Review: Hoi An, Hanoi, Halong Bay, Sapa
130 people found this review helpful
All travel arrangements and hotels were booked by ourselves online having done some research. We flew in to Hanoi from London via Hong Kong (where we did a 3 day stopover). On arrival at Hanoi airport we got a connecting flight with Vietnam Airlines to Da Nang having arranged with our Hotel in Hoi An for them to collect us.
We stopped at the Life Heritage Resort Spa in Hoi An for three days/nights. Hoi An was really intended to be the chill out part of our trip and it was very relaxing, the hotel was excellent (reasonably priced by European standards but expensive by Vietnamese standards – you can get rooms for as little at USD20.00 per night), there was plenty to see and do however and we did a morning cooking course at the White Lotus (USD18.00 per person including lunch and worth every cent), visited all of Hoi An's main historical attractions (you can buy a ticket for equivalent of a couple of USD which gives entrance to them all), vistited the market and some of Hoi An's famous tailor shops where you can have a suit or dress made overnight. Bikes were available from our hotel and there are beaches within cycling distance along with some magnificent countryside. We ate very well in Hoi An (meals for thee including drinks for as little as USD8.00 total). We took a Lonely Planet guide and found some tucked away local places that were amazing.
We flew back into Hanoi and spent two nights there at the Hanoi Moment Hotel in the old city (again excellent and reasonably priced). Hanoi is a place you experience rather than visit, chaotic, noisy, fragrant, smelly, exciting, dirty, difficult to describe but well worth a visit. We went to the Water Puppet Theatre, Ho Chi Min's Mausoleum, Hanoi Hilton (the old prison in Hanoi), the Temple of Literature and many of the other tourist attractions, all have very cheap admission prices and it is usually worth paying the small extra charge for a guide (we spoke to people who had been to the Temple of Literature and only seen part of it as they had not had a guide and did not realise part of it existed). We left most of our luggage at the hotel and took only what we needed for our trips to Halong Bay and Sapa with us.
We then visited Ha Long Bay (four hour coach trip – itself an experience!) and did a two day cruise on a junk. There are a large number of tour operators in Hanoi who will arrange this for you – do a little research online or in a Lonely Planet/Rough Guide. Prices vary as do cruise lengths (you can do a day cruise or stay a number of nights including a stay on one of the islands), but it is a wonderful place to visit, the scenery is amazing and you usually get the opportunity to visit the floating fishing villages, pearl farms, beaches and caves in the area. We met a very interesting mix of people (travellers and tourists of a number of nationalities as well as locals), went kyacking, swimming in the sea, eel fishing and, be warned, the Vietnamese seem to love their Karioke, so there was some of that as well. The food was excellent and included in the tour price – drinks were extras. You cannot drink the water in Vietnam but we were given complimentary bottled water in hotels, on coaches, trains, planes and junks – and it is also very cheap to buy. You don't need to be superfit but you do need to be able to clamber on and off of boats and, if visiting the caves, to climb stairs and, if visiting the island, to ride a bicycle.
After a four hour coach trip back to Hanoi and an afternoon there we then got the overnight train to Lao Cai and transport to Sapa (again you can book through tour operators in Hanoi). We booked berth's (we went basic – although I believe you can get a little more luxury if you want to pay extra and book at one of the more expensive tours/hotels). Our Sapa visit (which included two overnight train journeys to/from Lao Cai, mini bus to/from Sapa, a night at a hotel in Sapa and a homestay in one of the minority villages, meals and the services of a local guide whilst trekking) cost USD187.00 each – and there were four in our party. We had some spare time to look around Sapa before trekking, with the aid of our guide, through some of the minority villages. It rained the morning we started our trek (we had to hire wellington boots and buy waterproof ponchos (both cheap)) but dried up and was warm by lunchtime. We did a trek that was classed as easy, however I am pretty fit and would have classed it as fairly challenging in parts, but for the scenery alone it was worth the effort. You will find that women and children from the minority tribes tend to follow you around in the hope you will purchase some of their craft works from them, we were a little bemused when they started following us on our trek, however we were more than grateful for their assistance over the more challenging, muddy and slippery parts of our trek, they are like mountain goats and their assistance was a godsend. We stopped overnight in one of the villages with a local family and were made very welcome, facilities were basic but we had adequate washing and toilet facilities. Our evening meal (cooked in the family kitchen over an open fire) was delicious, and after a little too much rice wine, we retired to comfortable, but basic, sleeping facilities. Breakfast (a large stack of pancakes and fruit along with Vietnamese tea) was more than adequate to set us up for a further days trekking. I would add here that one of our party was ill with a bad stomach and another suffered from the heat and overexertions of the previous day so they arranged to return to Sapa by motorbike taxi, whilst the fitter of us did a further eight or so kilometer trek through the villages. Again classed as easy – it was not for the faint hearted and was, in places, very challenging. I am not sure if it was the fact that it had been raining and was hence very muddy and slippery but I would say that you would need a reasonable level of fitness to undertake one of these treks, although your guide would probably advise on this. Whilst in Sapa we also did a trip up to one of the local waterfalls and the scenery, once again, was amazing. Again we ate very well – Vietnamese food tends to be very fresh, healthy and absolutely delicious – for the adventurous the street food is well worth trying (although they do eat some meats that many Europeans, including me, could not stomach).
We got the night train back to Hanoi and spent a full day seeing the rest of the sights and doing some last minute shopping before spending our final night in Hanoi at the Hanoi Moment Hotel. Once again we ate very well at a very traditional Vietnamese restaurant (and yes there was both dog and tortoise on the menu) , before flying back to London, again via Hong Kong, on an mid morning flight.
We started our trip without any preconceived ideas of what Vietnam would be like and with open minds as to what to expect in terms of hotel accommodation, airport facilities, service, food, etc. We found the people to be, almost without exception, friendly and helpful – the service is the hotels was faultless with nothing too much trouble (even in the cheapest hotel we stayed in in Sapa). Airport facilities varied – Da Nang was basic, Hanoi a little more up market, but all our flights were on time, our luggage was always where it was meant to be, and the flights were OK. Vietnam itself is a beautiful and interesting country, the weather was great (although it did rain when we were up in the mountains), transport tended to be basic and slow, but we did not experience any delays. We felt safe at all times, even late night in Hanoi, possibly the only time you might feel unsafe is crossing the streets in Hanoi which is like a giant game of chicken (there are over 4 million motorbikes in Hanoi and they all seem to be on the streets at the same time, they will avoid you as long as they can anticipate what you are going to do hence the knack is to walk at a steady pace without stopping or breaking into a run). It is very cheap to eat well, and you can usually find a meal 24 hours a day. If we would change anything about our trip then it would be to undertake our chill out visit to Hoi An last instead of first as we were well and truly ready for a rest after Hanoi, Halong Bay and Sapa.
Tourism is starting to take off in Vietnam and it is probably well worth visiting sooner rather than later. Don't expect European standards of cleanliness, buildings, health and safety (some of the tourist attractions would be no go areas in the UK but use your common sense and you will be safe enough), transport and such like but do expect fabulous countryside and views; some of the best, freshest food you will ever taste; friendly, helpful people; an interesting culture to experience and (at least while we were there) good weather. As with any country there are scams (ie. airport taxis) but do a little research and planning before you go and make yourself aware and I am sure you will have a brilliant trip!
Watch a video about 'Halong Bay' on SilverTravelAdvisorTV.
130 people found this review helpful
This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.
Silver Travel Advisor Recommended Partner: Selective Asia