After a ram packed week in central Vietnam, the final third of our trip was looming large. Our second and final overnight train arrived into Ninh Binh bright and early, giving us plenty of time to check in at Tam Coc Bungalows and hire bicycles before the morning was out.
Ninh Binh has a reputation as a rival to Ha Long Bay for its natural beauty and, save a few industrial structures, it’s rightly earned. The limestone hills peppering the horizon are simply stunning, and there’s beautiful rice fields and rivers for as far as you dare to look.
We arrived on a perfect day for an exploration, and our bike ride took in the direction of Bich Dong pagoda, set into the hills a few kilometres away from the main town.
It’s a beautiful setting for a temple, although you’re unlikely to get it to yourself. There’s a real bustle about the place, and it’s a very popular spot for tourists and locals to convene. We didn’t take a look right inside the pagoda as we weren’t dressed appropriately (though it didn’t bother a fair few visitors), so we settled for the lovely views of the surrounding area.
Tam Coc bungalows had recommend heading up to Mua Caves later in the afternoon to see the sunset, so we headed off in that direction, stopping for some tofu and cold drinks along the way.
Mua Caves is another popular spot in Ninh Binh and, honestly, it’s not surprising at all. There’s some absolutely unbelievable views to find at the end of a 500 step climb, and we joined an array of travellers to watch the sun go down. It’s worth getting yourself to the top early to soak it in and get a spot – an absolute must do if you’re in town for the views of the valley below.
After a fairly terrifying cycle back in the dark (where we made friends with enough flying creatures to put us off cycling again), we tracked down some excellent food and got an early night.
Our riverside view from Coco House was my favourite breakfast spot of the whole trip. We enjoyed it through the morning before getting zipped over to a bus stop to head on North. Ninh Binh is absolutely gorgeous, and another place we’d have been happy staying for a few more days if we had the chance. It’s definitely angled towards tourists with a little more money there, but who can blame anyone when the views are so brilliant?
Our coach headed up the coast towards Hai Phong ferry terminal for a crossing out to Cat Ba Island – our base of operations for the next few days.
Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba Island is a place that you’ll love love or hate. It’s a great place to get to Ha Long Bay from if you don’t fancy coming from Hanoi, but the main town is fairly built up and noisy – and bustling with a party atmosphere.
Here we had our cheapest hotel of the entire trip, saying at Catba Island Hotel, which is centrally located and easy to find, and perfect for a stay on the island if you’re on a budget.
We’d arrived just as it got dark, and had just about enough to time to check in before we had to get booking our trip to Ha Long Bay for the following morning. There’s no real need to book trips before you get to Cat Ba Island – pretty much everywhere offers tours of varying lengths, prices and locations. We’d researched ahead of time, and decided to go with Cat Ba Ventures (who were a two minute walk from our hotel) for a combined trip to Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay.
Once that was out of the way, we went to track down some food along the seafront, and opted for Buddha Belly – which served up some fantastic vegan food (It’s a short walk along the seafront from the centre). Our first evening in Cat Ba escalated fairly quickly at The Good Bar, and we managed to take full advantage of the happy hour(s).
Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay
Our day trip left pretty early in the morning the next day, and rather than break the day out down into tiny chunks, here’s some snaps:
La Han Bay and Ha Long Bay are all part of the same archipelago, the former being less known but just as spectacular. Our day involved a bit of kayaking, a bit of swimming, plenty of relaxing and lots of staring in awe at the scenery. We also visited a local fishing place that doubled as a homestay for those eager to stay in the bay itself, and there’s definitely a part of me that would have loved to have woken up on the water (and another part that’s terrified).
We’d heard some horror stories about bad weather and busy crowds, but they didn’t ever really appear – and for the most part we barely saw any litter (and people did pick out the odd bit they saw). The worst littering honestly seems to be done by locals living in the bay around their houses, which we couldn’t really get our heads around, but there you go.
I’m not sure if it was our choice of route or just that starting from Cat Ba keeps you out of the busiest parts, but it was a real dream day out and one I’d recommend to anyone.
There’s always something that makes you feel a little bit like you’re part of the problem if you’re heading to such a fragile, beautiful place, but it really is something out of another world and I’m so glad I got to see it. The pictures don’t even start to do the day justice and I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.
After our day out, we headed to the lovely Mona Restaurant (also a homestay location), that has a brilliant rooftop dining area where there’s usually some live acoustic music to go with the great vegetarian options on offers.
Cat Ba National Park and the Hospital Cave
Cat Ba is a great place to go and see Ha Long Bay, but there’s plenty of other things to do there as well – the island itself is massive. We decided to spend an extra day on the island to go and see the National Park.
We hired a motorbike out for the day through, and headed towards the centre, eventually reaching the entrance to the National Park in about 45 minutes from our hotel.
Near the entrance you’ll find a few cafes that will let you park up for free (if you grab a beer or a coffee, naturally), and it’s super cheap to get into the National Park itself.
Inside the park, there’s a few different trekking routes – we decided to get all the way to the main peak (on the tourist path), which is a small building a few uphill kilometres in.
It’s not a massively difficult walk, but make sure you take plenty of water and are prepared for some pretty steep steps along the way. The path is easy to follow, and you’ll be at the top seeing the marvellous view in no time. The same structures out on the bay dominate the skyline here, and it’s totally worth the effort for the view.
And then, we made our way back towards Cat Ba town for something rather different.
The Hospital Cave on Cat Ba is sort-of well known oddity on the main road through the Island. The cave was used as a hospital (5 points if you guessed that) during the recent Vietnamese war, and is now used as a museum, complete with eerie mannequins of patients, soldiers and nurses throughout.
It was very quiet when we visited and it’s definitely more of a curiosity than something amazing that you have to see, but if you’ve got the time it’s worth popping your head in for an hour or so. It’s just as weird as it looks and I have no idea who came up with the idea, but fair play.
Our trip back on the bike took a bit of interesting turn when our gamble on not filling up the motorbike at all left us at the mercy of a Russian tourist, who scooted one of us down to a petrol “station” to get a plastic bottle of fuel after he spotted us pushing the bike home. I’m sure there’s plenty of reasons not to trust random people and get on their bike this far from home, but it seemed like a good idea at the time so…
The last bit of the afternoon on Cat Ba was spent checking out the beaches near the town (one of which is private to a hotel chain, two of the others were being renovated), finding a few spots to watch the boats go by and have a cocktail before the sun went down.
Our last night on Cat Ba ended up being a bit of a repeat of the two before, with another trip to Mona for more food, and back to The Good Bar for our last evening of shenanigans – bumping into our Russian friend and repaying his kindness with a drink or two.
The next day, we left Cat Ba having had an amazing few days in a gloriously inexpensive hotel, enjoying great food, world-class scenery and enough partying to feel like we were in the middle of something.
Cat Ba (and Ha Long Bay) exist and thrive on the edge of being too popular for their own good, and I really do hope Vietnam appreciates fully that they’ll have to work hard to keep it beautiful. Tourists visiting have a responsibility too, but I don’t think I really believe much of the “it’s already ruined” talk that happens about the area to be honest. I absolutely loved it.
A brief trip to Hai Phong
A very last minute decision was made to stay overnight in Hai Phon on the way to Hanoi – as a bonus to ourselves. Despite being relatively unknown, Hai Phong is the gateway to Ha Long Bay, and Vietnam’s third largest city.
There’s not much in the way of blockbuster sights in Hai Phong at all, but plenty of shops, hustle and bustle can found, and we enjoyed having a look around the city in the late afternoon once we’d hopped off the ferry and got a taxi to our accommodation. Hoang Tuyet Guesthouse is a little out of the city centre but super clean and comfy and run by a lovely family – stay there if you’re in Hai Phong!
Our evening consisted of tracking down some awesome Indian food at ‘Indian Kitchen’, and a fairly relaxed couple of beers at a quiet cafe to watch Vietnam play in the Suzuki cup.
The next day, we pretty much only had time to do one thing before we headed up to Hanoi, so we took a trip down to the absolutely stunning Du Hang Pagoda, which is well worth a visit.
Hai Phong isn’t somewhere that I think I’d call essential to visit in Vietnam, and we weren’t really sure what else we would have done there given more time than an evening and a morning, but as a stopover point it’s really easy, and it’s a very convenient place to stay. It may as well be that because we knew nothing about the place we missed out on a few gems as well, so I definitely wouldn’t recommend against going.
Our transport to Hanoi from Hai Poing was by coach. It felt super odd to be on the last bit of internal transport through Vietnam, but Hanoi is somewhere I’ve wanted to go for years and year, so I wasn’t about to start getting sad yet.
One thing we didn’t account for (or think about) was where the coach would drop us in Hanoi. The coach station is a taxi ride away from the city centre, and we cursed picking that route in the end because of the free for all / chancers near the exit trying to get you to pay over the odds for taxis. Fortunately we found someone who wasn’t trying his luck, who got us into the city in no time.
We had split our accommodation for Hanoi over a few nights as our first night was also a fairly late notice booking, so we got ourselves to Hanoi Sweet Family Homestay to drop our stuff off before heading straight out into the city.
I’d been banging on about Bahn Mi for a few days, so I couldn’t believe my luck when we strolled right past Bahn Mi 25. It’s a bit of a magnet for visitors in Hanoi – I’d heard great things about the Tofu Bahn Mi and was not even slightly disappointed. It’s cheap, very tasty and easy to find. What’s not to like? (We went back).
We just about had time to pop into Đồng Xuân Market before dark, snagging a bargain on a souvenir wooden element as someone was packing down, and picked up some chestnuts as a snack from a stall outside. Our first night in Hanoi was mostly about getting a feel for the place, so we went to see the lake in the middle of the city, resolving to go and look at the temple before we left.
Our next stop was along Pub Street, where you’re corralled from all directions into the bars, which is far more stressful than we anticipated. Still, there’s plenty of great spots along the street, and you can find the odd free keg, buy one get free deals and plenty of other sweeteners in the area. You’ll still end up spending a fair bit more than if you tracked down a local bar though, so make sure you check out the prices as they vary wildly.
We ended our night in deep conversation with a Vietnamese businessman who was on a work trip from Ho Chi Minh, going into great depths about his favourite English footballers and our favourite bits of Vietnam.
For our last two nights in Vietnam, we were staying at Hanoi Chic Boutique Hotel. It was one of the first places we’d booked for the trip, and is a great little apartment above a restaurant near the opera. It’s a bit of a walk from there to the city centre, but worth it for the peaceful surroundings and walk past the Hoan Kiem Lake on the way in.
Our second day in Hanoi was taken a relaxed pace – we visited Ngoc Son Temple briefly to get some photos on the bridge and see what was open on the inside (it’s currently being restored), and checked out a couple of other small pagodas before heading in to the Water Puppet theatre.
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is one of Vietnam’s oldest, and will set you back about £5 for a medium priced ticket. It’s definitely worth getting the middle tier seats for the show, as you might struggle to see further back.
It’s a great break from the city, and a look at a uniquely Vietnamese art form. You’ll probably know if you’ll like it before you go, but my mum totally appreciated the dragon souvenir from the gift shop (that’s pretty reasonable) – the performances from the musicians and puppeteers are really quite brilliant, but make sure you book in advance.
For dinner, we make our way over to Minh Chay, which is easy to spot by the giant “Vegan Restaurant” sign over the door. It’s the most expensive food we had on the trip by a fair margin, but it’s still not even touching an average UK chain food dinner and is so good you won’t even care.
We didn’t fancy another late one on our penultimate night in Vietnam, so we settled for a quick trip to King Pirates Pub before heading back to our hotel.
The Last Day
Our last day in Vietnam had arrived and, although we were sad, there was still plenty to do. Our first stop of the day was at “Always”, Hanoi’s premiere Harry Potter themed cafe.
It’s about as kitsch as you’d expect, but there’s some great snacks and drinks on offers and it’s really easy to find, so it was totally worth popping in.
We took a stroll around Hanoi for the rest of the afternoon, heading in the direction of Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.
The mausoleum is set in a huge plaza, and is home to some expansive gardens. We arrived there a little late to see the museum (and I doubt we’d have appreciate it in a rush), but if you’re doing North to South Vietnam rather than South to North, it’s probably the very first place you should visit. Ho Chi Minh’s legacy looms large across Vietnam, but nowhere larger than here – it’s a sombre location but an essential place to see.
The One Pillar Pagoda is also in the area, which is an active religious site, and one that has fairly strict rules about behaviour and dress (if you don’t want to be rude).
Once we’d finished our sightseeing for the day (and the trip), we wandered about for a bit, preparing for a last night in Vietnam at Hanoi Rock City – where I was playing a show to cap the holiday off supporting Happy Heartbreak.
It was an amazing opportunity to play a gig in Vietnam, and we stayed a little later than planned as extra bands joined the bill due to the closure of Quest Festival, which was due to take place over the weekend near Hanoi. Hanoi Rock City is an amazing venue, and if you’re in town you should check out what they’ve got on as it’s one of Vietnam’s best venues.
And that was it. We got our last grab taxi of the holiday over to the airport and started our very long trip home.
Vietnam was everything we wanted it to be and so much more and, even if you think you know what it’s like, you don’t. Between the amazing people, natural beauty and unique character, Vietnam is one of the world’s greatest places. It teeters on losing it’s character to westernisation, but that fragility is just as much of a part of what makes it special. We were gutted to be leaving and three weeks was plenty of time to have a place to love for life.
If you need any more info on the places we went, please feel free to send me a message by email.