Here’s what we did in Hanoi, Vietnam!
Travel Dates: 24-27 July
Airline: We booked a multi-city flight on Orbitz so that we could fly into Hanoi and out of Ho Chi Minh. I found it was cheapest to fly this route instead of reverse, and it was cheaper to book the inner-country flights using other airline sites. Skyscanner.net is helpful to find the smaller airlines, but you have to book through the company that it directs you to, like Vietnam Airlines, VietJet, JetStar, or Expedia.
China Airline from OKA-TPE-HAN, returning SGN-TPE-OKA
We had a 20 hour layover in TPE on the way there, but on the way home it was only 6 hours.
During our layover in TPE, we took a free city tour offered at the airport! We had already been to Taipei, so the sites were repeats, but it was nice to kill 5 hours in the city. The morning tour is different than the afternoon tour, and you can only take 1 per day. We didn’t get in until 12:30ish, so we were on the afternoon tour to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and Taipei 101. It rained the whole time; otherwise we might have stayed in town for the night market. I really wanted a Taiwanese pancake. It’s about an hour drive from the airport to downtown. You can take an airport bus for about $5. Read about our 1st trip to Taipei here!
If you have a family, you might want a hotel near the airport (Novotel), but we have a Priority Club Pass, so we hung out in the lounge until they closed and then slept in the reclined chairs in the airport. (Do you have an American Express Platinum card? If so, make sure to request your Priority Pass card a few weeks before your vacation so that you can access the lounges too! I normally do not recommend any credit cards with annual fees, but if you are military, they waive the fee!)
Visa: As of 2015, U.S. citizens need a visa for both Vietnam and Cambodia. (Always check with the embassy before leaving to see if the rules have since been updated!)
We used https://vietnamvisa.govt.vn/ to purchase the visas online at least 48 hours in advance (you can pay a rush fee if it’s within 48 hours). It’s pretty simple, but you need to bring money for the stamping fee and 2 passport sized photos. At the airport, go to the visa counter before customs. It takes about 10 minutes. Make sure to bring cash for the stamping fee.
Exchanging Money: We used the ATMs. Some places accept USD (like the hotel), but it’s more common in the south than the north.
Hotel: Calypso Grand Boutique Hotel ($40!)
Very nice, extremely friendly staff. The receptionist sat down and taught us Vietnamese. Upon arrival, they give you a welcome drink (juice). Each room had a private computer too. Good location, about 7-10 min walk from the main market area by the lake. The hotel included a great continental breakfast with items to order.
Hotel #2: Calypso Suites Hotel ($35!)
We heard good reviews about this chain, so we figured we’d try their other location after returning from the Halong Bay boat cruise. The breakfast was similar, but we preferred the first hotel. Very minor differences.
Transportation: From the airport, it’s easiest and safest to take a taxi or hotel hire car. We opted for the hotel car to avoid scams. It was $19. My research showed a cab should be $15-20, so that was fair. The driver was at the airport waiting for us upon arrival. (There’s not good public transportation. A bus exists but is not practical.)
Within the city, you can walk! Don’t worry about crossing the street, waiting for motorbikes, just start walking, they’ll dodge you.
Arrival day/Day 1: We had an overnight layover in Taipei, so this is our 2nd day of travel, but I’ll count it as Day 1/ arrival day. We landed at 1035, so we headed to the hotel to check in before sightseeing!
- “Hanoi Hilton” (prison): It’s worth a visit, takes about an hour. It’s a museum now, with only 1 room dedicated to the American POW. It’s mainly about the French oppression. The original prison was torn down in the 90’s, but the main gate is in tact. (30,000 VND per person)
- History museum: There are 2 buildings, so make sure to walk across the street and find the other half! Not my favorite museum, but we wanted to go to the war museum and they’re closed Friday’s & Monday’s. There’s also a Women’s Museum, but we didn’t stop in there.
- Walked through the French district to get back to the main market area.
- “Window-shopped” the markets: The markets here are much better than the rest of SE Asia! Much more variety! The North Face stores seem to be pretty good quality too. They have shoe street, silk street, a beer street, and much more. The markets in Beijing, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket were decent, but it seemed that every 5th stall repeated itself. (We don’t usually buy much during trips, photographs are our favorite memories, but we bought a few bags, hammocks, & hats on this trip.)
- Enjoyed Pho (pronouced “Fuh”) at a street restaurant
- Dinner Bun Po Nam Po (a local restaurant recommended by our hotel). For only 160,000 VND we each had a large bowl and beer.
- Night market: Similar items to the daytime shops, but a major street turns into a line of booths with food, souvenirs, and other items. Be careful, we were advised not to carry any purses/bags and to leave all valuables (passport included) in the hotel. They may slit pockets or grab your bag.
Day 2 – Heading to Halong Bay
We booked the Galaxy cruise for Halong Bay through our hotel. It was one of the best prices, at $140 each for a 1 night cruise including all meals, kayaking, and a cave adventure. (In Hanoi, you’ll see small tour shops selling cruises for much less, but we’ve heard they do not include anything and end up charging a lot more. Also, there is quite a difference in the boats.) We had researched a few companies and saw their boats in the bay. There are about 700 boats per day in the bay, 400 of them being overnight boats.
Our boat had a sundeck with an awning which was very important because it was raining for most of our trip. We still had good views of the bay from the deck and visibility wasn’t bad. The bus ride is very long (3.5 hours). They stop halfway for 30 minutes. Bring food for the bus ride, water, and beer from Hanoi! The store halfway is 3-4x the price, and on the boat it is also much more expensive than in Hanoi. The meals were included, lots of food (just bring your own beverages to save money)! We sat with a lovely Danish family.
Lunch on board (many courses)
Relaxing/pictures from the deck
Squid fishing from the boat
Tai Chi during sunrise (cancelled for us due to rain)
Hike the Surprise Cave (very cool! Bring your camera. Note: The GoPro did not have enough light to take good pictures, so bring an iPhone or flash camera.)
Lunch on deck
We didn’t get back to Hanoi until 1715 (left the bay at about 1250). Some roads were washed out from heavy rain. They’re mainly 2 lanes, only 40kph.
We decided to stay at a different hotel from the same chain to check out the differences. The Calypso Suites (actually connected to the 3rd hotel in their chain, La Beaute) was in a more central location, right on the beer street just 2 blocks from the lake. Same rooms, same breakfast. We liked the 1st hotel staff slightly better, but the 1st hotel was about 7 minutes west of the main drag (closer to the war museum and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum).
We ate dinner on the “beer street,” enjoying 5,000 VND fresh beer, fried rice, and egg rolls. We shopped the markets, bought some North Face items, and then enjoyed a 60 minute foot, arm, & back massage (200,000 VND each).
- Temple of Literature: It was okay, but check your change from the ticket counter! She gave us the incorrect amount. We would have loved to have gone to the war museum and inside of the mausoleum; however, they are both closed on Fridays and Mondays! (What’s our luck? The 2 main days we have in Hanoi are Friday and Monday. Oops.)
- Ho Chi Minh museum (25,000 VND): It had a creative display, but was only 1 floor.
- We walked home along “silk street.” (Lots of dress and suit shops.)
We booked the car through the hotel to get to the airport ($19).
VietJet Airlines was delayed an hour and didn’t make any announcements. My hubby had to go out to the main lobby to ask. They were very unhelpful. Poor customer service.
Arrival in DaNang: We booked a car through the hotel again ($20). The drive was about 45 minutes to Hoi An.
Read more about our next adventure in Hoi An here!