Where do I possibly begin writing about this beautiful country?
Each time I close my eyes, I’m transported back to the rolling hills of Sapa or the magical Halong Bay dreaming about non-existent dragons flying out of nowhere in the mighty emerald green sea dotted with thousands of karst mountain islands or the beautiful laid back Ninh Binh when I wished I could freeze time and just live in the moment or the busy, chaotic, vibrant and crazy streets of Hanoi amid a tsunami of motorbikes.
I always had a list of international travel destinations for my first ever international trip and Vietnam always used to be on the top of that list. And having been there three weeks ago, I must say that it well deserved to take that sweet top spot or to be sitting pretty on the top of any traveler’s South East Asia list.
What I hadn’t thought back then was that I would travel solo to this beautiful country with a unique heritage that completely blew me away and come back falling hard for it. I think it’s safe to say that it’s been one of the most beautiful solo trips I’ve undertaken in my life.
If anyone has to go through the hardship of choosing one destination or country in South East Asia, I might as well ask him to choose Vietnam. That’s how hard I fell for this country. I do seem to fall in love with places more than I can fall for anyone human being in my life. And that’s the MAGIC “ TRAVEL” does to you.
If anything has been stopping you to set out and explore beyond your backyard, please do so now right away. There are too many amazing places in this world and all that holding back yourself isn’t worth it. There isn’t enough time to see this beautiful world.
Vietnam is a beautiful country in South East Asia with a breath taking natural beauty. A long and narrow land sharing its borders with Laos, Cambodia and China, and casting upon a spell unimaginable on anyone traversing through the land, I promise you you’ll be spoilt for choices as you make a list of places to see in this country.
But for anyone as clueless as I was when I first started looking up for places to visit for a 9-10 day itinerary with a mandatory Halong Bay, a suggestive Sapa, the Mekong Delta and a few other places here and there in your head, places you see so often on Instagram or the internet, it could be quite hard to decide where to go.
If you have a fixed number of days in hand and you are the type not to rush things or spend more time flying in and out of one city to another, without much time left to “FEEL” the cities, you’ve stumbled upon the right place to plan your 10 days Vietnam trip. Read on, I promise you won’t be disappointeEdit
TIP : Plan your trip in such a way that you make one city your base and explore everything worthy around it. With the little amount of research I did before embarking on this journey, I think I had one of the most amazing times in my life and the itinerary couldn’t have been better.
Let me first take you through the very important VISA information and some important things you need to know and keep in mind before anything else.
VISA INFORMATION FOR INDIANS
Indians get an on arrival visa when you enter the country through air but based on the pre requisite that you have a pre approval letter from the Vietnam immigration authorities when you land at the aipport. You need to apply for a pre arrival online in any of the websites that provide such services. It may take anywhere between 1-2 days for the pre approval letter which you will receive via mail. Take a print out of this pre approval and take it along with your passport and photos. You get to stay for a maximum of 30 days from the day you enter the country on your valid visa.
After some research, i decided to apply at email@example.com
Charges : 19USD while applying online and 25 USD to be paid at the airport. The on arrival visa process doesn’t take time at all if you are landing at Hanoi. Could take as quick as 10 mintutes or a little over 30 minutes to wait for your turn. All you need to do is wait until your name gets announced as well as shown on a screen.
Carry a few copies of white background passport photo just to be safe, though only one is needed for submission.
IMPORTANT THINGS TO NOTE :
Getting around in Hanoi :
Uber and Grab taxis are very popular in Hanoi. Download these apps before heading there. You can even schedule a ride days before you land there and prices are extremely reasonable. There are motorbike drivers all around the city too in case your apps don’t work for some reasons.
Renting a motorbike will be the best way to travel throughout Vietnam but just like me if you are not so comfortable riding one in the crazy streets, (though i could have totally) get on one of those motorbikes and take a joy ride through the city. Charges seem to be a little high as compared to uber or grab.
Grab could be a little cheaper. Service wise, uber was great. I didnt have to wait long anywhere while waiting for a taxi or a motorbike. Riding or taking an uber motorbike seems way too cool though and also a lot cheaper.
Walk and save money : There are places where you can easily save money by walking. Do that bit.
GETTING A TRAVEL SIM CARD
Remember to get a new TRAVEL SIM CARD as soon as you land at the airport after your immigration clearance near the exit. I took a 14 GB data travel sim with some local minutes of calls free for 300,000 VND or 14.5 USD. You can take the lower data plan too. I chose this since I tend to use up quite a bit of data services.
MODE OF PAYMENT? USD OR VND?
Bring your cash in USD. It’s easier to get it exchanged anywhere. Most shops or restaurants or taxi drivers or travel agents accept USD. They’ll be more than happy to accept cash in USD as they get a little more in this transaction and you lose a little. The little each time will make a huge difference when you end up winding up your expenses at the end of your journey. However, apart from major expenses like tours, it’s always good to use your Vietnamese Dong for payments anywhere for example small restaurants Or taxi fares. Saves a hell lot of unwanted expenses!
NOTE – Be very wary of the ZEROES in your Vietnamese Dong. The number of zeroes at the end will confuse you sometimes while handling huge amount of money. The three zeroes are mostly not used when you communicate. Like they say 100 dong for 100,000 VND. The first time I went to exchange money, I was confused as hell when they returned me the money, so much so that it seemed like they were wondering why i was counting the money for so long.
Well, first time so I had to be very careful and in my mind, I was constantly worried about being coned. Simple math but i was never good at it so Yeah! Also remember to exchange your money at banks. They give you good rates. But if it’s a public holiday, then what you can do is check some of the places around old quarter where you can get it exchanged for good rates. Exchanging here will save you alot of money rather than places like Sapa or Ninh Binh where you get very low rates. Also if you can’t find any, just go to any jewelery shop or antique shop. They will also give you good rates. So enough info now back to the places you must not miss in and around Hanoi.
So here’s my list of “TO VISIT and MUST SEE PLACES” in and around Hanoi, starting with Hanoi ofcourse.
HANOI : Hanoi is the vibrant chaotic and crazy capital of Vietnam. It turned out crazier than I imagined. Well, to be honest, I felt like I was in India, where you all know how crazy the driving can get. Entangled wires above you almost everywhere, shops and eateries with low stools and small restaurants with strong tempting Vietnamese aroma, sure to tingle your taste-buds, as you take a turn at every nook and corner, I absolutely loved Hanoi.
Most parts of Hanoi made me feel a lot like being in my own country, in my own hometown where I grew up. For most of you, Hanoi is sure to test your driving skills with its tsunami of motorbikes to look out for each time you take to the roads. Crazy is just an understatement.
I loved Hanoi for its craziness, its beautiful warm hearted people and the endless options to try out Vietnamese cuisine. Oh I can go on and on about my undying love for Vietnamese food. One of the best things you can do here is to just go out and take a walk through the Old Quarter, where I stayed for almost 4 days as a base between visiting other places. Old quarter, Hanoi is the busiest and the most lively part of Hanoi. You can’t help falling in love with it.
Keep 2-3 days to explore Hanoi. I could easily spend a week but there are much more beautiful places in the country.
There are quite a lot of places to see in Hanoi and a lot of things to do. I’m doing a separate post on it but here’s a few to name and a list of MUST VISIT places too.
- Temple of Literature
- Hanoi Museums (Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, Vietnamese Women’s museum, Vietnam Military History Museum)
- Joseph’s Cathedral Hanoi
- Hoàn Kiếm Lake
- Long Biên Bridge
- Chua Trấn Quốc Pagoda
- Old Quarter Hanoi
- Train Street
- West Lake Hanoi
- Hanoi Botanical Garden
MUST SEE :
You’re sure to get lost and find peace in the chaos too. Or try finding quirky restaurants and trying out local Vietnamese Cuisine.
This bridge has a rich history and heritage adding life to the rustic structure standing mighty in Hanoi.
I strongly recommend you watching the stunning view of the sun going down by this beautiful 2 km long bridge across the Red River. You can watch the lives of the locals who live in those floating boats or take a look at what they call nude beach.:P
- Hoàn Kiếm Lake :
- Train Street : Till this very moment and until I go back to Hanoi again, I have been cursing and will continue to curse and kick myself for missing out on this (since I had this on my list) not due to lack of time but because of my absent mindedness but that won’t stop me from including this experience of feeling the trains run almost through your houses 😀
Just around Old quarter, you should not miss this place like I did. It’s the only place in my list I didn’t visit.
Next time for sure!
ACCOMMODATIONS IN HANOI:
I would recommend you staying in Old Quarter just like I did.
Two of the very reasonable and good backpacker hostels in Old quarter are below:
- Old Quarter View Hanoi Hostel : This is one of the best hostels I’ve stayed at. Prices range between 8-15 USD for dorm rooms starting with 2 beds to 12 beds. You can also take a single room for 20 USD.
- May De Ville Backpackers Hostel, Old Quarter, Hanoi : Another great and very cheap option is this backpacker hostel just around Old Quarter View Hanoi. Price – 5 USD for a 6 bed dorm room.
PLACES TO EAT :
Eat anywhere and anything really! Especially those small restuarants or roadside stalls where you can sit in a low stool and just eat your way to heaven! Food is so good in Vietnam.
My personal favorite will be pho (some kind of noodle soup) with rawbeef and Bahn Cuon, rice rolls served with herbs. I still look for Banh Cuon here in Hong Kong these days but nothing comes close to what i had in Vietnam.
Vegetarians will sure have problems hunting for food. And if you’re craving for some Indian food, just to the streets near West Lake Hanoi. You’ll find very good Indian restaurants. West Lake is a place for the expats especially.
Try the egg coffee at Giang coffee in Old Quarter Hanoi. I had almost all varieties of the coffee on my three visit there so much so that the owner recognized me 😂
Egg coffee with chocolates is the best. DON’T MISS THIS OUT!
This last minute inclusion to my itinerary was clearly the highlight of my Vietnam journey. I still can’t believe that I was going to miss out on this place. It’s one of the most beautiful destinations in Vietnam and its rural and authentic Vietnam experience is why you MUST head here.
Ninh Binh, also known as “Halong in rice paddy fields” has stunning landscapes, a number of interesting caves to ride through in boats and important prehistoric and cultural sites that will remind you time and again why it was probably the best decisions of your life to head here.
No I’m not exaggerating. The place is just beautiful and it will be one of the best soothing answers to your fueling wanderlust soul. Well, it will just leave you hungry for more. That’s all I can promise you. I could easily spend weeks here biking through rural Vietnam and watching the slow life go by even in the scorching almost 40 degrees Celsius heat that turned me 10 shades darker.
Ninh Binh is huge and you will need at least 4 days to completely explore the entire place. But for a traveler with a tight schedule, even a day trip from Hanoi is so worth it.
I will do a separate post on Ninh Binh but top attractions in Ninh Binh include
- Trang An – Trang An Grottoes, Hoa Lu Temple, Bai Dinh Pagoda,
Thung Nham Bird Garden
- Tam Coc – Tam Coc Rice Fields , Tam Coc Boat Ride, Bích Động Pagoda, Hang Mua Temple
- Van Long – Van Long Nature Reserve, Dich Long Cave and Pagoda
- Cuc Phuong – Cuc Phuong National Park, Phat Diem Cathedral
There are three boat trips that you can choose from depending on your choice:
The Trang An boat ride ( there’s the UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE site listed Trang An Grottoes) or the Tam Coc Boat ride or the Van Long Reserve Wetland boat tour.
I did Tam Coc and Van Long and I found both of them beautiful with Tam Coc being way too touristy and Van Long relatively quiet, peaceful and almost no tourist in sight. I wish I had enough time for Trang An as I read there are longer caves there and about 13caves in number. Woah! Perhaps, the next time because I do intend to visit the country especially Ninh Binh, sometime in the future.
TOP TIP : Tam Coc is beautiful and it lives up to its reputation of a popular tourist attraction and as you pass through the three caves and witness endless rice paddy fields against limestone outcrops, it isn’t all that surprising why it’s one of the most popular and touristy places there.
If you want to avoid the hordes of tourists and get off that touristy trail, take the early morning boat rides or the evening ones. As most people come for day trips from Hanoi and few people choose to stay and explore the place, you can pretty much have the place all to yourself. Do stay if you have plenty of time. You will thank yourself later.
Additional important information :
Cost of boat ride : 150,000 VND
You can book the tour through Impressive Travels, the one where I booked mine and it was a good agency. The price was reasonable and the service good and the travel agent who sits there is extremely sweet.
You can also have a look at the travel forum in trip advisor on Ninh Binh Province.
Places to Stay : There are alot of options for stay.
It can cost you 11/12USD per night without breakfast. Check Tuan Ngoc Hotel
Places to eat : Plenty of options. My favorite has to be local eateries where you can enjoy a Saigon beer relaxing and watching locals.
Getting around : Motor bikes and bikes are your best bets and it would cost you 100,000 VND per day for renting a motor bike.
Getting to Ninh Binh : There are at least 3 southbound trains available (SE5, SE7, SE19) from Hanoi to reach Ninh Binh. The most convenient option is the bus which can cost you as low as 70,000 VND. And it was absolutely comfortable. There are regular buses from Hanoi’s southern bus terminal (Giap Bat) and it takes about 2 to 2 and a half hours to reach the place. Check with your travel agent for options to get directly transferred from Catba Island in case you plan to do a Halong Bay cruise including Catba Island before getting to Ninh Binh.
- Avoid the big main roads and go inland road biking. I discovered the beauty of this place as I went biking through the small inland roads through the rice paddy fields witnessing beautiful lotus flower ponds and hundreds of ducks maneuvering their way through the water body.
- Most hotels provide bikes for free or a minimum fee per day.
- Biking or renting a motorbike is the best way to explore the place or else you’ll miss out on a lot of places. Be prepared however, to ride for long hours as the area is huge.
Couldn’t be thankful enough to Arpan Joshi, (shoutout TO INDIANS) yes the Arpan Joshi of “ADVENTURES OF ARJUNA AND BHEEMA” who recommended including this as a one day trip during my stay in Vietnam. I met Arpan while paragliding with his team in Arambol Goa in 2015 and I had shown him a rough itinerary of my Vietnam visit just days before travelling to Vietnam. Glad that I did since this place is a GEM.
Sapa is the most suggestive and touristy place in Vietnam but it truly lives up to its reputation of being one of the the most suggestive places in the country. The town of Sapa was established by French colonial administrators in the early part of the 20th century. And the reason why it attracts alot of tourists is because of its cold climate all throughout the year.
I spent three beautiful days in the tiny little ethnic village of Hau Thao, where MamaLili my Hmong hiking guide and homestay owner, took care of all my needs, from cooking all my meals to guiding me for daily hikes around the village to telling me stories of the villages.
And it was one of the most humbling experiences watching different tribes of women dressed in different colorful handmade attires, watching the daily lives of the people, spending time with nature and animals – wild buffaloes, pigs, chicken, cows, ducks, birds, etcetera.
This is where I re discovered the inner child in me and re visited forgotten little joys of long gone priceless childhood memories, where my eyes were treated to lush green rice mountain terraces and corn plants filled fields that spanned across the entire village or as far as my eyesight could reach.
The place was sometimes enveloped with thick waves of mists, sometimes it was all bright and sunny and other times, it rained. This is where I stood and almost shed tears of joy, where I was filled with an overwhelming sea of emotions, where I felt much more grateful for my existence and it was no surprise that I felt something tugging at my heart as I left the place.
Do stay for at least two nights and three days and spend time hiking to some of the best view points and scenic villages and getting more insights into the cultures, the different languages and attires of the different villages.
There are a few ethnic minority villages in SAPA. Do hike to these villages below.
- Lao Chai
- Sin Chai
- Hao Thau
- Ta Phin
- Cat Cat
- Thanh Kim
- Giang Ta Chai
- Ban Ho
For the adventurous, hike to Fansipan, the highest mountain in IndoChina (all of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) but be sure to be well prepared for this hike as it’s one of the most difficult hikes in South East Asia. I wish to do a wild trek and this pretty much looks like the one I’m looking for (without a guide). Maybe when I go back to Vietnam, I’ll attempt this hike. Or you could take a ride in the world’s longest three way rope cable car to Fansipan.
TOP TIP : If you want to feel the Sapa beauty at its best, you just have to do away with a little bit of your comfort and hygiene issues. Stay in a homestay at one of the Hmong villages higher up and away from Sapa for the best cultural insight into the Hmong tribes’ lives and a more authentic rural Vietnam feel. This homestay option is not for people with OCD. Also, remember that temperatures tend to go down at night even in summers so pack some light jacket or pullover if you decide to head there. It was pleasantly cold at nights when I was there. Winters will see a drop of temperatures close to zero degrees celsius.
IMPORTANT TIP : THE FARTHER AWAY FROM SAPA, THE BETTER. Do not stay in SAPA VALLEY.
Price for two nights and three days including food and hiking guide : 35-40 USD
Getting to Sapa:
Option 1 : By train.
Traveling by train takes about 8-9 hours and the train only stops in Lao Cai, the province which Sapa belongs to. It then takes another one hour to get to Sapa from Lao Cai station.
departure time from Hanoi : 8 pm and 10 pm
* Ticket for night train is $35-180/person/way
* Ticket for day train is $10-20/person/way
Option 2 : By Bus
There are daily buses departing Hanoi at 6:30am or 10:00pm. The journey is about 6-7 hours.
I traveled by bus as it is faster and goes directly to Sapa without stopping in Lao Cai as is the case if you choose a train.
Option 3 : By private vehicle
you can even reach Sapa in 5 hours if you choose a private vehicle for the journey.
Check the bus and train timings here.
ACCOMODATION IN SAPA : Plenty of options but a homestay will be the best way to experience Sapa.
No need for pre bookings as your Hmong hiking guides will reach out to you looking for tourists when you get down from the bus.
TIP : Try not to stay at Sapa valley . It’s very touristy there. Stay at nearby villages.
Where do I begin? Blown away by its beauty and absolutely MAGICAL! This is a majestic dreamy magical place where my imaginations went wild like in movies. Halong Bay felt nothing short of magic like I was being transported to a fairytale world and waking up to gorgeous Karst mountains views in the middle of the emerald green sea felt so much like a scene straight out of a mythical movie surrounded by nothing but darkness, quietness and calmness.
One of the best things to do is here is Kayaking in the emerald green sea through beautiful caves. What was even more surreal than feeling the Halong Bay MAGIC was the amazing kayaking experience.
Halong Bay could get way too touristy, something that really bothered me with me not really enjoying the total experience but the kayaking totally makes up for all the touristy feelings.
There are many Halong Bay cruises that offer you amazing experiences starting from day trips to 4days and 3 nights packages. Most of these packages offer you caves tour, Halong Bay swimming and kayaking experiences, Catba island stay, floating village tour and cooking classes and Taichi classes among others.
SAMPLE BUDGET FOR A SOLO BACKPACKER
BUDGET – WHAT I SPENT ON THIS TRIP :
Visa – 44 USD (19+25), Travel sim – 14 USD (Can be way lower), Sapa bus tickets + Halong Bay Cruise (One night two days) + Ninh Binh day tour = 20 USD + 80 USD + 29 USD = 139 USD
STAYING CHARGES : Couch surfing landed me with a good host and i didn’t have to pay for two nights in Hanoi.
The remaining two nights I stayed in backapacker hostels which I’ve mentioned above. 5USD + 8 USD = 13 USD
Sapa homestay including food and hiking : 35 USD (Two nights and three days)
Cab from Hao Thau to Sapa town – 150,000 VND (optional, as you can hike back to Sapa town but wantespetend more time in the village on my last day till late in the evening hence took the cab back to sapa valley)
Ninh Binh one night stay : 12 USD
Van Long Boat ride : 150,000 VND
Airport transfer : Airport to Old quarter in an uber taxi : 216,000 VND
Old quarter to Airport last day : 200,000 VND
A beer bottle will cost as low as 20,000 – 50,000 VND anywhere else except on the cruise.
A meal of pho can cost cost you as low as 50,000 – 80,000 VND
Beer bottle at beer corner costs you 20,000 VND
My extra charges ( Hmong tribe attire as sovenir : 300,000 VND)
Flight tickets from Hong Kong to Hanoi cost me 2000 HKD.
So, excluding flight tickets, I ended up spending close to 300 USD, inclusive of Visa fees and everything. It can be less as i didn’t plan on staying at Ninbh Binh. If i had done that alone, 29 USD could have been saved.
All my bookings – Sapa bus tickets, Halong Bay Cruise and Ninh-Binh Day tour (which was a waste of money since I ended up staying there) were booked through Impressive Travels, Old Quarter, Hanoi. Price was reasonable and service was good.
I ran back from work the other day and as I stepped into the Hong Kong metro rail line towards the Olympic station, I was filled with a longingingness for Vietnam, so much so that it awakened all my senses and took me back to those 9 days (technically 10) I spent in beautiful Vietnam. I decided to have a Vietnamese dinner of Bahn Cuon from one of the nearby Vietnamese restaurants at my place and that while a Vietnamese song lingered on in my memory just as the occasional plashing of oars against the old creaking sound of the boat lingered in my ears and as I reached home, my emotions turned into flowing words slowly but surely reliving me of my Vietnam days. This post was long due and I somehow decided that today was the day to post it.
From showering at a stranger’s place to sharing meals with my motor bike driver in Hanoi to sleeping for two hours at a stranger’s place, I’ve had the warmest experiences in Vietnam.
Whether it was Lan Dam my awesome host in Hanoi for two nights (from couch surfing which I tried first time here) who was kind enough to go biking with me an entire evening and show me around Hanoi pointing out all beautiful locations and worthy things to do in Hanoi, including Long Bien Bridge and the famous GIANG CAFE (also recommended later by my Halong Bay guide) where I kept going back each time I got back to Hanoi for its EGG COFFEE and tasted almost all the varieties or the travel agent at Impressive travels who let me shower in her home and sleep before my Halong Bay cruise bus ride, or the kind travel agent guy who offered me pork curry and rice for dinner and let me sleep at the comfy beds at their place meant for them, the hospitality is what I’ll treasure most.
Vietnam is a country so close to heart. It has left a mark on me that I will take to my grave. Its exotic and unique heritage has left an impression so strong that I sometimes get teary eyed remembering my days there. The warm hearted people and the hospitality that I received during my stay there will take me back again to this wonderland to look for the parts of me that I left there.
All pictures, unless otherwise mentioned were taken on my DSLR and Go Pro Hero 5 Black.
Hope this post has been informative. Quite long I know with too many pictures but I had to share what I thought was important. Let me know if there’s anything else you need to know. 🙂