Seven awesome days in North Vietnam

Fisherman at dusk in the Cat Ba National Park: North Vietnam Itinerary

Oct, 2016: Everyone raves about Vietnam but North Vietnam is where it’s at for me; the only problem is there is so much to see.  My mum, Fi, her sister and I had 7 days to fill while waiting for our tailoring in Hoi An. But, with Hanoi, Halong Bay and Sapa on the agenda we weren’t sure how to fit it all in while still doing it justice.  Here is what we did…

Seven awesome days in North Vietnam: our itinerary

With help from the travel desk at Hanoi Pho Hostel (where we stayed) we mapped out a pretty jam packed North Vietnam itinerary. We would start with one night on a wooden junk in Cat Ba Bay (instead of Halong Bay). Next we’d catch the overnight train up to Sapa for an overnight trek in the hills.  Then finally we would catch the night train back to Hanoi. We organised the Cat Ba junk trip ourselves directly with the rather helpful Mr Tung from Cat Ba Ventures. Our hostel organised the entire Sapa portion of the trip from booking our train tickets, to transfers up to Sapa and then the trek itself. Usually we’re not really up for organised tours. But with time short and the agenda bulging the hostel’s recommendations seemed to make sense. And, other than screwing up our transfer to Cat Ba everything worked surprisingly smoothly.

Overnight in Cat Ba Bay / National Park:

We had originally planned to spend a few nights on Halong Bay. However, the general consensus from reviews and our hostel seemed to be that Cat Ba Bay / National Park is a more pristine and less touristy option while still packing the same unique beauty. For a more intimate experience we opted to have a small junk all to ourselves and as we pulled away from the little harbour and steamed out through the floating fishing villages I was stoked with our decision. Over the next 24 hours we steamed in and out of the plethora of little inlets and channels, went kayaking at dawn into hidden lagoons and watched a stunning sunset while drinking ice cold beers.  We ate like kings as the deck hand pumped out huge, simple but super tasty seafood feasts and we swam with the phosphorescence under a moonlit sky. By lunchtime the next day when we kayaked into another tiny hidden lagoon to harvest some baby clams we felt we had been on the boat a lot longer. While I couldn’t say that Cat Ba was completely pollution free, there is a certain magic to the floating fishing villages, infinite bays and towering limestone islets that make up this special part of the world. We were sad to say goodbye but our week in North Vietnam was off to a good start!

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Seven awesome days in North Vietnam: Trains and the hill tribes of Sapa

From Cat Ba we missioned via mini bus, ferry, another mini bus and then a cab to catch our night train to Sapa; the beautiful little mountain town in far North Vietnam.  As the train pulled out of the station our initial case of tiny cabin claustrophobia gave way to exhaustion and pretty soon I passed out to the soothing ‘clickety-clack’ of the railway line north. The next morning we woke up as the train pulled into Lao Cai station and then were bundled into a mini van that wound it’s way up to Sapa where we met our guide for the next 24 hours. After a surprisingly delicious breakfast in another wise soulless hotel dining room we started walking out of town flanked by a troop of happy faced women from the local hill tribes.  At first I was taken aback by the scale of development which seems to have taken over the Sapa I remembered from my first visit in 2001, but as we left the cranes and scaffolding behind, I couldn’t help but get won over by the glorious valley views and the endless cheery chatter of our adopted indigenous guides. While we knew that the women were just buttering us for a future sale and it was obvious that the path down through the valley is well worn with Gortex clad tourist feet, it really is a magic place to visit.

Our path took us down past farmers threshing rice, water buffalos bathing in mud and women snapping the woody ends of baby bamboo shoots ready for sale. The surrounding valleys and hillsides were partly obscured by a blue smokey haze but the views were still quite spectacular. We ate a hearty and delicious lunch while getting badgered by local sales women and then enjoyed an equally delicious yet more tranquil banquet dinner at a homestay in a local village. Initially I was a bit disappointed that we shared the homestay with at least six or seven other tourists but in the end the delicious communal dinner with the family and all the said gringoes, washed down with numerous shots of the local liquor was a trip highlight. In some ways I think this summed up our trip to Sapa. If you’re heading up there with only a day or two to spare and expect an intrepid trek through remote hill tribes, then you’re going to be disappointed. However, if you’re up for a relatively gentle stroll through still beautiful countryside, with a bunch of other like minded gringos and local people who are just trying to make a living, then you’ll love it.  We certainly did.

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Seven awesome days in North Vietnam: three nights eating in Hanoi

As our airport transfer turned off the main highway from the Hanoi airport and plunged into the old french quarter I was reminded how much I loved the place.  Rickshaws and bikes clogged the road while the side walk heaved with ancient looking old ladies selling everything from fresh tofu to wriggling frogs and home made pork sausage.  Fishmongers chopped the heads of massive cat fish and a flower seller pushed through the traffic with her bicycle over flowing with every colour of bloom you could imagine.  I couldn’t help but wind down my window and breath it all in.

Nothing like sitting on the side walk in Hanoi and watching the world go by: North Vietnam

Nothing like sitting on the side walk in Hanoi and watching the world go by


There is so much to write about Hanoi but arguably my favourite thing to do is find a little cafe on the side of the road in the old quarter, pull up one of those tiny little stools and then order whatever everyone else is eating.  We did this on our first night there and as I slurped away at a deliciously fragrant bowl of pork dumpling noodle soup, getting the hiccups from the punchy little chunks of chilli, I couldn’t have been happier.  Our second night we had a similarly awesome experience at a corner restaurant where each table has it’s own little hot plate. We chose what we wanted from an open fridge cabinet and then greased our hot plate with chunks of pig fat before grilling our selections with fresh garlic, onions and chilli.  Our final night we made our way to Quan An Ngom which was packed to the rafters with tourists and locals alike enjoying the varying plates of regional fare.  While everything was delicious the delicate chunks of grilled catfish were a total stand out.

A feast ready to BBQ on a street corner in Hanoi: North Vietnam

A feast ready to BBQ on a street corner in Hanoi


The other Hanoi standout was feasting on Bun Cha at the creatively named Bun Cha So 1, once again in the old quarter. These delicious fried pork spring rolls served with a slightly sweet dipping broth, fresh rice noodles and a huge bowl of fresh herbs was my most lasting food memory from when I first came to Hanoi in 2001.  Thankfully they didn’t disappoint 15 years on.

Fat and juicy pork spring rolls with vermicelli noodles, fresh herbs and broth have to be one of my favourite Vietnamese meals of all time: North Vietnam

Fat and juicy pork spring rolls with vermicelli noodles, fresh herbs and broth have to be one of my favourite Vietnamese meals of all time


Love the crazy streets of Hanoi: North Vietnam

Love the crazy streets of Hanoi


Seven awesome days in North Vietnam: North Vietnam travel and feasting tips

  • We flew return from Da Nang to Hanoi with VietJet for ~USD45 each with our hostel in Hanoi organising airport transfers for about USD20 each way
  • In Hanoi, we stayed at Hanoi Pho Hostel (46 Nguyen Van To road) which was around USD40/night for two rooms for the four of us (double deluxe room with ensuite for mum and a triple family room with private bathrooms for Fi, her sister and I).
  • Cat Ba Ventures were awesome hosts for our sailing trip around Cat Ba National Park and while more pricey than other operators we would strongly recommend them.  Total cost for the trip for four us was USD600 which included transfers to and from Hanoi (including ferry to Cat Ba island), our own private junk, all meals, kayaks and guide.
  • The reception team at Hanoi Pho Hostel organised our Sapa trip which cost ~USD80/person including sleeper births on the night train to and from Sapa, transfers from the train station to Sapa itself, all meals, guide and overnight accommodation in a local village homestay. We could have got this cheaper but time and convenience made this the best option.
  • For some super tasty Hanoi eating:
    • The best crispy pork spring rolls are at Bun Cha So No.1 (1 Hang Manh street).  Pull up a little plastic stool on the side walk and feast!
    • I loved the old school atmosphere and delicious coffee at Cong Caphe which is a chain of coffee shops resplendent with all manner of communist decor. There are plenty spread around the place and are worth a look.
    • Hanoi Social Club (6 Ngo Hoi Vu) was a great little hidden gem for a few beers and a bizarre yet delicious egg coffee up on their terrace in the evening.  Not the easiest place to find but definitely worth a look.
    • For loads of different regional Vietnamese cuisines we really enjoyed Quan An Ngon (18 Phan Boi Chau).  It’s potentially not the most authentic in respect to each region’s individual cuisine but I it’s a pretty delicious starting point.

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  • Reply
    April 24, 2017 at 6:37 am

    That sounds like a great deal for the boat. I don’t think I paid much less than that for a junk on Halong which was quite luxurious but busier. You made me lol at those little chairs. Oh god, they bring back memories. Seeing grown men sat on this is enough to make me giggle

    • Reply
      April 24, 2017 at 3:45 pm

      They’re so hilarious aren’t they. Lucky they’re usually the prelude to a delicious feast.

  • Reply
    April 24, 2017 at 9:26 am

    Northern Vietnam was INCREDIBLE, your trip looks amazing – so jealous! Excellent tips 🙂

    • Reply
      April 24, 2017 at 3:44 pm

      Thanks a bunch. We loved it!

  • Reply
    Efthimis K.
    April 24, 2017 at 8:51 pm

    Great tips and so vivid narrative! Since you have been in Vietnam more that once, which one do you think is the right period to visit the Northern part?

    • Reply
      April 25, 2017 at 5:27 pm

      The first time I went was in March / April…this last time was in October and both were great. I think the biggest thing about South East Asia is choosing between wet or dry season. Most people prefer the dry but there is something amazing about the build up of a monsoon storm and then the daily hammering of giant droplets.

  • Reply
    Sandy N Vyjay
    April 25, 2017 at 5:19 am

    Vietnam is a beautiful place. I really loved the idea of home stay….It’s the best , I think….U don’t visit the place.You live there instead, which is every travelers wish. Hanoi seems to be an amazing place…!! Also the food I think was awesome….The tips mentioned at the end will be really useful, I think.

    • Reply
      April 25, 2017 at 5:23 pm

      Vietnam is so beautiful. I hope that you get to return and take advantage of some of our tips.

  • Reply
    April 25, 2017 at 1:20 pm

    What, what a trip! I’m moving to Southern China soon, and can’t wait to have Vietnam so close! I only made it to Hanoi in the north, so I’m looking forward to heading to Sapa. I might have to copy your itinerary! I also have a fondness for bun cha, and have yet to find any restaurant in the US/UK that even comes close to replicating what I had in the streets of Hanoi.

    • Reply
      April 25, 2017 at 5:23 pm

      Bun Cha is the best! Jealous of you moving to Southern China. Hope it’s awesome!

  • Reply
    April 26, 2017 at 2:46 am

    I enjoy visiting Vietnam & Hanoi is a favourite. Just crossing the street is exhilarating! I agree that sitting in a cafe watching the world go by is a fantastic experience in Hanoi. I missed getting to Sapa last trip – I hope to visit soon.

    • Reply
      April 26, 2017 at 7:44 am

      Ha, YES! Crossing a street in Vietnam is definitely a bit of an experience. Requires quite the leap of faith!

  • Reply
    Juliette | Snorkels to Snow
    April 26, 2017 at 3:57 am

    Wow you certainly covered a lot of ground during your week! But what an incredible time you had, I certainly can’t wait to visit myself. I love how you like to find a little spot or cafe somewhere to pull up some stools then just order what everyone else is eating…that’s the best way to take in the local culture!

    • Reply
      April 26, 2017 at 7:43 am

      Sitting on the sidewalk feasting on good food is without doubt one of our favourite things to do to get in touch with a places culture

  • Reply
    April 27, 2017 at 5:27 am

    I loved your itinerary, which seems to cover the best of North Vietnam. Cat Ba looks like a good place instead of Halong Bay. I’ll try these on my trip. Thanks for the tips!

    • Reply
      April 28, 2017 at 6:13 pm

      I was a little worried that we were trying to jam too much in but in the end it worked a treat. Definitely think Cat Ba is a good option. I did a Halong Bay cruise back in 2001 and it was amazing but apparently these days there are too many boats and it’s too polluted. Glad you enjoyed the article.

  • Reply
    April 28, 2017 at 1:53 pm

    I miss Vietnam!!! I was there last month and spent only 7 days, but it was definitely not enough. I loved wandering around Hanoi and Halong Bay was great. Pity I didn’t have time for Sapa and other places. Now you made me want to go back! 🙂

    • Reply
      April 28, 2017 at 6:11 pm

      Vietnam is super awesome. Stoked you had such a good time. You’ll definitely have to go back!

  • Reply
    Francesca @onegrloneworld
    May 5, 2017 at 5:14 pm

    Your photos are stunning! They really helped illustrate the story. I never really considered Vietnam as a travel destination on my list before because I didn’t know much about it, but you’ve got me sold. I’m definitely pinning this post for future reference! Not sure how much I’d enjoy the shared homestay but I definitely wanna try the Bun Cha!

    • Reply
      May 8, 2017 at 4:50 pm

      Thanks so much Francesca! You should definitely think about Vietnam as a travel destination. It’s super beautiful and has to have one of the best food cultures in the world. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  • Reply
    Agness of Fit Travelling
    May 22, 2017 at 1:45 pm

    Vietnam is an awe-inspiring place and everyone should definitely visit it! Your post and photos really capture the essence of this wonderful place!

    • Reply
      May 26, 2017 at 10:00 am

      Thanks so much. We love Vietnam. Especially the food!

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