A few years ago my wife and I made a two week trip to Thailand. We originally wanted to one week in Thailand, and another week in Vietnam. But we decided that we can easily fill two weeks worth of exploring, eating, and sightseeing in Thailand. Our time to visit this region and finally explore Vietnam was finally here.
If you’ve read our previous post about traveling, you’d know that my wife does most of the planning for our trips. From excursions to food, museums and other local treasures. For some unknown reason, she trusted me to plan our Vietnam trip. And plan I did.
The first decision was whether we should do South or North Vietnam. Each with their own amazing areas to explore. Two things came to mind that I wanted to see in Vietnam: Sapa Valley and Halong Bay. Turns out they are both in North Vietnam, and thus we decided to do Hanoi, Sapa Valley and Halong. Luckily there are plenty of services that would help with getting the most out of each area. For Sapa Valley 9 I picked TrekkingSapa, and for Halong Bay I decided a 3 day 2 night cruise with Paradise Cruises.
In between Sapa and Halong we stayed in Hanoi, a city that’s always buzzing with scooters rushing past you. It may look like chaos, and probably is chaos, but it works. Crossing the street can be terrifying but after a few times you get used to it. One tip: do not stop, keep moving, look everywhere, and definitely don’t rely on zebra crossing or green lights to cross.
I’m not actually sure how to best describe Hanoi. It’s a busy city, with thousands of scooters and cars trying to get to their destination. There’s a resemblance of road rules here and most of that is enforced with a honk. Honking is more of a “I’m here and probably pass” or “I’m rounding a corner” rather than “wtf are you doing” like it’s used in the states. As mentioned above, crossing the street takes some practice. Don’t stop, keep moving.
The thing I will never forget about Hanoi was the food, and there is so much of it. Although I planned most of the trip, I still kept the food hunt up to Tina. And oh boy did she deliver on that. There are two dishes that stuck out to me: dry pho from Pho Hanh and Banh Xao (sizzling cake). The dry pho was actually rather tricky to find, the place itself is down a dark tight space where you’d then suddenly greeted with chairs and a kitchen. For 40,000 Vietnamese Dong you get a bowl of dry pho (chicken, noodles, greens) and a bowl of the broth on the side. That’s less then $2 for a bowl of pho and broth, and it’s incredibly tasty.
The Banh Xao comes with the sizzling cake itself (which consists of pork, veggies fried in something that looks like a taco), greens, dipping sauce and spring roll paper. You take a piece of the cake, some greens and roll it in the spring roll paper, dip it in the sauce and enjoy. Don’t share one order, we accidentally ordered two and it was just right for the two of us. Even after a whole day of eating.
Outside of the food we heard about Egg Coffee while doing some searching on what to have. There are many places within Hanoi that serves Egg Coffee, but there’s only one place we went back to multiple times. Cafe Giang. This is yet another cafe situated down a dark hallway. They have seating upstairs too on small wooden stools that can barely fit a grown adult.
So what’s egg coffee? Well it’s rather simple. You take egg yolk and mix it with some condensed milk, you then take this mixture and pour it over a cup of Vietnamese coffee. Cafe Giang has it both Hot or Cold, we ordered Cold every time. I love Vietnamese coffee and even have all the tools to make it at home, but this takes that coffee to a whole new level. We plan on making this at home.
Lastly, our accommodations in Hanoi worked out very well. Since we didn’t have many consecutive days in Hanoi I decided to book different ones for the night we were there. Oriental Suites Hotel, Charm Boutique and Hanoi Bella Rosa. I can’t recommend Oriental Suites Hotel enough, they were incredibly welcoming and professional. We were greeted with some juice, one of the employees addressed us by our name and talked about the surrounding area. They showed us to our room where we dropped our stuff off and took a quick shower. Which felt really good after 24 hours of traveling from SF.
We were in and out of the hotel during the day while checking out the surrounding area. At one point as we were headed out I heard my name from one of the employees. There he stood with a cake in hand and said: “Excuse me sir, we weren’t sure when you’d be in your room long enough but we wanted to wish you a happy birthday.” My birthday wasn’t for another few days, yet they took the effort to get me a birthday cake. They said they’d put it in our fridge in the room so we can enjoy it when we are ready. It was incredibly thoughtful.
The drive from Hanoi to Sapa Valley takes about 5 hours, excluding a 30 minute stop at a resting area. Here you can buy some fruit snacks or something to drink. The bus itself was actually pretty comfortable and had onboard WiFi. Sapa Valley and the town of the same name sits near Lao Cai, just a short drive from the Vietnam and China border.
After we checked into our hotel and got dressed for the first of two hikes we head down to meet with our guide Mau (pronounced Mu). Before we start on our 4 hour hike she took us to a local restaurant named Little Vietnam. Here we had rice, pork, veggies and some fruit for dessert.
The first hike took us North of Sapa town and into the valley. Mau gave us two options: stick to the roads, or do a more “natural” route. Natural was supposed to be a bit more strenuous but you’d see more. So we went with that. The route had us climb steep hills and navigate down the other side, crossed a small river and even walked past people’s homes. The views were absolutely stunning and something I’ll never forget.
At one point during the hike we came across a construction site where they were building a new road. Normally I’d think we would turn around or find a different path. No, our guide helped us walk closer to one of the machines digging up ground till he saw us. He patted some of the dirt down with the machine so we could pass, lit up some tobacco in a pipe whilst still in the cabin and relaxed while we crossed.
The tour itself happened to be private, it was just Tina, Mau and myself. It allowed me to stop and fly my drone to capture some of the surrounding area from a viewpoint you don’t usually see. The drone even had some of the kids run up and look to see what’s going on.
Day 2 took us South of Sapa Town towards Mau’s village. She gave us the two options and again we picked natural. Two ladies followed us all the way, one older lady that helped Tina down some steep areas, and another carrying her baby on her back. When we stopped for lunch, they both asked us if it’s okay for them to show some of the stuff they have for sale. Seeing as how much they helped Tina and how far they walked with us, we bought a bunch of stuff to help them out. Things that would actually make good gifts for family, so it’s definitely a win-win situation.
I will never forget our trip out to Sapa Valley. The hike took us through some wilderness, rice paddies, farms, and villages. The people we encountered on our trek were some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. Little kids waved at us one their walk back home from school. Workers and farmers greeted us with smiles and a wave.
If you are thinking about taking a trip out to Sapa Valley, give TrekkingSapa.com a try and ask for Mau.
Halong Bay is little under 3 hours Northeast from Hanoi. The shuttle bus was another one of those fancy cushioned 7-seater busses with onboard WiFi. The bus dropped us off at one of the fanciest hotels we’ve ever been to. We checked in and got a blue wristband with a QN number on it (The number designates which boat you will be on). After a quick beer and some wine, it was time for us to be shuttled to the dock.
The boat itself consists of about 12 rooms, each of which can house 2 to 4 people. After boarding we were instructed to head upstairs for a welcome and safety briefing. Our host, Mr Lee, took us through our itinerary for the next few days. After the welcoming we were given our room keys to put our things down.
Each day was full of activities, from visiting a floating village to kayaking through a cave into a large enclosed area inhabited by monkeys. It may have been a bit exhausting but was worth every bit of energy. What made it all worth it was a 60 minute Balinese massage on the boat. Our legs really needed a massage from our two days of hiking Sapa.
Our cruise was cut a bit short due to some incoming weather. We were originally supposed to dock Friday morning and head back to Hanoi in the afternoon. Instead we docked Thursday evening and Mr Lee helped arrange a private car for the 3 hour trip back to Hanoi. I was able to book a hotel for the night through Booking.com. Tina and I were actually happy with coming back to Hanoi earlier, the cruise had nothing scheduled for the last day and it gave us a full day in Hanoi to explore and eat as much as we could.
I would like to thank the staff of Paradise Cruise (specifically on our boat) for making our trip to Halong Bay an experience we will never forget. And for helping us get back to Hanoi.
We’ll miss you Vietnam
In the end I expected Vietnam to be very similar to Thailand. And although they do share a lot of things, Vietnam has left me with wanting to see and explore more of the country. The food during our trip was absolutely incredible and I have no idea how I’m going to survive eating Vietnamese food back in the states. The country side that we saw during our trips out of Hanoi was breathtaking. The people of Sapa are some of the hardest working I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.
If you don’t want to read the entire blog post above, here’s a list of our hotels, activities, and the food we ate.
Hotels & Activities
- Oriental Suites Hotel
- Hanoi Bella Rose Hotel
- Charm Boutique Hotel
- Paradise Cruises (Paradise Cruises)
If you want to save $20, book your stay using Booking.com
Places we ate:
- Bun Cha
- Egg Coffee
- Bahn Mi
- Bahn Xao
- Roti Buns