Northern Vietnam seems to have it all – from stunning rural landscapes to sprawling cities with lots of great food. It’s also where the capital of the country – Hanoi – is located, a city full of culture, life, lots of historical sights and sounds combined with modern ones as well. If you have a week to spare and want to get the best out of what Northern Vietnam has to offer, this is a great itinerary to follow.
- 1 SUMMARY of ITINERARY
- 2 DAY 1: Arrival Hanoi – Airport Pick up
- 3 DAY 2: Hanoi – Sapa
- 4 DAY 3: Trekking Lao chai village – Ta Van village – Hanoi
- 5 DAY 4: Hanoi – Ninh Binh
- 6 DAY 5: Ninh Binh – Ha Long Bay
- 7 DAY 6: Ha Long Bay – Hanoi
SUMMARY of ITINERARY
DAY 1: ARRIVAL HANOI
DAY 2: HANOI – SAPA
DAY 3: TREKKING LAO CHAI VILLAGE – TA VAN VILLAGE – HANOI
DAY 4: HANOI – NINH BINH
DAY 5: NINH BINH – HA LONG BAY
DAY 6: HA LONG BAY – HANOI
DAY 7: HANOI DEPARTURE
DAY 1: Arrival Hanoi – Airport Pick up
Upon arriving at the Hanoi airport, we met our driver who picked us up right on time – overall a very hassle-free experience. Via private car, we were brought to our hotel in Hanoi named May De Ville Old Quarter – a really good location to explore. It’s a clean and simple hotel, and very comfortable as well – they even have a lap pool where you can do some swimming during your downtime.
Day one of the itinerary is dedicated to leisure – stroll around the streets of the city and do whatever you please, go to whatever catches your eye first.
The first thing on our agenda: food. We ate Bun Cha – one of the must-eats when in Hanoi. It is a grilled pork and noodle Vietnamese dish with lots of herbs and vegetables to balance out the savory meat and sauce.
We then decided to do a free walking tour around Hanoi, which showcases some popular tourist spots like Hanoi’s Old Quarter and the Heritage House. We had some time before the free walking tour began so we decided to head to the train station. It was quite cool – a good place for taking photos.
Despite the rainy and rather crappy weather, our guide Pie was still very enthusiastic. We managed to cover a lot in just 4 hours of touring around the city. We started out in a small heritage house – she explained the components of the houses and reason for their existence during the colonial era, as well as the culture and practices they did. It was a very good introduction to Vietnamese culture.
A few of our stops through pictures are:
We asked her if we could stop for a coffee break so she took us to Dinh Café, a very traditional looking spot – the entrance is behind the shop of bags. We decided to order some egg coffee, a drink Vietnam is very well known for – it’s a little different but still really good.
When evening came around we were too exhausted to do anything else so we ended up eating Pho for dinner at a place right beside our hotel.
DAY 2: Hanoi – Sapa
Once day one came to an end, it was time for us to drive to the more rural area of Sapa—a popular trekking base with lots of green terraced rice fields perfect for taking pictures. The best thing about the drive was that the car we rode in was very comfortable—to the point where we were able to work during the drive. Yes, we used the long five hours to edit photos, write articles and whatnot. See behind the scenes:
Must see in Sapa
See Silver Falls
The Silver Waterfalls in Sapa, also known locally as Thac Bac, is one of the most beautiful and well-visited waterfalls in Sapa and Vietnam in general. The hike to the top of the stairs takes 15 minutes and you’ll be greeted to beautiful views once you reach the very top. The clear waters flow so quickly, giving the appearance of silver—which is why it’s been given the endearment: The Silver Waterfalls.
The view point at the top is amazing. At 100m high, you can see the nearby nature and structures—particularly the fields of roses which bloom in the area all year round.
- View Point:
- Entrance fee: 20,000 VND/46.59 PHP/0.86 USD
Walk around Sapa Town
Even though a single day isn’t enough to see all of the interesting and unique sights that Sapa Town has to offer, you can still get a good amount to fit in your schedule.
Sapa market is open from 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM. You can purchase trinkets, accessories, clothes, food, and other souvenirs here—great options to bring to your family and friends back home. Aside from small goods, you can also purchase fruits and vegetables wholesale. Haggling is also the norm here but be wary—salespersons tend to drive a hard bargain.
Hill Tribe crafts and fabrics:
Above the Sapa Market you will be able to find clothing and bags handcrafted by the tribes in the hill. It’s a great way to support the livelihood of the locals. You can also find other locally made craft works at the Sapa Square.
See train station
See the lake
Sapa Lake can be found inside Sapa Town. It’s a nice and serene place to take a stroll and just walk around and relax. You can even rent a paddle boat to ride around the lake for just 40 VND for a thirty minute ride.
See the church
The Sapa Stone Church is located right in the heart and centre of Sapa Town, a Church dating way back to ancient times—the 20th century, to be exact. Here you can take some pictures of the beautiful French-built architecture and explore around.
There are lots of little restaurants and stalls littered around Sapa Town—a good amount of the locals are able to speak in English so you’ll have no trouble communicating your orders. Tips are not required.
DAY 3: Trekking Lao chai village – Ta Van village – Hanoi
Hike to Lao Chai Village and Ta Van Village
The Lao Chai village is around 6 kilometres away from the heart of Sapa Town where more greeneries and terraces can be found. This is where the Black Hmong ethnic people reside and where you can purchase their locally made handicrafts and trinkets.
This was a good hike. We visited the biggest valley in the area which offered some of the best views. Despite it being foggy from above, we still had good views of the scenery below—the rice terraces gave me Banaue feels. It was so green and pretty—we were constantly amazed by the view despite the weather.
The best time to view the green lush rice fields is during June through August—if you want more golden views then it’s best to go between the months of August and early September.
The great thing is that we went in August, providing great views of the sights and nature below—but the only setback was that it was rainy.
TIP: Villagers will try to follow you around—say no firmly. In the end they will attempt to force you to buy something from them. You see, I am not against tipping if I feel that the service is worth it and I am more than willing to give a tip. But in the end, they kept on following us even if we assured them that we already knew the way around. Our guide later told us to be more firm about saying no—they say Asians are easier to sway whilst others tend to be more firm.
Come lunchtime, we couldn’t eat because the locals kept on swarming around us shoving sales into our faces. There were a lot of them and it came to the point that the experience was become stressful. Even if I moved tables it was almost impossible to ward them away—they just kept coming and trying to sell to us despite us saying no.
We didn’t bring any money at that point—we tried telling them but they just wouldn’t listen.
We didn’t even eat. I couldn’t eat. Our guide finally had to tell them off and they became pretty aggressive in response. It was a sad thing to watch. We saw other foreigners passing by and they weren’t bombarded too much—they say Westerners are more stern and we should be more like them. I think our experience was just a case of them needing to learn when enough was enough because it really was too much—they were grouping and swarming all around us.
After the hike to Sapa, we headed back to Hanoi.
Ta Van Village is another area in the Lao Cai province—inside the Muong Hoa Valley where the Dzay people reside. The Ta Van village is more like where the home stays are—where laundry service is available and all that. You can also find terraced fields and lots of crops in this area since growing rice is one of the main livelihoods of the locals here. All in all, Lao Cao was really pretty—again, except for our village swarm experience.
Also, don’t take pictures of the kids in the area—or at the very least ask first. They usually ask for money when you take pictures, so I didn’t try.
DAY 4: Hanoi – Ninh Binh
This day of the itinerary was the best day so far. After breakfast at the hotel we took a 90 km drive south of Hanoi to Ninh Binh—Vietnam’s old capital city. While it isn’t usually featured in other Vietnam travel guides, Ninh Binh still has a lot to offer, such as the stunning Tam Coc Caves, limestone cliffs, and beautiful rice fields.
Hang Mua Peak
Although climbing up to the Hang Mua Peak takes half an hour, the short trek is more than worth it for the 360 degree view of the Tam Coc Valley, limestone mountains, rice plantations and the nature and greenery of Ninh Binh. If you’d prefer not to walk, there are also bikes for hire on the path.
After the climb to Hang Mua Peak, the adventure continues with a boat trip along Tam Coc. Here you’ll have a view of the limestone and karstic rock formations littered along the path—the area is so stunning it has become one of Vietnam’s top tourist destination, and even a portion of an UNESCO World Heritage site. The scene is also lovingly given the name, “Halong-bay-on-land”. The locals also row the boats by their feet in a very skillful manner, which is a unique sight to experience.
After having lunch, we head to a more historical location— what used to be a King’s Palace back in the ancient times.
Trang An Eco-Tourism Attraction
The attraction is composed of multiple landscapes and heritage areas such as the limestone mountains and valleys. The boat ride crosses through the cave chains which include the Sang Cave, Toi Cave, Ba Giot Cave, and Sinh Cave. Lots of different archeological artifacts and relics were found in the caves as well. After the boat tour finishes, you head back to the hotel for check-in.
DAY 5: Ninh Binh – Ha Long Bay
At around 7:30 AM in the morning, we were met by our driver for a four hour drive to Ha Long Bay, which is another UNESCO World Heritage Site that boasts lots of greenery and limestone islands and karsts.We booked a ride via the Alisa Premiere Cruises. We were welcomed aboard for lunch and then once everybody was ready and onboard, we sailed through the bay.
Ha Long Bay is a location many people skip because they think it’s too “touristy” and crowded—thankfully we visited during the off-season.The best time to visit Ha Long Bay is typically during the months of March – May and September through November. Unfortunately, these are also the months where the crowds tend to be the most condensed and swarming.
It was rainy and all during our visit, but even so. There was still magic in the sea. It felt as if we were in the movie Avatar—it was all just so magical and scenic, as if our ride was ripped right out of a movie or a film. We were also given the option to go swimming and sunbathing on the deck and at the nearby beaches. Aside from lunch, cocktails and other drinks are also available for purchase aboard.
We booked a room with a twin bed and a balcony with an amazing ocean view—it was pretty spacious, clean, and comfortable. There was also a kettle as well ingredients available if you wanted to make your own tea or coffee. The bathroom is also fully equipped with a bidet and a sizeable bathtub. Other features inside the room include a television, DVD player, air conditioning, minibar, and more.
The food onboard consists of mainly Vietnamese cuisine as well as various drinks and spirits. The cruise restaurant doesn’t just serve typical everyday local food however—the plating, presentation as well as the preparation of the meals is really taken to another level. Aside from the main restaurant, there is also a Sun Deck Bar where you can purchase some refreshments and even more spirits.
The service is also very attentive—you can call any one of the staff members and they will be more than happy to assist you or answer any questions you might have for them. When serving meals, the staff are also the ones who plate your dishes for you.
You don’t even have to be worried about being late for an activity or swimming in the waters. All of the rooms on board have built in speakers inside to notify all of the guests when the next activity is going to start but ultimately it is totally up to you if you wish to join or not, making it a very laid-back and really more of a do-it-yourself experience.
Must see in Halong Bay
Sung Sut Cave
The first check of the itinerary is to visit the Sung Sut Cave—one of the biggest in the Ha Long Bay. Inside are walkways as well as colored lighting to make it easier to explore and take pictures of. This one, however, I found to be a little too touristy and unorganised. The cave itself was very awesome and picturesque but unfortunately, it was just a tad bit too crowded to really enjoy it to the fullest.
Kayaking is one of the activities available on board—the participants are loaded into small kayaks and made to roam around the ocean beside the limestone cliffs and islands. This one I liked—the kayaking group consisted of a lot of people but even so, we still had a lot of space to kayak. We felt like the cruise group had their own area because we didn’t see any other kayaks aside from out fellow cruise goers—the Alisa family as they called it. Overall, it was a good experience and views are particularly more enjoyable during sunset.
After kayaking, the cooking demo/cooking class came next. We made authentic Vietnamese spring rolls as a group and then we had it for dinner. Dinner was more of a course type of meal rather than your typical cruise buffets. Drinks aren’t included in the cooking demo—including water—so we bought some wine to pair with our meal. The room only comes with two bottles of water unfortunately. Thankfully, we still had some left over from the van.
The cruise staff taught us how to fish but unfortunately there weren’t really any squid to catch. Aside from going squid catching, you can also opt to stay in your rooms or relax at the sun deck—you can do anything you please on the cruise, really.
Go to a private beach
You can either try to see the view of the bay from the top of some of the high-lying areas of the limestone islands, or you can relax and swim around in the cool water.
Go back to the boat for brunch
Back to the port
For us, the experience of Ha Long Bay was far less crowded than we expected it to be and we loved it—we loved the area, it was so beautiful. Despite the rainy weather during our visit, the experience still had a lot of magic to it—but I guess that’s the benefit of visiting the area during the off-season.
Personally, I think it’s worth it to go for an overnight stay at the Ha Long Bay—the half-day cruises may not get you too much in terms of new experiences but it is still very luxurious, comfortable, and filled with various activities so you don’t get bored at all—we especially enjoyed sleeping and sunbathing on board. Loved it.
DAY 6: Ha Long Bay – Hanoi
The morning started off with a Tai Chi session followed by breakfast and another visit of a nearby limestone grotto and the other sights along Ha Long Bay. After checkout and lunch, we drove back to our hotel in Hanoi.
While in Hanoi, you can stroll around the old quarters and the Hanoi Lake—take note that they close for weekends, however. They also have activities like magician shows, dances and whatnot.
You can choose to leave on the evening of the sixth day but in our case, we spent one more day in Hanoi City before we left to fly back to Ho Chi Minh in order to catch our flight back home to Manila via Air Asia.
If you’re troubled on which hotel to settle into during your Vietnam trip, here are a few recommended ones depending on what kind of service and feel of hotel suits you, your location, and your preferences the most.
- A destination, 4-star hotel great for booking if you plan on seeing the Ha Long Bay.
- Senior Suite
- Great ocean views
- Premium service and exceptional room amenities
- Great pick when exploring Hanoi
- 3-star hotel
- Gym and rooftop bar
- Deluxe City View
- Prime kickoff point when in Ninh Binh
- 4-star Hotel
- Swimming pool and fitness center
- Our pick: Deluxe Room
- 4-star Hotel
- Mountain views
- Kareoke Bar
- Our pick: Deluxe Room