Two weeks exploring Northern Vietnam

Vietnam has been somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for a long time and I had always heard nothing but great things. So when I finally had the opportunity I wanted to make the most of it. With a full time job it’s hard to find enough time for long-haul trips.

Two weeks to see all of Vietnam wouldn’t be long enough to do it justice. We made the decision to only visit the north of the country, which just means I’ll have to go back at some point to see the south! So, here was our 2 week itinerary:

  • Da Nang
  • Hoi An
  • Phong Nha
  • Hanoi
  • Cat Ba Island

We travelled during June, which was slightly out of season. Weather-wise, the north was very hot and humid but we were told later in the year the weather is much more manageable.

Da Nang was more of a stop-over for us. We had met in Bangkok (I did the trip with my friend who was visiting from Aus) so needed a quick way to get into Vietnam. Da Nang is roughly in the middle of the country so this seemed like a good starting point. To be honest, there isn’t much to see here so I wouldn’t recommend as a destination. We did visit the Golden Bridge in Ba Na Hills and it was extremely busy and touristy. We spoke to a girl in the hostel who went after 5pm and said it was much quieter, so if you want to see it go later to avoid crowds.

Golden Bridge, Da Nang
Ba Na Hills; longest cable car in the world

Next stop on our list was Hoi An, slightly south of Da Nang. I had heard really great things about Hoi An so this was one of the stops I was most looking forward to. It’s really easy to reach from Da Nang and takes about 45 minutes via bus, costing 20,000 dong each plus extra for bags.

I wasn’t disappointed, Hoi An was gorgeous. Beautiful lanterns and colours everywhere. It’s small and didn’t feel crowded, just an all round good vibe.

If you’re in Hoi An I’d recommend a visit to Morning Glory restaurant, it was the best meal of the whole trip! It’s not cheap and prices were quite similar to back home, but worth it. You can also arrange a cooking class at the restaurant but I would much rather eat than cook. Also try ‘white rose’ while you’re there – like prawn dumplings but much lighter.

We loved Hoi An so ended up staying for a few days. While you’re there you can visit Bay Mau coconut forest and try out one of the coconut boats (bowl shaped boats). It’s really beautiful but quite touristy, there are lots of other boats putting on shows or ‘performances’ spinning the boats etc. Fun to see but they expect a tip after each performance, which adds up after the 5th one!

The coconut forest won’t take a full day so we rented bikes and cycled from Hoi An to An Hang beach. It’s about a 5km ride in the heat so be prepared to sweat! You do however get to cycle through the rice fields which is an experience in itself. An Hang beach is a great escape from the town so I’d recommend trying to squeeze it in, if you can.

Of course, no trip to Hoi An would be complete without seeing the lanterns at night. The whole town is covered in beautiful colours and lanterns. There’s also a night market where you can buy one to take home – we were warned by our hotel host that prices can start at $10 and come down to as low as $1 so you’re encouraged to haggle.

Hoi An night market

Our next stop was Phong Nha to visit the National Park. We were blown away and this was by far our favourite place on the trip. It was a 7 hour bus ride from Hoi An (we skipped Hue due to time restraints and also reviews from other travellers). Phong Nha National Park is stunning, with lush green forest, lagoons and cave systems it really is a must see.

Song Con River that runs through Phong Nha

We stayed on an organic farm run by a company called Jungle boss, who also run tours into the National Park and caves. Firstly, the homestay was fantastic and really peaceful. The staff were so helpful and friendly. We did the Elephant Cave and Ma Da Valley tour with them, it is possible to explore some of the caves on your own but we opted for a tour out of convenience. The tour included an 11km trek, exploring Elephant Cave, swimming in Ma Da Valley lagoon and ending with a pitch black swim into a water cave. It was pricey (1.65m dong) but we loved every minute of it and genuinely would not have been able to do it on our own. I can’t recommend Jungle Boss highly enough 🙂

Ma Da Valley

From here we took the overnight bus to Hanoi which cost around 250k Dong each. Night buses in Vietnam are pretty good in the sense that all the seats are beds so you can sleep but the driving is pretty terrifying. So maybe just don’t look out the window and wear your seatbelt…

We stayed one night in Hanoi before heading on our Ha Long Bay cruise. To be honest, at first I didn’t like Hanoi as we got ripped off by a taxi as soon as we arrived. However, my final day there before flying to Bangkok I met some really friendly locals who completely changed my opinion – so give it a chance! We stayed at Little Charm Hostel, which was clean and also offer free beer every day between 5.30pm and 6pm! If you’re in Hanoi then you have to find the train street, a tiny street with bars, shops etc. and a railway, which is still in use, running right down the middle of it!

For our trip around Ha Long Bay we used Blue Dragon Tours as they had been recommended by a friend. There is however lots of cruise options so shop around for a deal, we managed to get a free 60 minute massage with ours.

No trip to Vietnam would be complete without visiting Ha Long Bay to see thousands of floating islands. Our cruise included lots of activities like kayaking around some of the islands and sunset yoga, making sure we got the most from the couple of days. Sunset was truly beautiful and calming.

Our final stop after Ha Long was Cat Ba Island, the largest island. We decided to stay here over Ha Long Bay as we thought it might be more natural and less touristy. Unfortunately we were wrong and to be honest it was quite disappointing. Cat Ba is very touristy and we couldn’t believe the amount of rubbish floating in the sea (we saw the floating restaurants just throw rubbish from the tables into the water). This really spoilt the island for us. The main beach is currently a construction site for a new hotel, which again was full of rubbish. Really sad to see and I hope that over the next couple of years this changes as it could be a stunning destination.

So a bit of a bummer for the end of the trip but it didn’t take away from an incredible 2 weeks. Vietnam is a beautiful country and the people really do make your experience – so friendly and warm. I think after visiting, Vietnam may be my favourite destination to date, and I’ve only seen part of it!

I hope this guide has been useful to anyone reading who may be considering Vietnam. All I’ll say is, I will definitely be going back! x

Phong Nha

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