Exploring Old Quarter Hanoi
Of all the cities we visited in Southeast Asia, Hanoi was easily our favorite. Everything from the unbelievable street food, to the picturesque architecture, to the insane scooter traffic, all perfectly embodied the Asia of our imaginations. When exploring the winding maze of streets in the Old Quarter or slurping down bowls of Pho while sitting on the curb we kept saying to each other “this is exactly what I was picturing”. Although the sightseeing isn’t too exciting, we were perfectly happy to spend our days just walking the streets. Our top three tips for those visiting:
1. Get ready to eat. A lot. Bahn Mi, Pho, Bun Cha, Bun Thit Nuong. It is all awesome.
2. The best place to spend a lazy afternoon is at one of the countless old quarter cafes. Pull up a lawn chair or stool on the sidewalk, get a large Vietnamese Iced Coffee, and watch the world go by.
3. Don’t miss this residential street just large enough to accommodate the daily train that roars past. It ‘s crazy.
Biking Mai Chau
Mai Chau was not part of our original itinerary. We had planned to go trekking in the very popular Sapa region, but decided to scrap that idea last minute after realizing we were woefully unprepared for the freezing temperatures. Instead, we decided to visit Mai Chau and despite being a pretty uneventful few days it wound up being a highlight of our trip. The town was small, quiet, beautiful and blissfully devoid of tourist hordes. We rented bikes and rode for hours through the rice paddies around the area, stopping to play with puppies and have celebratory New Years drinks with friendly families. Asia Outdoors recently opened an office in Mai Chau and they offer a range of guided outdoor activities. I spent a morning sport climbing at a local crag and Anna did sunrise yoga in a cave.
Early Morning Walks In Hoi An
The ridiculously picturesque old quarter in Hoi An was both a highlight and an absolute low point of our time in Vietnam, a dichotomy created by the insane crowds. Maybe it was only because we were visiting during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, but visiting the old quarter anytime in the afternoon or early evening was my idea of hell. The streets were shoulder to shoulder packed with tour groups, to the point where it was incredibly claustrophobic and difficult to walk anywhere. There were waits at every restaurant, lines to get into stores, throngs of selfie takers on every corner… it was like Disney World in summer. BUT we went back to the old quarter at 7AM the following morning, and it was amazing. The streets were empty and quiet and we wandered the adorable alleyways for hours. It really is a beautiful and unique town, although it is struggling with the burden of increased tourism like many places. We would still recommend it, just be sure to hit the old town in the early morning and then spend the rest of your day on the beach.
Taking In The View Near Ninh Binh
We unfortunately only spent one afternoon in Ninh Binh, passing through on our way South to Hoi An. After spending a few hours biking the surrounding area, which was stunning, we regretted not being able to stay longer. Although the town itself is not very memorable, the dramatic limestone peaks west of the city are very cool, and there are a bunch of temples, caves, and sights in the area. One of the most recommended activities is a rowboat ride down the river that takes you around mountains and through caves. We didn’t have time for that, but sitting on the riverbank watching the boats go by as the sun set was just as good.
Kayaking Halong Bay
Like Hoi An, our boat cruise with Cat Ba Vision around Lan Ha Bay and Halong Bay was both a high point and a low point for us. The main issue was that it was cold and rainy while we were there, which made it tough to swim or to sit out on the top deck of the ship. Kayaking around the lagoons was incredible though, even with the mediocre weather. You kayak through these winding caves that spit you out into lagoons enclosed on all sides by towering limestone hills. It feels very otherworldly. We also enjoyed staying the night at a floating guesthouse and fish farm. It was fascinating to learn more about the floating fishing villages and the lifestyle of the locals. For example, most of the households keep huge pet fish, which are considered lucky, in netted enclosures under their home. The bigger the fish, the more respected you are in the community. Our guesthouse owner must have been very well respected because her fish was freaking huge, it could have swallowed a toddler whole! It was a little scary to think about it swimming around a few feet under us while we were eating dinner!