I first visited Vietnam in 2003/4, and it quickly became one of my favourite countries. With its combination of history, mixed cultures, beautiful scenery and everything being fantastically cheap, it’s easy to fall for Vietnam.
Ten years later, I jumped at the opportunity to return. I sometimes feel concerned about returning to somewhere I’ve previously visited in case it isn’t as I remember, but after spending a week back in Vietnam, I can’t wait to come back again!
I spent a week in Northern Vietnam which although brief, allowed me to pack in a lot of sightseeing. A week is about enough to give you an insight into the country, but it will leave you wanting more.
Our first night was in Hanoi where after a quick nap, we took some time to explore the old quarter and visit the beautiful temple in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake. In Hanoi, you can spend hours checking out the coffee shops, spoiling yourself with a massage or haggling with the locals over souvenirs as diverse as chopsticks and oil paintings.
Next, we took part in a street food tour, which became a highlight of the trip for me. We ate Pho (traditional Vietnamese soup) on the street, had a few beers at beer corner and then tried a Vietnamese barbeque (which was a taste and sound explosion - Saturday night in Hanoi is simply crazy!). We found all these fantastic little stalls with the help of our guide which I know would have been impossible to discover all by ourselves – so I do recommend joining a tour solely for the guide’s expertise and knowledge.
You can either take part in a food tour with others or with just you and the guide, I would recommend booking this in advance as it gets busy and if you want to go to the best spots with the best guides.
The next day we took a stunning route through the mountains to Mai Chau, a valley based in the mountains which is home to the Dai minority in Vietnam.
After a traditional lunch of soup, spring rolls, meat and vegetable dishes with rice we enjoyed a cycle ride around the valley. Exploring by bike is the perfect way to see some charming and peaceful spots and find some tranquillity away from the hustle and bustle of the roads.
In the evening the locals entertained us with singing and dancing, some of which we joined in with (!) before ending the night drinking the local rice wine – yum! We had chosen to stay in a local homestay for the night which was great fun, although if you prefer your creature comforts, there is a lodge just around the corner. The lodge rents out bikes for free to guest or a small minimal payment to others wishing to hire them for the day or just a couple of hours. As the village is relatively small and the number of homestay options is small, I would recommend getting this booked up before heading out. We stayed with Mrs Mai, and she was terrific. (We can quickly arrange this part of the trip for you if you’d like).
The next day was an early start to head to Tam Coc. This beautiful limestone region of the Boi River has become a significant attraction because of the dramatic scenery, and it’s evident from the ongoing hotel construction that this area is becoming more and more popular.
Next, we jumped aboard the ‘sampan’ which are traditional, flat-bottomed tin boats and sailed 6km along the river before heading back to Tam Coc watching the world go by and spotting the occasional mountain goat.
After a tour of the ancient city of Hoa Lu (the former capital of Vietnam in the 10th and 11th centuries), we arrived at our hotel for the night, the beautiful 5* Emerald resort. This is a little haven in the north, and we had a great night catching up on sleep after the homestay sleep. This hotel may seem to be in the middle of nowhere, but it is fantastic for a night or two away from the hustle and bustle of Vietnam and takes time out on a hectic trip.
Ha Long Bay is on so many ‘bucket lists’. The bay of 3,000 islands makes for stunning scenery with still and calm waters and the intrigue of limestone caves to explore. I recommend you stay the night on one of the boats because as a day trip doesn’t do Ha Long bay justice.
The overnight boat trip is fantastic value as it includes two lunches, a dinner, a breakfast, a visit to the Curious Cave, kayaking, Tai Chi, a spot of squid fishing and of course your cabin for the night. In high season (July/August) there are an estimated 800 boats on Ha Long Bay and the risk of being charged more than necessary for this experience is high. For this reason, I would recommend booking your trip with an agent like us, just to make sure your money is safe and you get the best experience possible.
After our boat trip, we headed back to Hanoi for the evening. It’s about 4 hours from Ha Long bay in a car, and as you leave the land of limestone Karsts, the scenery will morph into the factories and harbours of the north - giving you an insight into the growth of this previously closed off country.
I spent the afternoon enjoying a well-deserved hot stone massage after all the cycling and kayaking I had done the last couple of days, and at £12 for 75 minutes it was a total bargain!
Our last day in Vietnam was spent visiting Ba Vi mountain and Doung Lam. At the top of the hill is a temple built in honour of Uncle Ho. Ho Chi Minh was the revolutionary leader of North Vietnam and president 1954-1969 and is considered to be one of the most influential politicians of the 20th century. We reached the temple after a short hike through the cloud forest. It is impressive when you consider how they managed to get the materials up this steep mountain for such a beautiful temple and pagoda.
Back down the mountain, we enjoyed our last Vietnamese feast for the week in the traditional village of Duong Lam before heading out for another cycle ride. This time we found the scenery to be more rustic and agricultural than the mountains of Mai Chai but no less beautiful. A peaceful cycle ride was made for a relaxing end to our sight-filled week in Vietnam!
Vietnam is becoming more and more accessible and a great alternative to flying into Thailand as your stop in South East Asia. Vietnam Airlines fly direct from London Gatwick to Hanoi. If you’re planning a trip to Vietnam for just a week or stretch your time to a month or more, we can help you plan a tailor-made tour to suit what you want to do - call us on +44 1273320580 or request a quote by email to start planning a trip.
If travelling with others is more your bag – check out our Vietnam Hike, Bike and Kayak. I can always find similar trips if you have something different in mind!