Arrival in Vietnam
This article provides some suggestions for a visa-free short trip (up to 15 days) to North Vietnam. This can easily be done within the context of a longer South East Asia tour. For example, Thailand with its uncomplicated entry regulations offers a good „base country“ from where you can travel by bus or with regional flights to the neighbouring countries.
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Overland to Vietnam
North Vietnam can be easily reached by bus from the neighbouring countries of Laos (from the cities of Luang Prabang and Vientiane) and China. From China (Nanning) there is also a direct train connection to Hanoi several times a week. Tips for a pleasant journey with bus.
If you want to travel from Europe to Vietnam by train – that is also possible! If you are in a hurry, you have to calculate with 12-14 days travel time and costs of about 600 Euro. But such a journey is more likely to be made by those who deliberately want to travel slowly and experience the changes in landscape and climate, culture, language etc. at various intermediate stops. A special „mini travel agency traivelling“ run by father and son who are railway enthusiasts has specialised in advising travellers for this route and in obtaining the appropriate tickets through a network of helpers along the route. Anyone who would like to take advantage of the help of traivelling (train-travelling) can contact the company here: https://www.traivelling.com/
The south of Vietnam can also be reached by bus from Cambodia and Laos. Via Phnom Pen (Cambodia) there are long-distance buses from Bangkok (Thailand) directly to Ho Chi Minh – City (Saigon). Tickets are available from local travel agencies, hotels or directly at the bus stations. Unfortunately you need a visa for Thailand by land via Cambodia as well as via Laos. This is available „on arrival“ at the border crossings, but costs about 30 US dollars and a passport photo each time. Therefore the overland route to Vietnam is only practical if you plan to stay for a longer time in the transit countries anyway.
Both Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south of Vietnam are involved in international air traffic. Direct flights from Europe operate from Frankfurt (Main) and other European hubs. (Get more information at skyscanner.net*).
Otherwise, several airlines in South Asia offer a dense network of flights, even from smaller airports. From Thailand e.g. from Chiang Mai or Bangkok, both airports (Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang) are served. Beside Thai Air and Vietnam Airlines there are regional low-cost airlines like Air Asia, Nok-Air, Thai-Lion-Air …. Flight search and booking is also possible – also while travelling – via Skyscanner*, booking and payment is online with credit card.
The airport of Hanoi is located about 30 km north of the capital. If you don’t want to take an expensive taxi, there is a bus stop in the second row on the left in front of the arrival hall, from where Jet-Air and Vietnam Air shuttle bus service is available. This costs 2 dollars. The bus drivers will drop you off wherever you want to go. It makes sense to get off at the edge of the old town (keyword Hoan Kiem) or in the French quarter south of Hoan Kiem Lake. The journey time is about 40 minutes. Even cheaper but slower is the public bus 68 from Hanoibus.
Entry into Vietnam
In principle, a visa is required for entry into Vietnam.
Exception: for citizens of some countries, including the EU, Vietnam allows entry for up to 15 days without a visa, if a confirmed exit can be proven. This is very uncomplicated and does not require any major formalities: When entering the country, indicate that you will only stay for a maximum of 15 days. If necessary show your return ticket or similar. Then there is a stamp for entry into the passport with the note „Is permitted to stay until … [date]“. Done. No form, no fee, no photos, no fingerprints. At best a friendly smile and the wish for a nice stay (Personally experienced like that!).
However, the condition – no re-entry within 31 days, no extension possible.
Whoever wants to stay longer – and this is basically recommended – should apply for a visa online in advance. To do so, a form must be filled out and a photo uploaded. When entering Vietnam, you have to go to the visa office before the immigration checkpoint, where a visa fee will be charged and the visa will be printed out and passport will be attached to the online application. This can also be done within 15 to 20 minutes – unless a huge group has just entered the country. Afterwards the actual entry takes place at the passport control point.
Money in Vietnam – quickly become a millionaire
For European travellers, becoming a millionaire in Vietnam is very easy – but the cool feeling is over just as quickly once the first bills have been paid.
One GBPound is equivalent to about 28986,99 Vietnamese Dong. That means with one hundred Pound you are already 2.8 times a Dong millionaire. Well, Vietnam is still a cheap country for western travellers, but because of this and the many zeros, you should pay attention to your travel budget. Especially as a long-term traveler without substantial income, a low-cost country can quickly lead to overspending in the end.
A Vietnamese coffee usually costs around 25,000 Dong, or just under a pound. (My cheapest one was at 15.000, and it was really good!) If you want „European breakfast“, i.e. at least 2 coffees, baguettes or other delicious food, you’ll quickly reach 4… 5 Pound – just for breakfast.
In addition, where the „European“ option is available for breakfast, coffee is often more expensive, i.e. at least 35,000 Dong. On the „Time-Money-Scale“ the hand already shifts at the expense of your remaining time. As a rule, it is the small but constantly incurred costs such as food or accommodation that significantly influence the „total range“ of a travel phase without income.
In Vietnam you can pick up money at various ATMs with MasterCard, VISA or other cards. This almost always involves fees charged by the ATM operators. In the case of Agribank, which can often be found in smaller towns as well, the fee is 22,000 Dong, or just under one Pound. The fees of other banks are usually higher, which can be up to 5 Pound. At Vietcom-Bank I did not have to pay any fees with the DKB-VisaCard.
The german Andersreisen blog recommended VP Bank and AC Bank, where the same VisaCard would not incur any fees. My experiences are unfortunately a little different – AC-Bank never found, VP-Bank never paid me money, because (at different machines) there are always some „technical reasons“ that would currently prevent the payout. It is generally recommended not to wait until the last dong before getting new cash. Such „technical reasons“ occur frequently at all machines. In rural areas, there are hardly any ATMs, so there is no new cash either.
Paying by credit card is still quite unusual. This is usually only possible in better hotels and agencies or in more expensive shops in the big cities. For most Vietnamese only cash counts.
As second currency you should pack a few dollars. These are also accepted as currency. With the exception of international airports, it is rare that prices are in dollars, but every shop knows the exchange rate and will accept undamaged and undescribed dollars as well. In Hanoi, many tour operators offer their tours (Ha Long Bay, bus to Saigon, etc.) directly in dollar prices. The larger agencies also have card reading devices.
Dong notes are available in thousands, two and five thousand notes as paper money. From 10.000 Dong the notes are made of plastic foil. This seems to be very practical and durable – they almost always look like fairly new. On one side of each note is Uncle Ho. On the other side there are scenes of socialist realism, historical buildings or sometimes something like fantasy motives.
Destinations in the north of Vietnam
Ha Noi – capital on the „Red River“
Ha Noi means something like „at the river bend“. That’s right, Ha Noi spreads along the Red River and meanwhile over some tributaries. But the old name of the awakening dragon would be more appropriate. Because Hanoi is a lively metropolis of a rising regional power. Apart from countless two-, three- and four-storey residential buildings, which were already newly built during the colonial period and after the bombings in the Vietnam War, huge office buildings and apartment buildings are now growing in ever faster succession.
Banks and economic empires show off their wealth, and in the meantime there is a class in Vietnam, too, that can apparently afford expensive luxury apartments. But besides that, especially in the Old City north of Lake Hoan Kien, craftsmen still work in dark workshops or, in dry weather, prefer to work on the sidewalk in front of them. There are lots of coffee shops in all corners and you wonder where people find the time and money to sit together and drink coffee at any hour.
On the shores of the lake the day begins at about 6 a.m. with Tai Chi exercises, after which the hustle and bustle of joggers, weightlifters, gymnasts and aerialists continues throughout the day. And everywhere moped scooters chase through the streets, which causes some head shaking and amazement among tourists, especially in the narrow alleys of the old town. Because, as close as it may get, there is no stopping, everybody somehow cheats past each other. There seem to be no rules (except at the crossings with traffic lights, but there the exception is one of the rules). The sight is confusing, but it seems to work. Anyway, I have not seen any accidents. (Unfortunately the statistics speak another language…)
The image of Vietnam that we were given in the seventies – everyone riding their bicycles in their conical hats – is no longer true. The bicycles are almost 100% replaced by mopeds, the speeds are correspondingly higher. And that’s why helmets have been compulsory in Vietnam for a few years now, which has significantly reduced the number of cone hats in road traffic.
What you can do in Hanoi
The first thing I recommend is a visit to Hoan Kien Lake. It is not really beautiful now, especially the water quality is rather questionable. But it is a great landmark to get to know the city, which is confusing at first. If you ask a local for help with orientation, ask for Hoan Kien Lake. Then everybody can help you, also because your question is understood. And from there you should get to know your ways.
The name means something like „lake of the returned sword“. According to a legend, the Vietnamese hero Le Loi pulled a sword out of the lake while fishing in the 15th century. With this he was able to successfully fight several battles against the Chinese. After 10 years of fighting, he wanted to return the sword to the lake and prepared a celebration for it. But in the meantime a huge turtle appeared, took the sword from him and disappeared into the lake. In the lake about the southern third is the „Turtle Pagoda“. Especially in the evening with lighting it is beautiful to look at. On an island on the north shore the Jadeberg – Temple can be reached via the „Bridge of the rising sun“.
The lake is located to the southwest at the edge of the old town and its southern shore borders the „French Quarter“. You should definitely walk around these two districts, then you will discover some gems in the form of renovated, but sometimes also in the tropically humid air of languishing villas and old official residences, which shape the character of Hanoi.
On the border between the old town and the French Quarter, some of them make up another small quarter that is inserted – the Cathedrals Quarter. Here you will find a neo-Gothic cathedral from 1883, which is unmistakably French in style, with a gabled front and two massive towers that look a little like a reduced, unadorned imitation of Notre Dame. Unfortunately, this building also holds a piece of colonial history, as in favour of the church, the most important Buddhist pagoda of the city, the Bau Thin Pagoda, had to give way.
Theater of the special kind – Water puppets – Theater
From the lake to the north across the road you can visit one of the evening performances in the water figures theatre. This is practically a must in Hanoi.
Floating figures are presented in a water basin, each of them depicting small short episodes and legends of Vietnam and folk tales. Among other things also the story with the returned sword from Hoan Kiem – Lake.
The performances last about one hour and are shown in close succession. The ticket booking is „semi-automatic“ – outside there are several vending machines with displays where you can choose the right seats for your desired performance. Payment is then made by credit card. You will receive a receipt with a QR code, which you can use to pick up the right tickets at the counter. Unfortunately, the background music, game sounds and stories are very loud – I recommend taking earplugs with you. There are multilingual audio guides that give you a short summary of the following episode.
French Quarter and Hoa Lo – prison horrors from the colonial era
In the French Quarter you will find several colonial buildings that give you a small impression of that time. The most beautiful building is the Hanoi Opera House.
Practically behind it is the History Museum, which is linked to the Revolution Museum diagonally opposite. Also located in the French Quarter is the Women’s Museum, which, however, shows a mainly „revolutionary“ image of women and the role of women in the development of the socialist society. Like all museums in the world, these are also closed on Mondays. In addition, the very socialist working hours have to be taken into account, all state institutions have a lunch break – here from 11:30 to 13:30, closing time is 16:15.
Practically at the other end of the quarter you can experience the other side of colonial times – here the Hoa Lo – prison gives you an idea of the prison conditions under French colonial rule.
In 1954, at the end of colonial violence, the prison was closed, but then during the Vietnam – war it experienced a period of operation again under the mocking name „Hilton Hanoi„. In the Hoa Lo – prison US – American pilots were imprisoned, who were shot down and arrested during the bombings of North Vietnam. A part of the exhibition is dedicated to this topic. Of course there is a strong emphasis on how well the Americans were treated during this time and also a large charged part of victory – pathos is present. Nevertheless, the visit is to be recommended, the facts were just as known during the colonial period and the war.
Temple of literature Van Mieu – Vietnam’s first university
Already in 1070 an altar was built here in honour of Confucius. This was the foundation stone for all further developments. For five years later, under King Ly Nhanh Tong, the Academy for the Sons of the Nation was established. The school was initially the cadre school of the royal house as well as the nobility and was opened to graduates of the civil service schools from 1396. It remained the country’s elite school until 1807.
The layout corresponds to the structure of a temple school with 5 courtyards. On the third courtyard there are 82 stone steles on the backs of turtles, on which all 1306 names of successful graduates between 1442 and 1779 have been meticulously recorded, which is recognized as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The actual Confucius temple is located in the 4th courtyard.
Amidst the noise and bustle of the surrounding streets, Van Mieu is a place of peace, relaxation and reflection. A visit basically falls under „must have“ during a visit to Hanoi. The entrance fee is extremely low, at 10,000 Dong for adults. There is an audio guide in many languages, including English and German. This is highly recommended to understand the structure and details of the temple complex as well as to get an outline of the history of the temple of literature.
If you are lucky, you will not only be offered souvenirs in some buildings, but also a practical insight into calligraphy or other contemporary arts, perhaps even for a hands-on experience.
A Visit to Ho Chi Minh
West of the old town is the government quarter. There the „Citadel„, an old French fortress, blocks the direct way. Large parts of the complex are not passable. it is a kind of prohibited zone. If you walk in the southern area, e.g. from the Hoan Kiem Lake on the Trang Thi west and turn into the Dien Bien Phu, which flows into the Ba Dinh Square in north-western direction, you will pass the military museum. There you will also find the Cot Co Flag Tower, from which you can overlook a part of the citadel (Attention – photography is not allowed here!). Opposite on the other side of the street you will probably find one of the last Lenin monuments, which were once found in all socialist republics.
The road leads directly to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, in front of which the Ba Dinh Square is available for parades and state visits. Every day the Vietnamese flag is hoisted and caught up there with a military accompanying program. It was on this square that Ho Chi Minh read out Vietnam’s declaration of independence in September 1945.
If you walk south past the mausoleum, you will come to the enormous building of the Ho Chi Minh Museum. If you are interested in the socialist movement and the accompanying self-expression, the visit may be worthwhile.
We recommend a walk to uncle Ho’s hut, a simple, typical stilt house on a small lake in the park of the presidential palace, where Ho Chi Minh actually lived and worked. (Lunch break is also valid here until 2 p.m.) The house itself may not be entered, but an extension of a balcony behind it allows a view through the windows into the living and working room as well as into the bedroom. This of course shows modesty, but it was not only symbolic. Ho Chi Minh was very close to the people, lived for a long time among and with the peasants on the Chinese border and prepared the resistance and liberation from the colonial masters. Ho Chi Minh never used the presidential palace himself.
He still enjoys widespread popularity among the Vietnamese people – on the opening days of the mausoleum, thousands of moved people still hurry past his corpse to catch a quick glimpse. (Open mornings except Monday and Friday, in autumn Ho is regularly in Moscow for a cure)
The Single Pillar – Pagoda
Between the mausoleum and the HCM Museum is the single-column pagoda for the worship of the goddess of mercy QuAnn. This small building also has a long history since the 11th century. The wooden column that supports the pagoda was destroyed by the French in 1954. It was then replaced by a concrete column.
On the Long Bien Bridge
If you have time for another afternoon and want to get to know another historical building of Hanoi, you can make your way to the Long Bien Bridge. (French: Paul Doumer Bridge) This is a combined pedestrian – bicycle – moped bridge with two lanes and in the middle is also the railway – lane. The steel girders were probably forged in France, in several places there are plaques with the inscription „1899_1932 Daydé & Pillé Paris„.
Cars or even trucks no longer cross this bridge, it is astonishing that this rusty monster can still withstand the load of whole trains. The trains, however, only run at walking speed. At some parts the steel lattice – beams are missing. There the original construction was probably victim of the bomb attacks in the Vietnam – war. The bridge leads eastwards from the northern tip of the old town and the Long Bien station over river meadows with „allotment gardens“, banana plantations and a branch over the Red River. If you want to walk the whole distance and take some pictures etc., you can easily walk for an hour!
The actual course of the river with its cargo ships is only crossed in the eastern third. Stairs lead down to the river island – an opportunity to change lanes and sides. Or, if you are on the way by bike, to go for a walk in a banana-green forest in the middle of Hanoi.
Some of the attractive destinations in North Vietnam outside Ha Noi
Ha Long – bay
One of the most famous and certainly one of the most beautiful destinations in Vietnam is Ha Long Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin, east of Hanoi. Unfortunately, the weather does a lot to emphasize the beauty. And this is quite unreliable, especially in the winter months. When the sun is shining and the sky is blue, the light grey rocky ridges covered by green bushes in the turquoise sea form a wonderful contrast. If the weather is rather hazy and the sky shows a European November grey, this picture book impression loses a lot of colour.
If you are free to plan your travel time, try to find the most beautiful days with the weather forecast. Otherwise, the only thing you can do is to lower your expectations to avoid being disappointed. The place is still beautiful and impressive, even though the colours of the brochure photos depend on the moods of the local weather.
Individual or organized?
One possibility is to travel by bus or train. Because Ha Long (city) is one of the places which is reached by the Vietnamese railway. Usually, individual travellers try to spend a part of the time in Ha Long City and go by tourist boat into the rocky landscape and then to get to Cat Ba Island. This starts from Ha Long. But the big mass of the travelers come with organized tours from Hanoi to the bay. If you only have 14 days in Vietnam, I would advise you to do the same – despite all the ifs and buts I will bring up in a moment. Because the possibilities to organize a really great Ha Long experience on your own costs time and are limited, or you can use parts of the tour offers again – like the tourist boats that sail through the bay.
Most of the offers are standardized 2 – or 3 – day – tours, thus with one or two overnight stays. I recommend the two overnight stays, so that you get something out of the tour. The second day of the three is the most beautiful, the other two days are half of the tour by bus anyway.
The arrival takes place after picking up at the hotel or at the booking office with coaches and a stopover at a „marble polishing shop“, where toilets and a quick snack offer are tempting. Of course, we will also try to sell products of the factory or other typical Vietnamese goods to the guests. At noon the „cruise terminal“ of Ha Long is reached.
From there the groups are taken by tender to the ships. Then the journey starts in the direction of the rocky islands. The guests get their cabins and soon after that lunch is served in the saloon. This is really rich, the small crew on board makes every effort to offer a varied meal. Vegetarian food is usually also available, best to book in advance.
The boat chugs through the bay at a maximum of 2 knots. At the end it is barely 6 nautical miles to the night anchorage, the town of Ha Long is still in sight. In this anchorage there are between 20 and thirty tourist ships in the evening, so you should be prepared for a form of mass tourism. On the other hand… how could it be, when every morning from Hanoi alone, there are at least 30 buses on the way to Ha Long Bay. From the anchorage the guests are taken by dinghy to two or three „attractions“ – e.g. a cave in the karst rock with huge underground halls.
As basically all tourists from all boats go there, it is also a huge crowd and partly, it only continues after some minutes of queuing. But this cave is already impressive because of the dimensions and partly the still relatively young stalactite structures. The fantasy of the „tour guides“ often exceeds that of the guests in recognizing figures and animals in individual stone formations. Then we also take the dinghy to a floating pier for kayaks.
There we change and everyone can kayak for 3/4 of an hour under a rock into a bay. This rock cauldron is closed all around, accessible only through the cave and gives an impression of the playfulness of nature in Ha Long Bay. Monkeys can be observed on one shore. Unfortunately my trousers were wet afterwards and needed a temporary wash because of the sea water. The construction of the kayak made sure that penetrating water prefers to collect on the seats of the person behind.
Later we went back to the mother ship by tender and that was basically the daily program for the first day. At dinner the cooking crew makes every effort. The evening is left to the guests, whereby a bartender will be happy to mix all the desired drinks together.
The next morning we already wake up at 7:00 am and ask for breakfast. Whoever has taken up too much of the bartender’s time the evening before, has to make quite an effort. Fortunately there is coffee as flatrate without surcharge.
Then it’s back to the tender. Here the chaff divides… If you have booked three days, you should get a daypack ready right after breakfast, because this (small) group is now leaving the boat until late afternoon. Different „multi-day-trippers“ from different ships are combined on one boat and get an extra program from here on. This includes another cave – this time a narrow small one without artificial lighting, so it is advisable to take a flashlight with you. The guide has a torch with him, most others use their smartphone light. The ceiling height is sometimes so low that we sometimes crawl through the corridors on our knees. Behind it there is another large room – only accessible through the narrow corridor. At another place there is a gap like a balcony over the sea, so that one can have a look into another bay.
At another place kayaking is offered again. Also here a piece of cave. Behind it is a beach – if you are prepared and have a towel and change of clothes, you can go swimming in good weather. Time is enough, most people just sit in the sun for an hour.
Then another ride at snail’s pace through rock channels until a pearl farm is reached in a wide bay. There is a short introduction to the breeding of artificial pearls, which is already very interesting. The method was developed by a Japanese at the end of the 19th century. Of course everyone can buy earrings, pearl necklaces, finger rings etc. in the huge sales room, as much as the credit card account allows. Yes, here, on this platform in the Ha Long – bay even the payment by credit card works. Afterwards the trip continues to close the round. And depending on the boat, some of the guests will be brought back to their „mother ships“.
Between 15:00 and 16:00 o’clock we reach our steamer again, which is anchored at the same place as the day before. Only that the two-day guests were exchanged and are still kayaking the wet trousers. For us few three-day-guests the day – program is over and we doze on the „sun deck“. Later we have our first meeting with the new short excursionists and dinner.
The program on the third day (for 2-day guests on the 2nd) is even shorter. Wake up as usual at 7:00 am. Then a fast dinghy ride to the „Ti-Top“, a rocky peak where Ho Chi Minh met the second cosmonaut in the world, German Titow. (With 26 years German Titow is still the youngest ever to have visited space). This „viewpoint“ can be climbed over many many stairs… thanks to the coffee flat rate, you can do that for breakfast. Since the island has a small beach (even with a lifeguard and baywatch!), everyone who wants to is allowed a short swim.
And then there is the urge to go back to the mothership. There, packing is announced – the rooms are already cleaned for the next guests during the return trip. Meanwhile the anchor is weighed and the short but slow return journey begins. Lunch will be served around 11:00 am! Lush, but much too early. Before noon we are back in the bay of the port of Ha Long (city) and are sailed to the large passenger terminal. There we sit still over one hour and wait for the bus from Hanoi, which brings new crusaders and us back to the metropolis at the Red River. Also on the return trip there is a stop at the toilet/ a marble polishing plant.
This is roughly what the program looks like, which is offered at three days for 130 – 170 dollars. May everyone judge for himself whether this short impression at the edge of Ha Long Bay is enough for him or whether he would like to invest more time, but also more of his own organizational effort. By the way, those who had booked a stay on Cat Ba for one of the two nights were more or less persuaded to stay on the ship. Currently, for example, Cat Ba is closed due to Corona.
If you want to explore the Ha Long – Bay on your own, you still have to book any boat tours. Only then on site as day tours. Because – without a sea trip the experience remains rather with the view from the distance. The day tour ships from the Ha Long passenger terminal will do more or less the same programme as the two-day tour with overnight stay in one day. No time problem, because you can leave earlier – the 4 hours journey from Hanoi is not necessary. Possible good additions are alternative offers from Cat Ba Island. With more time and suitable equipment I could also imagine longer kayak tours in the island landscape.
Ninh Binh – A rocky landscape between rice fields
Ninh Binh itself, about 90km south of Hanoi, is not a nice city. Unfortunately, largely destroyed in the Vietnam war, a big city is somehow emerging here without any plan or system. An example for the urban sprawl of a region, where rice fields are parceled out and made cultivable by filling them with gravel. Then the typical two-room wide new buildings are built on top of it, made of a reinforced concrete skeleton with bricked out walls, as they can be found all over Southeast Asia. Depending on the client’s financial resources, they are available in the simplest new building variant with a steel gate and plastic doors or with more or less opulent retro construction elements such as baroque balconies, carved doors and wooden shutters up to large domed buildings. A lot of rich Chinese people in Vietnam buy land and build villas and palatial houses on it.
Nevertheless, the region is worth a visit – and this is mainly due to the area west of Ninh Binh, where karstic limestone humps and mountain ranges rise from flat plains with rice fields. Many speak of the „dry Ha Long Bay„. But it is not that dry! Apart from the rice fields, where almost exclusively wet rice is cultivated, the landscape is criss-crossed by rivers and canals, which makes it even more attractive. Also some lakes and ponds are embedded between the rocks. Some of the valleys are only accessible via the rivers, which led me to the thought – it’s a bit like the East German destinations „Spreewald and Saxon Switzerland“ in one! These river valleys are even classified as world natural heritage.
World – Natural heritage and World – Cultural heritage close together
There are also some very important historical sites such as pagodas, temples and the old capital Hoa Lu, which places Vietnam in the ranks of the centuries-old advanced civilizations. Hoa Lu in particular is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so that two important World Heritage Sites lie close together.
The journey to Ninh Binh can be made by train from Hanoi. This is relatively fast (about 2 hours) and a pleasant way to travel. Alternatively, many bus companies run to Ninh Binh. However, the bus stations in Hanoi are relatively far away from the tourist centre of Hoan Kien Lake. So taxis or Xe Om (motorcycle taxis) are required as „intermediate transporters“ – or you can browse through the route plans of Hanoibus. This should also work well.
If you want to have it really comfortable, just book an excursion to Ninh Binh/ Tam Coc through one of the many tour operators in Hanoi. They mainly offer day trips, but in my opinion this rush is not worth it – this beautiful area wants to be explored in a relaxed manner! The tour busses go to Tam Coc, put the guests in one of the boats, do some other small „highlight“ like a cave or a viewpoint and drive back to Hanoi. Much stress, little lasting experience.
Although Ninh Binh is not a beauty, it can be an advantage to find your accommodation right there. Especially in the western districts there are some homestay hostels that are of good quality and allow quick access to the interesting areas both south and northwest. However, there are also some hotels in the vicinity of the station. Bicycles and mopeds can be rented in almost every accommodation or at least they are arranged. If you don’t want to explore the area with taxi drivers or tour operators, but on your own, you will need such a „mobility aid“. A bicycle is sufficient for reasonably fit cyclists. However, guesthouse bikes are usually very simple standard bikes with a hard saddle and usually too short seat tubes for European sizes. This means that riding with them is not the highest cycling pleasure. Bicycle rental companies often have a larger choice.
The road on the southern tangent – Tam Coc
The mass of travellers can be taken by taxi from the train station to Tam Coc. This is the stronghold southwest of Ninh Binh. Here is hostel to hostel, hotel to guesthouse and homestay to resort… The main street is one single pub mile, interrupted by bicycle and moped rental, massage studios and „Made in Vietnam“ shops. So if you are looking for western food, evening parties, the company of the traveller cosmos and other amenities, Tam Coc is your destination. If you just want it for a few hours or for eat once, there are plenty of simple or high quality accommodations nearby.
The great attraction of Tam Coc is the possibility to be rowed from the „harbour“ at the central place for more than two hours with small boats through the mountain world. And that is really an experience. There is usually no other access to these areas and the landscape is simply incomparable. Some of the boat routes even lead through caves…
Boat tours through the rocky landscape
Just the way they row is extraordinary. The female rowers ( most of them are women) sit – unlike the Olympic rowers – in the rear of the boat in the direction of travel, rowing is done with their legs. The feet rest on the oar spar, without pedal, without any buckles, and push the oars forward. When returning, the oars are turned flat for even less air resistance, all by foot movements only. Some people also row alternately, so it looks like they’re pedaling a bicycle forward. The oarswomen sit back in a relaxed position, their hands in their laps or often crossed behind their heads…
The fees for the tour are not completely without costs, but they are worth it. There is one fee per boat and in addition there is a fee per person. The posted rules already state that no more than two foreigners are allowed to use a boat at the same time. (In practice, this is probably not taken as seriously as I have observed, so that groups of three are quite possible).
It makes sense to leave as early as possible or about two hours before sunset/closing time. Because in the main turn in the late morning until about 15:00 o’clock in the afternoon it is possible that you are sailing along the rivers in a boat like on a string of pearls with hundreds of other boats. This reduces the experience considerably, especially if there are party fans with beat-boxes underneath. During the day a lot of day trippers come from Hanoi by bus, but they are already on their way back in the late afternoon. Then it gets quieter. And on weekends or holidays there is of course a lot going on, so a visit to Ninh Binh during the week is better.
Mua Cave – not recommended
On the way to Tam Coc there is a cave called „Hang Mua“- Mua Cave. In my opinion the visit is not really recommended. Already on the way from the main path to the entrance the locals try to entice moped- and cyclists to park on their own property „Walking Street“! And then, of course, besides the security fee, there are other shops like food or souvenir shops to be found.
The entrance fee to the Mua Cave – area is with 100.000 Dong (currently 4 Pound!) in relation to other attractions quite excessive. Because Mua-Cave is just a 40m rock tunnel under a mountain into nowhere. With a small side arm „Pearl Grotto„, which ends in a water basin. And apart from that there are two connected viewpoints to climb – the „Dragon Rock„. The or the view from these are still the most interesting. The property in front of Mua Cave is a kind of Disney park with artificial waterfalls, fish ponds and concrete figures. There is even a heart-bridge in the rice field (Or is that supposed to be a sperm?). There are also different accommodations in the area.
Further boat tour – Offers along the way
Those who want to escape the boat bustle in Tam Coc will find a few other smaller places with boating offers. For example about 3 km west of Tam Coc on the way to the Bich Dong Pagoda in Thung Nang. There you can let yourself be rowed for about 70 min. for about 150.000 Dong. Although the first 200m are rather canal-like and it’s the same route there and back, the impressions are worth it.
Two caves are crossed, but in the first one the exit is not visible and only the headlamp of the boat rower provides some light. Behind the second cave there is a „turning loop“. There the rowing woman tried to make something like a coffee ride out of the tour by pulling out hand-sewn cows and ceramic turtles with wobbly legs. But apart from that, the trip was very impressive through green landscapes, between steep rocks. As I had chosen a late afternoon hour where only a few boats were left, I could even watch several times Asian kingfisher relatives hunting fish in front of me.
Even further west at the end of the valley in Thung Nham there is an official entrance fee again, because it is a bird sanctuary. Also in this „bird-valley“ you can be taken by boat. Shortly before that there is another small boat tour offer in Linh coc. Along this road there are many other accommodations – also bungalows in small resorts (Ricefield – resort or similar).
The northern route – Trang An and Hoa Lu
Another very nice bike tour can be made in the north of the rocky chain. But this road is more developed and more frequented than the smaller access roads west of Tam Coc. Because it does not end in any side valley, but is an east-west cross connection.
The first destination can be Trang An. This is where the World Natural Heritage begins – a boat trip across the mountain rivers from the north. But there are even more boats here than in Tam Coc, probably until 1500 according to own estimation. And so it is more advisable to get up early and if possible arrive before everybody else or start one of the last tours of the day.
A place as a landing stage for boats
The jetty of Trang An consists more or less only of parking, restaurant-barracks and souvenir stands. The pier itself is a round island with a service point and ticket counter, around which the boats are ready for departure.
Otherwise, Trang An has a number of smaller settlement spots that can be found along the road. At least not such a concentrated place like Tam Coc. Of course there are a number of accommodations in this area, too, although they are scattered and consist more in single bungalows or small groups of houses. If you are looking for peace and quiet and want a secluded accommodation in the nature, you have the best chances here!
Hoa Lu – past royal capital and world cultural heritage
About 6km northwest of Trang An is the world cultural heritage site Hoa Lu. (entrance fee 50k Dong- less than 2 GBP) This is a first capital and temple complex of the Kingdom of Vietnam, already from the first millennium! Whoever has visited the „Literature – Temple“ in Hanoi will find a similar structure again. It is a temple complex with several yards, which lead through several gates to the central altar building.
Another 8 km further on is Bai Dinh, the largest pagoda and temple complex in the region. However, this is marketed strongly touristically with a large parking lot and shopping area and is rather a retro Disneyland. The authenticity of the buildings is only partly given and more and more elements are added in modern concrete construction – an island pagoda in the lake, more towers and temples in the lines of sight… For many Vietnamese the place is already a holy one with historical roots, but if you are looking for authentic grown history, you should take more time for Hoa Lu and plan Bai Dinh as a „can do“ option.
For this sub-region alone 3 days are quite appropriate. But it can also be one or two more. Because these were only the top highlights here – if you bring time with you, you can discover more caves on your own or explore side valleys. And enough time is especially helpful if you want to discover and observe the living nature!
The best time to do this is in the morning or in the evening, and then just take the slower but quieter bike. The moped riders have noticed kingfishers/ kingfishers, if at all, only in the corner of their eyes – I have had longer observations several times on my bike tours. And kite babies can’t be woken up in the hustle and bustle of tourist groups 🙂 (Although there were many tourists around, as you can hear at the noise level. But nobody except me paid attention to the presence oft animals around…)
Highly recommended – in Vietnam in general, but especially in the humid and partly swampy rice field region Ninh Binh is a good mosquito repellent!
Sa Pa – tourist centre in the mountains
Sa Pa is rather an exception for Vietnam – such high mountains and a climate, which reminds in winter of central European autumn days, in extreme cases even snow! Vietnamese and groups of regional mountain people, especially H’mong in thick jackets, with caps and gloves. I also took out my sweater again…
If you are already a friend of the mountains, then plan a few days to visit Sa Pa and the surrounding area and go there. Sa Pa is situated at about 1400 m above sea level. The highest mountain of Vietnam (Fangsipan) right next to it reaches over 3143m – the relief is „moved“. There are some meters of altitude difference, if you want to make a tour there.
And you should, because just visiting the city is not really worth the visit. By bus it is over 5.5 hours from Hanoi, despite the relatively well developed „Vietnam Express-ways“. At the end with about one hour of ascent over serpentine roads. Have a look at the weather forecast – often Sa Pa lies in dense mountain fog and you see only shadows from the high surrounding mountains – if at all. So (temporal) flexibility is required.
The city itself does not offer so much that would really justify the long way there. It is above all a holiday town with hotels and accommodations close together. On the outskirts there are lots of construction sites – more and more „tourist infrastructure“ is being built here. For this purpose, some of the terrace fields are being dug up, which is what makes the area around Sapa so interesting.
Many paths and trails, which a few years ago were listed on openstreetmap as „trail“ or „unpaved road“, have now been concreted, sometimes widened and extended to resemble roads. This development is continuing – the economic return of tourism has been recognized and more and more of it is being used, partly, unfortunately, by sprawling the actual resources such as quickly accessible natural areas, the centuries-old farming methods of the fields with terraced farming and green landscapes or by building up a leisure industry.
By funicular and suspension railway to the highest mountain
The highest mountain in Vietnam, Fangsipan, has been reached for several years (2016) by a cable car, which held several records in the Guinness Book of Records. (Longest three-cable cable car in the world with 6282m, highest altitude difference with 1410m – however, in 2018 it will be exceeded by a longer new building with 7,899.9 meters in South Vietnam, this cable car connects two holiday islands) Since 2016 there is also a funicular to the valley station from the city center. This is already a technically interesting attraction, especially for friends of railways and rolling stock. Unfortunately, there is a danger that more and more tourist buildings will be derived from the success of this justifiable development and that finally an artificial landscape will be created which has little to do with the original charm of the fantastic nature.
By the way, the „valley“ station of the funicular is located in the basement of the Sapa Plaza, a monstrous building in the style of the eclectic collection of neoclassical set pieces, which probably reminds of chic hotel buildings at the Coté Azur or Davos.
On the streets you will be approached again and again by H’mong women and sometimes also children, who try to sell jewellery, woodwork, bags and other odds and ends to tourists. Some of them also offer themselves as guides to the nearby H’mong villages. Of course the taxi and motorcycle taxi drivers are not missing among the road companions.
There are plenty of accommodations, from the simplest „roommates“ with Vietnamese families to luxurious hotels. On weekends, and especially when the Vietnamese have free days, it can still get cramped – then it is best to book in advance or avoid these times altogether.
Use tour offers on site or go on your own
Many accommodations offer tours in the surroundings. If you do not plan to go on your own, you can take advantage of these offers. The emphasis here is on visits to villages of the mountain tribes as well as trekking tours of various degrees of difficulty. The duration ranges from one-day tours to 3-day offers with overnight stays either in the mountain villages or in camps run by the organizers.
If you book accommodation, it is usually possible to leave excess luggage at the hotel and carry only the most necessary things with you. Besides the nature, which feels like a mixture of bamboo forests and European low mountain ranges, the mountain people with their culture, their traditional costumes, the farming in the mountains and their way of life make this region so attractive. Sapa itself, on the other hand, is more the starting and finishing point for tours in the area.