Unrivaled Destinations: My Tour of Northern Vietnam

flag tower hanoi vietnam

              Northern Vietnam has been one of my favorite areas to visit during my travels throughout Southeast Asia.  The mountainous terrain makes for some of the most stunning scenery you will ever witness and creates truly remarkable outdoors experiences.  On top of this, the food is simply amazing in northern Vietnam.  Though many of the dishes are similar to other parts of the country, their style of cooking sets them far part.  All of this added to the fact that the people are genuinely friendly, remarkable, and helpful, makes this area of Vietnam extremely traveler friendly and, for those willing to step onto the road less traveled, creates a genuine Vietnamese experience.  

cat ba bay vietnam
Bridge to temple in Cat Ba

              I had been looking forward to visiting Vietnam ever since we had started our travels.  Mainly, I love Vietnamese food and was looking forward to trying it in Vietnam.  To be honest, my heart is in my stomach and food is my love.  I was looking forward to trying my favorites, Phở and Bò Lúc Lắc (turns out to be mainly a southern dish), and anything else I could find.  I wanted to try it all and I did. 

pho fried rice hanoi vietnam
Phở and fried rice.

Outside of the food I didn’t really know what to expect.  I knew the history of the Vietnam War and planned to visit some sites pertaining to that (which would come later in my travels) and I expected there to be some sort of animosity towards Americas for the war (which absolutely never showed if there was).  But I was ready to see what Vietnam had in store for me.

north gate imperial city hanoi vietnam
Northern gate to the Imperial City in Hanoi.

We started our tour of Vietnam in the north; in the city of Hanoi.  Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is a big sprawling city, but most travelers only spend their time in and around the Old Quarter.  Like everyone else, we spent our first few days touring the Old Quarter, museums, and monuments in the area.  Hanoi is nice and has a lot to do, but also has a more suburban feel to it than Ho Chi Minh City in the south.  

market hanoi vietnam
Market stall in Hanoi.

Having finished up Hanoi, we decided to do the northern loop.  This is popular for tourist wanting to get off the beaten path and see more of rural Vietnam and the incredible scenery it has.  Although two locations on the loop are quite popular for most tourists (Ha Long Bay and Sapa), the rest of the area is left relatively untouched even though it is full of outdoors activities.  The northern loop is also very popular for those tourists with motorcycles, but not having one ourselves we did it all by public bus.  

cat ba vietnam

Leaving Hanoi, we made our way east to Cat Ba.  Cat Ba, the largest island in the famous Ha Long Bay was a great way to see the bay itself.  While there we rented a moto and drove through the center of the island to visit an old Vietnam War era hospital hidden inside a cave.  From there we drove through the national park to the other side of the island; taking in the amazing views along the way.  Returning to town, we drove to Cannon Fort which has some of the most amazing views of the bay and surrounding area.  Unknowing that we could drive from the ticket booth to the top of the hill, we unfortunately left our bike there and made the long walk up and back down.  

halong bay vietnam
Ha Long Bay

The following day we caught a ferry to Ha Long and found a hotel while we tried to sort out a cruise for the following day, which not an easy feat to do the day before.  We decided that we would do the 3 day/2 night cruise and finally found one on the Lavender.  The ship and food were great and it was nice to soak up a bit of luxury, but it all was very touristy.  Your ship is surrounded by lots of others and with all of the ships doing the same itinerary, the sightseeing can get pretty crowded.  

lavender cruise halong bay vietnam
Our cruise ship in Ha Long Bay, The Lavender.

We also had an awkward experience of being booted out of a table during our second evening meal.  Since the ships cater to both 3 day and 2 day tours half of the people on our boat left after our first night and were replaced with new people.  So, we went to diner that evening and there were a group of French girls sitting at our table we just sat at the empty table next to them, which soon also filled up with French girls with that group.  We don’t speak French, but, unknowing to them, understood enough to know that they were talking about us and to understand when they asked the waiter why they weren’t all sitting together as a group.  To remedy this, the waiter asked if we would like to sit somewhere else and since it was already awkward, we said we didn’t care.  Trying to make the best of the situation, he asked another table to resituate and make room for us and carried all of our plates to the new table (yes, we had already begun to eat at this point).  Making things more awkward, the waiter had told our new table that we were moving because we wanted to practice our English.  Now I may be wrong, but I feel like being an American and a former English Teacher that my English is pretty on point and doesn’t need any practice.  Just saying.  

yen tu vietnam
One of the pagodas in Yen Tu.

After finishing our Ha Long Bay cruise, we boarded a bus and headed west to Yen Tu, the capital of Buddhism in Vietnam.  I didn’t really know what I was getting us into with this part of the trip.  I knew there was some hiking, a few temples, and some stairs.  Spoiler alert: there were a lot of stairs.  About six miles worth and straight up.  It was hard to say the least and Jade hated it till the end, but it was incredibly rewarding.  The stairs seemed to get taller and steeper the higher we went and, to top it off, it began to rain at the halfway point.  

buddha statue yen tu vietnam
Buddha statue near the top of Yen Tu.

At one point I wanted to take a detour to grab a quick picture of a temple, when our whole trip changed for the better.  This temple being towards the top and off the main path doesn’t get many visitors.  So, when we arrived, the residing monk was very happy to see us.  Beckoning us to come in out of the rain, he got some chairs for us to rest in and asked if would like to stay and eat dinner with him.  Not wanting to refuse the hospitality of a monk we accepted.  The monk and helper then produced a multi-dish meal, some of which was made specially for us.  The food was great and through our broken Vietnamese and his broken English we were able to have a very nice conversation.  After diner he insisted that we spend the night and resume our hike in the morning so that we didn’t have to hike a night.  Since we only had the wet clothes we were wearing and had already paid for a hotel at the bottom we had to decline, but said that we would take the gondola down for safety (we ended up missing the last gondola).  

dong pagoda yen tu vietnam
Dong Pagoda shrouded in mist at the top of Yen Tu.

We made it to the top before sunset and the entire peak was shrouded in mist.  The experience with the monk and seeing the temple on the peak made the entire trip worth it for both of us.  As we started our decent the sun began to set and I started to remember something the monk had said about snakes at night.  This fear grew when we realized that we had missed the gondola and were going to have to make the hike all the way back down.  It was compounded by another man warning me of snakes at night, to which I translated to Jade as him telling me to use a light (because I didn’t need to add her being scared during a night hike).  So, with our legs trembling from exhaustion and the light of a single headlamp, we made our way down the steps.

beef stir fry vietnam
Beef stirfry

Having finished what would be one of my most memorable experiences, we returned to Hanoi.  Not having a motorcycle to drive from place to place, we found it easier to use Hanoi as a jump off point between most of the places.  This meant we got to spend a lot of time around the My Dinh bus station in Hanoi.  Travelers never stay in this area, favoring the tourist centric Old Quarter instead, but we loved the area.  

ban gioc waterfall vietnam
Me taking a picture of Ban Gioc Waterfall

From here we made traveled northeast to Ban Gioc on the Chinese border.  Ban Gioc was our first truly off the beaten track location in Vietnam.  While here, we staid in a traditional homestay, visited a temple, the waterfall and a cave.  

ba be national park vietnam
Ba Be Lake

From Ban Gioc we headed straight to Ba Be National Park.  We had heard a lot of good things about Ba Be and we were looking forward to experiencing it for ourselves.  The national park is not on most tourists’ itineraries but it is known for its hiking.  Since we had just come off of two hiking intensive trips we decided not to hike here, but do the boat tour of the lake instead.  The tour as a whole was nice, but it wasn’t as great of an experience as we thought it would be.  The last two sites, Fairy Pond and Widow’sIsland, were wholly underwhelming.  While on our return to the dock I almost crashed my drone into the boat and the lake and it would turn out be the last time my drone would get to fly while I was in Vietnam.  

funsipan peak sapa vietnam
Me at Fansipan peak.

After Ba Be we traveled to Sapa in the northwest.  Sapa is a popular destination for travelers wanting to get out of Hanoi or as a base for those that want to hike in the area.  We again didn’t do much hiking in Sapa but we did take the gondola up to the top of Fansipan Mountain.  Fansipan is the highest peak on the Indochina Peninsula and home of a large temple complex.  Temples and peak are often shrouded in clouds rolling over the peaks but we were lucky enough for it to clear up while we were at the top.  Bar-b-q skewers are also a popular in Sapa and I had the chance to try horse meat for the first time and I have to say that it is really good.

perfume pagoda vietnam
Perfume Pagoda

Returning to Hanoi, we began to make our way south.  Our next destination was the Perfume Pagoda, which most tourist do as a day trip and is one of the areas most visited temples.  Hoping on a boat, a lady rowed us down the river to the temple complex.  We decided to do the Perfume Pagoda first and hiked up to the gondola and took it the rest of the way, which turned out to be the right choice.  The pagoda is located in a small cave and wasn’t as nice as advertised.  On our boat ride back the boat lady demanded a larger tip than we gave her (which was already large) and ended up spitting at my feet.  All in all, this trip was very underwhelming and unpleasant.

trang an boat tour ninh binh vietnam
Trang An boat tour in Ninh Binh.

Leaving our first disappointing site in Vietnam, we made our way to Ninh Binh.  In Ninh Binh we rented a moto and spent the day exploring many of the things it has to offer.  Bai Dinh Pagoda was the furthest away so we started their first.  The largest temple complex in Southeast Asia, Bai Dinh was astonishing.  From there we made our way back and stopped at the Hoa Lu Ancient Capital.  Not much is left of the capital itself but it was still nice to take in a little history.  Our final stop was Trang An, a UNESCO Heritage site.  Trang An is amazingly beautiful and the boat tour was wonderful.  

buddha statue ninh binh vietnam
Buddha statue at the Bai Dinh Pagoda in Ninh Binh.

Ninh Binh was our last place in the north and was a great finish to our northern tour.  The following day we boarded a train headed for Ho Chi Minh City in the south to join my cousin and her husband for a few days.  The north of Vietnam was a wonderful and often breathtaking experience and made for a good start to our tour of Vietnam. 

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