I think we’ve all asked ourselves this question. Gone into a tourist office and had a look at the prices for all the tours they offer and then let out a slight squeal which may or may not remind people of a runaway pig. But we’re digressing.
Before our trip to Vietnam, we hadn’t really been those people that do tours, and had prided ourselves on our organisation and ability to get things at a much cheaper price (yay us!). Unfortunately, a mixture of stress and medical finals do not bode well for organising a trip, so we ended up in Vietnam hoping against hope that paying money for these tours would not be wasteful.
Unfortunately, this was not easy, knowing which tourist office to trust and those with a reasonable price was like finding a needle in a haystack. On every turn within the old quarter there are streets littered with ‘Sinh Tourist.’ That’s right! Not one, not two, but often five or six sinh tourists on one street. Of course, of the little reading we had done, we had been told to stay away from Sinh Tourists (the real branch is in Ho Chin Minh city, but as it is so well advertised, many companies name themselves this to bring in puppy eyed new tourists). The best way we tackled the lack of any other tourist companies, was to check them all out. Go into each of them, find out prices and as much detail as we possibly could. We eventually found one tourist company (yes another sinh tourist associate) called ‘Hanoi little centre hotel’ (5 Cua Dong, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi).
The lady here is lovely and helped us with finding cheaper exchange rates (mentioned in Discovering Hanoi), as well as giving us very reasonable rates for both of our tours. She was also kind enough to call us over for a cup of coffee (unfortunately we weren’t able to attend as we had very little time).
One quick tip; DON’T BOOK ONLINE! we saw so many offers for the same tours online, but the prices displayed are usually double the ones they give you in person, plus there is some haggling room (and what trip would be complete without a bit of haggling).
There were two tours we took from Hanoi; one to Ha long Bay and one to Tam Coc. Both of which were amazing, however, I’ll let you make your own minds up about this.
1.Ha Long Bay
Entering into the glittering waters of Cat Ba, Ha Long Bay does not disappoint. It is a world heritage sight as well as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and on a sunny day while cruising the waters, its not hard to see why. This was a place I had to see! I had read so much about the stunning scenery and fascinating legend behind the bay, there was no doubt that we would fit this into our itinerary.
We started our journey from Hanoi, where we were picked up at 7am from our airbnb. It is a 4 hour journey from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, so the majority of the trip is (unfortunately) spent on the coach there and back, so if you do have more time to stay please do! We only had time for a one day tour. The coaches are usually well air conditioned and there is an English speaking tour guide who is quite chatty with everyone.
So off we set, to Ha Long Bay, on our way we stopped at a pit stop, for toilet break. This is a place most tour companies stop (as we found out on the other tour we went on), and is a shop with a sweat shop attached to it. This is work particularly for disabled people, and allows them to work, where in this country they may not be able to. They produced beautiful threaded art.
So back on the road, and we headed directly to Ha Long Bay, with some not so discreet napping along the way.
Arriving at the bay, we quickly got sorted and headed over to the dock, where we saw an array of docked boats. I should warn you, we paid $32 for the regular boat and as such this is what we got. The one day boats are not too fancy, however, there is still a nice place to sit down and a roof where you can go and enjoy the sun. So it ticked all our boxes.
Once we were out on the water, the waiters brought us our food. Everyone was sat in groups of 5/6, and since there were only 4 of us, we were joined by a lovely lady (Anne) from Ho Chin Minh who was nice enough to show us how to eat everything. The food was delicious! And lots of it! It was all seafood, and i’m not too sure what the vegetarian options would have been, but they did ask any diet preferences before our trip.
The trip included a kayaking element, which allowed us to see the caves of Ha Long Bay as well as enjoy the waters on a personal level. This little bit of added adventure (which I loved!), was a great addition to our trip, although trips can be found without it. There was an option of going on a little boat instead, if you didn’t want to kayak, which was steered by a personal guide catering to everyone. However, there was no guide for the kayaking which allowed for a little bit of personal exploration.
And to finish the day we went to see some lovely caves. These caves are lit up quite nicely to the point you feel as if you are on the set of wicked or game of thrones, which really made things interesting.
For us this was the end of the trip, and tired and wary we headed back to the coach for our four hour journey back to Hanoi. It was a wonderful day, which we wish had been longer. There are so many other things in Cat Ba and Ha Long that we wish we could have explored, but even this little taste of the bay of sleeping dragons was plenty to keep us going. There are 2 or 3 day cruises available for people, and these can also be booked once you are in Hanoi, and many people choose to do this. With the distance being so far, I would definitely recommend spending a bit more time there, but don’t forget to look at the weather forecast before you go! Also try and avoid the weekends, as it is very busy at this time and cruises may be more packed than you would like.
2. Ninh Binh (Tam Coc and Hoa Lu)
Although I’m talking about this second, this was the first tour we had ever been on (shock horror!). Ninh Binh, was something I had read a little about, but not in great detail, and we weren’t sure if it would be worth going there. However, the itinerary was so varied, including many cultural aspects as well as bike and boat riding, what’s not to love?!
So as above, we were up and ready to go at 7am, where we were picked up from our airbnb and taken with about 10 others (who were really lovely) to Tam Coc, a 2.5 hour journey.
I cannot describe how beautiful Ninh Binh is. Entering this city, you feel totally engulfed in the magic of Vietnam. There are beautiful lakes to your left, towering mountains over head and small temples ornate with the most delicate care.
The temple was the first thing we saw in Hoa Lu, our guide was lovely and took the time to get to know us along the way, and explained much of the history behind the temples. Hoa Lu, was the capital in the 10th and 11th century until the emperor had a dream in which he saw Hanoi as being the future and moved the capital there. The monument we saw here was the Dinh Tien Hoang temple, which is dedicated to Dinh Bo Linh, the first emperor of Vietnam, who is greatly respected. There is a statue of himself and his wife inside, as well as his eldest son. It is a great aspect of history to learn and to see.The temple is still very well kept, and has evidence of the locals coming and paying their respect to their revered leader.
Next to the temple is a little (steep) climb, to the top of one of the hills, which has a magnificent view. For those of you that are fitter, it should be no problem, but those that have any knee problems or struggle with exercise, I would take this route with caution. The top of the hill, it is very stony with not too much support. There is a lady at the midway point selling water bottles for those of you that need it. The view however more than compensates.
From here we headed directly to Tam Coc. Tam Coc, is beautiful, and it is here that we ate food. We were given a buffet of different vietnamese food as well as some western food such as chips. The food was lovely, and we only wished we had enough room in our tummies for more!
From here it was time to set off on our boats on the lake, which I have to admit was the best part of the trip. There is no better way to see Tam coc other than this. The boats are rowed by women and sometimes children (our friend’s boat was rowed by 14 year old girl on her day off from school). They row with their legs and keep going for a good 45 minutes. The women are lovely, and upon talking to them, they told us this was the way they supplemented their husband’s income, everyone in the house works.
Midway through this trip, there is a little floating shopping village where you can buy souvenirs or just a drink for your poor rower. The ride itself is rouhgly 30-40 minutes long and although it is beautiful and very calming, your bum can become a little sore siting on the wooden perch for that amount of time. I would bring a spare jumper just to put under there to make it a bit more comfortable.
And the best way to check out the rest of Tam coc, has to be by riding a bike. The roads are fairly straight, and allows you to see the beautiful green fields of Tam Coc, as well as interacting with some locals as u drive past. There were a couple of people that were not too confident with riding a bike, and if you have come with a friend who can ride a bike, they allowed you to climb on the back of one and still enjoy the view. I’m fairly short and always struggle with finding a bike that fits my height (damn my 5ft 2 stature!), lucky for me the Vietnamese people are used to smaller men and women and had a bike perfectly right for me.
We rode the bike to a local temple, which was just over a lotus pond. It was beautiful, and hear its even nicer when the flowers are in full bloom. We didn’t stay long here as it was getting late. We headed back to the bike rental, and headed back to Hanoi.
So what did we think?
We thought that the two tours we took were amazing! We were able to see a lot of Northern Vietnam in the little time we had, and combined it with a little bit of adventure as well. Let me know what your thoughts are? Would you take a tour?
Also check out my friend’s amazing video of our time in Vietnam and Thailand!