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Even though Bangkok was a great intro for Asia, nothing could have prepared us for Hanoi, the energic and modern capital of Vietnam. The most impressive thing about Hanoi is the crazy driving. The traffic chaos (there are almost as many motorbikes as there are people!) and the rich culture and history of Hanoi create an unforgettable atmosphere.
We decided to play a game where every time we saw a food stall with only local people, we had to try the most traditional dish available. It was quite an experience!!
How to get there: We flew from Bangkok to Hanoi with VietJet, which is surprisingly good! The flight costs around 60€ and takes 2 hours.
Top Tips & Fun Facts:
- Book a tour with Hanoi Kids. These are students who will spend half a day showing you around for free, just to train their English.
- Buy a SIM card with 2 GB of data for 4€. You can find them anywhere and it was very useful to get around, since you can’t easily find Wi-Fi and the maps aren’t always reliable.
- Contrary to Thailand, in Vietnam, tuk tuks are cheaper than taxis. They’re fast and sometimes don’t seem very safe, but they’re part of the Hanoi experience. Don’t forget to haggle, but within the city the trips will cost you cents!
- Experience Hanoi’s historic heart: the Old Quarter. Soak up the sights, sounds and smells in the vibrating streets of the Old Quarter.
- Visit the Temple of Literature, one of the highlights of our trip. The Temple of Literature was found in 1076 by students of confucianism, classical literature and poetry and is now a rare example of traditional Vietnamese architecture.
- Eat, eat, and eat. Hanoi is known for its food and trust me: it totally deserves the fame. We did (and recommend!) a food tour with Hanoi Street Food Tour. Our picks were the typical bun cha (grilled pork and noodles) in Bun Cha Ta and the nôm thit bò khô (dried beef salad) in Lung Vi Dung. In both restaurants you can dine for 3-4€. If you want to spend a bit more (10€), go to the restaurant Home – it’s totally worth it!
Sapa is in the mountains of north-west Vietnam, close to the border with China, where several ethnic minority groups live. Sapa is a bit far from Hanoi and from the typical traveler’s route, so we were unsure of whether we should go so far to see the mountains – but a couple of friends convinced us to go and I hope I can do the same with you. Sapa was one of our favorite places in the whole trip. Well actually…this was one of the most fulfilling experiences we have ever had in our lives.
We booked a tour with Vega Travel for both Sapa and Halong Bay, because they are focused on escaping the beaten tracks and providing the best experience for backpackers.
How to get there: By train. There is a train station quite close to the city center, where you can take the night train from Hanoi to Sapa. We left our backpacks in an Hotel in Lao Cai, the city center close to the mountains, so we could do the trekking with a lighter bag.
Top Tips & Fun Facts:
- Take waterproof hiking shoes. If you don’t have any, you can rent some for around 10€/2 days.
- Bring and drink A LOT of water, as well as sunscreen, because you can easily dehydrate.
- In Sapa, there are 6 tribes living in harmony. These families produce tons of rice every year, for their own consumption. Due to the weather conditions, locals can only have one plantation per year, and it needs to last the whole year. They’re extremely poor, but also humbling and kind.
- In one of the tribes, when a man wants to marry a woman, instead of making a proposal… They kidnap her! Women are kidnapped by the groom-to-be and his friends, and have to stay with him for 3 days. During 3 days, the man tries to conquer the woman, and only after the third day she’s allowed to accept (or not) the marriage.
- Do the 2 day trekking: 25km trekking in the rice fields + dinner and sleeping in the local’s home + 10km trekking – I guarantee you won’t regret it!
- Enjoy the infinite rice fields, the water buffalos, the water falls and the amazing people from the minorities of Sapa.
3 hours from Hanoi is Unesco-protected Halong Bay. Before our trip, a friend of ours told us: I had a mixed feeling visiting Halong Bay. On the one hand, it was breathtaking; but on the other hand, I was sad thinking that after Halong Bay, nothing will truly impress me again. We totally agreed with her.
How to get there: It’s not possible to go to Halong Bay by yourself: you have to pick a tour. We chose Vega Travel again, who took us from Hanoi to the wharf of Halong Bay by van (3,5 hours drive). Once you get there, enjoy the boat trip! We were lucky because we were just around 12 people on the boat. We were together for only 2 days, but it was enough to really make a connection with these people, from 2 people that met while travelling alone and fell in love; to our great guides, who teached us a lot about the country’s history and culture.
Top Tips & Fun Facts:
- There are nearly 3.000 tall, green islands in Halong Bay.
- Halong Bay means “bay of the descending dragons”. Legend says that god sent dragons, who dropped jewels and jade into the bay, creating the islands.
- Kayak through the Man Head island, the Butterfly Cave and the Horse Neck Stone, where you’ll find wild monkeys and can swim in the emerald waters of Halong Bay.
- Watch the sunrise over the bay.
- See the floating fishing villages, where local fisherman live.
- Visit the “Surprising Cave” (Hang Sung Sot), one of the largest caves in Vietnam.
This post was also written in Portuguese. Click here to read the Portuguese version.