Practical tips for Hanoi and directions to Halong Bay and Sapa
So you are headed to North Vietnam – great! We’re excited for you too! Here are few practical tips to get you started in Hanoi and to help you get to Halong Bay and Sapa.
Please don’t say I need a visa… !
You have to check! Visa HQ is a good place to start as it spells out the basic visa requirments for any country. You may want to verify with your country's embassy in Vietnam to be sure. If you do need a visa, the good news is that many nationals can apply for it online for a small fee. This usually runs around US$6-20, which is in addition to the actual 1-month single entry visa cost of US$25. There are seemingly thousands of companies that offer this service. Here are a few that we’ve tested and we know not to be scams (although there are probably many more!):
- Vietnam Visa for US$17
- Vietnam Visa Cheap for US$6
Once you arrive at the airport you must present a printout of the paper that the online company will email you (this document usually arrives in your in-box within a few hours, but give yourself at least 2 days before your trip to be safe) and have US$25 in cash ready to go (must be in USD!). You also need to have 2 passport-sized photos. Once you submit this to the visa counter, it should only take on average 30 minutes to get on your way.
Finding your way to the city
No, unfortunately you cannot hitch an ox from the airport. But on the flip side getting into the city is fairly simple. There are a lot of taxis and Grab is available as well. It should cost about VND 250-350K to get to Old Quarter which is where the majority of travellers stay. Do note that the Grab fare does not include a VND15K charge to exit the airport. Your Grab driver will ask you to pay it in cash.
You can also catch a bus (look for No. 17), which goes through Old Quarter. It will cost you around VND 30K. It may be a bit difficult to explain to the driver which stop you need. It would be helpful if you have an address you can show.
Spoiled for accommodation choice!
Old Quarter is bustling with various hotels and hostels. Overall the quality standard is quite good. For around US$30-40 per night you can get something quite charming, not to mention free breakfast, friendly staff and comfortable rooms. Here are a few places we can recommend:
- Hanoi La Siesta Hotel Trendy – La Siesta falls on many a Top Boutique Hotels list and rightfully so. This stylish small inn is very tastefully decorated in the true artistic Hanoi style. Rooms are small, but very comfortable and bathroom amenities are very modern. Breakfast at the top floor is superb with a wide variety of foods!
- Impressive Boutique Hotel – another boutique hotel at an affordable price. Impressive invokes an old world charm and pairs it with the wonderful local hospitably. The breakfast is modest but tasty.
- Essence Hanoi Hotel & Spa – for a splurge. This is another small one of a kind hotel with an art deco style and modern amenities. The restaurant is one of the top fine dining places in Hanoi.
- Jozi Home – this place is great if you are traveling solo and looking for a nice group atmosphere where you can meet other travellers. Run by Zim, a HCMC transplant, Jozi Home is a small place, but full of heart. The staff is super helpful and will be happy not only to provide you with a comfortable bed but also take you out on the town.
So what’s there to do in Hanoi?
The capital of Vietnam, an ancient city with multiple influences from Chinese to French, has a lot to offer. From the historical sites to it’s artistic vibe to it’s café scene. Most of all it’s great for people watching. It’s 8 million inhabitants are busy - ceaselessly riding their motorbikes, selling, cooking, making, shifting and changing! This is just a brief intro of some of the most important places:
- Hỏa Lò Prison - an important spot to get a glimpse of Vietnamese more difficult history. The prison was initially used by the French to jail political prisoners and later transformed by the Vietnamese into an American POW detention center. This is the one where late Senator John McCain was held.
- The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum – although the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh is not open for public viewing any more and the building it self is not entirely impressive, it is still interesting to see the flag lowering ceremony in the evening. Interesting to see the people stream in – many from far away provinces!
- Hanoi Opera House – built during the French colonial time and modelled after the Palais Garnier, it is a true architectural landmark. While here you can also enjoy a performance that will be a fraction of the price of what it would be in Paris! International acts perform regularly.
- Hoan Kiem Lake – a great spot for people watching is any bench near Hoan Kiem Lake. If you happen to be here during the weekend – it’s one of the best places to shamelessly observe the Vietnamese at ease (which is a rare site!) – practicing Tai Chi, eating bo bia or just strolling around.
Where are the tasty treats??
The food in Vietnam is phenomenal. It’s hard to get enough of the fresh herbs, perfectly cooked noodles and meats. Even the seemingly rundown street stalls serve up amazingly delicious pho. A good way to experience the food scene is by going on a motorbike food tour. There are a few that are offered in Hanoi. Some of which are run by all female staff. Check out I Love Vietnam or Rosa Motorbike tours. But there’s definitely reason to wander off on your own. Here were a few of our favourites:
- Bánh Cuốn Gia Truyền Thanh Vân – this place specializes in the savoury Bánh Cuốn which is a thin sheet made out of fermented rice batter and served with pork and wood ear mushrooms. You can watch them nimbly make it while you wait. Address: 12 Hàng Gà, Hàng Bồ, Hoàn Kiếm
- Phở Vui (Recommendation from Zim!) - for the beloved Vietnamese soup (Phở). This place specialises in preparing beef in many different ways: half-done steak, well done steak, brisket with flank and fillet beef. Any way you go, you can't go wrong! Address: 25 Hang Giầy
- The "Vit co thanh luan" place (another Zim recommendation) - a really local place with only duck dishes. There is no English menu (!). You may need to invoke your best international sign language by pointing to the dishes of your table neighbours. Or you can order in Vietnamese: “Vit rang rieng”. Address: 9, Đường Phú yên, Phường Bồ Đề, Quận Long Biên, Hà Nội
- Yogurt Bar – nope, not for yogurt! But rather for the quintessential Vietnamese banh mi (sandwich). This humble cart serves up some of the most deilicious banh mi ngan (banh mi with duck). Address: 14 Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm
- Bun Cha Ta Hanoi - no longer a secret, located on the major tourist artery of Nguyễn Hữu Huân, never the less it serves up Bun Cha (grilled pork dish served over rice noodles and with side dishes of dipping sauces and fresh herbs) in the most authentic way. It’s the only thing on the menu here! Address: 21 Nguyễn Hữu Huân, Lý Thái Tổ, Hoàn Kiếm
- Xofa – tucked away in a quiet corner, Xofa invokes a secret garden atmosphere. It’s a great place to relax during a day of site seeing with a Vietnamese or western coffee and sample a few small bites of the fusion kind. Address: 14 Tống Duy Tân, Hàng Bông, Hoàn Kiếm
- Giảng Café – the birthplace of egg coffee. This is a must try when you are in Vietnam whether you are a fan or not. Address: 39 Nguyễn Hữu Huân, Hàng Bạc, Hoàn Kiếm
- Any Bò Bía Ngọt street stall – made out of shredded coconut, bars of harden malt sugar, sesame seeds sprinkles and all wrapped in a thin flour paper. A favourite of all Vietnamese children!
When you are ready to get away
So you may be interested in seeing a few more things in Northern Vietnam. One place of interest for many is Halong Bay – a UNESCO World Heritage Site with epic limestone karts protruding out of emerald green waters. The best way to see this place is by taking an overnight cruise (more about this to come in the next entry). The recommended way to get there is by private transport which is arranged by the cruise company and takes about 3-4 hours (depends on which route is taken and if the company makes the "mandatory" shopping stop for about 20-30 minutes). Make sure to check if the transfer is included in the price of the cruise (sometimes it may not be, and will run an additional US$10-20 return).
Of course there are options by public transport as well. You may want to take the bus, if you are not going on a cruise and rather heading to Cat Ba to stay on shore. You can catch a mini bus from Gia Lam. Price is around VND 120K and the journey will take 4-5 hours. The bus will drop you off at Bai Chay. Another option is a more comfortable bus from My Dinh Bus Station (tickets are VND 100K) with the same drop off point as the mini bus. From there you can take a ferry to Cat Ba (be mindful of the ferry schedule as you could miss the last one for the day if you leave Hanoi too late). If you are taking a cruise from Tuan Chau Port, you can hire a motorbike taxi which should run you about VND 40K.
The other popular destination is Sapa. Here you can trek the gorgeously green rice terraces of the Hmong people led by their incredible women guides. You can get there by bus or train. Regular buses leave from My Dinh Bus Station. There are both day and night busses and will run you around VND300-350K. There’s now also a Sapa Express Bus, which takes about 6 hours (about an hour or so less than the regular bus) and includes a pick up from your hotel in Old Quarter. Price is around VND350-400K. Buses go straight to Sapa bus station.
Overnight trains leave from Ga Hanoi at 20:35 and 22:00 and go to Lao Cai, the closest large city next to Sapa. The journey takes about 8 hours plus another 30-45 minutes by mini bus from Lao Cai to Sapa. Prices range from US$28-160 (for the VIP private suites) and include the price of the mini bus. Tickets can be purchased in advance or at the station. Hotels can also help you to arrange tickets, but they will charge a premium.
Good to know: There are only two trains that operate every night, but there are several companies that provide the hosting service on each train. They differ in the level of service and comfort of cabins. Chapa is perhaps the nicest one, with Livitrans being the modest yet comfortable option. There are no day time trains to Sapa.
Afterword: These tips were compiled by Lina, Co-founder of Seek Sophie, who travelled to North Vietnam. Photos were taken by Lina and Jerome Naval.