Making the Most of a Trip to Hanoi, Vietnam

Visiting Hanoi in northern Vietnam is truly an amazing experience. We spent a little over a week exploring Hanoi and taking excursions into the countryside. We also did an overnight cruise in Halong Bay, which was certainly one of the highlights of our trip. We stayed in Hanoi’s old quarter, which has a variety of restaurants, street food, and many different boutique hotels. With so many options of things to do when visiting Hanoi, these are some of our favorite memories of our trip.

Halong Bay in Vietnam
Enjoying Our Time on the Cruise
Luan Cave

Halong Bay – One of the most popular tours to take when visiting Hanoi, Vietnam is to go to Halong Bay. It is certainly one of the most recognizable places in all of Vietnam with the mountains jutting up from the bay, which according to myth is the result of a dragons descending to earth. Halong Bay actually means “descending dragon” and even though the mountains are the result of natural forces over centuries of time, the result is still incredibly beautiful. Halong Bay was recently named one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and was designated a World Heritage Site in 1994. Some of the key sights from the tour were Titop Island with the amazing views, Surprise Cave (Sung Sot Cave), and Luan Cave.

Rice Paddies at the Base of the Mountain
Amazing Views of the Ninh Binh Province
Boats Going One After Another Through the Caves

Ninh Binh Province – Known as the “Inland Halong Bay”, visiting Ninh Binh Province makes for a perfect day trip from Hanoi, Vietnam. There are several potential locations to visit when doing a tour of Ninh Binh Province and, unless you are planning to spend more than one day, you are going to have to choose which sights you want to see. One of the tours included the Bai Dinh Pagoda, which is the largest pagoda in Vietnam, as well as the caves of Trang An where the movie Kong: Skull Island was filmed. We chose to do what seemed to be the more popular tour that included Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam, the caves of Tam Coc, and the incredible views from the mountains above Mua Cave. It was a full day tour that include lunch with a meal that is representative of the Ninh Binh Province.

People Eating Street Food in Hanoi
Turtle Tower
Selling Flowers by Bicycle

Hanoi’s Old Quarter – When visiting Hanoi in Vietnam, most of the hotels and rental properties are located in Hanoi’s old quarter. It is a very busy district with plenty of shops and restaurants making it a perfect location to explore the best of Hanoi. Some of the highlights of the old quarter are “Sword Lake”, Hoan Kiem Lake, the night market, and St. Joseph’s Cathedral. You will find plenty of street food and vendors walking with sweets and fruit for sale. Regardless of the time of day, the old quarter in Hanoi is extremely busy and the streets are packed with motorcycles, cars, and rickshaws. In fact there are so many motorcycles parked on the sidewalks that it is often easier to walk in the street than on the sidewalks.

View as You Pass Through the Gate to Thien Tru Pagoda
Exiting Huong Tich Cave
Statue in Thien Tru Pagoda

Perfume Pagoda – The final tour that we took in Vietnam from Hanoi was the Perfume Pagoda tour. It is a day trip that takes you along a river with beautiful scenery to a complex of several different pagodas as well as the actual Perfume Pagoda, which is located in a cave called Huong Tich Cave that is at the top of Perfume Mountain. The tour started with a visit to the Thien Tru Pagoda, which is at the heart of the temple complex. The Thien Tru Pagoda is over 500 years old and is truly spectacular with wonderful architecture, artwork, and cultural features.

Ingredients for the Spring Rolls
Cooking Pork Meatballs and Barbequed Pork
Banana Flower Salad

Cooking Class in Hanoi – One of our favorite memories of our trip to Vietnam was taking a cooking class in Hanoi. This was a true cooking class, not a demonstration, where we purchased the food from a local market, prepped all of the ingredients, and did the cooking ourselves with our chef’s instruction. There were only five of us in the class, making it very intimate and interactive. We created a four course meal, which we enjoyed eating family-style after cooking everything.

Halong Bay Tour in Vietnam

One of the most popular tours to take when visiting Hanoi, Vietnam is to go to Halong Bay. It is certainly one of the most recognizable places in all of Vietnam with the mountains jutting up from the bay, which according to myth is the result of a dragons descending to earth. Halong Bay actually means “descending dragon” and even though the mountains are the result of natural forces over centuries of time, the result is still incredibly beautiful. Halong Bay was recently named one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and was designated a World Heritage Site in 1994.

Upper Deck of the Cruise Ship

Absolutely Beautiful Views of Halong Bay

Although it is possible to visit Halong Bay in a single day, we’d recommend taking an overnight cruise to make the most of your time in this wonderous location. There are many different caves, beaches, and mountains that you can visit depending on your tour company. With so many cruise ships on Halong Bay, no matter which caves you explore or places that you stop, you can expect there to be large crowds joining you. We traveled to Vietnam in November, which is the offseason, and even then we were among hundreds of other visitors.

Ships Around Bo Hon Island

Sunset on Halong Bay

Based upon our research prior to visiting Halong Bay, the tour that we took is pretty typical of an overnight cruise on the turquoise waters. We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Halong Bay and it was one of our favorite memories of our time in Vietnam. Thanks to the new highway, it was only about an hour and a half to two hours from Hanoi to the docks where hundreds of cruise ships sit ready to take tourists out onto Halong Bay. Our tour consisted of the following highlights:

Hazy Scenery

Standing on the Observation Deck

  1. Titop Island – After enjoying lunch on our cruise ship as we made our way out into the heart of Halong Bay, we took a small boat to visit Titop Island. There is a beach where you can swim in the water to get a break from the heat, but the main reason for visiting Titop Island is for the incredible views of Halong Bay from the observation deck at the top of the mountain. It is certainly worth climbing the approximately 400 stairs in order to get to the covered deck at the summit. You may have to take turns to get to the rails, but you get views of the bay in all directions.

    Mystical Landscapes

    Relaxing on the Ship
  2.  Overnight on the Cruise Ship – Upon returning to the cruise ship, we went to the top deck where we watched the sun set and enjoyed cocktails and snacks during the ships happy hour. Prior to dinner, guests on the ship could enjoy a cooking demonstration, but having done an actual cooking class in Hanoi, we chose to stay on the upper deck and enjoy the incredible views. Since it was the offseason, our ship wasn’t full, but there were about 14 other guests with us on our tour. For those that wanted to, you could fish for squid at night before going to bed to get up early the next morning to do Tai Chi. We chose to skip both of those in order to get a good night sleep as we still had to be in the dining room by 7:00 am to eat breakfast while we watched the sun rise over the mountains. We had a busy day ahead of us.

    The Second Chamber, “Serene Castle”

    Inside of the First Chamber
  3.  Surprise Cave (Sung Sot Cave) – After finishing breakfast, we went to visit Surprise Cave as early as possible. Our guides told us that the later that you arrived at the island, the larger the crowds became. Surprise Cave is a large cavern in the mountain that has been carved out by water over hundreds of years. We saw many different caves during our time in Vietnam, but this was probably the most unique of all of the caves that we saw. With huge stalactites and stalagmites and other rock formations inside of the limestone mountain, it was truly spectacular.

    Monkey on the Rocks

    Luan Cave
  4.  Luan Cave – Whether you took a kayak or let a guide take you on a row boat, going through Luan Cave and going around the inlet with its beautiful water is amazing. There are monkeys that come down to the shore at different times of the day that are as fascinated with the tourists as we were with them. After touring the cave and getting up close to the cliffs, we returned to our cruise ship where we enjoyed lunch and then went back to the upper deck to enjoy the views as we headed back to the dock.

    Halong Bay

    Enjoying Our Time

It is a full, two-day tour that starts by being picked up at your hotel in Hanoi at 8:00 in the morning and drops you back at around 18:00 the following day. Without a doubt, a tour of Halong Bay should be on your itinerary when traveling to Hanoi. The sights and memories of our tour is definitely something that we will always treasure.

Exploring Luan Cave in Halong Bay

Another popular excursion when doing a cruise on Halong Bay is to explore Luan Cave (Hang Luan). You can either go by row boat or by kayak depending on your preference, but either way it is an enjoyable experience. After passing through the cave, you enter an isolated inlet with stunning cliffs and turquoise water. Near the mouth of the cave, you will likely find several monkeys who climb across the rocky shore hoping for some treats from the many tourists who visit.

Getting Close to the Cliffs

Monkey on the Rocks

Looking Up at Cliff Walls

Entering the Cave

Luan Cave is interesting enough with its ceiling that has been carved out by the water over the centuries. It is one of many caves in Halong Bay, but the real treat is the inlet that is hidden on the other side of the cave. We spent about an hour going through the cave and then seeing the beautiful scenery and amazing mountain cliffs. It is a wonderful opportunity to get up close to the mountains that rise out of the waters of Halong Bay.

On Our Way to the Cave

Rugged Cave Ceiling

Monkeys Walking Along the Shore

Sunset on Halong Bay

After looping around smooth water and seeing the lush greenery that clings to the walls of the cliffs, we made our way over to the shores where the monkeys had gathered. We did not feed the monkeys, but it was clear that they had gotten a variety of food from other tourists. Some of the monkeys watched us with curiosity while others were completely ambiguous to our presence. We spent about ten minutes just watching the mischievous animals before making our way back through the cave to the dock.

Going Through the Cave

View as We Exited the Cave

A Young Monkey

Luan Cave

We visited Luan Cave at the end of our first day on Halong Bay and it was quite busy. Shortly after returning to our cruise ship we watched the sun as it set over the bay and the mountains. We truly enjoyed our time seeing the mountains up close and watching the monkeys as they climbed around on the rocks of the cliffs.

Birds Flying Around the Cliffs

Small Cave at the Base of a Cliff

Monkey Watching Us

Beautiful Scenery

Monkey at Luan Cave