A guide to incredible destinations in Northern Vietnam. Vietnam was actually one of our best and favorite trips! So much that we’re planning on coming back in a few months!
After our Vietnam trip, I got a lot of requests from friends and readers for a Vietnam itinerary. There are so many breathtaking cities in Vietnam and we regret not staying longer (we missed Da Nang, Hoi An, Hue, Dalat, just to name a few). But we’re so happy that we got to experience Hanoi, Sapa, Ninh Binh, and Halong Bay. Some of these locations are a little difficult to get to (but it’s completely worth it!), so I hope this post is helpful. Happy travels!
To do Sapa, Ninh Binh, and Halong Bay, Hanoi becomes more or less like a home base. I highly recommend getting to Hanoi first and plan the other cities around it.
How to get to Hanoi
You can fly directly to Hanoi (Noi Bai International Airport, airport code HAN) or if you’re starting from Southern Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City, you can fly with a local Vietnamese airline to Hanoi. We flew from Saigon to Hanoi on VietJetAir and it was about $25 USD/per person/one way.
Where to stay & For how long
I recommend staying in Hanoi for at least 2 or 3 nights before heading out to the other cities. There are lots of hotel options in Hanoi. We ended up staying at the InterContinental Hanoi Westlake which was ok, but honestly we wouldn’t do it again. It was a little far from the city center and felt a little too corporate. If we were to do it again, we would consider hotels in the Old Quarter. The Old Quarter has a lot of character, energy, and life!
Hanoi Antique Legend Hotel – 3 1/2 stars, $35/night. Highly rated and in Hanoi Old Quarter, walking distance from night markets, street food, and Hoan Kiem Lake.
Hanoi La Siesta Central Hotel – 4 stars, $85/night. It’s gorgeous and located in the heart of Hanoi Old Quarter and walking distance to the night markets.
Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi – 5 stars, $230/night. A historic luxury landmark since 1901, this hotel is located in central Hanoi, near the Old Quarter.
Sapa is a must! It’s beyond beautiful and feels like where the earth meets the sky. Gorgeous hues of aqua, green, and blue. During harvest season, the rice fields turn gold!
How to get to Sapa
There are a few options to get to Sapa: train, bus, or private car. Sapa is about 220 miles from Hanoi, and there are no airports in Sapa, so getting there requires more effort. But it’s completely worth it!
Train: cost $20 – $30/person, duration 8 – 10 hours (save time by taking the overnight train). Leaves from Hanoi and arrives in Lao Cai. Lao Cai is about 45 mins from Sapa by car. Once the train arrives in Lao Cai, you can take a transfer by bus or taxi to Sapa. One option is the Sapaly Express Train.
Bus: cost $25/person, duration 6 hours. Leaves from Hanoi Old Quarter and arrives at your hotel in Sapa Town. You basically let the bus service know where you’d like to get dropped off in Sapa Town. One option is Eco Sapa Bus.
Car: cost $150 – $200/one way, duration 4 – 5 hours. Picks you up from your hotel in Hanoi and drops off at your hotel in Sapa. Ask your hotel concierge in Hanoi to set this up. Make sure to establish the complete trip price before confirming the car booking.
Where to stay & For how long
I highly highly recommend the Topas Ecolodge in Sapa. The ecolodge is located about 45 mins by car from Sapa Town. They also have their own bus shuttle service, Topas Mountain Express, from Hanoi directly to the Topas Ecolodge. One night is good, two nights is better. More lodging options below:
Eco Palms House – 3 stars, $75/night. Incredibly peaceful and beautiful, this hotel is located on top of rice fields and is about 4.5 miles from Sapa Town.
Sapa Horizon Hotel – 3 1/2 stars, $70/night. Located in the heart of Sapa Town, this hotel is surrounded by picturesque mountain views and walking distance from the markets.
Aira Boutique Sapa Hotel – 4 stars, $130/night. Highly rated and surrounded by stunning views, this hotel is located in Sapa Town perched on the edge of a mountain.
Ninh Binh, Vietnam
Ninh Binh was one of my favorite stops. Despite us getting super sick, I still loved Ninh Binh. Surrounded by incredible rock formations and caves, it really feels like you’re in another world. Ninh Binh was where they filmed parts of Kong Skull Island! We went to a few places in Ninh Binh and our favorites were Trang An, Mua Caves, and Bich Dong Pagoda.
How to get to Ninh Binh
So, this part is tricky. There’s really no direct way to get to Ninh Binh from Sapa. Basically, you have to go through Hanoi (what I meant by Hanoi is more or less a home base). Ninh Binh is about 1 – 2 hours by car from Hanoi. I recommend coming back from Sapa to Hanoi (whichever way you want: train, bus, or car), stay and rest up in Hanoi for the night, and then head out to Ninh Binh the next day. If you’re thinking about doing the overnight train, you can head straight to Ninh Binh on the same day. From Hanoi to Ninh Binh: train, bus, or private car.
Train: cost $5/person, duration over 2 hours. Departs from Hanoi Railway Station and arrives at Ninh Binh Railway Station. Ninh Binh Railway Station is about 15 mins by car from Tam Coc, which is where all of the incredible structures are at. See train schedule here.
Bus: cost $7/person, duration 1 hr 30 mins. Departs from Hanoi and arrives in Ninh Binh. Again, once you arrive in Ninh Binh, take a taxi to Tam Coc. See bus schedule here.
Car: $60 – $80/one way, duration 1 hr 30 mins. Picks you up at your hotel in Hanoi and drops you off at your hotel in Ninh Binh. Also with a private car, they can stay with you and become your tour guide. Ask your hotel concierge in Hanoi to set this up. Make sure to establish the complete trip price before confirming the car booking.
Day-Trip: $80 – $140/person, usually from 7:30 am to 6:30 pm. Includes hotel pick up in Hanoi, tour guide, a few activities, and drop off back in Hanoi. Ask your hotel concierge in Hanoi to set this up.
Where to stay & For how long
For Ninh Binh, you can do a day-trip or stay for a few nights. We stayed for 2 nights and I wished we stayed for 3 nights. I really really like Ninh Binh. We stayed at the Tam Coc Bungalow and it was a lot of fun!
Tam Coc Bungalow – 2 stars, $33/night. This place is really adorable. Right next to a river, this bungalow is in a great location close to all of Ninh Binh’s treasured landmarks.
Mua Caves Ecolodge – 3 stars, $26/night. This ecolodge is located directly below Mua Caves (the purple dress picture above). It’s bright, clean, and in a great location!
Tam Coc Garden – 3 1/2 stars, $133/night. This is a beautiful mountain resort. Surrounded by paddy fields and lush greenery, this is one of the top rated hotels in Ninh Binh.
Halong Bay, Vietnam
We saved the most relaxing for last. I’m not really a cruise gal, but Colin really wanted to do this cruise. And I’m so glad we did it. Surrounded by emerald waters and towering limestone pillars, Halong Bay looks like a scene from a movie.
How to get to Halong Bay
Most cruises offer hotel pick ups from Hanoi. So if you’re coming from Ninh Binh, it’s probably safest and easiest to get back to Hanoi and schedule a pick up from there to Halong Bay. Pick ups are usually at 7 am and it takes about 3 hrs 30 mins to get to Halong Bay.
Where to stay & For how long
We ended up doing a 3 days 2 nights cruise. But honestly, you can see everything with a 2 days 1 night cruise. Most cruises already have set activities, excursions, and itineraries. You just pick and choose whichever activities you’d like to participate in. Below are some options:
Paradise Luxury Cruise – 4 1/2 stars, $265/night. Lush and chic, this is an all-around solid luxury cruise line. Flexible 1 or 2 night programs with excursions, Paradise makes enjoying Halong Bay very seamless.
Alisa Premier Cruise – 4 1/2 stars, $285/night. One of the top picks in Halong, all of the rooms and suites are fitted with a private balcony (a huge plus!). They also have one of the most scenic routes to explore throughout Lan Ha Bay to Ha Long Bay.
Hera Cruise – 5 stars, $515/night. The ultimate luxury experience, this cruise offers personalized itinerary, Tai Chi class, afternoon tea service, and so much more!
What we did was: Hanoi -> Sapa -> Hanoi -> Ninh Binh -> Hanoi -> Halong Bay -> Hanoi -> NYC. We both had one large luggage each, and Colin had a backpack with all of our equipment and I carried my crossbody bag. We didn’t have any carry-on luggage, because we knew the bus situation would be very tight on space. If you’re a backpacker, it’s much easier to catch the trains or buses from Sapa directly to Ninh Binh without going through Hanoi (and same for Ninh Binh to Halong Bay). But if you’re a light to heavy traveller with luggages, it’s much easier to come back to Hanoi after the other cities.
And bring insect repellent! You’ll need it, especially in Sapa and Ninh Binh.
Have cash on hand and be prepared to do quick conversions. Currently, the Vietnamese Dong is $23,000 Dong to $1.00 USD. For easy calculations, I made mental notes of $20,000 Dong to $1 USD, $200,000 Dong to $10 USD, $500,000 Dong to $25 USD, $1,000,000 Dong to $50 USD. Most things you can bargain (like private car rates, with street vendors, etc), so it’s more effective if you can do quick conversions as you’re bargaining.
Scams and Rip-offs
Scams and rip-offs happen everywhere and Vietnam is no exception. Please be careful and be present. Our phones were rarely out when we were in Vietnam, unless we were using it for Google Maps. We securely packed and held our equipment everywhere we went. But we did get scammed. One taxi meter mysteriously showed an end rate that was 4 times higher. We took a bus from Sapa/Lao Cai to Hanoi, and the driver ended up dropping us off no where near our drop off location. From our experience, I just have a few tips:
- Always pay attention to the taxi meter. After our experience, I read on forums that this happens quite often.
- Always have your bag, purse, camera, etc. very close to your body.
- When negotiating, ask for the end price. For example, don’t ask… from Hanoi to Sapa, the car price is how much? Instead ask… from this hotel [insert your hotel address] in Hanoi to this hotel [insert your hotel adress] in Sapa, what is the total price? The more specific, the better.
When you love, you love
I know all of this sounds intense (trains, buses, long rides, million dollar conversions, scams, rip-offs), but once you’re there, it’s much easier to navigate. We had a few hiccups in Vietnam, but that didn’t take away from all of the great human experiences we had. We were met with kindness on most of the trip, made friends along the way, and saw jaw-dropping views.
I can keep on writing but don’t want this post to be a novel. I hope all of the travel tips and recommendations are helpful. Please enjoy Vietnam and safe travels!As always, thank you so much for reading!