North Vietnam is becoming a must-see destination in South East Asia and for good reason. It’s a brilliantly chaotic place unlike any other, bursting with opportunity, culture and fantastic food. Here are my top five reasons why you should follow in my footsteps and explore northern Vietnam.
Experience Vietnam’s crazy capital
Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and with this comes the vibrant nightlife backpackers always gravitate towards. When the sun goes down, this already crazy city gets even wilder. Head towards the simply named “Bar Street”, where you can sip local beer on pavement-side stools and sample Hanoi’s famous street food. As we were eating, locals joined our table and while the English was limited, we all had beers in hand, enjoying the experience and the company.
Hopefully, you won’t be too hungover the next day so you can visit Hanoi’s most famous sights like Hỏa Lò Prison, a haunting flashback to Vietnam’s troubled history. Hỏa Lò was used by colonial forces in French Indochina to incarcerate political prisoners and later by North Vietnam to hold U.S. prisoners during the American War. During this later period, it was ironically referred to by American prisoners of war as the Hanoi Hilton. The prison has a ghostly feeling as you learn about the inmates that have been held here over the years. Come to learn about the Vietnamese people and battles they have faced. This will have an everlasting effect as you see the world from a non-western viewpoint.
Head to Dong Xuan Market to see the wares, soft silks and then grab a few souvenirs for your family at home. The hostels in Hanoi Old Quarter provide a tour of this area, showing you the ins and outs of this market but also a few other hidden gems, such as the famous railway street which is pictured above and is a must-see attraction in Hanoi.
Want to take an adventure outside of your comfort zone? Then the Ha Giang Loop is for you, a three-to-four-day motorbike ride around one of the most rural areas of Vietnam. Take to the open road as you swerve through mountainous regions, exploring valleys and villages alike. There are thousands of bends, miles and miles of open road and unlimited amounts of adventure to be had.
The loop has become popular with backpackers around the world but thankfully it isn’t too choked with tourists, leaving you and your new backpacking buddies free to explore a whole new world. Look over the border into China and learn about the local life as you visit ethnic minority villages and make new friends you’ll never forget.
How does exploring the Ha Giang Loop work exactly?
Most of the hostels in Hanoi will advertise Ha Giang Loop trips. They’ll sort out your motorbike, provide you with your route and accommodation and set you on your way. If you’re nervous about driving a motorbike, hire an Easy Rider. Essentially, this is a Vietnamese driver who will safely guide and drive you around the route, so you don’t miss a thing. While biking around Ha Giang isn’t for the faint of heart, it’s an experience you’ll never forget.
Halong Bay is a world-renowned UNESCO Site. Take a cruise round this bay to see unique limestone karsts which rise from emerald waters and are home to caves and sandy coves. You have a few options for exploring Halong, including a relaxing cruise through the bay to see its beautiful karsts. Kayak across the smooth waters, enjoy the Vietnamese cuisine and learn how to make it yourself.
Alternatively, if it’s the social vibe you’re after, book a party cruise. These alcohol-fuelled cruises are great because they’re filled with people looking to party and dance the night away.
How about a famous trip in Halong Bay called Castaways? This exclusive tour takes you to a private island and the price includes all your food, plus a stay in a private bungalow. Share this island with a group of like-minded people and enjoy an escape from reality whilst you bask in the beauty of Vietnam.
Sapa lies in the far north of Vietnam and is a beautiful rural escape from the city. You’ll find yourself trekking through mountains and rice paddy fields, with terraces that stretch up towards the clouds. You’ll also be able to visit the ethnic communities that live in this region and witness their way of life. Sapa is becoming more popular so the sooner you go, the less tourists there will be. You’ll need to get your walk on as there’s plenty to explore, you might even spot Fansipan, the highest peak in all of Vietnam.
Ninh Binh is the perfect place to see Vietnam in all its glory. It highlights the rich biodiversity of northern Vietnam, scattered with topical trees, rivers and karsts which makes for movie-like views. Take a mesmerising tour down the Trang An River on a rowing boat, ducking through caves and visiting temples.
I stayed at the Green Mountain Homestay, which was an amazing hostel right in the wilderness of Ninh Binh. You would leave your rustic bungalow to the sound of critters in the jungle, swing on a hammock and watch the hostel’s resident puppies causing mischief. After this, there’s no doubt you have to visit Hang Mua Viewpoint. It’s a long climb up hundreds of steps but the view of Ninh Binh’s river snaking through floating rice fields surrouned by mountains is well worth it.
Overall, northern Vietnam is so diverse, each location you visit will be completely different from the last. Exploring jungles, mountains, temples and cities, all while learning about the local people is an enriching experience that will last me a lifetime. You’d be crazy not to see it for yourself.
I know I’ll be back again – see you soon Vietnam!