Vietnam’s Beautiful North: Boats, Bikes & Beach Days

We’ve spent a month in Vietnam, making our way from Ho Chi Minh City in the south all the way up to Hanoi in the north. The south wasn’t amazing, but much of our time has been spent north of Hoi An and we’ve had the best time.

Boat Trips & Bicycles

After Phong Nha National Park we continued on to a less-visited destination: Ninh Binh. More specifically, Tam Coc, which is just outside the city. You don’t want to stay in Ninh Binh city itself as it’s just like any other city – busy, loud and smelly.

Tam Coc is sometimes called the inland version of Ha Long Bay. It’s a landscape dominated by limestone karsts jutting up into the sky with hidden waterways weaving round the bases, rice fields to all sides. It’s very beautiful and we would definitely recommend stopping off here for a few days if you have the time.

Ninh Binh, Vietnam

We rented bicycles from our guesthouse and set out to explore. Rebecca was in charge of our activities in Ninh Binh, so she took the lead, google maps in hand, and peddled off. Rebecca says she has ‘directionally dyslexia’ and insists it’s a legit condition… but what it really means is that even with google maps, we were wondering if we’d actually make it to our destination. We had a great time on the way regardless, peddling over the dirt pathways between the rice fields on ancient road bikes definitely not suited for off-roading activities.

With only minor backtracking we arrived at a place called Mua Caves, not to explore the cave but to climb the 500 steps to the top of the limestone karst and take it the incredible view from the top of Hang Mua pagoda.

Biking through Tam Coc’s rice fields

Luckily Rebecca had read some blogs beforehand and warned us of the overly aggressive parking attendants at the base of Hang Mua. You cycle up this little road and people keep trying to stop you, saying you can only go further on foot and must park your bicycles. You’re meant to completely ignore them and keep going until you get to the real parking area at the end of the road. One guy even had a whistle and kept blowing it and shouting at us to stop. We just continued on and ignored him.

The 500 steps take quite a while to climb, with plenty of stops on the way up to ‘take in the view’ (read: get our breath back). At the top we discovered that all three of us seem incapable of counting to 500… by the top Rebecca said she’d counted around 370 steps, Blakey said 480 and I was on 490, so clearly our brains are melting in the heat.

Hang Mua Peak, Vietnam

The view from the top is incredible and certainly worth the climb. You can see for miles. There was a huge tour group of western 20-30 year olds taking selfies and doing their best ‘natural poses’ which was entertaining to watch. They literally stayed up there long enough to get their pics then headed back down. I’m not sure a single one of them did more than glance at the view before their eyes were glued to their phone screens again. People watching is our favourite activity.

The next day Rebecca took us off on another cycling adventure to a waterway where we hopped in a little rowing boat and spent a few hours rowing through the hidden valleys and caves. It was so peaceful on our little boat, just the splash of oars and the sound of birds. It was really fun going through the caves, some of them were so low that we had to duck down to prevent cracking our heads on the rock ceiling and stalactites.

Rowing through the caves in Ninh Binh

We only had those two days in Ninh Binh before moving on, but we really enjoyed it. It’s a similar landscape in many ways to Phong Nha but had enough variety that we never felt like we were just seeing more of the same.

Booze, Beaches & More Boats

Ha Long Bay is a world heritage site off the north east coast of Vietnam and somewhere that is hugely popular with tourists as a must-see destination, known for it’s towering limestone karsts rising up out of the sea, creating a dramatic and beautiful landscape. Yeah so we didn’t go there. We’d heard from a lot of people that it was ridiculously expensive, hugely touristy and busy. Instead, we were advised to head to the neighbouring Lan Ha Bay and stay on an island called Cat Ba. You get the same views but with half the price and half the people. Perfect.

Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam

The big plan for Cat Ba was to spend two days on the beach as our tans had faded to non-existence (at least in Blakey’s case) while traveling through rainy Vietnam, then have one day for a boat trip through the bay.

Unfortunately one of our days on Cat Ba was a complete write-off due to the huge quantities of alcohol consumed on our first night on the island. We eventually went in search of a karaoke bar but instead found more booze and, much terrible dancing later, the night ended with two members of the group who shall remain nameless vomming into the sea. Ahh good times.

Rehydrating yourself from the ice bucket isn’t wise Rebecaa…

The result of this was a day spent hungover in our dorm room, lurking out of the sun like cave trolls. We eventually emerged from our beds to scoff down some food but that’s about it. Luckily for us, the weather stayed nice so we were able to head to the beach the next day instead.

On the way back from our beach day a local guy approached us and asked if we wanted to take a private boat trip the next day out in the bay. Buy a questionable trip from a random stranger on the street? Get into his boat? Well it’s not the first time we’d put our trust in random beach strangers and no doubt it won’t be the last.

Sunset from Cat Ba Island

Luckily for us, it all worked out. The boat appeared on time, there were actual life jackets onboard and a bench bolted to the deck for us to sit. What more do you need? We got a bargain – day trips round Ha Long Bay can cost you $100 each for a big group tour, whereas our little local boat cost us $50 total and was a private trip, had the added advantage of supporting a local instead of a big tour company. Granted, the captain didn’t speak any English and OK, the boat broke down on the way back, and sure, it was raining and we had to build a shelter out of life jackets to keep dry… but that’s all part of it!

Floating village off the shore of Cat Ba

The boat took us through the floating fishing village off the shores of Cat Ba Island, which was amazing to see. Whole families, dogs included, living on floating bamboo platforms, fishing nets out front and colourful wooden houses to the rear. It was something completely out of the norm, and took a lot to get your head round living that way. Did the kids go to school? If so, where? How did they get fresh water? Groceries? How often did they go the island, or the mainland? DO some people never set foot on firm soil, but stay always on their platform? These questions will forever remain unanswered as our captain spoke no English, except for the grocery question, as we stopped at a full on floating shop on the way back so he could get some duct tape to fix his boat.

Hilltribes & Hiking

Before we knew it our island adventure was over and we were back on the mainland heading for the north western mountain region of Sa Pa.

To get to Sa Pa we took a 6 hour sleeper bus from Hanoi, which wasn’t as horrendous as it sounds. We’d heard horror stories of westerners being put at the back of the bus near stinky toilets, money going missing from bags, people crawling in your ‘bed’ next to you and the cramped conditions of a seat meant for a someone 5 foot tall. Not to mention the torture of rocking up to a city at 4am after a terrible night’s sleep and having to wait until the afternoon to check in to your room. Urgh.

Trying to get comfy on the sleeper bus to Sa Pa

We had avoided them throughout our trip so far, deciding that we’d rather take any other method of transport than subject ourselves to those horrors. Sa Pa was a full six hours from Hanoi though so the sleeper buses were the best (cheapest) option. We managed to avoid the 4am problem by getting a 7am bus from Hanoi, meaning we’d arrive at Sa Pa in the early afternoon, but still get the comfort of the sleeper seats instead of usual bus seats. There were no toilets on our bus so no stinky smells. We were all on top bunks and had a nice little time to be honest, except for poor Blakey who is definitely too tall to fit comfortably into the seat.

Sa Pa is another must-see destination in Vietnam and I would really recommend spending some time there. People go for the trekking – usually they trek through the terraced hillsides to their evening homestay in a local hilltribe village, then continue hiking on the next day. We did a one day trek with a hilltribe and it was great, ambling slowly through the terraces, passing the odd water buffalo and trying to overtake super slow groups in front of us.

Hiking through Sa Pa’s hillsides

Rebecca made friends with one of the old hilltribe ladies who were walking with us. She spoke really good English and loved chatting about her family and asking Rebecca lots of questions about her own. We soon found out the reason for so many ladies ‘helping’ us on our hike… when we stopped for lunch in their village, they all flocked around us with embroidered bags, scarves, silver bracelets and earrings… insisting we buy something from them, saying “I helped you, now you help me”. Talk about a guilt trip.

Rebecca with her new friend from one of Sa Pa’s hilltribe villages

Rebecca caved and bought a bag and a bracelet from her lady. Blakey bought some bracelets for his nieces, which was nice. I just gave the one next to me a small tip, I didn’t fancy a new scarf.

On Top of The World

The highlight of our Sa Pa trip, and to be honest one of the most incredible views of our whole year away, was up the top of the Fansipan Cable Car. The cable car takes you across the Muong Hoa Valley and up to the summit of Fansipan Mountain, over 3000 meters above sea level.

We were in the cable car enjoying the beautiful views of the valley below us when suddenly we were surrounded by solid grey on all sides. Occasionally the ghostly shape of another cable car would emerge from the clouds on it’s way past us, only to be swallowed up again seconds later. It was eerie to be travelling up a mountain blind, the air slowly getting colder and the grey fog outside unrelenting and opaque.

Cable Car ride to the top of Fansipan Mountain

I was looking down at the solid grey below us when I heard someone gasp behind me and the cable car filled with sunshine again. We had broken through to solid blue sky above us, solid white clouds below. Then it was off the cable car and time to hike up hundreds of steps to get to the summit.

You can get the funicular train to the peak to save you walking, but I would not recommend it unless for health reasons you can’t actually do the climb. Walking up was the best bit! The air was thin, we were out of breath really fast, and bundled up against the cold. However, the climb soon warmed us and we were unwinding scarves, taking off hats and enjoying the sunshine again.

Summit of Fansipan Mountain

I can’t really put it into words how stunning it was to be walking along a beautiful pathway towards a Buddhist temple high up in the mountains, no ground below us but a carpet of clouds. I hope the pictures can do it some justice.

Fansipan is the highest peak in Indochina, meaning we felt like we were standing on top of the world. For the longest time we could see no other peaks breaking the cloud carpet, it felt so surreal, like we were in some secret place in the heavens, hidden from the world.

Temple at the top of the world

The summit itself was pretty busy with tourists and the odd monk or two, so we made our way to a distant pagoda and somehow had it all to ourselves. We climbed onto the little stone wall outside the pagoda, cut off from everyone’s view, and sat there with the smell of incense around us and no sound at all except the wind, nothing in front of us except the mountain and the clouds below.

Our secret pagoda looking out over the mountains

We sat there in silence for the longest time, enjoying the feeling of the sun on our skin and the rare peace and quiet. I actually felt myself getting quite emotional, it was just so incredible, and the best thing was that it was unexpected – we hadn’t gone up to the summit with any expectations at all and zero research so to be confronted with something so beautiful was magical.

Vietnam – do we love it?

We would come back to the north of the country again for sure – I’d love to spend some more time trekking around Sa Pa and exploring the coastline to the east. None of us particularly enjoyed our time in the south, but all in all I’d say that while Vietnam hasn’t lived up to our expectations, we’ve still had a great time and the north is something really special.

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