Things to do:
- There are a ton of ways to get to and around Halong Bay. I took a very inexpensive day trip from Hanoi when I was in Vietnam, but if I could do it again I would probably spend a little extra to stay longer.
- Important thing to know: the area where the day trips typically take you is close to floating villages, which are so cool to see, but do have some special implications for your day that I didn't think about until it was almost too late. The villagers live completely on the water, meaning they do all of their business directly into the water. Meaning you absolutely cannot get in the water. Don't even dip your foot in. Our tour guide told us with a laugh that it is filled with very dangerous bacteria that can make you incredibly sick. It is possible to kayak in the water, but if you splash yourself make sure you rinse off ASAP! For the longer trips you tend to spend a bit of time in this area before moving away to more open waters where you can swim.
- That being said, it is an absolutely stunning area, and I would highly recommend going to check it out!
- Be sure to rent kayaks and paddle around the open areas and explore.
- Thien Cung Cave: Very cool caves where you can go explore. They sit about 25 meters above sea level, 130 meters high once you pass inside. There are dozens of legends surrounding the caves, and trust me, you want to hear all of them! Make sure you get a tour in your language for this part of the trip.
- Entry to Heaven: Beautiful part of the cave that opens up over 100 meters to the sky. The sun falls at an angle that makes it look like their are stairs going up to the heavens. It's pretty breathtaking!
- "Fairy Breasts": I cannot make this stuff up. You're supposed to go rub these rocks and fairies will make your boobs grow. Still waiting for proven results, but I'll keep you guys posted...
Things to do:
- Hoan Kiem Lake: Legend has it that a god sent emperor Ly Thai To a magical sword in the 15th century that he used to drive the Chinese from Vietnam. Once the Vietnamese won the war, a giant golden turtle took the sword and disappeared into the lake to restore it to its heavenly creators. It's said the sword is somewhere beneath the lake even now, giving it the name Ho Hoan Kiem (Lake of the Restored Sword).
- Ho Chi Min Mausoleum: The embalmed body of Ho Chi Min (Chairman of the Communist Party of Vietnam from 1951-1969) is kept in a glass tomb in this building, which is surrounded by elaborate gardens. It's an incredibly impressive sight, but visitors should be aware of the many rules for viewing Min's body before they go (the wait in line is long, so you don't want to get to the front and find you can't go in!)
- Long Bien Bridge: Built over the Hong River in 1898-1902 by the French during their occupation, this bridge is over
three kilometers long and is now too old for cars and trucks to pass over. Instead, it has become a kind of expressway for motorcycles and bikes from one side of the river to the other. Very cool to travel across and see the city from afar!
Where I stayed:
- Backpacker's hostel in Old Hanoi: There are a ton of super inexpensive and decent hostels in Old Hanoi, plus there's a lot to do in this area during the day and at night. I would just walk around when you get to town and see what tickles your fancy! If you're on a budget, there's really no need to pay more than $7/night for a room with AC and a bathroom. If you want to stay somewhere a little nicer, you can easily find a good place online ahead of time, and should expect to pay around $20-30 a night.
Food to Try:
Obviously, you have to get Pho! It's a traditional soup with rice noodles, vegetables, and/or meat.
Mien Xao Luon: glass noodles, bean sprouts, veggies, and deep fried eel (can usually get with another kind of fish or meat as well)
Bun Thang: vermicelli rice noodles with meat, veggies, and egg
Street food here is almost always better than restaurant food. Some of my absolute favorite meals I've had while traveling came from vendors on the side of the road in Vietnam. Try everything, be adventurous, and eat where you see the locals eating! Just point to what looks good, or ask for the best dish if you can communicate.
Prepare to get ripped off. Just accept it, and roll with it. Most people will give you a "Western" price, and it is completely acceptable (and expected) to haggle. You can try to cut a deal on everything from street food to hostel prices (I probably wouldn't try this in a nice hotel though...). Even with the bargaining, you're going to get ripped off. It will be okay, it will be worth it, no one will be mean about it, but it will happen. Be sure to bring some USD with you if you can -- it can make some particularly tricky bargains (we had issues crossing the border from Laos to Vietnam) go much more smoothly.
There are many important cultural differences between Western and Eastern cultures, and you should be aware of them so as not to offend while you travel. Be sure to ask your hotel/hostel/Airbnb host to let you know if there are any important culture faux-pas you should be aware of. Most people are happy to give you a quick overview of their culture, and you will learn a lot of important tips this way!
Petty crime and pick-pocketing are common, so be sure to keep your bags close. Kids are often the biggest perpetrators, so don't be distracted by how adorable and sweet they all are!
At night, the touristy areas are very safe to go out in, but as in most areas of the world you should keep your wits about you. Some neighborhoods can get very sketchy after dark, so be sure to ask your hotel/hostel/Airbnb host what areas to avoid.
Transportation in Vietnam:
Buses are a great (and inexpensive) way to get from city to city, and even country to country! I took a bus from Vietnam to Laos, and while it was an incredibly long trip (24 hours) it was an experience I'll never forget!
Scooters (mopeds) are another great way to travel short distances. Rental is pretty cheap, and if you're staying longer than a couple of weeks its also very easy to buy a used one and sell it to another traveler when you leave. Be incredibly careful while you are driving these! Traffic laws are basically non-existent (at least as far as I could tell), and while it is much easier to drive in the countryside you will need to be hyper vigilant when driving in the city. The roads are thick with bikes, cars, and trucks whizzing in every direction.
Tuk-tuks are an easy and inexpensive way to get around town, but be sure to agree on a price ahead of time. You can also rent a tuk-tuk for the full day, which is a really convenient way to go!
You certainly can walk in almost every part of the city, but I wouldn't advise going far unless you have a keen sense of direction! Streets are marked primarily by what is sold there (food, t-shirts, massages, household goods, etc.) instead of street signs, so it can be tricky to find your way around.