Travel Diaries: Vietnam 🇻🇳

Given that this is the first travel diary I’m writing, I’m not too sure what an effective format looks like. However, instead of verbose prose that dominates most of travel writing, I’m going to take a bullets-first approach which will hopefully be skim-friendly, with some prose in between. Would appreciate feedback!

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tl; dr #

Introduction to Vietnam #

Vietnam is an idyllic, beautiful country in the Indochina region that most people have heard about primarily because of its association to the war with America. With a growing economy that is still under the clutches of communism, it is a great place to get away for 2 weeks or more if you can spare the time. What’s more? Because of the weak currency, it’s incredibly cheap even for Indian travellers who earn in INR.

Most people, for some reason, assume Vietnam to be a rather small country with very little footprint — let me go ahead and dispel that notion immediately. It is pretty large and it’d easily take around 4 to 6 weeks to travel around the entire nation. Soundarya (my wife) and I had a chance to take 2 weeks off in December to visit the northern part of this country with its kaleidoscopic geographic features ranging from tall peaks in mountains full of rice terraces to gorgeous limestone cliffs in pristine blue bays.

If you want to do the entire country, make sure you take at least 4 weeks to do justice to the trip. In a couple of weeks, you can easily cover the North, though.

Best time to visit #

When is a good time to visit Vietnam is a rather difficult question to answer given that it is a long, narrow country with varying weather conditions. We visited the northern part of Vietnam and December weather was pretty okay. Vietnam is supposedly a year-round destination but most folks suggest staying away in peak summer or peak monsoon. You might want to check best times to visit based on your specific travel plans.

Approximate costs #

I’m by no means a budget traveller and so, you may well be able to do the trip for way lesser than we did — which was around ₹2,00,000, all expenses included. It’s possible to do it for way lesser for three reasons:

  1. I’ve a severe aversion to low-cost carriers and cannot stand a 2+ hour flight on Air Asia and the likes. So, we flew Thai. Another reason for picking Thai was that Soundarya and I typically like having a long layover in a city on the way back to India. 😀 On our way back from Greece, it was Doha. This time, it was Bangkok where we stayed for 23 hours. Our trip would have been cheaper by about ₹15,000 had we flown Indigo or Air Asia.

  2. The ₹2,00,000 is inclusive of an ultra-luxurious 3D/2N 5-star cruise we took in Halong Bay, which itself set us back by about ₹60,000. Zero regrets for doing it though; it was one stellar cruise and I strongly recommend doing it (even at the exorbitant price).

  3. It is possible to take cheaper trains or use less of Grab than we did, but I doubt if this had a significant impact on the overall costs as much as the other two reasons did. Perhaps could have saved another ₹10,000 (best case).

Rough break up of our costs #

Places to visit #

Hanoi #

Quick look

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Hanoi is a bustling city that resembles Bangalore a lot. It’s much smaller though, and most of Hanoi that we as tourists are interested in, can be covered by foot. Take a hostel in the Old Quarter or French Quarter by the Hoan Kiem lake for ₹600-1,000 a night and you can easily cover the important sights of the city in just a couple of days, with a not-too-intense schedule.

We landed around 9:30 am on a Friday and after checking our luggage into Republik hostel in the Old Quarter, we were off for our Day 1. Thanks to above average legroom and comfy seats even in Thai’s Economy cabin, we were pretty well rested and were ready to get started without even a whiff of downtime (one of the perks of paying premium for a good airline seat.)

Our Hanoi itinerary was quite touristy and went something like this (have marked must-visits with a star):

Day 1 #

Day 2 #

Experiences not to miss #

Hanoi was probably the only hectic part of our trip and after 2 fully packed days in Vietnam’s capital, we took a King Express VIP train to Lao Cai. Lao Cai is the railway station closest to Sa Pa town, which is about 45 kilometres away. Right at the entrance of Hanoi railway station, they sell bus tickets from Lao Cai to Sa Pa town — buy them (they’re priced at about 50,000 dong per pax, which is reasonable.)

Now, onto Sapa.

Sa Pa #

Quick look

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Calling the second leg of our trip as a stay in Sa Pa is actually a bit misleading because… well, we didn’t stay in Sa Pa. Recent commercialisation has made Sa Pa an unattractive place to stay. So we booked an Airbnb — a beautiful homestay in Ta Van, a quaint village about 10 kilometres away from Sa Pa town. I strongly recommend the homestay we stayed in which was hosted by a wonderful Hmong family. Sue was our host and she was absolutely fabulous.

I deliberately wanted the Vietnam trip to be relaxed, so this is where we started unwinding and taking it easy. If you’re short on time, you could compress the itinerary below, but I don’t recommend it entirely. We spent the first day in Sa Pa lazing about, walking to Ta Van village square, having a quiet meal in a restaurant overlooking the valley.

On the second day, we rented a motorbike (for about 150,000 dong and spent 30,000 dong more for fuel), and travelled all the way from Ta Van to Love Waterfall, which was about 25 kilometres away. On the way back from Love Waterfall, we took a quick detour for a cable car trip to the top of Mount Fansipan (the highest peak in the Indochina region). It’s expensive (about US$40 per person) but absolutely worth it. Start the upward cable car journey by 2 pm at least, for great views from the top. From the cable car station on the Mt. Fansipan side to the actual peak is quite a trek in itself, so prepare to exert yourself a bit. But, again, it’s worth it.

Love Waterfall and Mount Fansipan really are the only two ‘sightseeing’ places around Sa Pa worth doing. There are many photo-worthy spots where you can capture the glorious valleys from, though — be on the lookout! So, keep the ‘sightseeing’ limited to a day. Ta Van to Love Waterfall to Fansipan to Ta Van should take you at least 8 hours, so you might want to plan accordingly.

Sidenote on motorbikes in Vietnam: The roads are treacherous and the drivers are crazy. Not India crazy, but still, pretty crazy. I recommend taking a motorbike **only* if you have experience driving one.*

Our third day was spent trekking to Lao Chai and Giang Ta Chai villages through rice terraces, indigo plantations, and slippery bamboo forests. The Lao Chai trek was super easy but the uphill one to Giang Ta Chai required a bit of exertion. The 6-hour guided trek cost us about US$25 per person (inclusive of a lunch) — recommend doing it if you aren’t one of those people trying to scale Mt. Fansipan itself!

We had to leave for Hanoi at 3 pm on our 4th day in Sa Pa — and that morning was also spent lazing around. (Also with Soundarya trying out traditional Hmong attire and having a Cinderella-like moment losing a shoe in a paddy field. Lulz.)

After returning to Hanoi, we spent the night at Cocoon Inn Hostel (a crazy good place) before leaving for Ha Long the next morning.

So, in essence, our itinerary in Sa Pa looked something like this:

Day 1 #

Day 2 #

Day 3 #

Day 4 #

Experiences not to miss #

Ha Long Bay #

Quick look

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Situated about 2 hours from Hanoi, Ha Long Bay is probably the best known destination in Vietnam. Known for its towering limestone cliffs and clear blue waters, Ha Long Bay has become an unfortunate victim of unchecked tourism. In addition to posing environmental dangers, this has made Ha Long Bay a bit of an overcrowded eyesore. We deliberately chose to avoid the cheap day cruises and picked a 3D / 2N cruise in one of the most expensive cruises in the region — Stellar of the Seas (I’ll call them SOTS).

Premium cruises avoid the crowded regions of the bay and take you to more secluded regions where you can kayak or swim more peacefully without running into a fishing trawler doubling up as a cruise with 300 people packed into 20 seats.

It is worth noting that what every cruise sells as a 2D / 1N package effectively comes to just 24 hours on the boat. That’s, IMO, not long enough. 3D / 2N could seem too long for a place that most people do as a day trip, but that’s just 48 hours in total. And I think that’s what allowed us to soak in the gorgeousness of the entire place.

We were picked up from Hanoi by SOTS’ crew in a limousine and dropped off at the Tuan Chau Marina, from where we were transferred to the main boat by a speed boat. The crew at Stellar of the Seas truly deserve a special mention — Harry, Olivia, Tracy, and the others were just beyond excellent (anyone who knows me would tell you that I’m very hard to impress, so getting an Excellent from me is a rarity in my book).

Unlike cheap 5-star resorts in India which try to up-sell packages once you check-in, SOTS had everything covered in the booking price — this includes unlimited food onboard (you can even ask them to cook for you outside dining hours), kayaking, visit to Cat Ba island (this is where King Kong was filmed), and even free massages if you take the top of the line rooms (Presidential or Executive suites).

To call Stellar of the Seas an exceptional cruise would be a gross understatement. If you are visiting Ha Long Bay, please consider splurging on this — you won’t regret it.

After a great couple of days loitering in the middle of the sea, we took a day bus to Ninh Binh. The day bus that left around 12:30 pm was the cheaper option (cost us US$10 per pax), but if you can afford it, have your cruise arrange a cab (around US$85) to cover the 150-odd kilometres

Ninh Binh #

Quick look

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Ninh Binh is actually the name of the province and the main town, but you don’t want to be staying in Ninh Binh. You should ideally stay in Tam Coc. We stayed in Gia Sinh, which was a small mistake given how far away from Tam Coc or the Ninh Binh town it is. You’ve a number of options to pick from near Hang Mua or Tam Coc, so pick wisely.

Quiet boat rides through long grottoes, drop-dead gorgeous views from Hang Mua, and Tam Coc’s vast rice fields make Ninh Binh worthy of a relaxed 2-day trip (as opposed to a day trip that most people do from Hanoi), It’s not that you can’t do Ninh Binh in a day — you totally can, but I don’t like city hopping just for covering ground.

Sidenote: Hoa Lu in Ninh Binh, in fact, used to be Vietnam’s ancient capital and this entire region is filled with places of historical importance.

We stayed for about 2.5 days but the last morning was spent lazing around in our room. The other two days were pretty mild too. This is what our Ninh Binh itinerary looked like:

Day 1 #

Day 2 #

On the third day (and last one of the trip), we left for Hanoi by train and went directly to Noi Bai International Airport from the railway station. And that was that! Hope this helps.

 
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