A Traveler’s Guide
Vespa, Honda, and Yamaha scooters pulse through the streets in a perfectly orchestrated buzz. Seamlessly intersecting, the Old world peacefully collides with present day in a frenzied explosion of food, culture, customs, and nature. At first glance, one might find it hard to believe that all of these things can co-exist with such fluidity in one space at the same time, but then you consume the controlled chaos that is Vietnam. Recently opened to the outside world after two years of being walled off from the pandemic, Vietnam breathes life back into travelers seeking the thrill of new experiences.
The long stretch of land that laces around the Southeast corner of Asia, offers bountiful options for visitors. Although there has been some fluctuation with requirements to enter the country, things seem to have settled since Vietnam was hit with the Omicron variant. We traveled there during the first week of May and only needed a visa obtained through this Government Site (Google). Coming from Seoul, we had a direct 4.5 hr flight to Hanoi. We went with a budget airline called Viet Jet and we even had to pay for water. The screens and power outlets that we also have come accustomed to were also absent but we definitely had an authentic ticket to travel. Over an 8 day span we wandered the streets of Hanoi, soaked in the sights of Cat Ba Island, and explored the countryside around Nin Binh.
Walk without a destination, get lost, stumble through an alley, catch a whiff of some steamy broth and simply stop wherever your soul leads you. To create an itinerary in Hanoi would take away from the adventure of weaving through the city’s intricate maze. The energy that vibrates through the streets of Hanoi is electric and had us wanting to absorb as many experiences as possible.
AIRA Boutique Hanoi Hotel and Spa (Google Maps)- During our time in Hanoi we stayed in the Old Town which is crammed with vendors, coffee shops, bars, and cafe. When we visited, AIRA had opened up that week for the first time in two years. The staff were eager to make sure we had an amazing stay and with a spa in the basement and a rooftop bar/restaurant made for the ideal establishment. Our incredibly spacious and classy room, at $85/night, came with a balcony where we spent the mornings sipping coffee and the evenings taking in the hum of the street below.
Places to Eat, Drink, and See
We were powered by foot during our two days in Hanoi and there is no way to do justice to the abundance of breathtaking food, quaint cafes, and historic temples that flood the streets.
Railway Cafe (Google Maps)- Residences turned to cafes create an amazing atmosphere along an active railway line.
Pho 10 (Google Maps)- The reputation for serving up the best Pho ($3/bowl) in Hanoi is well deserved.
Banh Mi 25 (Google Maps)- Fresh ingredients make for an explosion of flavors packed into the National sando.
Gat Tan Coffee (Google Maps)- Whether drinking a Saigon out of the bottle or an iced coffee with condensed milk, this is a great spot on the corner to watch the world fly by.
Ma Xo Cafe (Google Maps)- Tables Overlooking the lake and the coconut coffee drink is a blend of absolutely icey goodness.
Hanoi Cider House Brewery and Grill (Google Maps)- More western styled food with an American brewery feel. Dank beers and crisp ciders brewed on site.
Tran Quoc Pagoda (Google Maps)- Built in the 6th century by Buddhist Monks this structure is perched on a small island on Lake Ho Tay.
Nogoc Son Temple (Google Maps)- Cross the bridge to the island on Ho Hoan Kiem to reach this Confucian Temple.
Chua Kim Liên (Google Maps)- Intricate Buddhist statues highlight this temple that sits between several lakes.
Quan Thanh Temple (Google Maps)- This temple was constructed in the 11th century and features glorious bronze statues.
Cat Ba Island
Getting to the Eastside of Cat Ba Island is an adventure in itself as we took a 2 hour bus ride from Hanoi to Haiphong, a short boat ride over to the island, followed by another bus combo cab ride to Ben Ben pier, capped with a spectacular speed boat through the majestic isles of La Han Bay. Not as busy as the well renowned Halong Bay, La Han still has floating dwellings on the water. Although the government currently plans to restrict the majority of houseboats for environmental reasons, they give a glimpse to a traditional fishing village.
Lan Homestay (Google Maps)- All of the logistics to arrive to the remote side of the island were set-up by our gracious hosts. I can honestly say that I have never experienced such a hassle free experience due to the coordinated efforts of Lan Homestay to secure our arrival and design an incredible 3 day itinerary. Our A/C and private bath cabin ($40/night) was only occupied when we slept as we were either enjoying the serenity of the grounds or on adventures during the day. Breakfast is included with all other meals provided upon request and any item that you take from the refrigerator you simply write down on your tab (honor system). The food is all harvested on site or from the local farms in the village and was prepared to perfection. On our final night, the family who runs the homestay had us into their home and we had an absolute feast of Vietnamese cuisine.
Day 1 (Biking and Evening Paddle): We arrived in the afternoon and after a lunch of sizzling rice, we rented vintage bicycles to pedal around the village. The paddocks are mixed with crops of rice and corn with water buffalo and cattle grazing in the pastures. Spires and tightly clumped hillsides loom over the lush fields and cast shadows over the valley making for a dramatic setting. In the evening, we took a boat out into the bay and cruised around on kayaks with the bioluminescent plankton dripping from our paddles. To bring the night to a close we fished for squid that we would eat the following day with dinner.
Day 2 (Boat tour and Kayak): Weaving through La Han Bay provides surreal scenery as limestone peaks shrouded in dense vegetation burst through the emerald bay. Pinnacles and pillars sculpted from time form a tapestry of islands splashing across the sea. The kayaks were pulled behind our boat and we used them to explore the abundance of caves in the area and pull up onto our own private beach for swimming and clamming.
Day 3 (Hike and jet boat exit): We had an amazing guide, Chili, for all of our excursions and he created an experience where all we had to focus on was the present moment. On the morning before we left, Chili took us on a hike through the jungle to a lookout that has an incredible view of Halong Bay and the valley below. The hike was a couple of hours round trip and soon we were gliding through the islets of La Han Bay as we made our way back to the mainland of Vietnam.
Ninh Binh Region
Leaving the island lifestyle behind was difficult until we arrived in the fields outside of Ninh Bindh and quickly realized more adventures lay ahead. Ninh Binh is an iconic city on the Red River Delta that is teeming with natural beauty and historical relics. Domes of densely forested bleached mounds are piled on the flowing fields growing out of water. Lakes, streams, and canals swarm the hillsides and cultural heritage sites pay tribute to the area’s rich history. Being able to see all of this from the back of a scooter only adds to the feeling of freedom and adventure.
Trang An Lamia Bungalow (Google Maps)- This was the perfect hub to explore our surroundings and although bungalow’s start at $25/night, we upgraded to have a private bathroom and bamboo room for around $75/night. Breakfast is included and even though the establishment is in a pristine setting, the restaurant and bar might be the best part. We had dinner here each night of our stay and had trouble deciding which meal was our favorite. The host is beyond gracious and even created space for us to stay an extra night when our travel plans changed at that last minute. The host also sat down with us and planned an itinerary for two days and rented us scooters for less than $5/day to explore the area.
Tam Coc (Google Maps)- For less than $10/boat, a guide will take you on a two hour tour through this UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition to the wonderment of the majestic green mountains peeling back from the floating rice paddies, the guide rows the boat entirely with their feet as you pass through 3 caves hollowed out by the Ngo Dong River. Note: It is recommended to do this in the morning to avoid the heat of the day.
Rich Dong Pagoda (Google Maps)- Driving the scooters through the vibrant fields to this location would have been a site in itself. So, the fact that there is a temple carved into the cliffs where bats screech when you enter makes the site a must see.
Hang Mua (Google Maps)- The 500 steps are well worth the climb as the view from the top of Lying Dragon’s Mountain is stunning. We had hoped to catch the sunset but due to cloud cover we happily settled for all encompassing views of the area.
Van Long Wetland Nature Reserve (Google Maps)- This was more about touring the land on the scooters we rented from our bungalow than the actual destination. We found ourselves circumnavigating the different roadways with perceptive ambiguity is we took whatever road fit our fancy.
More than anywhere I have ever traveled, attempting to describe our 8 days in Vietnam through words and pictures truly fails to capture the essence of the country. It is a place that evokes feelings and emotions that has you catching your breath, gasping for air, and craving more of everything. We were in a small area of the country and in talking with other people on our journey, the possibilities of places to see in Vietnam are endless!