in late July this year, two friends and I spent 10 days traveling through Vietnam. our main goals for this trip were trekking, cruising, and eating - and we certainly managed all three! with that in mind we spilt our time between Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, and Sapa. 10 days in Vietnam was not enough to explore the entire country, but I think we made a pretty good start.
this itinerary will break down what we did on each day, where we stayed and ate, and a bit of general advice. [in the interest of saving everyone's time, I will only link to the places I would actually recommend.] I think one of the hardest parts of travel planning is deciding how much is realistic to fit into one day. we are pretty active women so we did a lot of walking around, and we saved up our relaxation time for the cruise. I think this would be a full but not overwhelming travel pace for most. as I share more posts about the specific things we did on this trip, I will add links here for reference.
day 1 // arrive in Hanoiour flight from Taipei landed in Hanoi just before noon, giving us time to drop our bags at the Blue Hanoi Inn Hotel and ask for a lunch recommendation. they directed us just down the block to Pho 10. a big steamy bowl of soup was just what we needed after a morning of travels. this place was popular but we didn't have to wait too long for a table.
while the weather was raining off and on, we decided to walk around the Old Quarter and Torch Lake. we also visited the Hoa Lo Prison Museum. if you want to see on how terribly the French treated the Vietnamese, then depictions of how happy the American soldiers later imprisoned there were, along with photos of beheadings and national heroes - then this is your place. [oh, and plenty of propaganda.] honestly, it wasn't for me.
day 2 // Hanoiwe awoke to pouring rain and winds so strong that trees had toppled in the streets. our original plan had been a walking tour, but we opted to find an indoor activity instead. we settled on a cooking class at Orchid Restaurant- and oh, was that a great choice! our chef taught us how to make pho from scratch [including boiling bones and making stock] and we wrapped our own spring rolls and grilled meatballs for bun cha. they were super accommodating to all my food allergies and we had a lot of fun.
after we stuffed ourselves with the foods of our labor, we walked around the Old Quarter and did some shopping. there are so many silk shops and if you're looking for scarves or dresses you won't have to go far. we then returned to the Blue Hanoi to await our ride to the train station.
after walking around in the humid heat all day, we were pretty sweaty. and about to take an overnight train. without even asking, our hotel offered us fresh towels and use of a shower before our trip. we gladly accepted and cleaned up before our ride on the Pumpkin Express.
day 3 // Sapa and Cat Cat Villageif you've ever taken an overnight train, you know that all the rocking around isn't conducive to getting a good night's rest. we arrived in Lao Cai and had an hour car ride to Sapa, where we had booked ourselves a night at the Sapa Paradise View Hotel before heading out on our trek. blessedly, our room was ready at 7am and they allowed us to check in and nap!
refreshed, we walked around Sapa and did some shopping. my favorite was a local Hmong store named Indigo Cat [such cute stuff!] Sharon and I decided to head down the hill to nearby Cat Cat Village. the hike turned out to be a bit longer than we anticipated [and very sweaty] but we told ourselves it was a nice warmup for our trek. on the way back into town we spotted Lindsey having a glass of wine at The Hill Station. it was buy one get one happy hour, so obviously I stopped to join her.
days 4 + 5 // trekking through SapaI've already written in detail about our experience trekking with Sapa Sisters. our first day was pretty muddy from all the recent rain, but the views were amazing. we had a great homestay and delicious dinner, the very special moment of seeing our guide's home, and made some new friends. in the end we were exhausted, but hiking 35 total kilometers was worth the experience!
at the end of our trek, our motorbike taxis delivered us back to the Paradise View Hotel. once again we were saved by their hospitality - this time in the offer of a temporary room to shower in. we were able to scrub the mud off, repack our bags, and head back to The Hill Station for dinner before catching a ride to the train station.
day 6 // arrival in Ha Long Bayour train got in to Hanoi around 5am. none of us really slept well, thanks to the partying kids in the compartment next door. we had until 7am to get to the pickup point for our shuttle van to Ha Long. the taxi drivers all wanted to overcharge us and somehow we ended us walking back to the Blue Hanoi, hoping to sit in the lobby and relax for a minute. I'm sure we were a sight, exhausted and dripping sweat from lugging our bags across town - and they offered us showers again. [bless their hearts.]
our shuttle van drove us from Hanoi to Ha Long, which took almost 4 hours. we checked in at the Indochina Junk office and boarded the Dragon Legend. the weather was a bit hazy and very very hot, BUT we were in Ha Long Bay so who really cared? after a few hours of cruising we stopped for a kayak excursion. this was followed by an incredible sunset, and a dinner where our server double checked all my food allergies 6 times.
day 7 // cruisingday two of our cruise was even hotter and even hazier. after breakfast on the deck, we lounged for a bit before heading out to tour a nearby floating village. this was followed by a few hours of sailing and a stop at an island for cave explorations and a barbecue lunch on the beach. next up was some time reading on deck [pretending there was sun and a breeze instead of just windless cloud cover] and another kayak trip through the bay. finally, dinner al fresco and drinking the bottle of wine we smuggled on board.
day 8 // Ha Long Bay to Hanoiwe woke on the final day of our cruise to grey and rainy weather. our journey back to Hanoi was long and bumpy, and none of us really appreciated the "water puppet show" that our van stopped at. once we made it to Hanoi we spent time walking around just to get some fresh air. [I don't do well on 4 hour car rides.]
for dinner, Sharon and I went to Mum and had ourselves an authentic Vietnam dining experience. by which I of course mean - we sat on tiny plastic stools on the side of the street, eating our dinner while scooters whizzed by. it just seems like one of those things you have to do while in Hanoi.
day 9 // Hanoiwe decided to reschedule our walking tour of the city for this day. our guide was great - she took us to the places we wanted to go and let us skip over the rest. my favorite was exploring the Temple of Literature - Vietnam's first university. we also walked through the Ho Chi Minh Complex and wound back through the streets of the Old Quarter. Sharon tried the famous "egg coffee" at Giang Cafe, while Lindsey opted for a coconut coffee instead.
once our guide left, we wandered around to do some more shopping and spend the last of our dong. I ended up in a grocery store trying to gauge how many boxes of gluten free vegan coconut cookies I had room for in my suitcase. for our last supper, we went back to Orchid. [I'm realizing that I do this a lot - find a place I love and go there repeatedly rather than risk a less delicious meal elsewhere.] our last stop was at Raw Juicery for a pre-flight vitamin boost.
day 10 // departureafter breakfast, we packed up our backpacks [and one tote bag full of cookies for me] and hopped in our hotel-arranged cab to the airport. to my great joy I discovered that the airport stocked one of my favorite guilty pleasures - blue Gatorade. I know it sounds weird. but they don't sell Gatorade in Taiwan. and sometimes, a girl just gets a craving.
general tips for traveling Vietnam- I'm working to assemble my packing list, but I'll start with this: you should know the weather in summer is going to be HOT. and also desperately humid. downpours of rain may happen at any moment. dress accordingly.
- getting around with just English was not a problem, even when we traveled out to Sapa.
- watch out for stores, hotels and restaurants that rip off the name of a popular or famous place. double check that you are actually heading to the place you want to be and don't get scammed.
- definitely bring tissue packs and hand sanitizer for restrooms and dining. some wet wipes would also be handy for wiping off mud and sweat from trekking, or taking a quick "shower" after an overnight train.
- if you have issues with gluten sensitivity or Celiac's, Vietnam is going to be a great place to eat! I relied heavily on information from Legal Nomad's GF Guide and made it through our trip without issue.
one more thing: while I was in Hanoi I ended up at a pharmacy with a minor issue and they gave me several medications, including antibiotics. I took them - since that's what you usually do to feel better. BUT as you may know I developed some digestive issues thanks to these meds, and have been pretty miserable for about 2 months. while having cheap and accessible health care may sound great while traveling, maybe double check with your doctor when you get home. that way you won't wipe out your guts with too much medicine. live and learn.
anything else you want to know about our itinerary? I'll have the packing list assembled in a few weeks, and of course will be sharing about our experiences in more detail and photos.