This was a budget trip to Northern Vietnam that my husband and I went on when we found cheap tickets to Hanoi. We went in September simply because that's when the cheap tickets were for, but really I would not recommend it. It was incredibly hot and humid everywhere (except Sa Pa) and the traditional Dec-Jan season would certainly have been better.
The weather also messed up our plans of visiting the Phong Nha caves because of flooding in the area. Our original plan was to do one of those highly recommended 2-3 day cave tours from Oxalis. Hopefully we will get to do that some other time.
Budget break-down for a couple for 12N/13D:
This list includes all expenses for a couple we actually incurred (except for flights) in September 2019. Our style of travel was budget, so we stuck to hostels, budget airbnbs, no fancy restaurants, and tried to walk when we could.
- eVisa: $50
- Accomodation (12 nights): $167 (hostels, Airbnbs)
- Internal transport: $178 (Ninh Binh and CatBa buses, Sapa trains)
- Food, drinks, tours & tickets, tips, souvenirs: $586. Meals usually included a beer or 2 with almost each at simple restaurants. Includes Lan Ha bay 1 day tour, entrace fees to museums, caves etc., a few small souvenirs, bike rental, sim cards, tips, taxis.
We started our trip in Vietnam after a very long and tiring flight, and we reached Hanoi exhausted, not having slept in 24 hours. We had applied for an eVisa and the immigration process was super easy. Once outside the airport, we found a Viettel sim card shop at the airport and some ATMs to withdraw some cash from.
We took a shuttle bus for 40k VND from outside the airport to a drop point right near our hostel.
We had booked a private room in Luxury Backpackers hostel. It was right in the center of a big touristy area. I would say the hostel was OK, nothing exceptional. It was neat and clean and the staff were helpful. The front desk people helped with our bus booking to Ninh Binh at 4pm the following day.
For dinner we had a quick pho ga, or chicken pho. A single bowl at a local joint was for 35k, and was way too much food and broth for a single person.
The next morning, after having the hostel breakfast, we headed out on foot.
We first went to Hoan Kiem lake. The was a Confucius temple there, on a little island on the lake. A red bridge connected the island to the lake. The temple had idols of what I assume was Confucius, with various offerings and incense sticks. There was also a large model of the hoan kiem lake tortoise, around which there is some interesting legend I can't remember now.
There were lots of locals around the lake just enjoying a stroll, taking pictures, or reading. There were fruit sellers along the lake and we had some strawberries, longan, and a crunchy cherry like fruit I couldn't identify.
From the lake, we went to the so-called Train Street, which was basically a narrow alleyway between houses where a rain track ran. We didn't get to see any train, but we did stop to have some Bia Hoi(cheap local fresh beer- delicious!) at a cafe there, at 25k each. I found the street quaint in a touristy way.
From there, we walked to the imperial citadel, which was the seat of power in Vietnam for many hundreds of years. There were several gates, and a flag tower and mini museums displaying various archeological discoveries made there, mostly clay and ceramic tiles and pots. After spending some time looking around , we walked to the temple of literature, which was another Confucian temple.
By this point, it was time to catch our bus to Ninh Binh. On the way back to the hostel pick up, we had some yummy bahn-mi and condensed milk coffee and bought one of those vietnamese hats.
We also changed some money, surprisingly at a jewelry store! This seemed to be very common, although none of the stores even mentioned they change money on the store fronts (Odd!) We got a really great rate though (Like, 0.1% over the day's rate)
Our hostel front desk arranged for two guys on scooters to drop up to the bus pick up point. The bus ride was an uneventful but comfortable (air-conditioned!) 2 hour journey to Tam Coc, Ninh Binh
We reached Hanoi from Ninh Binh. We checked into a hostel where once again we had are you single room for ourselves in a hostel.
The weather was a lot better as it started to rain a little and was cloudy for most of the time.
We roamed around around Lake that evening- the entire area around the hoan kiem lake had been turned into a walking Street and was closed for traffic. There was a night market which was pretty similar to one of the many other night markets in south east Asia.
The next morning, we decided to start with a free walking tour offered by our hostel. The tour was led by a couple of university students studying tourism. Although the tour itself was only ok, it was interesting talking to our guides.
We saw a traditional style vietnamese house, the yellow walls and green windows. We had some surprisingly good egg coffee and saw some dog meat being sold (:O). We also saw the celebrations and toys for the mid autumn festival.
After the tour, we headed to a supermarket to buy some of the local coffee, which make our bags significantly heavier, and ended the day at the so called 'beer street' with some beer and shisha.
The next morning there was some rain and it was a lot cooler overall, so we decided to walk to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and museum. The museum seemed like more of an art exhibition, and we didn't really understand all of it.
From there we headed to the west lake to see a pagoda I forget the name of, and have some coffee at their local chain, highlands coffee.
After that, we had two tickets at a water puppet show- a traditional form of puppet entertainment where the puppeteers would control the dolls standing knee deep in water behind a curtain. The show was a surprisingly interesting, despite being narrated in vietnamese. The music was also played on traditional vietnamese instruments.
After this, we had dinner at a restaurant we found on Google, which actually turned out to have pretty good food! And then we took our bags and headed to the train station to catch the SP1 train to SaPa.
We headed back to Hanoi this day by the same Cat Ba Express. We enjoyed the last day with a last couple of meals, at Lotteria to cure my fast food cravings...and also the nice little Vietnamese restaurant we had found earlier. We got to try some great coconut rice wine and banh mi.
We enjoyed a last couple of beers and then made our way back to the airport, back home.