How to travel Hanoi, Vietnam and its surroundings

Sapa, Vietnam

After trekking through the jungles of Champasak and cherishing the temples of Luang Prabang in Laos, it was time to take the adventure to Hanoi, Vietnam.

My first destination in Vietnam was Hanoi, Vietnam.

A little history of Hanoi, Vietnam

After the Chinese backed Viet Communist Party won the war against the U.S backed Vietnamese army in the south, Hanoi was established as the permanent capital of Vietnam.

Motorbike situation in Hanoi, Vietnam

The Old Quarters in Hanoi has narrow streets with even narrower sidewalks. And most bikers tend to park their motorcycle on the sidewalks. This makes walking more difficult on the sidewalks.

One weird thing you will notice when you arrive in Hanoi is the overwhelming number of motor cycles on the streets. In fact Vietnam has one of the most number of motorcycles per population density in the world. A population of 7 million people has almost 5 million motorbikes.

As the sidewalks in Hanoi is relatively narrow compared to the ones in Western cities, motorbike riders tend to park their bikes on the sidewalk. This creates issues for pedestrians to walk easily on the sidewalk. You almost always end up walking on the road.

What I did in Hanoi, Vietnam?

I booked a nice hotel in the Old Quarters of Hanoi. The location couldn’t be more perfect. It is located right in the historical district with plenty of bars and restaurants, parks and stores. It was also close to the famous Hoan Kiem Lake. The hotel stay included a phenomenal buffet breakfast with a generous spread of both continental and Vietnamese options.

Eating out culture in Vietnam

On my second day in Hanoi. I was hungry and walked around the Old Quarters looking for food. There were many restaurants. Similar to how the French sit in Parisian restaurants overlooking the streets, Vietnamese have a similar arrangement. But instead of the fabric chairs you will find plastic chairs in Hanoi’s streets. It might look bizarre as you pass the streets with bar patrons taring directly at passersby.


With its unique dishes, flavors and textures, Vietnamese cuisine is one of the best in the world. Street food is very common as even the locals tend to eat out. The local beer is even cheaper than a bottle of water. A can of beer costs $0.25 (compared that to $10 in NYC). The quality of the beer is just average. But it goes great with barbeque meat, Cha ca and Crab spring rolls. At that point you wouldn’t care much about the beer quality.

I went to the restaurant Bun Cha Huong Lien where Obama and Anthony Bourdain met a year later for dinner. Interestingly they had the same bun cha – a traditional Vermicelli rice noodles with charcoal-grilled pork. It was also featured in Anthony Bourdain’s show “Parts Unknown” show. The same show that was the biggest inspiration behind my backpacking adventure.

How to book tours from Hanoi

There are a ton of travel agencies selling travel packages to Ha Long Bay, Sapa and other destinations outside Hanoi. I booked a package that encompasses both Ha Long Bay and Sapa for one price. When I left for Ha Long Bay it was cloudy and rainy which made me concerned about the visit at first.

It was almost a four-hour van ride from Hanoi to the ferry port of Ha Long Bay. From there you take a little boat to the main Junket boat that has big sails on the top and looks almost like a Pirate boat from certain angles.

Ha Long Bay

By the time I arrived at the port, rain has stopped and clouds started to clear up. The steps to get to the little transport boat were steep and small. Rushed off by the boat guy I hurried to get on the boat. He threw my backpack without giving much thought into the contents inside the backpack. Time matters here. When we finally got to the tour boat it was almost dawn. To my surprise they gave me my own private room (even though I booked a shared room).

Night on the cruise ship

One great thing about the overnight cruise in Ha Long Bay was availability of the food options. We had an on-board chef whose traditional Vietnamese cooking made the journey rather pleasant. There were other travelers from other countries on the ship mostly from other South East Asia. It wasn’t easy to strike conversations with most of them as they were traveling as couples.

The junket boat was docked in the middle of bay next to dozens of other boats. Sitting on the edge of the deck a bunch of us tried to catch some Squid fish with our fishing rods. The fish seemed elusive at first but eventually were attracted to the fish bait. The dense fog hanging in the air made us cold.

In the afternoon we got to kayak around the Monkey Island. Part of the experience was to learn Vietnamese cooking. I learned to make fresh spring rolls with cabbage, prawn tightly wrapped inside a cylindrical pastry.

Environmental impact in Ha Long Bay

It wasn’t until the morning when I was able to appreciate the beauty of Ha Long Bay. Surrounded by thousands of limestone peaks (also called Karsts) rising up from the beautiful Emerald waters, Ha Long Bay looks like a mystical place during the day. Ha Long bay is one of Vietnam’s five UNESCO World Heritage sites. This is one of the top things to do in Vietnam.

The dark side of the heavily advertised tourism to Ha Long Bay is that it brings some unwanted tourists who have less concerns of the impact on the environment. While the boat was moving we came across a ton of plastic bags, empty beer cans and food stuff floating around the water. It was a really disturbing sight. I can only hope the government does something to prevent tourists from destroying this natural beauty. After spending two days in Ha Long Bay, our tour headed to a near by island Cát Ba.

Cát Ba

Cát Bà Island is the largest of the many islands that spans the Cat Ba Archipelago, which is situated in the southeastern edge of Lan Ha Bay in Northern Vietnam. 

First activity we did in Cat Ba island is head to the Cat Ba National park. The park has many interesting trails. The Ngu Lam loop is one of the main and the longest trail. We must have hiked for almost 1 to 1.5 hours through a canopy of trees before we reached the top. The endangered species of Langur can be spotted here but since they are very stealth, we didn’t come across them.

But when we arrived at the top of the hill, the rewarding panoramic view helped us to forget all the pain pain from walking.

Once the hike was done, we are back in the island town. Interestingly in the town, there are not many motor vehicles which was a relief from the bustling Hanoi. For a beach town Cat Ba is very laid back with few tourists to be found.

After Cat Bae I had to return back to Hanoi and spend a night before I can go to my next destination, Sapa.

Sapa

The train ride from Hanoi to Sapa went beyond my expectations. I boarded the train with a bit of skepticism about the cleanliness of the train. The booking agency booked me in a second-class private cabin with 4 beds. Maybe because I was in the 2nd class but the cabin seemed to be clean and well adorned. They even had some bottled water and tissues in the cabin. The sheet and pillows still retained the fresh laundry smell. They had two toilet options – The western style or Asian style. Unlike the toilets you find in India the western style toilets in the Vietnamese trains seemed much cleaner.

Sapa is home to over 50 distinct ethnic tribes such as Hmong, Tay and Dao. The French established a hill station in Sapa in the early 20th century. Today it is one of the most visited destinations in Vietnam. My travel plans in Sapa included a overnight homestay with a local family, visiting different villages, checking out rice paddies and bamboo groves.

My train pulled over at Sapa station. When I got off, I met up with four other people who were partaking the same tour package with me. There were three British guys in their early 20s who were traveling together on their school break and a girl from San Francisco. We meet up with our tour guide Woma.

Hiking the villages

Included in the Sapa tour was to spend a night with the local tribal family. Woma belonged to the Hmong ethnic tribe. She spoke some decent English. Woma will take us to the house in her village where we would do our homestay that night. We also met a few of her family members from the same village. But what we didn’t realize is that they walk with us to the village and try to sell their handmade ornaments and jewelry on our way. It eventually stopped when some of us bought a souvenir or two.

Woma and her family members led the way to their village. We lugged our backpacks and walked briskly behind their back. Woma provided some running commentary about the place, the people and the culture. I tried to follow along but it was hard for me to understand her thick accent. My mind was mostly focused on the path we were walking.

Indigenous woman in Sapa in Vietnam
Indigenous woman in Sapa ,Vietnam

It was steep and slippery with mud patches and gravel along the way. I didn’t have any good hiking shoes. I felt totally unprepared for this walk. I took extra precaution walking the uneven path where at some points were dangerously steep. But the scenery was spectacular. It reminded me of my time in Munnar in southern part of India.

Sapa, Vietnam
Sapa, Vietnam

We passed by some well-kept terraced paddy fields, which were mostly used for growing rice, wheat and barley. We noticed some Hmong women walking back to the home after a long day of work. They had the typical laden baskets on their back. Apparently in these matriarchal communities women work outside and men stay home and attend to children and household chores. Hmong people are originally from China and migrated into the mountain highlands of Sapa in the beginning of the 19th century.

Spending the night in the village

Sun already had started its descent towards the horizon. When we reached Woma’s house it was dawn. We dropped our bags off on the first floor where we would be sleeping. A series of mattresses were lined up with blankets and pillows covered by individual mosquito nets. Woma and her family cooked us some typical dish from the village. Later the night Woma gave us half a bottle of hard liquor, which was about 40% alcohol. It only took us a few sips to get drunk. The British guys were joking this is the kind of alcohol that would put hair on our chest. I said it would put hairs on your lips.

I woke up early next morning and walked outside the house to get some clean, fresh air. The view in front of me was just breathtaking with a huge cloud hanging in the deep valley in front of my eyes. I managed to take some photos. After our breakfast it was time for us to take another long hike across the hills to the town. We will pass by another town along the way where we would have our lunch.