Planning A Trip To Northern Vietnam – Everything You Need To Know

Planning an entire trip is quite a task – though we love every bit of it. However, if you ask us about the toughest part of the entire process, we would unanimously scream – ‘picking up the spot’. Like every other couple, we had our separate choices – Kali wanted the mountains and I wanted the oceans. And being the adamant beings that we are, compromising on our choices is never an option – we had to come to a mid-point. So, after a lot of pulling hairs and trying to reason (or, barter?) out our choices, when nothing worked, we decided to go somewhere we could envisage the best of both worlds. Sure thing, Europe had it all – but 12 days’ kind of luxury trip to Europe would burn a hole in our pockets, so that was out of question. And this is exactly where Vietnam stepped in.

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Speaking from tourism’s point of view, it won’t be wrong to upheld Vietnam as the microcosm of the entire world – from high mountains, enchanting limestone hillocks and some of the world’s largest caves to pristine beaches, deserts, culturally rich cities and tranquil islands, the country boasts of it all! 

Vietnam was our first “vacation” after marriage. So, we wanted the trip to be a hearty amalgam of a relaxing sojourn and fun holiday. However, little did we expect that this trip will end up being one of the most exciting so far – a holiday that will have us at our wits’ end as well as enamour us with some of the most enchanting landscapes we have ever seen and cuisine that we have ever savoured.

Located to the south of China and east of Cambodia and Laos, Vietnam blithely boasts of awe-inspiring, sublime landscapes that are indeed hard to find together at many other places. From the gorgeous week-long expeditions inside some of world’s largest caves in Hoi An area, the mesmerizing beaches and islands of southern Vietnam, and the eccentric amalgam of old world charm and modernity in cities like Saigon and Hanoi to the limestone hills in the Red River Delta region, the gigantic mountains along the Vietnam-Sino border and the World Heritage Site of Halong Bay – there is indeed no dearth of places to visit in Vietnam. However, compiling it all in a 10 or 12-day trip would indeed be an insult to the beauty of Vietnam, which is why we decided to visit only the northern part of the country. And boy, even 12 days seemed too short to experience its beauty.

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Gorgeousness! 

If you are also swayed by the beauty of Vietnam and can’t wait to be seduced by its eclectic charm further, we have got half of your job done. Here’s a comprehensive guide to northern Vietnam, which you may use to plan your trip across this beautiful land. So, pack your bags and get-set-go!

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That’s a glimpse of Trang An from the Bai Dinh Pagoda

The Best Time To Visit Vietnam

We went to Vietnam in late July, but after speaking to locals, we found out that we were at the wrong end of the spectrum. Apparently, the best time to visit northern Vietnam is from November to April, months that are cooler and drier. We just used the term “apparently” because none of the hotels we were staying in touristy areas had any unoccupied rooms, which basically sums up to the fact that all seasons in Vietnam are good enough, albeit if you can stand the heat. And flying from Ahmedabad during the peak summer time had one perk – we were instantly in love with the weather – it was neither too hot, nor too sunny, nor had excessive rains. It was just perfect.

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Walking towards the unknown with this munchkin by my side is always the most rewarding thing ever!

How To Reach Vietnam?

Vietnam’s Noi Bai Airport (which is the Hanoi Airport) is connected to all major airport terminals across the world. A return trip from New Delhi with Singapore Airways will cost you upwards of Rs 23,000 per person (approximately $330), depending on the season. Alternatively, you can book your tickets at a much cheaper rate if you’re travelling from Kolkata or the Hyderabad since budget aircrafts like the Air Asia operates via Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur to Noi Bai Airport.

Where To Stay in Vietnam

Staying in Vietnam is comparatively much cheaper than in India. A three-star or four-star hotel will fit in anywhere between Rs 2,000 and Rs 3000 – we stayed at some of the most gorgeous hotels at all the places that we went to in Vietnam and did not shell out even Rs 3,000 on a per-day basis. We booked our tickets from Booking.com. You may follow use this link to get a cashback of Rs 700 on your first booking.

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I wish I could go back – our Tam Coc Rice Field Resort – was everything that dreams are made of!

Planning The Perfect 12-Day Trip To North Vietnam

If you have been following us on Facebook or Instagram, you would know that the places we have been to in Vietnam boasts of a serene and laidback aura – places where you would be torn between alternatives of whether to just soak up its beauty seated in some quirky corner or go for sightseeing. Hence, at least two to three full days must be allocated to each place. To make it easier for you, we have divided the entire trip on a day-to-day basis.

As far as the food is concerned, the Vietnamese cuisine is absolutely delectable and lipsmacking. So, eat, drink and be merry on your entire vacation!

Day 1: Arrive at Noi Bai Airport, Hanoi, and transfer to Ninh Binh.

Ninh Binh is around 125km from the airport. You may either ask your hotel or resort in Ninh Binh for a pickup (which generally costs $80) or may transfer to Hanoi Centre and get a bus from Hanoi to Ninh Binh. The condition of roads in Vietnam is extremely good, and bus journeys are quite comfortable. Bus fare generally costs about 150,000 VND per person.

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Boating in Trang An has a charm of its own – it is definitely going to be one of the most sought-after experiences in Vietnam! Well, it’s a pity that not much people even know about this place. 

There are numerous places to visit in Ninh Binh, the highlights being the Trang An Historic Complex and the Tam Coc rice fields. However, we would also ask you to take it easy and stroll around (or cycle around?) the li’l town – you would be swayed by its beauty.

If you want a detailed itinerary to Ninh Binh – what to do, what to see and what all to carry for your trip there – we have a post coming up super soon.

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Such intricate craftsmanship at every nook and corner of Bai Dinh Pagoda, Trang An, will flabbergast you

Day 2 and 3: Stay at Ninh Binh.

With limestone hillocks standing tall amidst paddies, Ninh Binh is often regarded as “Halong on land”, and rightfully so. Explore the various ales and cultural complexes of Ninh Binh for an unparalleled experience. While we would definitely recommend hiring a car for sightseeing purpose (which should cost you around $50 or 1.1 million VND) though, for experiencing the local areas, get yourself a bike or cycle from your hotel/hostel, which is often given for free.

Day 4: Transfer to Halong City.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong Bay is a vision to behold. And we have purposely placed Halong as our second destination so that you’re neither too tired of your journey from home nor too laidback after too much sight-seeing or roaming across areas during the trip. Now, to reach Halong City, you will have to either take a bus to Bai Chay (the main city centre of the city) from Ninh Binh or take a cab right from your hotel in Ninh Binh.

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One of the quirkiest corners of Bay Chai or Halong city. Many people do not stay in the city and prefers staying at the boats or come down to Halong for a day-trip. But trust us, exploring the city for its quirky graffiti, charming nightlife and quaint eat-outs shall also become one of the major highlights of your Vietnam trip

Situated around 199 km from Ninh Binh, a cab ride to your hotel in Bai Chay or Halong city will cost your around 1.9 million VND. If you are unwilling to spend that much amount on a cab, bus is always a welcome option. A bus ride from Ninh Binh bus station to Halong will set you back by 250,000 VND. However, here’s a disclaimer – there is only direct bus connecting Ninh Binh city to Halong City. The journey commences about 6:30 am. It’s a pretty blissful journey. However, if you do not wish to get up and board the bus so early, you have two options – first one is to get a bus to Hanoi’s Giap Bat bus station and then take a ride to Halong while the second one is to hop on to a bus going towards Halong from the highway bypassing Ninh Binh. Now, don’t be traumatised here. You just need to go to Ninh Binh’s bus station and get your tickets. The executives there will help you to reach the particular place (they generally have free taxi services for that) from where you would need to get your bus to Halong. But all said and done, if you intend to take a bus to Halong, we would highly recommend taking the 6 am bus – so that you can savour the best that Bay Chai or Halong City has to offer.

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Ah! Halong Bay, you beauty!!

Day 5: Transfer to your boat/cruise.

If you’re visiting northern Vietnam or doing just Halong Bay, you would miss out on 80% charisma that the place has to offer if you do not hop onto a cruise. Now, you have the option of taking a day trip, a 2D 1N trip or a 3D 2N night but we would highly recommend you to a 2D 1N trip that covers the best of Halong Bay and do not bore you out at all.

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You will clearly miss out on this charming aura that Halong Bay has to offer if you do not go for a one-night stay in your boat.

A 2D 1N package trip on a cruise for a couple on a proper boat would cost you upwards of $200, but trust us, it is worth every penny that you spend. And yes, the cruise generally offers pick-up and drop-off facilities from Hanoi. So, if you’re coming from Hanoi or intend to return to Hanoi (as we did), you will have a pleasant journey.

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Time to soak up some sun and tan! 

Day 6: Transfer to Hanoi and take the night train to Lao Cai

This day might seem a hectic one but trust me, it won’t be as much and the night train to Lao Cai will be one of the most rewarding experiences of the trip. A train ride from Hanoi to Lao Cai will cost you about 220,000 VND approx (for one of the luxury compartments). However, if you book through any agent online, you may just be charged the double. The best way, however, is to book your ticket through any agent or your hotel after you reach Vietnam – you will be spared a lot of extra costs.

Alternatively, you can also take luxury bus from the Giap Bat Bus Station in Hanoi to Sapa town. It’s a splendidly comfortable journey that will cost you around 250,000 VND per person.

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Well, we were kind of obsessed with the Vietnamese National Flag

Day 7: Reach Lao Cai early in the morning and transfer to Sapa

Nestled near the Vietnam-China border up in the northern part of the country, Lao Cai houses Vietnam’s highest train terminal. All the trains from various parts of the country will drop you here. From here, you will have the option of taking a cab or shuttle buses to Sapa. Since most of the trains reach Sapa in the morning, you may find it difficult to locate a particular bus terminal. However, bus drivers often frequent the station and ask you if you want to go to Sapa. Trust them and feel free to take their bus. They will drop you right in front of your hotel/hostel in Sapa town. However, make sure you pay them only after you reach the destination – just to be on the safer side.

For the rest of the day, relax and unwind in your hotel and experience the magic that Sapa has to offer in the evening.

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Clearly, I couldn’t get enough of the 180-degree panorama room that we had in Phuong Nam Hotel

Day 8: Go for trekking

Now, as soon as you set your foot in Sapa, you will be flocked by local tribal women, asking to hire them for a trek. As you might know, Sapa is a base for some of the brilliant treks that Vietnam has to offer. And these women act as guides in most cases. So, don’t be afraid to talk to them and communicate with them. They are indeed extremely sweet. However, if you do not want to go on a trek with any team and wish to take it easy, politely refuse – you can do a few treks alone, trust us. We shall soon come up with an article acquainting you with few of the routes where you can go for trekking all by yourself.

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The enchanting rice-fields of Sapa. Make sure to go for trekking at least once in your stay – either all by yourself or with one of the tribal women guides

Day 9: Unwind and hop around the cute French cafes the entire day and take the night bus to Hanoi

Sapa presents an eclectic amalgam of pristine Vietnamese beauty and mesmerizing French culture. As a town made by the French during their rule over Vietnam, Sapa still boasts of beautifully preserving the French culture – at least in their depiction of cafes and eateries. So, if you do not allocate a whole day experiencing the culinary delights of Sapa, you will miss out on a whole many things. And when you’re done with it, take the night bus or train to Hanoi. You can pre-book your return journey from your hotel itself.

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One of our favourite little corners in Sapa – the Caphe Sapa, located right at the heart of the Sapa Town overlooking the French Church

Day 10 – Reach Hanoi and experience the old world charm

After you transfer to your hotel, relax and spend the entire day losing yourself in one of the innumerable bylanes of Hanoi. Savour the lip-smacking Vietnamese delicacies and dip yourself in the city’s old world charm. Try to be in the city in one of the weekends for Hanoi gets all the livelier during this time.

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The Note Cafe – One of the cutest and quirkiest cafes we came across in Vietnam. Located right in front of the Hong Kiem lake, this place deserves at least one visit

Day 11 – Sightseeing in Hanoi

Hanoi has a lot to offer to any person who have a special penchant for history and culture. There are numerous places like the Literature Museum and the Puppet Musuem that deserves a visit at least once. We are in the process of penning an entire article on what to do in Hanoi – so stay tuned for more information on the place.

Day 12 – Goodbye Vietnam

With this, you come to an end to this helluva trip. Trust us, Vietnam is going to surprise you in myriad ways than you can imagine. So, wait no more and make Vietnam your next destination!

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