A Five Day Guide to Northern Vietnam
Updated: Jun 23, 2022
Welcome to part one of our Southeast Asia trip. Hello, Vietnam.
Did you immediately visualize the colorful five H cities - Hue, Hanoi, Hoi An, Ha Long Bay and Ho Chi Minh City? Did you think of wild street food, interesting history, mystical boat cruises along deep valleys surrounded by limestone cliffs?
If you did, you wouldn't be far off from for what this gorgeous country is all about. During our short stay, the country felt like it was at a crossroads between the past and the future (much like Japan).
It was an engrossing experience, from watching people from all walks of life squatting down on the tiniest plastic stool to eat a meal (though of course we could not do this one as vegetarians and would not recommend you do it if you have a sensitive stomach) to the baffling mystery of "how do people cross the road in Hanoi"?
In this itinerary, we skip all the usual touristy spots and head straight for the countryside.
Day wise itinerary:
Day 1: Land in Hanoi. Drive to Ninh Binh area
Day 2: Ninh Binh Area. Thai Vi Temple. Bich Dong Pagoda. Mua Caves + dragon statue
Day 3: Day trip from Ninh Binh to Trang An
Day 4: Day trip to Mai Chua. Chieu Cave Hike. Go Lao Waterfall. Drive to Hanoi city
Day 5: Hanoi City from dawn to dusk
These rules are constantly changing, be sure to double check the rules before traveling.
These were the rules when I traveled:
Negative PCR Tests. Vaccination Certificates
E-visa. $25 per person. Received it on email within 48 hours.
Confirmed return or onwards flight.
Travel/Medical insurance with COVID coverage
Flights, Visa and Immigration (if traveling from UAE)
We flew with Emirates straight to Hanoi. The immigration was simple and quick.
Safety and hygiene
It was heartening to see a whole lot of local people were wearing masks outside in cities, restaurants and all supermarkets.
As with any place, practice due diligence and use common sense. You will be fine.
Best time to visit
Ideal to visit this part of Vietnam in the non-rainy season between March-May or post September
Language and People
Once we left Hanoi, no one spoke English - not even our driver/guide. Luckily we didn't need to communicate a lot as we knew where we were going.
Typical of Asia, the people were still very sweet and helpful.
Travel and Medical Insurance, Currency
Travel Insurance is highly recommended - we have our own, but if you are looking for one try World Nomad. Carry local currency for the Air bnbs, small purchases, entrances to all temples, tourist sites and for tipping.
How to get around + Choosing a guide
If you are short on time and don't want to drive, I highly recommend going for a guide. If you have the time, by all means use the public transportation within Vietnam. From flights to trains, they have you covered.
Unfortunately, we went during the local long weekend, which meant a lot of the tour/drivers were fully booked. I eventually went with Hanoi Vietnam Transfer. The car was neat but don't expect the driver to speak English. We didn't need a guide, so this was ok with us as I already knew what we were going to do. You may need to pay extra if you also need a guide. For 4 days of transport, expect to pay $400 for our itinerary, depending on where you go and what you do.
How expensive is Vietnam?
It was one of the cheapest places - even more than Bali, which can still easily be perceived as a tourist trap by some. Budget around $80-100 per day for local food, stay and transport during off season.
How long to spend in Vietnam?
You could spend months here. So much to do in every corner of this incredibly diverse country. Our trip was focused only along Northern Vietnam, I would suggest a minimum of 5-6 days just for this region.
We always struggle with food in this part of the work, especially since we don't eat egg. We had a marvelous experience at a local vegetarian restaurant in Hanoi, but apart from that nothing to write home about.
Where we stayed:
Since we hardly had any time to spend in the hotel, we decided to go low-key for this leg of our South East Asian trip. We stayed in a small boutique hotel in Ninh Binh, just across the Tam Coc lake area. Accessibility and convenience were the key deciding factors and this place fit the bill perfectly.
In Hanoi, I chose the centrally located Acoustic Hotel & Spa. What a pretty little place with the most delightful team to help with you everything you could need. Due to Covid, they were not serving breakfast, but there are a hundred cafes just 2 minutes from this quaint boutique hotel. Highly recommended if you are just looking for some place clean to crash in between your city runs.
After our landing close to mid day, we drove straight to Ninh Binh, about 90 minutes without traffic from Hanoi. We spent the evening settling into our small room and taking a stroll along Tam Coc.
One of the main reasons we chose this part of Vietnam was to escape the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. We spent every morning just staring out the window.
It may not be as popular as the colorful towns like Hoi An or Hue but it was the focal point of our trip to Vietnam. I was determined to escape city life on this trip and soak up the slow life of countryside Vietnam, and that is exactly what this town offers. The best part was it is only 90 minutes from Hanoi. We based ourselves here to explore the mind blowing caves, pagodas, infinite limestone cliffs and bike along striking green rice fields.
We started our exploration with the Thai Vi Temple. If you base yourself in central Ninh Binh area, this temple is just a short walk from the Tam Coc lake. The temple is hidden deep in the mountains, with many local villagers visiting through the day.
Though I will admit, the temple didn’t impress me as much as the surrounding areas did. It was pure serenity surrounded by dense green mountains & abundant rice fields. If you are like me and prefer places far flung, miles away from tourists, be sure to add this gem to your itinerary.
Our next stop was a short drive to the Bich Dong Pagoda. Nestled in the mountainside of Tam Coc, is this small yet alluring three-tier cave temple.
The entrance is surrounded by water lilies and this lake. To me, this was one of the best places to experience the sunrise. The gateway stands tall with intricate designs adorning the entrance to the mountains. You should definitely take the short trail that cuts through the mountain for magical views of the valley, awe-inspiring peaks & the vast fields below!
Travel tip: the entrance is FREE but try to make it there by 6 a.m. to avoid crowds
Our last stop for the day was my favorite - the Mua Caves.
This is as touristy as it gets in Ninh Binh but it also happens to be one of those phenomenal places in this region, so we decided to go anyway.
Entry fee of 100,000 VND per person.
With mountains that stretch as far as eyes can see and freshly laid fields below you, it could be one of the most knockout sights you can hope to see anywhere in Vietnam(in my humble opinion).
This is a sacred temple area where you need to climb over 500 stairs to reach different view points - one is the iconic Mua Caves view point of the Tam Coc valley and the other one is further up, called the Mua Peak, for the view of the dragon statue.
The dragon statue, though breathtaking, is a bit dangerous to get to - you will need to climb jagged rocks and stand very still. The rocks are sharp and you could easily hurt yourself. I would not recommend this one, if you are afraid of heights. It also gets windy up there, so be very mindful of all this before you venture out here.
NOTE: this is a popular spot where people actually dress up for a photo. If you go on a weekend or long weekend, expect to wait for half hour for your turn for photos. The dragon statue area is much more quieter and we had it to ourselves the whole time.
On our third day in Ninh Binh, we had another slow morning. We slept in and lazed around until mid day before finally making our way to Trang An, the less-frequented version of Tam Coc.
Aptly called as 'Halong Bay On Land', this is yet another hidden gem that often gets exchanged for a cruise to visit Halong Bay, it's more attractive cousin.
As much as people told me NOT TO MISS Halong Bay, sitting on a cruise just didn't appeal to us (it never does!). Trang An felt like the right fit for us, a much more authentic experience far away from the tourist crowds who book day trips to Halong. The crowds here for only locals, also only because it was a long weekend.
The landscape in Trang An is second to none. Did you know this is the only place in Vietnam that is both a natural and cultural UNESCO world heritage site? You will be surrounded by steep karst cliffs covered in thick moss.
This was our favorite day in Vietnam. Imagine just green cliffs for miles on end.. all you will hear is the swoosh of your paddle against the calm river. You gently float along on your bamboo boat to see mirror like reflections for three hours. If that isn't the very definition of paradise, I don't know what is.
When you enter the complex, you need to pay and pick the tour you wish to go on (costs VND 250,000 per person). There are few options to choose from but we went with route 3 as this one had the longest cave structures among the three options. No matter which tour you pick, you will get to hop on and off a few times to visit temples and caves but for the most part, all of you have to do is soak up this all natural environment in all it's zen glory. The entire scene was captivating beyond words. Once you make your way through the different caves, it is inevitable by how enthralling this place is. You are hit by the color of pure green goodness on every corner, each cliff connected by rice paddies and not just water.
Each cliff also stands in isolation, making you appreciate each one for what it represents - nearly 30 valleys and over 50 peaks all connected intricately through these valley peaks. It is quite amazing to take in all of this landscape from this vantage point.
My favorite part of the whole experience was also that 90% of the boats are rowed by women. They expertly bend and maneuver their way through the cliffs without breaking a sweat. We tried to do for about half hour and were left panting. Don't miss out on this magical opportunity to immerse yourself in this eco-tourism gem hidden deep in the middle of towering mountains and sacred rivers.
One our last day from Ninh Binh, we decided to go to yet another off beat destination called Mai Chau, a picturesque postcard valley in the northwest region of Vietnam. If you do this trip from Hanoi, it would be a 3 hour drive (one way).
This is again a fantastic place to escape the tourist crowds, more so than Sa Pa. If you enjoy taking it slow with a lot of eco-tourism touch points, this place is a must-do. With it's scenic vistas and undisturbed country life, this is the ideal day trip from Hanoi. Let your lungs soak up the fresh air.
What do to in Mai Chau? We did two things - the first one was hiking up to the Chieu Cave.
This is a massive cave structure that sites on top of a hill. Note that there are a good 1000 stairs to climb to enter the cave but it is not very difficult.
Once inside, you will likely be the only ones there. What I also loved about this mini-adventure was the opportunity to catch the scenic vista of the village below us. Postcard perfection.
Take your exploring the stalactite forest. As with any cave, the impressions, varying shapes & curves and patterns on these cliffs are fascinating.
Our last stop for the day was a dip in the Goa Lao waterfall. Just a 20 minute drive from the cave. Not very deep, it's an amazing place to cool off after your hike up. Likely to be filled with local kids having a ball but absolutely no tourists.
Traveler note: our original plane was to stay a day in Mai Chau but every place was booked for the long weekend, so we went back to Hanoi for the night. If you have the time, I would highly recommend spending one night in this village.
On our last morning in Vietnam, we were back to the bustling city of Hanoi. There was lots to love about it and plenty to be baffled by. That being said, I did like the energy of this charming capital.
We started our day in the city center with a stroll by the park near the Ngoc San Pagoda. I would highly recommend going here.
After which we just took it easy and walked around the city. We were not keen on going to any of the other museums or temples around the city. So by mid-day, we were back to the room to escape the heat.
If you are hungry for a snack, check out the iconic King Roti for a taste of the local bread that costs less than $1. Such a treat and so fresh.
Later in the evening, we caught the sunrise at the Ngoc Pagoda again. Before walking further down to the biggest church in the city to catch the sunset. Get here a bit early and enjoy the evening by the lake.
We also checked out all the cool street art along the way.
We later stopped at the Insta-famous Train Street. What a funky vibe here with the graffiti and lights. We loved this part of the town.
We then went for dinner at the best vegetarian restaurant in town. Sadhu vegetarian restaurant comes highly rated in Hanoi and at a cost of almost $20 per person. The portions and variety were impressive though. It was a great way for us to experience the local cuisine without compromising on our principles. The setting is also marginally upscale. Ideal for date night.
The staff are fantastic, they explain what to try and how everything works. Be mindful of the portions as it is buffet style and you could fill up quickly if you don't space out the courses,
TIP: We went on a week day and the place was packed so a booking is a MUST.
When I was planning our short trip, I knew I would have less time to go off track but I still had my pick of amazing caves, ancient architecture, long countryside drives and peaceful pagodas to choose from. Imagine driving past the jagged mountain tops and lush green rice fields that stretch as far eyes can see, up the secluded valleys and finally taking a traditional boat ride countless limestone peaks permeating through the waters of Trang An. This was how we spent our time in Northern Vietnam.
With it's mystic mountains, thriving fields, serene rivers, and water caves, Ninh Binh is a must-visit in Vietnam. Not just as a detour from the city but as the focal point of your trip. Not only is it a great way to soak up the country-life, it is also an oasis of quietude everywhere you turn. Such a welcome respite for anyone who doesn't particularly enjoy endless coffee hops in cities.
I also loved how easy on the wallet it was - from food to stay to transport, very reasonable and the entire trip actually cost half of what it actually took us to fly there. Ha! The jagged mountains covered with dense shrubs, famous caves and vibrant Asian culture, the country stood out as a gem. If you choose the right area, you can have a sublime eco-tourism experience here. We look forward to visiting Vietnam again and exploring more of it's alluring culture.
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