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Northern to Central Vietnam Itinerary

Vietnam | Travel Tips

Here are a few super cool places to hit on your trip from Northern to Central Vietnam.

For this itinerary, you can go as slow or as fast as you’d like. This is my second time in Vietnam and decided to give myself 3.5 weeks of slow travel in Vietnam. It might seem like a lot, but it still wasn’t enough so you can be sure I’ll be back for more.

I flew into Hanoi and made my way down, but you can also fly into Danang and make your way up to Hanoi. If you’re heading to Vietnam in the warmer months of May to August, I recommend starting in central Vietnam and making your way up. Central Vietnam is warmer than the north so it would be better to get the warmer area before it gets hot as the season goes by.

Hanoi

The iconic red bridge at night leading to the Temple of Jade Mountain

Fly into Hanoi and enjoy this food heaven city. Check out my Hanoi food guide here.

Use Hanoi as a base or transit center for your trips to Ha Giang and Lan Ha Bay.

Ha Giang

Ha Giang is the name of the city and the province in northern Vietnam bordering China. This area is gaining popularity for its scenic views of the rice paddies and hills which can be viewed via motorcycle or if you have strong legs, the bicycle.

Winter months of December-February can get very cold. I had friends that did the Ha Giang loop during that time and they had to layer up on sweatshirts, jackets, and scarves. It can also be rainy during that time so I recommend checking the weather.

I skipped Ha Giang this time because I was enjoying myself too much in Hoi An and stayed longer there. On my next Vietnam trip, I’m planning to ride the semi-automatic scooter and doing the 500 km Ha Giang loop. Or maybe I’ll chicken out and hire an Easy Rider instead.

What’s an Easy Rider you ask? It’s hiring a motorcycle driver usually for long-distance rides and you’ll be riding in the back. Or as some people like to call it, riding bitch.

How to get there: It takes about 6 hours from Hanoi by bus, although with the way people drive in Vietnam it’s probably 5.5 hrs. Visit any travel agency in Hanoi or have someone from your hostel book it for you. You can get a sleeper bus that is much more comfortable than a normal bus.

Lan Ha Bay

You’ve probably heard of Ha Long Bay, but what about Lan Ha Bay?

Lan Ha Bay is located next to Ha Long Bay and surrounds Cat Ba island. It’s as beautiful as Ha Long Bay, if not more beautiful because of the lack of big tour boats. Smaller tour boats still come through but it won’t be as busy as Ha Long Bay.

View of the bay from the floating house

The time I spent here is still one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had. I stayed at a floating house in the middle of the bay. It’s not a fancy place so don’t expect anything. That said, I was surprised by the facilities available — I was able to charge my phone and take a shower with fresh water. There is no wifi available which gave me an opportunity to disconnect and truly enjoy myself.

They have 2-person kayaks available at no additional costs. I met other travelers there — 2 girls from Ho Chi Minh City whom I still keep in contact with. We kayaked for 4 hours in the rain, got lost and ended up at a resort eating fries. It was a blast!

My hosts, Charles and Duc, were very kind and great cooks. I got to eat delicious Vietnamese home cooking that had flavors very similar to what I grew up eating in Indonesia. It closed some cultural barriers and added to the idea that we are more similar than different.

One of my favorite parts about traveling is getting to meet people you just click with. Charles was a great conversationalist and his British accent is a definite plus. The girls and I had a lot of fun at the floating house.

Psst! Here’s a little secret. You’ll want to stay overnight at the bay to swim in the dark and see the bioluminescent plankton. I did not know about this before going so imagine my happy revelation. Swimming in the dark was scary (not gonna lie, it took some convincing to get me in the water) but the excitement of the whole situation kept me going. Waving my hands through the water watching the water glow made me feel like a fairy. It was truly magical and made me feel grateful to be alive to experience this.

I recommended this place to my new friend, Ronja, from Germany and she absolutely loved her time there as well.

Here is the link for my AirBnB referral code for new members. We’ll both get credit on your first booking. If you already have an account, you can still get the credit by creating another account using a different email.

How to get there: Charles or Duc can help you buy it or you can visit one of the travel companies. Read my short story of how I got there in my Trust and Safety post.

I highly recommend this, although if this isn’t for you, don’t worry! There are plenty of hostels on solid land in the area.

Tam Coc

Before landing in Vietnam, I hadn’t heard of Tam Coc. Most people don’t know where Tam Coc is because the area is commonly known as Ninh Binh. There’s a city called Ninh Binh so I had to specify I wanted to be dropped off in Tam Coc where all the outdoor activities were.

I spent 2 nights in Tam Coc and went to the Hang Mua Viewpoint, Trang An Ecotourism Zone, Bich Dong Pagoda(small one), and Bai Dinh Pagoda(huge one).

The Hang Mua viewpoint is amazing and is worth the $5 entrance fee and hike up. I hiked all the way up and carefully climbed to the tail of the dragon. The heights and uneven footing made me nervous but it getting to the end was like an “FU” to my fear of heights. It was exhilarating!

Worth the sweat to climb up!

The entrance is part of an eco-resort, although I personally wouldn’t stay at the resort because people are coming and going. If I’m paying that much for a place to stay, I’d like some peace and quiet. I stayed at a hostel in town and biked about 25 mins to get there. We had to pay for the bike parking when we got there. There’s plenty of parking spaces so I wouldn’t recommend stopping at the first parking lot to avoid walking as much in the hot sun.

There’s a detour through the rice fields and if you’re lucky like I was, you’ll get to see some water buffalos on the way.

We also biked to the Bich Dong Pagoda and the Bird Sanctuary. The pagoda had a pretty entrance and definitely Insta worthy. There were a few shrines up in the caves and you have to climb some steps to get to it. There’s a parking fee but no entrance fee.

It was a bit cloudy when we went to Bich Dong Pagoda, but it wasn’t as crowded as usual

The bird sanctuary is a bit further away by bike. My friend and I biked to the entrance but decided to not go up because of the hill. There’s a $5 entrance fee and the sign says there are other caves in the area included with the fee.

The Bai Dinh Pagoda is about 40 minutes away by motorcycle from town. This temple is huge and so worth the money. Here’s the funny thing — the entrance fee is based on height! People over 1 meter had to pay 30k ($1.50) and people under had to pay 20k ($1). And yes, the entrance fee is that cheap. It’s extra to go up the Pagoda, though.

Fun Fact: The trip to the Bai Dinh Pagoda was the first time I drove a motorcycle and we even went on the highway!

If you’re going to do anything in Ninh Binh, I suggest the Trang An Ecotourism Zone. It was 250k ($12.50) per person for 2–3 hours on a rowed boat ride. My friends and I choose the 2nd route option with 3 temples and 3 caves. Our guide was a grandma named Nu. On our last stop, she handed me a review sheet, but when I was a third way done, she grabbed the paper and gave herself “very good” checkmarks. We both laughed because it was so funny and ridiculous. I didn’t care, she did a great job rowing us for 2 hours by herself. I do wonder what would happen if they didn’t get good marks.

It was such a fun and relaxing boat ride

Tip: The Indian restaurant in town was delicious! The other restaurants were mediocre but edible.

Phong Nha

The scenery on the way to the National Park

Phong Nha, pronounced Phong Nyah, is a small town famous for caves. It’s relatively new on the map for foreign visitors. The town is quickly adapting because I saw new hostels and restaurants being built. The price for lodging is affordable but the prices for food are a little higher than in other parts of the country.

Hang Sơn Đoòng, recently discovered to be one of the largest caves in the world turned this tiny town into a tourist destination. I didn’t have a chance to visit because it’s very $$$$ but there are other caves open for tours or you can visit on your own that are affordable.

There are many caves in Phong Nha and tours can be booked through your hostel or a travel agency in town. Downtown Phong Nha is only one street long where most of the hostels and restaurants are. I went to Paradise Cave which is located in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, a UNESCO site. The caves are far, so my roommates (now good friends) and I rented scooters from the hostel and drove there ourselves. Actually, it was that or paying for a tour that’s out of our budget.

Inside Paradise Cave making me think about the wonders of nature

If you don’t know how to ride a motorcycle, you can learn or make some friends at the hostel who do. I didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle before my trip and it was one of my goals. I’ve ridden one with someone holding on to the handles with me when I was 14 years old but I wanted to ride on my own. I learned to ride the scooter which is an automatic motorcycle in another small town before I made it to Phong Nha. My next goal is to learn the big girl motorcycle with the gears.

Check out what I wrote about a duck massage in Phong Nha.

My friend and I stayed at this hostel which was a 10 min walk away from the main street. We didn’t feel like partying so this quiet place was perfect for us. The hosts were nice, the place was clean, had a pool, and the free breakfast was great too!

Met this pupper at our hostel and wanted to cuddle with him all day long

A lot of buses to Phong Nha come in very early in the morning around 3–5 am. The hostels know this so they will pick you up from the bus stop. Just let them know in advance.

Hue

Hue is known for being the ancient capital during the Nguyen Dynasty (1802–1945). My friends and I went to the Imperial City where the royal family once lived. It’s on every travel blog for the must-see things in Hue. Maybe it’s because we didn’t get a guide or a headset for explanations but my friends and I were not impressed partly because of the lack of care of the imperial city.

Entrance of the palace

Along with being famous for being the home to royalty, Hue also has very delicious food.

Be sure to check out the rice flower-based savory cakes. Sorry, this is not vegetarian friendly. It has lots of shrimp.

I went to a place called Hàng Me Mẹ. There is another store called Hang Me right next to it owned by the sister. The story I’ve read is one sister started the original Hang Me and the other sister worked for her. I don’t know what happened between them but fast forward, the sister who was working for the other opened up another store by the same name, selling the exact same thing right next door. Why? I don’t know, but when my friends and I went, one was empty and they had the same exact menu.

Since I’ve only been to Hàng Me Mẹ (the one on the left side), I can only say my opinion for one. We went to the busier one and ordered the combo rice cakes which came with a variety for us to try.

This combo costs $5 — a pretty good deal!

I also tried Bún Hến which is noodles with tiny clams, pickled veggies, bean sprouts, cilantro, fried peanuts, fried pork rinds, and drizzled with a sauce.

You can also eat it with rice or instant noodles which are called com hen and mie hen.

Another favorite is Bún bò Huế which is Hue style beef soup. It’s supposed to be a spicy soup but it’s not spicy at all so add extra chili sauce if you like some heat. I really like the broth but not a fan of all the fatty knuckles. I go for the tofu and the sliced meat and add lots of herbs.

Bún Hến and Bún bò Huế

Hoi An

I adore Hoi An! This little town is popular among locals and tourists for a good reason. The architecture and imperial yellow buildings will take you back in time. The handcrafted lanterns light up the street for an unforgettable nighttime experience.

Short boat ride on the river. My friends and I paid 80K/person.

I stayed at Hoi An HT Villa and Hostel which is 30 mins walking from the old town. I traded the convenience of being near the old town for a cheaper and nicer place to stay. This hostel has a pool and a very clean room with provided amenities. I paid $5/night here in a female-only shared room. Private rooms are a little pricier but the shared room is definitely a steal! Breakfast is not included but it’s only an additional $2 if you’re a breakfast person. There are also restaurants nearby offering chicken rice and pho for breakfast.

Here’s a picture of the entrance
Cơm Gà or Chicken Rice

This chicken rice place is across the street from Dingo Deli and maybe 30 steps in the direction of the old town. (I couldn’t find it on the map!) I paid 30K($1.50) for this dish.

There’s a fantastic Bánh Mì cart down the street from this hostel at the intersection on the way to the old town that opens only in the afternoon. I recommend the 3 layered pork and lạp xưởng(Chinese sausage) and definitely add the chili. The bread is crispy and really fresh — I saw locals stopping to only buy the bread to take home.

20K for this amazing sandwich

Talking about Bánh Mì, there are 2 other places in town that are famous — Bánh Mì Phượng and Madam Khanh — The Banh Mi Queen. I personally like Banh Mi Phuong better because it has more complex flavors — I always get the combo with everything on it. There’s always a line out the door for takeout — you might get your food faster if you grab a seat inside.

One of my favorite Banh Mi’s ever

There’s a cafe called Dingo Deli that serves western food if you are missing it. Their desserts are pretty good too. This is a great cafe to work out of or if you want to have a chill day and be occasionally visited by some dogs.

Look at her pretty face! She hung out with me all day.

If you have time, take a bicycle ride through the rice paddies. You’ll spot locals fishing and flying kites in the afternoon.

I learned that you can fit a bicycle and an SUV on this tiny road

Danang

When I solo traveled to Vietnam last year, I hired a private driver to take me from Hoi An to Danang for $13. He was able to stop by Marble Mountain for a couple of hours for me to check it out before catching my train in the city. This is a great option if you’re strapped for time and want to fit in one more thing on your trip.

Another option is to take a bus from Hoi An to Danang’s airport or the city. There are busses and small vans straight to the airport. This should cost less than $5. There is also a local bus, bus #1, that costs 30–40K($1.5-$2).

I associate food with memories and I’m a live-to-eat kind of girl. What kind of relationship do you have with food? Do you associate food with anything? Follow me on Instagram and comment on a post to let me know.

Happy traveling, my friends!

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Ervanny Astari

Ervanny Astari

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Sharing my learning experiences through travel one article article at a time.