“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust
Sapa, Ninh Binh, and Halong Bay are all popular locations for tourists visiting Vietnam, especially those staying in Hanoi as they are located in the North. Each small city offers a very different culture and view; breathtaking in their own unique ways.
While Hanoi is a wonderful city, sometimes a girl has got to get out of the chaos and into some fresh air. I was lucky enough to get away every weekend during our month here in Vietnam. The views and experiences are ones that I will not be forgetting for a long ass time.
If you are planning on spending a good amount of time in Vietnam, these are musts!
Sapa is known for it’s colorful rice fields and serene hillsides. It is located about five hours from Hanoi up in the Northwestern part of Vietnam, bordering China. Also known as the Tonkinese Alps, the main city of Sapa is surrounded by smaller villages of varying tribes. Within the city, you can explore the area by foot, checking out the local street vendors selling their handmade craft, buying inexpensive souvenirs, and enjoy Vietnamese coffee.
However, to really experience Sapa’s famous views, you must venture outside of the city. There is option to explore the area on motorbike, but to really experience the nature, I encourage you to join a trek! There are several trekking companies throughout the area who will take you on treks through the rice fields. You can explore for a day or a few days, with your preference of difficulty. Plus, you will usually get the opportunity to stay in a village homestead, which is the best way to experience local culture.
I joined three of my friends on a trek with a fantastic company called Sapa Sisters. Sapa Sisters is the only Female and Hmong owned trekking company in Sapa and work hard to create better lives for the women who work there. We had the best trek guide, Lily. I would highly suggest asking for her if you are going anytime soon. We were lucky enough to learn from her story, experience living with her family for a day, and her English was phenomenal. Plus, the food her family made was divine.
Sapa was my first glimpse at Vietnam outside of the bustling city of Hanoi. I was blown away. There is something so mesmerizing about the display of colors and textures among the hillsides of rice paddies. It seriously took my breath away at times. (Although, that tends to happen a lot in Vietnam.)
Protip: Watch out for the rice wine! It is stronger than you’d think.
Ninh Binh is another small city that is located about 100 km from Hanoi. It is not as commonly known as some of the other cities mentioned in this post, but it should be! It is a magical place that I fell in love with even amidst typhoon weather.
Our first stop was to a quaint lake and shrine. Am Tien Cave, also known as Tuyet Tinh Coc, is like a hidden world tucked between a pocket of mountains. If you follow the short flight of steps up the hill, you can visit a Buddhist Pagoda that has been built into the side of the mountain.
Bai Dinh Temple is the largest Buddhist pagoda in Vietnam. The religious complex is enormous and is located on the western slope of Dinh mountain, surrounded by forest and stunning views. It had incredible energy as hundreds of Buddha statues lined the walls. The statues of the monks are polished in places from people praying, seeking blessings, and expressing gratitude while rubbing on their knees, hands, or bellies.
If you are interested in a serene float down a river, why not check out some of the locations where King Kong was filmed? That’s right; “Skull Island” is located in Ninh Binh and you can see some of the film set yourself. (See video below)
Feel like walking up the 450 steps to the top of Lying Dragon Mountain? I promise you, the view is worth it:
Protip: Don’t be afraid of a rainy day. It can make for an entertaining day that you will not forget.
Hạ Long Bay
Ha Long Bay is one of the most stunning sites I have ever seen. It didn’t seem real most of the time, as if the beautiful landscape was a part of some vivid dream that I was sharing with my friends.
It is easy to see why this bay was named a World Heritage site in 1994. There are over 1000 unique islands throughout the bay. Some are large and covered in vegetation while others are smaller, appearing more like floating glaciers than giant rock islands. I had heard rumor that it was the most popular tourist destination in Northern Vietnam, but not having done any research upon arrival, I was beyond impressed.
Most tourists enjoy the bay on one of the hundreds of cruise ships. We had a splendid time on the Christina Diamond Cruise which came with a packed schedule of activities. We went kayaking around the bay, swam near the sandy beaches, and explored caves. On the cruise, we enjoyed hanging out on the deck. I loved that they offered Tai Chi each morning, as I got to enjoy the incredible early morning views while meditating.
Protip: Watch out for the jellyfish! They are all over the bay. Scary story – I didn’t realize I had my GoPro on during some of our swimming in the ocean. I nearly had a heart attack when I was watching the film later and saw that a giant jellyfish had swam right by me and I had no idea at that time!
While I never got the chance to visit, a number of my friends boasted about their weekend trips over to Hoi An. There are a number of things to do in Hoi An, but the main attraction to visit was the clothing tailors there who will make nearly anything for you in a day or two.
Check out my short video montage of my side trips:
Have you visited Vietnam? I would love to know what you thought! What was your favorite place to visit? Comment below!
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