here. If you’re into literature, history, and architecture, don’t forget to visit this place.
Hours: 8:00 AM – 9:00 PM
Address: Quoc Tu Giam Street, Dong Da District, Hanoi 100000, Vietnam
5. Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. I got dragged into visiting this place without even knowing the significance of this place. Huh! It is a UNESCO Heritage site and was the center of regional political power for almost thirteen centuries without interruption.
Hours: Daily 8:00 – 12:30 & 13:30 – 19:30
Address: Quan Thanh, Ba Dinh, Hanoi
Entrance Fee: 30 000VND
6. Café Hopping. Oh, well, not just in Hanoi but the entire country. But Hanoi, touristy as it is, has a lot of quaint and artistic coffee shops that you will get confused on which one to pick. I personally loved Caphe Cong, the branch facing Hoan Kiem Lake. Their green rice smoothie is worth trying for! Their coconut coffee smoothie is a sellout too! [I’m going to write a Hanoi Café Guide and more detailed Hanoi Travel Guide on Among Fernweh anytime soon.]
It is pretty easy actually. We Uber-ed from our hotel to Ben Xe Giap Bat. A bus leaves every fifteen to twenty minutes. Get your ticket from the ticket counter, not from some random person in the terminal. We paid around 90000VND for our ticket to Ninh Binh.
Ninh Binh was my favorite place in northern Vietnam. I could not get over the various shades of green fields and the dramatic rock formations. We initially planned to stay for three nights, but we ended up staying for a week. We loved this place a lot.
1. Pedal around Trang An. We did not do this. But we saw a lot of tourists cycling around.
2. Explore Tràng An Scenic Landscape Complex. Nihn Binh has a lot of wetlands and rivers. So aside from pedaling around, don’t miss a boat ride to have a different view of this lovely place.
3. Ride a boat in Tam Coc. Must be the most touristy you can do in Ninh Binh. The view is not as spectacular, but it is not bad trying it all.
4. Rent a motorbike and explore. This, we did a lot. We did not have an exact destination in mind and simply rode through smaller roads and be awed by the beauty of this place.
5. Bich Dong Pagoda. It is pretty near Tam Coc, and you can pop in and out of this place. We decided not to visit this place. But then again, I’m going back to Vietnam anytime next year, so a reason to visit this place.
6. Check out Bai Dinh Temple.
It is a massive property. You should check out this beautiful place and don’t forget to elevator your way to the top of the pagoda, so you can see the sprawling view from the top.
7. Hike up Mua Caves. The caves were not really the highlight of this place, but the view from the top of the limestone hill is That being said, climb up the stairs and be rewarded with an amazing view of Ninh Binh.
8. Hoa Lu Ancient Capital. It is just a kilometer away from Trang An. So you can always include this is in your itinerary.
1. We booked our bus from the in-house agency of the hotel we were staying. We paid more than we should. But we got kinda talked to get it.
2. If you are in a budget, go to the bus station. And get a local bus to Ha Long Bay, which is just a three-hour ride from Ninh Binh.
1. There is only one major reason people go to Ha Long Bay, and that is to experience the hundreds of islets sprawling in the bay. I am unapologetically Filipino, and I could say, view-wise and experience-wise, El Nido and Coron, Palawan are far more beautiful than Ha Long Bay.
2. Have a quick trip to Cat Ba Island. We rented a motorbike and intended to board the shop to Cat Ba Island, but as usual, the story of our life, we woke up late, and decided to forego it.
3. Have a day hike to Bai Tho Mountain . I did not do this, but Tobias did. He had a nice sunset time on the top of fmngfgn overlooking the bay.
4. Rent a motorbike and explore around.
5. Eat seafood. Since we just stayed by the bay, we had access to several seafood restaurants. Food is not supercheap, but we mostly pigged out in Vietnam, so I did not regret spending money on good food.
Day tour or Overnight Cruise in Ha Long Bay? Which is better?
Now it entirely depends on your budget. We were not super-cheapskate, but we forewent the overnight cruise in Ha Long Bay because it was way beyond our budget. And a day cruise along the bay was more than enough. We’ve seen the caves, some view decks, and all the usual touristy stuff along the way. The rate of the full-day tour covers all the entrance fees to the stops along the way. Our day tour costs us 600000VND each, inclusive of yummy lunch.
We booked our night bus ride from the hotel we stayed in. It costs us 300 000VND each. We left Sa Pa at ten in the evening. The ride was kinda long. We had to transfer to a minibus along the way (without extra cost) and we arrived in Sa Pa around 9 in the morning. The moment you got off from the bus, H’mong women will be there, asking you if you need a trekking guide or if you want to stay in their village.
1. Walk around the beautiful rice fields. If you join a tour, chances are you’re going to trail the usual route. We went on our way and just walked around the lovely, lovely rice fields. I prefer it that way. If you do it on your own, be careful of the dogs around. Some of them can be aggressive, by that I mean, very barky.
2. Check Cat cat Village. It is not a real village, but a replica of a village from the bygone years. It is like a museum with real people working, so the outsiders can have a view of how life was back then. The village even has the traditional water mills. They have dances, cafes, and restaurant. Of course, a lot of shops selling trinkets and souvenirs.
3. Check the Silver Waterfalls. I did not check the waterfalls because I was grumpy (and boring). But Tobias did motorbike his way to the waterfalls.
4. Eat Hot Pot, locally called lau. Damn, it is so good. We had it at Stunning View Hotel, the place we stayed in for a week.
5. Check Notre Dame Cathedral. Some H’mong will be in the square to have a photo op with you if you want. For a donation, I think. We did not try this, because it is not our thing. The main square is beautiful especially when it is engulfed by fog.
6. Hike Fansipan Peak. Tobias wanted to do it, but it costs a lot. Fansipan Peak is the highest peak in Indochina. If you have the money and you love trekking, ask around for a legitimate trekking guide.
Yeah, we could not find any decent information online on how to go to Ha Giang (pronounced as Ha Zang) from Sa Pa. It is not possible to go directly to Ha Giang from Sa Pa unless you got a good motorbike with you. You have to bus to Lao Cai, a major city in northwestern Vietnam. It is an hour away from Sa Pa. It is impossible to go to Ha Giang from Sa Pa via Lao Cai in one day. So the best bet is to stay a night in Lao Cai.
From Sa Pa, buses to Lao Cai leave every thirty minutes. Ask from your hotel the direction to the bus stop for Lao Cai minibuses. It is by the main square. We paid 100000VND each.
Always coordinate with the hotel staff for the time the bus to Ha Giang leaves. The bus to Ha Giang is limited, so you don’t really want to miss it. There must be only one minibus that leaves to Ha Giang with a lot of stops along the way. The road was kinda bumpy and you have to transfer to another bus half-way to Ha Giang. The ride was somewhat rough, but overall, fine. I slept most parts of the trip. Don’t worry, the second minibus doesn’t leave unless the first mini-bus arrives.
1. Drive up to Quang Ba. Quang Ba is known for twin peaks. Two perfect hills that look like tits. Haha! Quang Ba is the main reason some travelers ventured up here. It is a beautiful place. The drive takes at least two hours from Ha Giang proper. The road is winding and narrow. So be extra careful when you drive up here.
2. Visit Dong Van. It was by accident that we made it here. I booked our first two nights in Ha Giang in Dong Van, which is five hours away from Ha Giang center. I’m really noob when it comes to direction. So we checked it online, and oh boy, aren’t we excited to see photos of this lovely place? So after two nights in Ha Giang, we bused to Dong Van and stayed there for three nights. Bus costs 100000VND each.
3. Motorbike your way around. By now you should know that motorbiking skills is a must in Vietnam. from Dong Van, driving to Meo Vac is always an exciting option.
1. There are many buses leaving to Cao Bang from Ha Giang. You can coordinate with your hotel for the schedule. The bus picked us up from the hotel, and we paid for 100000VND. It was a very comfortable ride from Ha Giang.
1. There is only one reason we went to Cao Bang. That is, to have a glimpse of Ban Gioc Waterfall, one of my dream destinations. Such a lovely place. The river leading to the falls is something worth exploring too.
2. Eat Lau. Oh yes, we enjoyed it a lot that in every new place we are in Vietnam, we have it.
1. We rented a motorbike in our neighborhood and motorbiked our way to Ban Gioc Waterfalls. It took two hours by motorbike to the waterfall. Along the way, you can find beautiful rock formations for some photo stops. I would prefer you do this than going there by bus. The road is very comfortable, and you can stop anywhere you want.
2. It is possible to go to Ban Gioc by bus. But I don’t have the details. Again, ask your hotel staff about the bus schedules if you intend to go there by bus.
Buses to Lang Son leave in regular basis from Cao Bang Bus Station. Just go to the bus station and ask for the buses to Lang Son. It is a comfortable ride to Lang Son. We left around ten in the morning and arrived in Lang Son around 3 in the afternoon.
1. Relax. It was our last two nights together (Tobias is heading to China for a month, me to Hanoi to volunteer as a teacher.) So aside from our usual coffee dates and meals, we just stayed in the hotel and relaxed.
2. Bac Son Valley
3. Tam Thanh Grotto
4. Mount Mẫu Sơn
5. Đông Kinh Market
6. Đền mẫu
Northern Vietnam Travel Guide | Where to Stay in Lang Son
All right, that is! I will write a more detailed travel guide on each place on AmongFernweh.com, so don’t forget to check that blog out. If you’ve been to these places, what was your favorite?