After a couple of weeks I have FINALLY been able to sit down for a moment and reflect on the crazy adventure we had in December. I picked up some seriously helpful tips for anyone looking to head to South East Asia any time soon and I am so happy to be able to share them with you. I wish I would have known what I know now - as it would have made some aspects of the trip MUCH more enjoyable.
I want to preface this post by saying that I do my best to give you all honest accounts of my experiences - the pros and the cons. I definitely don't want to seem like a negative Nancy but I would have preferred to plan my trips knowing all of the shortcomings and challenges ahead of time to make a more educated decision. Online travel guides and bloggers can sometimes be misleading, as they are often paid to promote the destinations they visit - making it difficult to "read between the lines" and figure out which places are actually worthwhile.
Let me help break it down for you.
Cities we visited in Vietnam : Halong Bay, Sapa, Hanoi
Favorite city : Hanoi
Least favorite city : Halong Bay
General Tips to Know Before you Go:
- Everyone is wonderful in Vietnam except taxi drivers. They will try to scam you every chance they get. Ask for one who will turn their meter on. And DON'T get in the first taxi you see at the airport. Pre-negotiate rates before you get in if they won't turn the meter on.
- The driving is absolute CHAOS. Take some dramamine if you get nauseous easily. I've literally never seen anything like the traffic and driving in Vietnam.
- I suggest haggling personally with tour guides while you're in Vietnam instead of pre-booking the tours. You can book through your hotel once you're there, but it will likely be 3x the price.
- You can visit Vietnam on a dime if you're adventurous. There are AirBnB's and little hostels all over the place that cost as little as $7 USD. Street food can literally be as cheap as $1 USD for delicious Pho and other Vietnamese delights. We opted for places that were a little nicer since it was technically our honeymoon and because I got food poisoning right before our flight to Dubai. Even still, prices are about 1/3 or 1/2 the price of what you would pay in the States.
Every guide and site that I visited before the trip detailed out the wonders of Halong Bay and mentioned it's claim as the #1 attraction in Vietnam. I told my husband that I didn't care where else we went in Vietnam, I wanted to see Halong Bay. He lovingly obliged.
The people are so incredibly warm and welcoming. Seriously, they are so excited to meet Americans and are super helpful. We stayed at the Novotel, which, was lovely despite all of the construction and smog in the area. The food at the hotel was actually the best we had in the city and the massage and spa services were perfectly relaxing after our long trek. Halong Bay is known for it's seafood, which would usually thrill me. However, I got a terrible bout of food poisoning from sushi right before we left town. Needless to say I wasn't in the mood to be adventurous.
We rented a private junk boat cruise and bought some wine at the dock to pop bottles on the boat to celebrate finally making it to Halong Bay. The Bay is beautiful and so are the caves that we ventured through - definitely a must see if you're staying in Halong Bay. Our guide was knowledgeable and even gave us some tips and tricks about Sapa, our next stop. If you want to do the junk boat cruises on the cheap, you can simply show up to the boat landing and haggle with the tour director. Usually you can hop on one for around 10 USD.
There were some wonderful parts of Halong Bay, but overall, Halong Bay is terribly overrated. The Bay itself is gorgeous and the junk boat cruises are a fun kitschy way of getting around, but the Bay is extremely smoggy due to the extensive construction on the mainland. I had images of tropical beaches and clear blue waters in my head, but in reality there isn't a beach that is ready for tourists to use and the water doesn't come close to what the pictures online showcased.
Not to mention, Halong Bay is not an easy-to-get-to travel destination. After finally making it to Bangkok (after 48 hours of traveling by plane including layovers), you have to take another plane to Hanoi and then take a taxi (3 hours) or a bus (6 hours) to Halong Bay.
The city itself doesn't have much in the ways of history, culture, or food (usually what I look for in a travel destination) as it is so new. There are some large high rise hotels built that host karaoke every night and a rather dismal night market, but there is not much else to do for night life or to experience culture. It is just too new. Had I known about all of these drawbacks, I doubt I would have made the trek to Halong Bay. There simply isn't enough of an attraction (Especially had I known that the islands surrounding Phuket have much more to offer).
Sapa was my husband's choice, as he prefers the mountains to the sea.
Sapa is an adorable little mountain town - much like some in Colorado. Sapa sits in the basin and is surrounded by villages of different indigenous people. We visited Cat Cat village, Lao Chai, and Ta Phin based on recommendations of our tour guide for the best rice fields, people, waterfalls, and views.
Our junk boat guide in Halong Bay suggested we simply ask local businesses for a motorbike guide through the villages and pay his day rate. We were very thankful for this advice! We rented a motorbike for $4 USD for the day and followed our guide throughout the villages. He was knowledgeable and super helpful when we got a flat tire riding up a mountain. You can find our guide here.
There is plenty to do in Sapa if you're into nature. There are beautiful views of Fanxipan mountain (the tallest mountain in Indochina) if you take the gondola all the way to the top or you can simply hike it yourself! There are walking tours to the nearby villages, waterfalls, and rice fields aplenty.
Don't expect much for night life, but there are some cute little restaurants. We ate at Le Gecko and the Red Dao Restaurant. Both were good and not too expensive (relatively speaking). Be sure to check out the local farmers market where all of the locals go to buy their meat, vegetables, fruits, and goods for the week. It is a bustling area where you get a neat look into the culture and daily life of the people.
There are dogs everywhere! (notice this is in the Pros section :)) In SE Asia, many of the dogs are "community dogs" that are taken care of by everyone. They are generally fat, happy, and lazy. They simply roam around the city, lay in the sun, and are fed scraps by all of the townspeople. Generally speaking, the dogs we encountered were very friendly - but I don't suggest trying to pet them.
Sapa really was beautiful - I only found a few cons. It is a very long trek to get there (take a sleeper train to Lao Cai and then take a 45 mi taxi or bus to get to Sapa). December is wonderfully mild (albeit a bit cold in the morning, bring a jacket and a beanie!), but the rice fields have already been harvested so they aren't as brilliantly green/yellow as during the summer time! They are still gorgeous, however, but if seeing the rice fields in their prime is your reasoning for visiting Sapa then I suggest going at a different time of year.
The only other con I would list is that the indigenous women in the villages outside the city can be extremely aggressive while selling their goods. If you show any interest in their products, you will get hounded. I got yelled at by one woman who demanded that I buy her goods, and another woman followed us on her motorbike to ensure that we would buy from her. Needless to say I was put off and a little shaken after the incident. Simply say "no thank you" every time they come up. Being polite but straight forward is the best thing to do in this situation as they don't know much English.
I didn't do much research into Vietnam before we left, so I assumed Hanoi was simply a connection city (a place you fly into for convenience). But I was so wrong!
Hanoi absolutely has something for everyone. The city is bustling with restaurants, culture, shops, history, etc! What I didn't realize before our trek, is that Vietnam was previously colonized by France which left behind an incredible amount of French influence including gorgeous architecture, food, fashion and wine.
My family has French roots so this city thrilled me : the juxtaposition of cultures was truly fascinating. Beautiful Vietnamese women wearing straw hats would stroll around the Old Quarter with giant baskets of steaming hot french pastries (the only time I deeply regretted being gluten free), leaving the streets filled with the aroma of a French patisserie.
The Old Quarter is a must see for its chaos and excitement! Take a walk through the bustling streets to check out the shops specializing in linen and fine silk clothing and goods (which can be purchased for very little), grab some incredible street food for $1-3 USD, please please please try the Vietnamese coffee, purchase some flowers from a Vietnamese woman on a bike (because who doesn't need flowers in their hotel room?), and by all means, sit outside a cafe and simply people watch. If you're traveling with your SO, get him fitted for a custom tailored suit in one of the many suit shops around. The custom suits are made within 24 hours with the finest silks and linens and only cost around $100-$300 USD.
The French Quarter is about a 20 minute walk from the Old Quarter, and is totally worth the visit. The French Quarter is quite a bit more quiet and the architecture becomes noticeably more French and less crowded. There are some spectacular little cafes to check out with some of the best wine offerings we had while in SE Asia. If you're looking for high-end fashion, this is the spot! Although don't expect anything here to be cheaper than what you can find in the US. For the ultimate boujee bar experience, pop into the Sofitel Legend Metropole for a glass of wine and some fine appys.
Here are a couple more attraction options I suggest checking out in Hanoi:
- Night Markets
- Historic monuments
- Food Tours in the Old Quarter
I wish we would have had more time to spend in Hanoi! Had I known about everything Hanoi has to offer I would have gladly stayed a few more days.
The only thing that could be considered a drawback is the chaos of the streets. As a foreigner, it can be stressful to walk and navigate without getting hit by the millions of mopeds whirring past you. There are very few designated sidewalks and the ones that are available are typically covered in goods to be sold.
All of that being said, I didn't see one person get hit by a moped. The people of Vietnam are extremely aware when they are driving and are perfectly used to the chaotic traffic flow. If you find yourself stressed while walking around, simply hop into a local cafe for a Vietnamese coffee to relax for a minute and plan your next stop.
Vietnam was a truly magical destination - so full and rich with culture and friendly people. But be aware, this destination isn't what most people would look for in a "honeymoon". This is a true adventure and can be challenging at times given the language barrier, currency exchange, culture shock, etc. Without a shadow of a doubt I would say all of it is SO worth the challenge.
Two of our travel companions visited Hoi An for their honeymoon and they RAVED about the city. Not only is it a port city with a beach, but it has all of the beauty and exciting offerings that Hanoi has along with extensive history and architecture. If we were to make another trip, I would spend multiple days exploring Hoi An.
I could go on fa days about exactly where to go, what to see, what to eat, and so on and so on but I hope this gives my readers a real honest account of my experience along with some tips and tricks along the way!
Let me know in the comments if you have any questions or if I missed anything! My husband and I would love to go back and visit again one day.