If we were sitting over coffee and you asked for advice for a trip to Northern Vietnam, I would tell you:
- One or two days is enough in Ha Noi. (Don’t go on Monday).
- Do some advance researched so you have a balanced view of history (but of course remain open to the local perspective)
- I am glad we did 2 nights in Ha Long Bay – it was worth the extra expense to see a little more and not feel rushed
- I wish I’d gone trekking in Sapa
- Be careful of the weather in the winter – it was in the 90s a few days before we arrived and was cold and rainy while we were there
One Day in Ha Noi:
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum: The mausoleum and museum open early so they are a perfect first stop before the tours and crowds arrive. In fact, the mausoleum is only open in the morning and is closed on Monday and Friday. The museum has longer hours and was worth a stop. It is well laid out and interesting. And you can’t know present day Vietnam without knowing a little bit about the national hero Uncle Ho.
Temple of Literature is nearby and was one of our favorite stops in Vietnam. It is a peaceful and gorgeous spot right in the middle of the city. I expected this to be a quick photo stop but we spent more than an hour walking the grounds and admiring the site that has been there since the 11th century.
Ha Lo Prison (aka Hanoi Hilton) was a fascinating stop and a look at Vietnamese history through the lens of local context, culture and history. The majority of the displays and information concentrate on the time the prison was used by the French to imprison Vietnamese “criminals” and independence fighters. However, as an American, I was obviously interested in its usage during the Vietnam War of the 60s and 70s and was disturbed by the local interpretation of events.
Quan An Ngon was a wonderful place for lunch only about 5 minutes from the prison. They have a huge menu and lunch was delicious.
If you are a history buff, a quick run through the History Museum is worth it. You don’t need much time but it will provide an overview of Vietnam’s struggle with early invaders like the Chinese and Mongolians as well as a snapshot of the Kings of Hue.
Make sure to walk around Hoan Kiem lake and spend some time in the old quarter while in Ha Noi.
If you have a Second Day in Ha Noi:
The Ethnography museum gets wonderful reviews but it is closed on Monday.
Walk by St. Joseph’s Cathedral
Have egg coffee at Ga Gong Duong and watch the train (located between Lê Duẩn and Khâm Thin street in Hanoi’s old quarter.)
We did not do a water puppet show while there but it is a big attraction and I have only heard rave reviews… it just didn’t feel like me. But if I had been there longer, I probably would have broken down.
Of course there is lots of shopping in the old quarter!
I recommend both Klook and Grab for getting around the city. While we had no problems of scams or theft, this is definitely a city in which to not let down your guard.
Hotel Recommendation: We loved the La Beaute De Hanoi Hotel. The staff was wonderful, the rooms were comfortable, the location was perfect, it had a wonderful breakfast and the price was right for a mid-range budget! A second option is also the Hanoi Impressive Hotel next to the cathedral which I would recommend and would have more things to say about if we hadn’t stayed at the La Beaute De Hanoi first!
Budget Breaking Dinner Option: If you have the budget to splurge, try Duongs (right in the old quarter) for dinner. The chef was a Vietnam Top Chef and the food was outstanding!
Ha Long Bay: While in Ha Noi you have to visit Ha Long Bay. It is a stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was cold and rainy during our trip and it was still our favorite stop (and makes a short list of favorite stops in over 80 countries). The landscape is gorgeous and the experience is unique. There are tons of companies available on line or once you get to Ha Noi; however, we went with Handspan Travel which is a decision I don’t regret and will do again. While the cost was on the higher end of mid-range our guide was fantastic, the groups are small, the boat was stunning (with larger than expected rooms), and the food was superior (and never ending)!
One of the fun parts of the trip was the international crowd we met – an Austrian on her way to Australia for Yoga training before moving to Switzerland, an Italian working in Saudi Arabia, a woman from Washington DC who spent years in Africa working in public health, two men from Amazon working in New Delhi, and a couple from Cognac France.
Stay tuned on more about Vietnam!