Day 1 - The Old Quarter
Walking around Hanoi is similar to walking around Bangkok – you don’t know where to look first. You need to have every sense working overtime to keep up with its pace. The noise of the traffic, the smells from the foodstalls and the constant view of people and moving frantically around you will do nothing else but astound you upon touching down for the very first time.
The best known area of the city among travellers is the city’s Old Quarter, an area divided up into 36 different streets. In the 13th Century when the area established, each street designated to one of the 36 trades practised in the city. Some of these streets include Bat Dan meaning wooden bowls, Gia Ngu which means fishermen, and Hang Trong which stands for drum. Today there are over 50 streets in the area.
The Old Quarter is where everything is situated – it is where the majority of hostels are, as well as a vast selection of cafés and restaurants serving tasty cheap food. Due to the high number of tourists which descend upon this area there are stalls selling anything and everything and all this comes together to make the Old Quarter a melting pot of life.
Day 2 - The city of lakes
There aren’t many cities in the world that have as many lakes as Hanoi does. Walking around the different parts of the city you find you are never far from one. Hoan Kiem Lake can be found right in the centre of the Old Quarter. There is something fascinating about walking from some of the busiest streets in South East Asia to stumble across a wide open lake.
West of the old city is possibly the city’s number one attraction (with Vietnamese tourists anyway), the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, just south of Ho Tay (West Lake). This chamber is where the body of Ho Chi Minh, the first president of the independent republic of North Vietnam, has been laid to rest. Seeing his body is, as you would expect a somewhat sombre experience but it is still quite unique and shouldn’t be missed when in the Vietnamese capital.
Built on a huge complex, beside the mausoleum is the Ho Chi Minh Museum which is dedicated to his life. There are wide open parks here also in this traffic free area making it that more pleasant to visit than other parts of the city.
On the southern banks of the West Lake are some of the city’s top restaurants. This doesn’t mean that you will pay gastronomical prices. It just means you will get some top quality food at a price far, far cheaper than in the western world.
If you are the type of traveller who is always looking for new experiences that you will find nowhere else other than in the country you are visiting, try and visit Pho Nghi Tram. This street 10 kilometres north of the city centre has a strip of dog-meat restaurants, something which you don’t find every day.
Day 3 - Vietnam's ancient capital
While Hanoi has only been the capital of Vietnam since 1945, 95 kilometres south of the city is Hoa Lu. This ancient city was the capital of Vietnam from 968-980 under the Dinh dynasty and then until 1009 under the Le Dynasty.
Hoa Lu’s two foremost points of interest are the two temples there – Dinh Tien Hoan and Le Dai Hanh. Both are two commemorate the two dynasties which ruled there in the past. At the front of the first temple is a statue of Emperor Dinh Tien and the second is quite different with a collection of weapons, candles and more artefacts.
From Hoa Lu you are brought to Tam Coc. Meaning ‘Three Caves’, the scenery around here is awe inspiring and it is how it became known as ‘Halong Bay without the water’. You can watch the locals row their boats down the river here before visiting the caves.
Organised tours visiting these sites depart from Hanoi around 7.30am on most mornings and return at 5.30pm that evening.
A type of puppetry which originated in Northern Vietnam is water puppetry. Hanoi is the best place to see this ancient art is in the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre in the Old Quarter. Two performances take place in this theatre on the north eastern shores of Hoan Kiem Lake and is an absolute must for any visit to Hanoi, the city where the artform originated.
Day 4 - Some shopping to prepare you for a trek
After staying in Hanoi, you wouldn’t think that a whole 10% of Vietnam’s population lives in the highlands. These hill tribe communities have anything between 100 and to over a 100,000 people.
Twelve hours north of Hanoi is the town of Sapa, the most popular settlement in the northern hills with travellers. Located very close to the Chinese border, this is one of those towns where you can’t help but bump into people on the street because you are too taken up by the surrounding scenery. In Sapa it is truly spectacular. It is also the starting point for many treks to the surrounding villages.
When you finally stop gazing into the sky breathtaking vistas, the Sapa market is well known for its clothes and other goods.
Day 5 - Northern Highland trek day 1
After being picked up from your hotel in Sapa, the first day trek of this 3-day expedition brings you to the village of the Black H’mong Hill Tribes. Upon making it to the village, the local children usually offer you bamboo sticks (to buy, of course) for hiking if you do not have one already.
After enjoying the scenery while walking to the village, and mixing with the locals, you are taken to a homestay at a local Dzay ethnic minority family.
Day 6 - Northern Highland trek day 2
After breakfast the trek brings you to the Red Dzao village. This is one of many native tribes living under the Vietnamese flag. Nearby is Ta Chai Waterfall and a bamboo suspension bridge which crosses the Muong Hoa River.
After lunch the next part of the second day is a trek to Ban Ho Village, home to the Tay People. Living in this village for over four hundred years, the people are some of the friendliest and welcoming in the region. That night you then stay in one of the Tay homestays.
Day 7 - Northern Highland trek day 3
On your final day the first stop is the Nam Toong village of Red Dzao. From here you go to Ban Ho for lunch before finally returning to Sapa.
Trekking in high altitudes for three days takes up a lot of energy and the best thing for you to do when returning to Sapa is check back into your accommodation and take it easy!
Day 8 - Another day in Sapa before going to back to Hanoi
Thanks to the scenery which surrounds Sapa at every corner simply sitting in a café, or finding a quiet spot with a book is more enjoyable than anywhere else in the world. If you do feel you can rustle up enough energy to go for another walk after 3-day trek then the nearest village to set your sights on is Cat Cat. 3 kilometres south of Sapa (most of it down steep hills) the scenery on the way is (again) not to be forgotten. You can get a xe om for the journey back which is what the locals call motorbike taxis.
The bus back to Hanoi from Sapa leaves sometime around 5am. This means early to bed! But if you feel like leaving Sapa on a bang, you can always check out some of the local bars such as the Bamboo Bar or The Gecko to send you off to sleep and ensure you will definitely sleep on the long journey back to the capital.
Day 9 - Plan your next stop
Getting back to Hanoi late in the evening doesn’t leave you with too many options. The best thing to do is to book your ticket to your next destination which is Haiphong.
Day 10 - Stop off for a day
100 kilometres east of Hanoi is Vietnam’s third highest populated city Haiphong. This city is more of a stop off point than anything else, but there is still enough to keep you occupied for a day and night.
If you like museums, the Navy Museum and Haiphong Museums both have interesting exhibits on display throughout the year. Du Hang Pagoda is a fine illustration of classic Vietnamese architecture.
There are a handful of bars in Haiphong, but otherwise it can be pretty tame at night time. There is an above average selection of restaurants, particularly seafood.
Day 11 - The most idyllic bay in Asia
Northern Vietnam’s most idyllic location is Halong Bay. With over 3,000 islands, this archipelago is possibly the most beautiful in the whole of Asia. The views here really leave you speechless and there is nothing else to do but ponder over the bay’s beauty when gazing over its green waters.
The gateway to the bay is Halong City, about an hour and a half east of Haiphong. There isn’t much to do here other than plan your trip to the islands and caves around the bay. Legend has it that the 3,000 plus islands were created by a dragon which lived in the mountains around the bay. ‘Ha long’ means ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’.
Even before it became a World Heritage site in 1994, Halong Bay has been a favourite with both national and international tourists all year long. You can get to different islands from the city, or pre-book organised 2/3 day tours from Halong or Hanoi. The biggest island in the bay is Cat Ba Island. Ferries leaving for the island take between one and two hours, depending on which boat you travel on. If you get to Halong City on time drop your bags and go to the island as the beaches in the city aren’t really suitable for sunbathing!
Day 12 - The Cave of Marvels
Numerous islands around Halong Bay have caves open to the public. The most popular of the lot is the Cave of Marvels, locally known as Hang Dau Go. Inside these huge caves are stalactites and stalagmites. Standing approximately 187 metres above sea level, these are the most beautiful of all the caves around the bay.
After a few days around the island it is back to the mainland where you can plan your trip further south in Vietnam - the country quickly becoming the new Thailand in South-East Asia.