This is a post on my North Vietnam trip in 2012. Places visited consist of Hanoi which was the first stop. Halong bay is the next with a 2 days cruise trip and on to Sapa, which is a mountainous area with beautiful terraced rice fields and minority tribes villages. Vietnam is a place of unique culture. There is an unspeakable peace and tranquillity in the country itself. Ever since i visited Vietnam for the first time in 2007 during my student internship, i could never forget this country and the experience i have there.
This trip was rather easy to plan as i engaged the service of a local Vietnam tour agency to customise the tour for me.
Tips for planning a budget North Vietnam Tour
1) In Vietnam, taking the bus is rather inconvenient. However, you can take the taxis as its very cheap there. But remember that only a few taxis companies can be trusted. If possible, arrange for airport pick up service with your hotel. Once at the hotel, check with the hotel staff which taxis to take. They can help you to call for taxis too. It's free of charge.
2) Vietnam has many local tour agencies. The tour agency that i engaged was by Vietnam Awesome Travel. This travel agency is also recommended by tripadvisor. I personally think their service is quite good as they are willing to customised the tour for me. You can email them and their response is quite fast. Payment is only made when you're there on your first day. No deposit required.
3) That's all there is to plan for a North Vietnam tour. It is that simple and easy to plan.
Here are the details of the whole trip including my itinerary and accommodation places.
Travel to Hanoi via Singapore Changi Airport Terminal 1 by Jetstar. The tickets if i didn't remembered wrongly was about $200 per person. Travelling date was somewhere on the third week of December very near to Christmas so i guess the plane tickets were a little more expensive.
Arrived at the airport and hotel staff was there to pick us up. I had arranged this service beforehand with the hotel. Thought that this would be a good choice since i got cheated by taxis in Vietnam before. Lesson was learnt.
The hotel we stayed in was called Hanoi charming hotel. Cost was only USD23 per room per night. Quite affordable i would say. It's a rather small hotel in one of the small alleys in Hanoi. Without the airport pick-up service, i don't think i'll be able to locate the hotel myself. Staff were very friendly in the hotel. Most of the hotels i stay in Vietnam have friendly staffs. This is my experience so far. Hotel rooms were clean and everything was in good condition. They have air con with heating capabilities. This is needed when weather turns rather cold especially in December. There was one night it was only 9 degrees Celsius.
The simple room in Hanoi Charming Hotel
Day 2 & 3
Travel to Halong Bay in the morning for a 2 day one night cruise in Halong bay itself. The journey to Halong bay from hotel took about 4 hours. Once we reach there, the view is stunning. I can see many small mountain like structure protruding out of the bay. The cruise we took is Dragon cruise.
As we set out on the cruise deeper into the bay, the view is even more refreshing.
A typical cruise ship that sails in Halong Bay
If you visit North Vietnam via Hanoi, be sure to visit Halong Bay. It is definitely worth the trip. Halong bay is also one of the UNESCO world heritage site. For the 2 days one night, the cruise will bring us to different tourist attractions in the bay also. We visited caves, fish farms and even had a kayaking session in Halong Bay. The waters there are very calm so it doesn't cause any sick sick feeling or whatsoever. All meals are provided on the cruise itself.
The cave I visited in Halong Bay
Day 3 & 4
On day 3 afternoon, the cruise came back to land and we were driven back to Hanoi to prepare for the night train to Sapa. The train is a sleeper train which means there were beds in the cabins. Journey from Hanoi to Sapa was around 8 hours. Its quite a bumpy ride as I think the trains there aren't so advance. Its quite a old traditional train which you'll only be able to see in the 80s. Overall it was a good experience.
The sleeper train cabin with 4 beds
The exterior of the train. Very old and traditional.
On day 4 morning, we arrived at the train station near Sapa. There was a mini bus to take us up to the mountain areas. The drive was about 1 hour plus if I didn't remember wrongly. When I got out of the mini bus, the first thing I noticed was the cold temperature. It was so cold and I didn't prepare myself adequately. We went straight in to the hotel lobby for checl in and breakfast. Luckily there was heater at the hotel lobby. This hotel is called Dang Trung hotel. It was a french style building. The only bad thing about this hotel is there was no heater in the rooms! So its not recommended during very cold seasons like December. They only had electrical heat mats on the beds and a fireplace. These had to be purchased at additional cost. I think the fireplace is quite cool though. I purchesed some wood and burn it in the fireplace in my room. But the cold was still so bad that after awhile, the heat of the fire faded off. I forgot to mention the temperature. It was 3 degrees Celsius at the lowest. Can you imagine living in this temperature without a heater? Totally unbearable. Of course at night will still be able to sleep with the heated beds.
The tranquil feeling of Sapa
Tracking into the terraced rice fiields
More terraced rice fields
It was so cold that it turned really foggy
The minority tribes leading us on the tracking path
There was a village we went to where I saw many kids playing in the fields and they were all dressed in torn and dirty clothes with mud all over their body. However, they seem so happy and enjoying their fun. Its a joy to see this sight.
Kids playing in the villages
More kids playing. Look at the rugged but simple environment that they live in
Day 5It was Christmas day! More tracking but this time its to a nearer village. Only 2 hours walk on normal roads. After that we went back to Sapa town and visited the local market plus spend the rest of the day relaxing in the hotel rooms as we were exhausted from all the walking.
Waterfall on 2nd day tracking
After having enough rest, we went out at night after dinner to take a walk. There were some performance at their small local church and crowds were gathered there. We joined in to watch the performance and listened to the Christmas carols. Standing out in the cold and listening to the carols makes it really feel like Christmas.
So many people listening to Christmas Carols
Later at night, we walked back to our hotel. On the way back, there were some street stalls selling barbecue items. It was really tempting to have some barbecue in this cold weather. We gave in and set down beside the charcoal stoves for some barbecue chicken wings, satays etc.
After that, we went back to the hotel and the hotel owner was kind enough to offer us some red wine. We set at the lobby sipping the red wine and talking to the hotel owner. Everything just feels so much like Christmas. It was definitely one of the most memorable Christmas I ever had.
In the morning, the mini bus came to pick us up after we checked out hotel. This time we're going to another local market. In this market, they sell everything from live chickens, to dogs to horses to buffaloes. All were on display there for people to choose. Its a rare scene which I'll never be able to see in Singapore. Oh and North Vietnam sells dog meat too. Its everywhere in their markets so do not be surprised by it. I guess its legal for them to eat dogs.
They were selling dogs
Live chicken for sale
Selling buffaloes too
The minority tribes in their colourful traditional costumes selling stuffs
After the market trip, the bus took us to another village at a lower part of Sapa.
Saw more kids playing
Arrived back in Hanoi early in the morning at about 5:30am. A person from the travel agency came to pick us up and drove us back to our hotel. I stayed back at Hanoi charming hotel. As it was not check in time yet, we could not check in but the hotel staff was kind enough to let us have a room in their sister hotel just across the street so we could get some rest.
Spent the rest of the day in Hanoi. Had some seafood at night there.
Spent the rest of the day in Honoi before proceeding back to airport for our flight back to Singapore at about 4pm.
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Other travel escapades:
1. My 8 days Taiwan trip all under $800