If you’re looking for a truly Vietnamese experience, look no further than the capital. Considered by many to be the heart and soul of the country. The city is centred around dozens of charming, tree-lined lakes, some secluded, some gigantic. While it is nowhere near as developed as Saigon, Hanoi is undergoing an electric cultural transformation from tradition into modernity. It is a constantly changing city of secrets, full of hidden cafes and bars. Hanoi is not for the fainthearted, it’s a chaotic and unpredictable place. But so in, lies its charm. Take any side road and you’re bound to be rewarded with a pleasant surprise, whether it’s a B52 bomber half submerged in a lake or a gigantic hidden flower market. And fear not, if you’re looking for some time-out there are plenty of tranquil cafes and museums inside the stunning vine covered French colonial architecture.
Halong Bay and Cat Ba
Halong Bay is an incredibly popular spot due to its iconic karst mountains jutting out from the sea. It has something for everyone. For the active adventurers, there are gorgeous caves and waves. For the night-owls, there are party island options that will keep the most devout full-moon partier happy. And for those looking for a more tranquil experience, then the nearby Cat Ba island is rich in history and wildlife. It is definitely worth a couple of days exploring by motorbike. If you go, make sure to visit the chilling hospital dug dip into a mountain cave. Be sure to bring a flashlight and your bravery! If you do take one of the popular boat trip options in Halong Bay, be sure to check out one of the environmentally friendly options. Sadly, heavy levels of tourism are having a negative effect on this remarkable world heritage site.
For time away from the busy capital, Ninh Binh offers an excellent escape. The city itself is not particularly impressive, but venture into the karst mountains and you’ll discover why Ninh Binh is Vietnamese peoples’ favourite holiday destination. Its breath-taking landscapes lead many to call it the inland Halong Bay. Take a boat ride through the cave tunnels and explore hidden mountain temples. Ninh Binh is where the locals go to avoid the crowds, prices and increasingly cluttered waters of Halong. You might want to follow their lead.
Sapa is a beautiful mountain region north west of Hanoi. It is a popular area thanks to its luscious vegetation, rice paddy covered mountains, and thick forests. A seemingly endless supply of waterfalls, cut-off tribes and wildlife, is enough to keep anyone happy in Sapa. Some people have complained of being heavily hassled by locals trying to sell their wares, but please keep in mind that Sapa is a poor region and not much of the money from increasing tourism trickles down to the true locals. If you’re in Vietnam in the winter, then Sapa in the snow is truly a sight for sore eyes. Not many spots in Vietnam get snow, but the highlands of Sapa make it an exception. Imagine endless tiers of rice terraces thick with white January snowfall.
Ha Giang is Vietnam’s next big thing. These isolated northern areas provide unparalleled beauty. A couple of companies offer tours there, but if you want to travel it properly, then hire a motorbike and do a circuit. You can thank us later. If you do choose to adventure up north, don’t expect an easy ride. This route is for hardcore travelers and even getting up there can be a struggle. That said, the reward is certainly worth the struggle. If you do travel there, please, be extremely respectful of the people and area up there. It would be a grave shame if this virtually untouched area of natural beauty was ruined.
The Perfume Pagoda
If you set off early from Hanoi, the Perfume Pagoda can be visited in a day. This is a package that many tour companies in Hanoi offer. However, we can’t help but feel that a day-trip does this stunning area a disservice. Once you arrive at the destination, you rent a small wooden boat and are taken down the river through lotus pads and lush forests. They will drop you at a vast hidden temple complex hidden between the shade of the mountains. Once you have explored there, find the cable cars to take you to the hidden cave temple at the top of the mountain. Here, you’ll find not only magnificent mountain views but a place of true serenity.
Written by Alex Sinclair Lack for Teacher’s Friend – Vietnam. All rights reserved.