Cruise alongside massive limestone islands in Halong Bay, savour the best egg coffee in Hanoi and hike up Fansipan, the highest peak in all of Vietnam located in Sapa.
Feeling the cool, crisp air right outside of Noi Bai International Airport instantaneously teleported me back a year, to when I first visited Vietnam. I was excited to dive into some authentic Vietnamese food, scrutinise the workmanship of genuine replicas, and for the first time ever, climb to the top of Fansipan (3,143m) – Vietnam’s highest peak. One thing I did not miss however, was the amount of courage and concentration it took to cross the insanely busy roads. Nevertheless, I was glad to be back.
With impressive landscapes, lush greenery and culture-rich countryside, Northern Vietnam is easily one of the best places in Southeast Asia to escape to. Plus, I’m sure the cold weather is something us Singaporeans can appreciate. It was 17 degrees when we were there.
Genuinely passable “The North Fake” knock-offs aside, the north face of Vietnam hosts some of the most genuine experiences in the country. From satisfying your tastebuds to stepping or paddling into nature and catching the sunrise above the clouds. Here are the best ones that you must add to your Northern Vietnam itinerary!
1) Challenge yourself and hike up Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest peak
There’s no better way to experience the magnificent landscape of Northern Vietnam’s countryside than to climb 3,143m above sea level, to the summit of Fansipan. It’s a seven-hour climb up to the base camp (yes, you read right: S-E-V-E-N/七/tujuh/ēḻu) on the first day, followed by another two-hour journey to the peak the next morning.
That being said, there’s also the option of taking the cable car up to the Fansipan Cable Car Station. At a cost of 700,000₫(~S$40), the 15-minute journey will have you done with the attraction in a couple of hours, leaving a whole day ahead to explore the rest of Sapa. But where’s the fun in that?
2) Feast on local BBQ skewers at Quán Đồ Nướng
Local barbecue is easily one of the top things to eat when in Sapa. Just ask Google. That and grilled bamboo sticky rice, otherwise known as “cơm lam”. But with so many local bbq joints around, how do you decide which to go for? Where can you get the best bang for your buck?
After investigating a couple of local roadside BBQs, we found one neatly tucked away in an alley.
There are over 25 varieties of skewered meat, vegetables and carbs (YAY cơm lam!) to choose from. With a range of 10,000₫ for a portion of skewered mushrooms to 15,000₫ for skewered meat and 30,000₫ for larger items like a thick juicy slab of pork belly, you’ll be struggling to fit a bit of everything in your tummy. By the end of our meal, the total bill came down to 130,000₫ per pax (~S$7.80). Worth it!
Address: 8 Hàm Rồng, TT. Sa Pa, Sa Pa, Lào Cai, Vietnam?
3) Take a refreshing dip in the Love Waterfall
A short 20-minute walk will find you standing at the foot of these fairytale-like falls. And with all fairytales, there’s a love story behind these falls. According to the legend, a fairy came across a young boy playing his flute by the falls and fell in love with the sound of the instrument. She spent every night listening to him play, until one day when her parents found out and forbade her from going to the falls. In the name of love, the fairy transformed into a bird so she could spend eternity with the boy. Hence, the Love Waterfall was born.
If fairytales aren’t your thing, perhaps a little adventure is! Pack along an extra set of clothes for the ride. The water was freezing when we visited in February, but that didn’t stop us from dipping a little more than our toes… fine we only went in knee-deep.
Entrance Fee: 70,000₫
Opening Hours: 9AM – 5PM
How to get there: From Sơn Bình, Tam Đường District, Lai Chau, walk past the shops on the right and you’ll find the ticketing counter at the end.
4) Rise up to the challenge of the Silver Waterfall
Touted as one of the top attractions in Sapa, the Silver Waterfall descends over 200 metres. It’s located right next to National Highway 4D and is the upstream of the Muong Hoa Stream that flows all year round.
Visitors have the option to climb some 300 steps into the embrace of lush greenery some 30 metres high. There, you’ll find a bridge you can walk across and admire the falls up close. Not many people climb up to the bridge, so chances of you snagging a clear shot are pretty high.
Entrance Fee: 20,000₫
Opening Hours: 24 hours
Address: QL4D, San Sả Hồ, Sa Pa, Lào Cai
Alternatively, get the BEST of both worlds with the all-inclusive tour to both the Love and Silver Waterfalls. If you’re looking to optimise your time and energy (or feel lazy and a little FOMO), this package is made for you.
5) Embark on a 2D1N cruise around Halong Bay
Not sure how to go about your Halong Bay exploration? Fret not. Hop on one of the numerous cruise boats around the picturesque bay. The best way though is booking a tour beforehand!
The tour takes you to all the best viewing spots around Halong Bay’s emerald waters and limestone caves, including kayaking at Luon Cave, entering the impressive Cave of Surprise (Hang Sung Sot), and even learning how to make Vietnamese spring rolls onboard between destinations!
Cost: ~S$180 for 2D1N; ~S$337 for 3D2N
Meeting Point: 81C Ly Nam De Street, or pick-up from hotel in Old Quarter
6) Chill out on Cat Ba Island
The largest of 367 islands, Cat Ba is a popular destination for those visiting Halong Bay. Most tour companies run daily trips to the island where you can take your pick of three beaches (Cat Co 1, 2 or 3 — very originally named) to swim, sunbathe or just chill at over the summer months. There are many shops, restaurants and hotels by the harbour that are easily accessible by foot or GrabBike.
There are also many activities you can do on Cat Ba Island, such as snorkelling and kayaking. For nature buffs, you’ll be thrilled to know there’s trekking, caving and rock-climbing at Cat Ba National Park. You can also rent a motorbike for ~100,000₫/day (no licence needed) – recommended if you’re visiting the more remote parts of the island like the national park.
How to get there: Boat rides from the harbour generally cost US$12 (single trip) or US$24 (return trip) from Hanoi, though pick-up from your accommodation in Hanoi or the airport is also possible with online bookings.
7) Visit a Floating Village, Vung Vieng
Looking for an adventure beyond the usual Halong Bay hotspots? Further out from Halong is Bai Tu Long Bay — home to extraordinary caves, quiet beaches, and also one of four remaining floating fishing villages, Vung Vieng. Due to its location, tourist traffic is minimal compared to that of Halong Bay. Those who make the stop are usually on a two-day cruise. Find out how these self-sustaining communities function and even get to pick up some tips from the locals on how to cast a fish net!
8) Witness farmers harvesting pearls firsthand
This ain’t no pearl harbour but they sure know how to harbour their pearls! A long standing tradition that only recently made its way into cruise itineraries like this overnight cruise, the Tung Sau Pearl Farm is a unique experience for both children and adults.
Watch the magic unfold as the artisans painstakingly retrieve these glistening gems from the oysters. Fancy yourself a pearl or perhaps a more extravagant necklace as a souvenir? Purchase one from the very waters these pearls were harvested from. Authentic much?
9) Get your adrenaline fix at Sun World Halong Complex
Amusement parks aren’t my top priority when choosing places to visit. But when I heard about a world-class theme park so huge that it has its own 2 km-long cable car system connecting the coastal theme park (Dragon Park) to a play complex on top of Ba Deo, I knew I would have to pay this place a visit.
The entire compound spans over 214 hectares — that’s 20 times the size of Universal Studios Singapore. With over 20 rides to choose from in Dragon Park, set aside your entire day for fun, fun and more fun!
Entrance Fee: 699,000₫ (Dragon Park); 300,000₫ (Cable Car & Ba Deo Play Complex)
Opening Hours: 2PM – 7PM. Opens 9AM on weekends.
Address: No. 9, Ha Long Street, Bai Chay Ward, Ha Long City , Quang Ninh Province, Vietnam.
10) Try the OG Vietnamese Egg Coffee
Legend has it that due to a shortage of fresh milk in the 1940s, egg yolk was used as a substitute and thus the egg coffee was born. While I have to admit my first thought was “ew, raw egg in coffee?”, the concoction is surprisingly inviting.
As someone with a penchant for cold beverages, I’m really glad there’s an iced option that actually tastes more like a dessert. Walking through the Old Quarter, you’ll see many shops selling the beverage. But if you’re looking for the place that started it all, The Giang Café is the place to be.
Opening Hours: 7PM – 10PM
Address: The Giang Café, 39 Nguyễn Hữu Huân, Hàng Bạc, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
11) Savour Beef Noodle Salad at Bun Bo Nam Bo
Hardly anything can go wrong with fried garlic. The Beef Noodle Salad at Bun Bo Nam Bo not only reinforces this point, but the noodles themselves will tingle your tastebuds.
Despite being a “salad”, don’t be fooled by the mountain of vegetables and papaya slices on top. Beneath all that green lies a treasure trove of noodles waiting to be uncovered. And with just one main dish on their menu, you can be assured that the crowd’s there just for that.
Opening Hours: 7:30AM – 10:30PM
Address: 67 Hàng Điếu, Cửa Đông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
12) Venture out to Ninh Binh for a day trip
Just a two-hour drive from Central Hanoi, Ninh Binh (pronounced naan-bin) is known for its rare animals like Pangolins, natural formations and rich history.
Start your day trip to Ninh Binh with the ancient citadel of Hoa Lu, Vietnam’s first capital, and be enthralled by the historic ruins of the temples of Dinh and Le.
Cycle by limestone formations that have become synonymous with Vietnam’s charming landscape, but take caution along the open roads where there aren’t barriers. The roads are narrow and it’s a struggle to remain composed with the frequent bursts of honking.
Meeting Point: Hanoi Opera House, Số 01 Tràng Tiền, Phan Chu Trinh, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội 100000, Vietnam
13) Try a bowl of Bún Miến Ngan (Rice Noodles with Muscovy Duck)
I’m not typically one for gamy food, but this dish was really palatable. Even a friend who adds chilli padi to everything she eats for taste found these noodles savoury enough without it! Long story short: just try it.
If you look this place up on Google, you’ll notice the web says it’s “permanently closed”. But don’t worry, we were there in February 2019 and can vouch that business is as usual.
Opening Hours: 7AM – 10PM
Address: 63 Cửa Bắc, Quán Thánh, Ba Đình, Hà Nội, Vietnam
*Pro-tip: Have Google Translate on standby to translate the menu.
14) Wind down and let someone walk all over you
You’ve probably been dealt life advice to not let people walk all over you, but just this once, please do! The good folks at MF Spa do an amazing massage and even put their entire body weight on you by walking on your back for maximum effectiveness.
It’s a great remedy for aches from over-shopping, exhaustion from a day’s adrenaline-pumping activities, or even if you’re just in need of a good pampering. Don’t forget to call ahead to make an appointment!
Cost: From ~S$8.45
Opening Hours: 9:30AM – 11:30PM (Last booking at 10PM).
Address: 6b Cửa Đông, Hàng Bồ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội 100000, Vietnam
15) Satisfy your tastebuds with Spicy Pho Bay
Get your pho fix at Spicy Pho Bay where you have the delectable option of medium-rare beef slices. Though if you really want them medium-rare, you will probably have to dig in as soon as it arrives.
One thing that sets this pho apart from the others is the tangy chili. Likened to Singapore’s chicken rice chili, the combination of the broth with chilli leaves you craving for more. Another item on the menu that made us return for a second visit is the mixed fried rice.
This huge plate of carbs is so unsparingly prepared, you’ll find a burst of ingredients in every bite. Doesn’t help with all that juicy lap cheong (chinese sausage) staring right at you.
Opening Hours: 7AM – 11PM
Address: 1a Đặng Thai Mai, Quảng An, Tây Hồ, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Putting Together Your Northern Vietnam Itinerary
Before embarking on your epic adventure, get a 4G data SIM Card (~S$8.75), which packs 60GB of data for up to 30 days (limited to 2GB a day).
Accommodation in Hanoi: Cheers Hostel
Cheers Hostel is located right in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. The icing on this hostel cake? Free beer and breakfast (not necessarily at the same time)! Furthermore, as a backpacker, the spacious lockers were a godsend — big enough to fit two cabin-sized luggages.
Cost: S$7/bed in an 8-bed dorm room (mixed and female dorms available)
Address: 28 Nguyễn Siêu, Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Accommodation in Sapa: Sapa Capsule
Slip into one of these spacious and futuristic-looking capsules for the night. This cosy contraption allows you complete privacy with personal charging ports, a safe for valuables and reading lamps. All in that small space?! It was the perfect recuperation chamber, especially after climbing Fansipan.
Address: No 1A So Than Street, Sapa town
*Pro-tip: If you’re traveling with a large backpack, consider upgrading to the room beside the balcony for more spacious lockers. It’s just 20,000₫ more than the regular capsule. I could slide a 65L backpack in easily, leaving space for a second daypack in the locker.
Getting from Hanoi to Sapa
A sleeper bus from Hanoi to Sapa can be booked for ~S$12.60 (one-way). There are two departures each day — one at 6:45AM (1:15PM arrival in Sapa) and one at 9:45PM (5:05AM arrival). I recommend traveling through the night since it saves time and money.
The journey took around six hours but the bus operators let us get some shut-eye till the sky was bright and started unloading the luggages at 6:30AM. Consider bringing just a small rucksack on the bus, or something you could easily tuck away near your legs when you sleep for safety.
There are many things that people come to expect when they visit Vietnam — great food, sightseeing and streets lined with enough knock-offs to last a lifetime, to name a few. We did the usual, and added a few more to our list!
Whether you’re looking for a rad solo trip or an all-inclusive family holiday, there’s plenty to do in the land of pho — and this is only one part of Vietnam!
What do you like best about Northern Vietnam? Let us know in the comments section below!