We traveled to Hanoi during the holy week. Actually, we left the weekend before holy week. Since we are coming from Manila, we were able to book tickets via Cebu Pacific for a very low rate of around P4k+ (approx. US$80) per head but the flight leaves around 10pm and reaches Hanoi past midnight.
Other things to note:
- Photos here are taken using Sony RX100M4 and Fuji XT1 with 18mm F2 lens and Fuji 18-135 F3.5
- We tried one bag travel, succeeded on our way to Hanoi but failed on our way back because we bought a lot of those factory defect North Face and Osprey bags plus of course lots of coffee and north face packable rain parkas.
- Bags we used:
- Uniqlo 3 way bag
- 3 way packable duffle we bought from Paris which we used on our way back [similar product here]
- Thule Crossover duffle – really love this bag because its so roomy and sleek
- Peak Design Everyday Backpack and a lot of other stuff from the Peak Design Globe Trotter Package
- That super small Sea to Summit packable backpack
- We tried one bag travel but went home with 2 bags each lol. To know what we packed, You may view our Hanoi packing video right here:
Let’s move on to the guide.
- The Budget
- References for the Itinerary
- 5 day Itinerary
- Problems Encountered
- Things we learned from the Trip
The Budget (all prices are for 2 pax)
- Airfare for 2 + travel tax from Manila to Hanoi (round-trip) via Cebu pacific air : approx. P12,000 ($250)
- Lodging Hanoi – $60 (3 nights) + we booked a hostel room to store our bag in when we arrived from Hanoi and just waiting for our flight back to Manila: $18 – I highly suggest using Airbnb instead of hotels or hostels. You get a bigger space and access to home essentials like cooking range, ref, washer, etc. Sign up on Airbnb and get $20 discount here.
- Food – food is very cheap in Hanoi, you can live for $12 for 2 in a day. – brunch, afternoon snack and light dinner
- Half Day Street Food Tour – $60
- Halong Bay Overnight Cruise including shuttle to the Halong Bay port – $220
- Ninh Binh Day Trip- $80 including tour guide and round trip transpo costs to/from Ninh Binh and Hanoi
Approx. Total Spend w/o Shopping: $750
Main Reference is YouTube and Research on Google
- Erwan Heusaff’s Overnight Hanoi
- JP Goes Global – we discovered about Ninh Binh from his videos
- Several street food blog posts
Other references you may want to check-out:
Our Original 5 Day Itinerary Hanoi Travel Plans
We had an original itinerary planned but changed them due to certain circumstances. One being the very hot weather that we didn’t’ expect because the forecast was just around 21-26C. But what the heck, this is global warming. Our original itinerary includes Hanoi essentials that we’ve researched. I think our original itinerary is better. You can download it here.
In general you have 3 major activities to do in Hanoi –
1) Eat – their food tastes great and healthy too
2) Sight seeing – outside Hanoi, there are lots of those rock formations that are a must-see in Vietnam.
3) Shopping – very cheap outdoor gears, you can even buy silk sleeping bags on the streets. Tina’s favorite is I’m ME shop where she got lots of dresses and a nice jacket that has a similar style to the one she bought in Paris ($120 vs $25)
Day 1 & 2 – Around Hanoi
Day 1 – Old Quarter, St. Joseph Cathedral, Cong Ca Phe, Thang Long Citadel, Ba Dinh Square, One Pillar Pagoda, Hoan Kiem Lake, Sunday Night Market
We arrived Saturday midnight so that’s technically Sunday already. The first thing we did upon waking up Sunday morning is to have 8:30 am breakfast at this Bun Cha place that is famous with the locals so the quest for the best Viet food began. Scooters are popular when you want to get around Hanoi fast, but to really observe the kind of life Hanoians live, it’s best to experience it by foot. The small local eatery is only about 15-20 minute walk from where we stayed in the Old Quarter. The eatery is nothing fancy. It has a very local vibe – “carenderia” type (that’s what we call it in the Philippines.) The hefty serving, freshness of the meal and the richness of flavor is more than enough to keep you full till your next meal.
After brunch, we just walked around Old Quarter. You can hear the endless honking of scooters from both sides of the narrow streets. The experience of crossing the streets was both terrifying and exciting. Inviting cafes and shops full of locals and tourists alike drinking a cup or 2 of famous Vietnamese coffee or tea, and local beer. Street peddlers busy selling their goods on their bikes others by foot and a lot more. Old Quarter is quite small and probably can be explored for just a day but this area is something that every first timer in Hanoi shouldn’t miss. The sound and smell of motorbike exhaust, the aroma of fresh brewed coffee, the incense, the smell of fish sauce?, the smell of something unrecognizable but intriguing – it captures you and is pulling you to always comeback.
While looking for Han Gai (Silk Road), we chanced upon an old coffee shop and had our morning coffee there. It was a short break after wandering past street stalls and old residential lanes. Indeed local life has changed so little since Hanoi was founded a thousand years ago.
While in Han Gai, we found a Made In Vietnam factory outlet that sells knock-off Northface products. Their products, interestingly, look well-made. I saw the Northface Flyweight packable backpack, which I’ve been wanting to buy for the longest time but it’s just too pricey for the style of the bag. The guy was selling this bag for 300,000 VND (approx. $12), I was able to ask him for discount and got it for 200,000 VND (approx. $8), not bad for a nice packable backpack.
We also booked our train ticket to Ninh Binh and Bus ticket back to Hanoi through a travel agency that we saw here. The lady at the agency was really helpful and accommodating, we’re even now friends in Facebook. She gave helpful insights in how to go around Ninh Binh and also in Hanoi.
Next stop is St. Joseph Cathedral – nothing to see here actually, but there’s a nice café beside it called Cong Ca Phe and an array of other small cafes in the area. Adjacent to these cafes are some modern restaurants opposite to what you would usually find in the Old Quarter. We took some photos here and ordered iced lemon tea to refresh ourselves with the scorching heat. Not the usual type of “spring” weather as what the locals have mentioned.
From St. Joseph Cathedral, we booked an Uber car to the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. While exploring the vast place, there were a lot of teenagers celebrating their graduation, a lot of pictorial happening there. Just like any other young adult, their faces were beaming with pride and joy as they huddle with friends and classmates. The ladies were dressed in a white traditional Vietnamese dress. The gentlemen were in black and white attire dancing to the beat of a folkloric type of disco music.
Overall, the place is nice with a big and quiet garden at the back where you can rest or perhaps take snapshots.
It was really humid and warm so we needed a place to rest. While walking, we chanced upon Highlands Coffee and ordered Banh Mi (Vietnamese Sandwich) and soda (if only there’s an Egg Coffee in the menu). The temperature around that time is probably at 37C but the heat index is around 41C.
Next stop is Ba Dinh Square and One Pillar Pagoda – nothing much to see here actually. From One Pillar Pagoda, we took a taxi back home but felt like the taxi driver’s scamming us because his meter changed so fast. The fare went up to 90,000 VND within 5 minutes so we just decided to go down and walk. Luckily, Google maps took us along the market on our walk home. Lots of photo opportunities here. The market scene is crazy, noisy, but still interesting.
Upon reaching home, we rested for about an hour and head off to Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword) right in the heart of Hanoi. The lake has a strong influence in the culture, well in the lives of the Hanoians. It’s best to experience the fullness of Hoan Kiem over the weekend where nearby traffic is banned from 7PM till midnight. The steady and calm vibe on weekdays is taken over by a funfair vibe. You’ll witness the people both young and old doing some routine exercises. Others playing badminton and some holding a “sipa” (foot volley) tournament of sort. The other side of the lake is transformed into a public square – lots of food, jewelry, bag, apparel stalls scattered almost everywhere. The younger ones, on the other hand are playing all sorts of traditional game. Their versions of jackstones, pick-up sticks, patintero, and guess what – tinikling – were well participated by foreign tourists! Talk about how to productively make use of your weekends while preserving culture in the digital age.
We bought our Water Puppet Ticket for the next day. Water Puppet show another must-do and must-see when in Hanoi.
Day 2 – Street Food Tour, Temple of Literature, Ca Phe Pho Co and Water Puppet Theatre
A friend suggested that we try Street Food Tour because it was worth it. He recommended Kevin. He is a chef and knows a lot about Vietnamese food and you can ask him the ingredients too. You can checkout Kevin’s Hanoi street food tour site here. He normally charges $100 for a private tour for 2 but tell him that a friend referred him and said its just $60 for 2 😉 His rate already includes the cost of the food. Since we don’t want to get him out of business, we won’t list down the places we went to but feel free to feast on the photos:
Watch our video:
Sleepy and tired from taking in too much food, we decided to take a short break and go back to our room. We rested for about an hour and then left to pickup our bus and train tickets for the Ninh Binh Trip. We then headed to the Temple of Literature.
Before heading to the water puppet show, we decided to have another glass of egg coffee so we headed to Ca Phe Pho Co – a very instagrammable place, but hard to find. A small alley in between 2 small shops will lead you to this gem. We also had a chance to stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake again.
Day 1 and 2 in Video:
Day 3 – Ninh Binh Day Trip from Hanoi
We decided to squeeze in 1 or 2 more places to go before Halong Bay. A little bit less touristy, more off the beaten path and headed off to Ninh Binh for a day. It’s a province 2 hours away from Hanoi by train, emerging as one of the most exciting destinations of Northern Vietnam. We did a quick research on how to get around the area. Tips given by the lady where we purchased our train tickets were also helpful. We boarded the train by 6 AM still sleepy yet the view of the village life outside the train window is worth seeing. There was a few train stops to some towns before Ninh Binh thus arriving 8:30 AM.
We rented 2 motorbikes with a local driver to take us around the area so that we could enjoy the scenic ride better. The best way and often the only way to enjoy the countryside is to take a scooter. The communication with our local drivers was hard at first because they barely speak English but it was never a problem. First things first, breakfast in a local eatery near the train station – Banh Mi and a cup of strong Vietnamese Coffee to power up our day (haha). Then our driver suggested we go to Hoa Lu Temple, hike our way up and have a better view of the popular Tam Coc, its winding rivers and karst all around town. Why? Because the town is packed with lots of tourists and it would take long before we could take a boat ride to explore the area. So, off we went to Hoa Lu (Ma Yen). Passed in between rice paddies and valleys with mountains everywhere. It’s like Halong Bay but with more land. Never knew that we could do our new found passion in hiking here J 500+ steep steps going up and ta da – Tam Coc in all its glory!
It was almost 12 noon when we scoot for around 30 – 45 minutes from Ma Yen to a small town called – Trang An. We arrived at the boat dock where a large sanctuary was also stationed. This area is a popular spot for locals, not much of tourists here so the experience made it more authentic. We hopped on a tiny boat paddled by a lady Vietnamese. The ride was lovely. It’s a loop that took about two-three hours. The highlight includes cruising underground mountains to about four to eight different caves, pit stops at sacred temples in the hidden areas of the mountains (hiking opportunity here, again). Some caves were longer, so it took us for about 3-4 minutes to reach the other end. Good thing most caves were lit to help rowers better navigate the area. We never knew till our helpful local guide/ motorbike driver told us that many of the action scenes in the latest film Kong: Skull Island were shot in this area J
We finished off the whole day trip by around 3:00 and were dropped off to the main town to catch the 4PM bus back to Hanoi. The bus arrived early while we were still having our late lunch and we almost got left by it.
Day 4 – Overnight Ha Long Bay Cruise
The classic junk boat cruise was one unforgettable experience. As Anthony Bourdain in his famous lines said, “All the modern conveniences, all the charms of the past. It fits perfectly with my over-romantic delusions and in general it does not suck”.
For the record, you don’t just stay inside the boat the whole time. You’ll be given time to hop on small islands to take a swim on the bay and or hike then back to cruising again. A drink or two on the top deck, catch squids at night and eat it later and meet other travelers with equally interesting life stories like David – a Scottish national. He’s around 80+ years old now, widow and has been travelling alone for the past 8 years. His love for travel started when his wife died of cancer. He didn’t have children, so he spends most of his either traveling the world or staying at his home in Edinburgh in Scotland or in Spain.
Day 5 – Back to Hanoi from Ha Long, Shopping, Back to Manila
Waking up on our Junk Boat, we took an early breakfast served by the cruise. They planned a new stop to another island but we decided not to join so we had the boat to ourselves for a few hours.
After serving lunch at around 10:30am, we went back to the port and waited for the shuttle back to Hanoi. The shuttle arrived late because of an unusual traffic from Hanoi. We reached Hanoi at around 6:00pm. We’ve already planned doing our shopping during this time because we didn’t want to bring a lot of things on the cruise. We did a quick 2 hour shopping around Hang Gai area – bought some local crafts for the house, more north face bags, osprey bags, coffee, and dresses for Tina. After taking our dinner, we went back to the room we booked and rested for a while. Our flight leaves late – 1am so we weren’t really rushing. On our way back the hostel we book told us Uber drivers won’t take you to the airport but good thing is we didn’t listen. The Uber ride only cost us less than 200,000 VND as opposed to an airport transfer which costs around 500,000 VND up.
- Scam Taxi
- Too hot during the first 3 days, weather forecast a week prior was not that accurate.
- Almost got left by our bus to Halong Bay and bus from Ninh Binh back to Hanoi. There’s more opportunity for local bus operators and agencies to improve their service.
Things We Learned:
- Ha Noi means inside the river (Ha is river and Noi is inside )
- Ha Long means Bay of the Descending Dragon (Tina thinks the rock formations are the Dragon’s poops)
- If you want to go shopping, just explore the streets surrounding Han Gai / St. Joseph Cathedral
- If you have a late flight and afraid that there wont’ be money changer when you get to your destination, you can do it from your origin airport. We bought around 2,000,000 VND at NAIA before heading to Hanoi. Its to pay for the car that we reserved for pickup with our Airbnb Host (400,000 VND) and for breakfast (75,000 VND for 2).