Vietnam wasn’t at the top of my travel bucket list, but sometimes unexpected destinations are the most surprising.
Natalie and Clinton were halfway into their four-month expedition having already visited Thailand, Bali, Cambodia and Laos. I watched their adventures closely both through social media and by talking to them on FaceTime regularly.
When the opportunity arose to join Natalie in Vietnam while Clinton headed to Goa, I could barely contain myself! Travelling with my sister is always a treat, but especially now that we no longer live in the same city (or even on the same continent!) She’s wonderful to travel with because she’s level-headed, fun to be around, budget-conscious, and directionally-savvy. Not to mention, we have similar priorities when travelling.
We began our travels up north in Hanoi. Here are some of the highlights should you ever find yourself in the capital of Vietnam:
The Old Quarter is where you should spend your first morning, although you could easily spend an entire day here if time permits! The crowded markets are quite overwhelming, with merchants calling out to you from every direction. As much as Natalie and I enjoyed other parts of Vietnam, this is where we truly felt like we had stepped back in time. I experienced sensory overload watching locals pile their pedal bicycles and motorbikes high with produce and flowers. Hanoi has retained much of its colonial character, and it’s really the best place to sit on a street corner and enjoy banh mí and phõ.
The lake in Hanoi offers respite from the chaotic Old Quarter. It’s a lovely spot to sit back and take in local culture. From the assortment of photoshoots (you’ll see ladies dressed up as brides taking hundreds of professional photos) to the community gardeners, there’s always something going on by the lake!
The Hỏa Lò Prison was first used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners. Later, by North Vietnam, for prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. It’s a frightening prison (I may have even screamed once or twice…) and contains A LOT of propaganda, but it’s educational and worth checking out if you have time.
Our favourite coffee shop in Hanoi was Cong Caphe. The quirky military-inspired café serves delicious Vietnamese coffee with coconut frozen yogurt. Grab a seat on the rooftop patio and enjoy views of the hustle and bustle below.
We stayed in the Opera Quarter, which a short walk to the Old Quarter and the lake. Our rooftop offered supreme views of the French colonial architecture Hanoi is known for.
The Hanoi Social Club is a wonderful spot for vegetarian food, drinks, and epic views of the city. Be warned that the drinks here are STRONG.
Be sure to book a two-night/three-day tour of Halong Bay. Even if you’re pressed for time, I’d suggest giving up a day in Hanoi to spend a second day in Halong Bay. Tours can be booked through your hotel, although some tend to hike up the price because they get commission. We compared prices, and then booked through a local travel stall in central Hanoi at $150 USD/person.
Our first day was spent sailing around Halong Bay and exploring the nearby caves with our tour group. We then did some kayaking at sunset (the views were breathtaking) before heading back to our main junk boat. That night, we had dinner and slept on the junk boat. Our second day involved venturing to Cát Bà Island, which is more remote with better views.We spent one night at the Nam Cat Resort in Cát Bà. It was worth waking up at 6AM for this sunrise.
Our tour guide, Tú told us stories about his family and daily life in Vietnam. His enthusiasm made him one of the most memorable tour guides I’ve ever encountered, and he made us laugh more times than we could count.
There’s nothing quite like a Ha Long Bay sunset.
My favourite part of the tour was visiting Cát Bà Island. I loved cycling around the island and watching the locals go about their days.
Thanks for reading! xx