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What to do in the North of Vietnam ?

Trip to the north of Vietnam

Article mis à jour le 12 Mar 2024

What to do in the North of Vietnam during your trip ?

After my trip to the south of Vietnam and my itinerary in central Vietnam, I took an overnight bus from Hué to Ninh Binh. I had a lot to look forward to and unfortunately had to cut my stay short, as the weather was not good and the rice fields in Sapa were harvested at the end of the year. I still took the time to discover Tam Coc, nicknamed “the terrestrial Halong Bay“, Halong Bay and Cat Ba, as well as Hanoi. I’ll be back soon to complete this article with Sapa and the Ha Giang loop. So let’s see what you can do in the north of Vietnam !

What to do in Ninh Binh – Tam Coc ?

Ninh Binh, the former capital of Vietnam, isn’t really interesting, but it’s the big city close to Tam Coc. The area is known as a sort of land-based Halong Bay, surrounded by streams and incredible mountains ! I’d still recommend visiting Ninh Binh by night to go to the old Hoa Lu district and its beautiful lanterns.

Visit Ninh Binh

To get there, you can take buses from Hanoi, Halong or Hué / Da Nang. The best thing is to book your transport in advance to avoid any surprises. Don’t worry, you can book 24/48 hours before you want to leave.

Landscape Tam Coc

Trang An caves

This was my favourite visit to this area as the scenery was incredible. To take this boat trip, you need to buy your ticket at Trang An Departure Boat Ticket on Maps. The price is 250,000 VND per person (€10) and each boat can hold 4 people. If, like me, you want to privatise your boat, you will have to buy all 4 places.

Cruise Tam Coc

You then have a choice of 3 itineraries that allow you to visit different things, and I chose the 2ᵉ itinerary. The excursion lasts about 2h30-3h with many stops to see temples. I loved going under the caves, some of which are 150m long !

The scenery is impressive between blue rivers and green mountains. The 3-day cruise is a great way to discover the region, even if I wasn’t lucky with the weather.

Visit Tam Coc

Hang Mua cave

This visit is not so much interesting for the cave itself, but mainly for its viewpoint, which gives you a panoramic view of the Ninh Binh and Tam Coc rice fields. To get there, you have to climb the 500 steps to reach one of the two peaks, which offer a magnificent view. The steps are sometimes a little high, so I advise you to take your time, but allow around 20 minutes to reach the top.

Hang Mua Ninh Binh

Even though it wasn’t the right season for rice paddies, I really enjoyed the 360-degree view. I was also lucky enough to see some wild goats wandering around on the rocks.

If the season allows, from April to August, you can admire many lotuses near the entrance, in the middle of which you can walk.

The pagodas of Phố Cổ Hoa Lư and Bai Dinh

Located in the centre of Ninh Binh, these two pagodas are set on a peninsula. I recommend going at night to appreciate all the lanterns and lighting that illuminate the buildings. Admission is totally free.

The Bai Dinh pagoda is the largest in the region, covering 540 hectares and containing over 500 Buddha statues. If you want to visit it all, you’ll need to allow plenty of time, as there are many buildings and caves to see.

Where to eat in Ninh Binh & Tam Coc ?

Ninh Binh‘s traditional dish is goat stew. You’ll find it in most restaurants, but personally, I didn’t like it. The taste is average and the texture very elastic.

I had the opportunity to try out several restaurants, including :

  • Gia Minh Beer Garden : a good address if you want a drink, beers are 7,000 VND in Happy Hour, about 30 cents !
  • Flamingo Tam Coc Restaurant : a very pleasant place to have a coffee or cocktail at the end of the day while playing billiards. The food was very good and reasonably priced.
  • Buddha Belly : a vegan restaurant with really delicious food. The prices are competitive and the portions really hearty. I loved the pumpkin soup and the tofu with tomato.

Food north Vietnam

Where to stay in Ninh Binh & Tam Coc ?

I recommend staying in Tam Coc because it’s very central and has a bit of a buzz. I stayed at the Guesthouse Moment Tam Coc, which is a 5-minute walk from the bus stop. The owners were lovely, I was able to check in at 6am when I arrived and Tommy speaks perfect English. The rooms are simple, but really affordable, and the breakfast is quite copious.

Halong Bay

There are many buses between Hanoi and the port of Halong Bay. Allow just under 4 hours in a minivan and around €15 per person. If you’re wondering what to do in the north of Vietnam, Halong Bay is a must-see !

I recommend taking a 3-day / 2-night cruise to make the most of these sumptuous landscapes. I travelled with Lotus d’Orient on a really beautiful, renovated boat. The rooms are clean and spacious, the meals were delicious and it’s a human-sized boat, which makes the cruise much more enjoyable than a huge liner.

Cruise Halong Bay

For me, the positive points of this cruise were above all :

  • The activities on offer (kayaking in the bay, visiting Cat Ba island, bamboo boat ride in caves).
  • The meals were varied, with a buffet in the morning and at lunchtime, a meal served at the table in the evening (adapted to everyone’s dietary requirements) and a home-cooked lunch on Cat Ba island.
  • The organisation was well done, with schedules announced at meal times, and the timetables were respected.
  • The boat staff were really friendly and most spoke very good English.

Cruise Halong Bay

The only negative points would be :

  • The programme was organised a little too early (breakfast at 7 a.m. for an 8 a.m. start to the activity, dinner at 7 p.m. in the evening, etc.).
  • The price of drinks is a little excessive and water is not included during meals.

What to do in Hanoi, North of Vietnam ?

The Old Quarter

This is the city’s most important historic district, covering more than 100 hectares, with Hoan Kiem Lake at its centre. You’ll be able to admire numerous small souvenir shops and street-food stalls in an authentic Vietnamese atmosphere. To the north of the old quarter, I recommend a visit to Dong Xuan market, where you can find clothes, spices and souvenirs at low prices.

Visit Hanoi

At weekends, the old quarter becomes pedestrianised from 7pm onwards, making for a much quieter stroll along the lakefront and the small streets nearby.

Hoa Lo prison

This visit is a really interesting way of learning about the history of the Vietnam War under the French occupation. It retraces the creation of the prison that was used to lock up Communist revolutionaries and combatants through photos and objects from the period. In particular, you can visit the dungeons, the cells for those sentenced to death and the women’s prisons.

Admission costs VND50,000 (around €2) and is open every day from 8am to 5pm.

Visit Hanoi prison

Railway street

This street is a must-see in Hanoi, as trains pass through a narrow street lined with coffees. Beware, there are only a few trains a day, so it’s important to check the schedule on the spot. You can enjoy a delicious egg coffee (a Vietnamese speciality of coffee sweetened with cream) or eat a Banh Mi in the restaurants lining the tracks, with a train passing just a few centimetres away !

Train Hanoi

The Vietnam Ethnography Museum

This is a very interesting museum with over 54 period costumes from all the ethnic groups of Vietnam, everyday objects and reproductions of houses. If you’re travelling with children, this is a museum suited to younger visitors, as it’s quite playful.

Admission costs VND40,000 per person (around €1.5) and is open from 8.30am to 5.30pm, Tuesday to Sunday.

Where to eat/drink in Hanoi ?

Vietnam‘s culinary specialities differ between the north and the south. But you can easily find the two typical north Vietnamese dishes in small local restaurants.

  • Bun Cha : cold rice vermicelli dipped in a sweet and sour sauce, served with grilled pork.
  • Phò : the country’s signature soup, mainly with beef or chicken.

If you’re on a budget, I’d advise you to head for the Old Quarter, where you’ll find plenty of low-cost restaurants. Little Hanoi restaurants in particular serve excellent aubergine with tofu. Or the MET (there are several in the city) where I tried the fried noodles with chicken and cashew, or a delicious vegetable curry.

I fell in love with Home Hanoi, where the prices are admittedly a little higher than in small neighbourhood restaurants, but the quality of the food is undeniable. I loved the beef cooked for 6 hours and the tofu croquettes, a real treat.

Where to eat Hanoi

Where to sleep in Hanoi ?

If you’re staying in the Old Quarter, I’d strongly advise you to take rooms without windows (or internal windows). The area is very noisy and you’re likely to hear horns honking non-stop if your room faces the street. I stayed at the hotel La Siesta and everything was perfect ! Especially the very varied breakfast and the ideal location.

I hope this article will help you find out what to do in the north of Vietnam during your trip. Enjoy your stay ❤️. If you like Asia, take a look at our travel guides on Thailand or my 10-day itinerary in Laos !

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