Tips for visiting Hanoi & Halong Bay

Ever thought of visiting Vietnam? It’s a beautiful place that comes alive with activity. Locals on the move, buzzing around on scooters like total experts, bustling marketplaces selling everything you can imagine and food that is too good to be true. Vietnam is not only a great place to visit, it’s also very affordable, which is great for travellers on a budget.

If you’re looking for somewhere affordable to visit or just need some destination inspiration, here’s some information on where to stay, eat and play in Hanoi and guidance on taking a Halong Bay Cruise while you’re there.

Hanoi

Part of me had expected Vietnam to be similar to Bali, with local shop owners loudly vying for the attention of visitors. Turns out, I was wrong! For a short while, I thought I’d become a ghost, a kind of (very white) ghost that walks among the people. There was no hassling, touching, yelling or approaches from anyone and if you’ve ever been to Bali or Thailand you’ll appreciate this more than most. I asked a Hanoi local if the Vietnamese like tourists and she explained they did, they are just such a peaceful people that they don’t want to be rude and interrupt someone on their holiday. That gives you immediate insight into how lovely the locals are.

Hanoi is a buzzing city. If you think you’ve been in heavy or crazy traffic, you’re wrong, you’re not even in the same postal code as the mad-house that is Hanoi traffic. When you first arrive and venture out of your hotel, you may wish to pack some spare undies because your first street-crossing experience is going to rattle your cage. The key is confidence, just start walking in a calm, set pace and don’t stop. You’ll be fine.

To be honest, I didn’t find many sights that captured me, I found Hanoi was more about a vibe to immerse yourself in. We walked through the streets, dodged scooters and motorbikes and sought refuge behind friendly locals and their shops. The best way to soak it in is to find a cafe, restaurant or bar up high, settle in and watch the madness on the streets from a distance.

Hanoi Night Tips for visiting Hanoi and Halong Bay Vietnam Travel Blog

Hanoi at night

My stomach took charge of the situation and refused to let me anywhere near street food, but the local Vietnamese food served in restaurants was exceptional and so affordable. We ate like Kings ordering entrees, mains, desserts and drinks galore and barely ever went above $20us for a meal for two people. I had no issues with tummy trouble from the food and found everyone to be really accommodating of my vegetarianism, even offering to make local delights for me without meat so I could try them.

Choosing a restaurant can be a bit hit and miss, I think some of them may have studied one too many pirated copies of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and tried too hard to create a big western menu and a restaurant with crazy décor. The more simple the restaurant and the more traditional the menu, the better the food was. Don’t be afraid to get in there and try some new food you’ve never heard of before, I took a few risks and the paid off (for the most part).

I heard a few stories of crazy Vietnamese scooter pirates zipping around and cutting the backpacks and cameras off unsuspecting tourists. This actually happened to a friend of mine! But, I never saw any of this and it definitely didn’t happen to Matt and I. The whole city felt very safe except for one local who showed up in our room at the day spa and tried to scam us into coming to her house, presumably to harvest our organs or turn Matt into her gimp.

I enjoyed visiting Hanoi and experiencing a cramped, dense little city like no other I’ve been to. I was glad to move on after two days though as I felt like I’d seen everything I wanted to see and was starting to really choke a bit on the thick pollution from all the scooters and motorbikes. I’d recommend no more than 2 days in Hanoi, just to experience it, then head East to soak up the beautiful coastline.

Stay

Hanoi Elegance Ruby – a simple but classy little hotel, exceptional value for money and provides the best customer service I have received.

Eat

Gourmet Corner – perched on top of the Hanoi Elegance Diamond with beautiful views of Hanoi, delicious food and excellent service.

Quan An Ngon – an absolute hive of activity, this busy little place serves up more food than you can imagine and it is all tasty, cheap and traditional.

Halong Bay

Booking a Halong Bay cruise is ridiculously stressful, I heard and read so many horror stories especially to do with theft and rats. I assume those incidents are separate and the local rats aren’t sharpening toothpicks into shivs, Shawshank style. So, I finally booked a cruise based on a recommendation from a close friend, The Paloma Cruise.

The drive out to Halong Bay from Hanoi isn’t fun, the roads are terrible, the traffic is crazy and the weather is hot and humid. I did see a local man with an unconscious (but live) water buffalo strapped to the back of his motorbike, which really made up for the painful drive. Picking a reputable cruise company also ensures a more comfortable and air-conditioned transfer out to Halong Bay, which is something you definitely want.

I recommend a 2 night, 3-day cruise as opposed to a 1 night, 2-day cruise. Once you arrive you will have forgotten all about the drive and will want to soak up as much of Halong Bay as possible as there is so much to enjoy. I also recommend splashing out the extra cash to get a room with your own balcony to sit and enjoy the sunset and sunrise.

Halong Bay is beautiful, the water wasn’t always enticing but the views as we sailed through it were breathtaking. I found the local food absolutely delicious and wasn’t bothered by the number of boats around us at all, it was really pretty seeing them lit up and night and watching them float past during the day.

Floating Village Vietnam Halong Bay Cruise

Floating Village

We visited a few local floating villages and were amazed at how the people live in a maze of boats and floating houses they’ve built. Children, dogs, grandparents, aunties and uncles all live together in the same little place. Of course, my first question was how you go about dating as a Vietnamese teenager growing up with your entire family 1 metre away. Our guide explained they have developed their own type of ‘parking’ where young couples take a small boat to a secluded area behind one of the rock formations and enjoy ‘date night’.

The Sung Sot Cave (Surprising Cave) wasn’t highly recommended in the research I did while planning the trip, however, I really enjoyed it. Of course, there are lots of tourists there, you’re in Halong Bay and, other than some pretty awesome gigantic rock formations, there’s not much else to look at, so everyone wants to see the cave. I didn’t find it too crazy or overwhelming and think it’s well worth the visit.

As part of our 2 night cruise we were able to do some kayaking around a beautiful little secluded spot, I couldn’t even tell you where it was it was that hidden. We spent a day on a smaller boat just swimming, eating, kayaking, napping and jumping from the boat. As far as holidays go, moments like that are what really make it for me.

My tips for booking a Halong Bay cruise are to ask around and listen to recommendations from friends and family. You will always get what you pay for and it is a once in a lifetime experience so spend as much as you can afford on your cruise and your room.

Stay

Paloma Cruise – the Paloma boat was a great size and really well maintained. The room we had, with a private balcony, was more than big enough with a great bathroom comfy bed and much-needed air conditioning. The food was really delicious and we always had more than we could eat. Most importantly, the staff were incredibly friendly and accommodating.

Need some inspiration to visit? Watch this…


16 Comments on Tips for visiting Hanoi & Halong Bay

  1. Thanks for the tips re: Ha Long Bay Phoebe! Currently trying to find a good cruise and will check out Paloma and Indochina as recommended above 🙂 AVC29.

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  2. Sannie Daniels // July 4, 2014 at 10:28 pm // Reply

    we did 3 days with Indochina Junk in May and loved it. Highlight of our 2 weeks in Vietnam. Started with a limo that included wifi!! And the rooms were airconditioned with ensuites and large windows with amazing views. Loved the kayaking, and the food was great, international and plenty of it, plus they catered for the vegetarians too,.

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  3. Thanks so much Phoebe for your advice….will contact Paloma on this matter and check with them. I’m sure that if they can look after you so well, they’ll be equally helpful with us! Best Regards. Joyce

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  4. Hi Phoebe

    So glad I chanced upon your blog! I was at a loss as to which cruise to take in Halong Bay….reading your account has made it easier! 🙂

    May I ask about the food – is the breakfast/lunch/dinner set or buffet? Vietnamese or international?

    Also, my son is allergic to nuts, black soya sauce and fermented beans often used in Asian cooking. I wonder whether Paloma would cater for special dietary requirements?

    Hope to hear from you.

    Thanks and Regards.
    JK

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    • Hi Joyce, I’m really glad to hear my post helped. It’s hard trying to find a good cruise!

      The breakfast is a buffet and the lunch and dinner are a number of set courses (from memory around 8!) there is a lot of food.

      I contacted the Paloma cruise via email on their website before I booked and I found them very helpful. I’m gluten free and vegetarian and they really looked after me.

      I’d suggest you contact them and tell them about your sons allergies, be really specific about things he can eat too and see what they say. you may get a good feeling and feel confident to book after you talk to them 🙂

      Let me know how you go Joyce!

      Phoebe

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  5. frequent flightiness // November 27, 2013 at 10:11 pm // Reply

    Oh, I love Vietnam, and I love to read other people’s experiences of it. I’m hanging out to read about your adventures in Hoi An which is one of my favourite places on the planet!

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  6. Mitch Bridges // November 27, 2013 at 2:00 pm // Reply

    I was recently in Hanoi and in Saigon but I’m heading back to Australia now. I took a motorbike to travel around Vietnam. It’s one of my most unforgettable experience in life. Doing the karaoke with the locals is so much fun!

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  7. Very beautiful blog. First one to really make me consider going to asia in the first place.

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    • Thanks Marc 🙂 I think you are based in Europe from memory, right? Asia is a great place to visit when you’re a budget, that’s for sure. Everything is so cheap, you live like an absolute King and the people are so friendly and lovely.

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      • You have an excellent memory my fellow blogging friend! It would be nice to go there some time anyway. Then again, I have such an extensive bucketlist. Either way, loved the recommendation.

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  8. Ruth Rainwater // November 26, 2013 at 8:47 am // Reply

    Sounds great – and different!!

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  9. Ooh, some of this looks gorgeous (other than the down side of stress.) Glad you had a good time 🙂 Really well written.

    (also if I can pop this here, I’ve started a sex & the city esq type dating blog. Please check it out. Follow for follow etc, but I’m going to follow you anyway ’cause I like the way you write :P)

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  10. I had some friends (US) spend Christmas in Vietnam while they were expats living in Australia, and they raved similarly.

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