You might be thinking, "5 days? In 5 days you can't do much!" WRONG. You can do so much! Vietnam is a gorgeous country with so much to offer- from the south tip all the way north to the China border, there are endless sights to see and things to do. But, if you're in Hanoi, Vietnam's capital, for a short visit I am here to help you make the most of it!
First things first: VISA
As an American citizen, you have to order an official government welcome letter. You can order here for $17 USD. (If you opt for the Ha Long Bay cruise mentioned later, they will provide you with a free welcome letter). DO NOT FORGET. They will check this welcome letter before you board your plan from your departure point and if you do not have it, they will not let you on the plane. It happened to a friend of mine and he lost all of his money. You need to bring the welcome letter, 2 passport photos, and $25 USD (yes, it HAS to be USD) in order to obtain your visa upon arrival. You cannot do it online, it has to be upon arrival. It'll take about 10 minutes in the airport and then you can be on your way!
> Check into a hostel in the Old Quarter. It's a central location with so much to do! I recommend Central Backpacker's Hostel. The location is great, they offer cheap airport transfers, and great tours are available!
> Walking tour & explore the city! Here is my recommended walking tour to hit all of the main sights like Hoàn Kiem Lake, Notre Dame Cathedral, and the instagram-famous Railway street.
When you stop at the famous railway street and take some perfect Instagrammable photos, wait for the next train to pass by grabbing a Bahn Mi at this cute roadside cafe called The Railway. It has great views overlooking the alleyway with the train tracks, and the sitting room is up in an attic so it's very unique!
> Nightlife: the old quarter is filled with great bars and clubs! If you stay at Central Backpackers Hostel, every night they have a theme night up in their rooftop bar including Beer Pong tournaments, Shit Shirt night, and more. After the theme party, usually around 10-11pm, they offer a free pub crawl.
Ha Long Bay
Here you have 2 options:
1. Ha Long Bay cruise- When you book a Ha Long Bay cruise it will include a bus transfer for Hanoi to Ha Long, about a 3.5 hour drive. When you arrive you will board your cruise ship and begin your activities. Most cruises include: kayaking around the bay, touring a cave, rooftop tai chi, and Vietnamese spring roll making. The views on the cruise were absolutely breathtaking. You have options for a 1 day, 2 day/1 night, or 3 day/2 night cruise. I did the 2day/1 night cruise with Swan Cruises with you can book here.
The cruise was excellent, and the staff was so friendly. However, the next day I took a $4 USD ferry ride to Cat Ba island and went through the same bay, with the same views. So if I were to go again, I would just take the $4 ferry, instead of the $150 cruise. But, if you're looking more for the experience and don't mind spending a little bit more money, I would definitely recommend this option!
2. Ha Long Bay bus- You can easily book a bus ride from Hanoi to Ha Long City for $9 USD through any hostel or online. When you get to the city you can check into a hostel, I recommend Ha Long Fancy Hostel, then rent a motorbike and be on your way! Cruise up and down the coast, cross the bridge, and even take the sightseeing cable car to get panoramic views of the bay and coastline.
Ha Long Bay
> Bai Tho Mountain: This is the iconic hike and viewpoint that you've seen a million times of the iconic Ha Long Bay. It's a little bit complicated to find, so let me help you out. Get your motorbike and type in "Dinh Nui Bai Tho" on your maps, if you just type in Bai Tho mountain nothing will pop up. Follow the route along the main road. When you arrive park your bike and show any local this picture and ask where:
They will point and lead you to a specific house where a woman lives. When she sees foreigners she knows exactly why you're there. She will lead you through her house and backyard, filled with dozens of puppies and chickens, and bring you to a barbed wire fence. You will need to pay her $5 USD per person (a bit pricey I know, but you don't have a choice!) and then you will have to climb the barbed wire fence to access the hike. Yes, you read the correctly: climb a barbed wire fence. She will give you rags to cover your hands so you don't get cut. Once you hop over the fence, you have a steep hike ahead of you. But, when you get to the top you won't regret it!
> Ferry ride from Ha Long city port to Cat Ba island: $4 USD, 8:00am, 11:00am, & 3:00pm, 1 hour
> Hop on the 8:00am if you can, so you have a full day ahead of you in Cat Ba
> Check in to your hostel: we stayed in Woodstock Beach Camp which was beachfront and had amazing vibes. Hammocks everywhere, great restaurant on-site, and a separate bar across the street on the sand where they would have nightly bonfire parties. The atmosphere at this hostel is unmatched. However, the rooms and bathrooms were not great. I would suggest coming here to hang out and party, but then actually renting a room at a hostel down the road in Cat Ba town.
> Rent mopeds and cruise the coastline. There is 1 main road that circles the entire island, so you can just drive around with coastal views the entire time.
> Cat Ba National Park: $4 USD entrance fee - hike around and enjoy the lush views all around you. When you get to the top, there will be a 2-story wooden structure where you can have a celebratory drink or snack and take in the breathtaking views all around you.
> Trung Trang cave: Entrance is included in your National Park ticket, but you'll have to take your moped down the road about 5 minutes. This is a smaller cave, but it's worth a stop!
> Cat Ba town: Take your motorbike into town and walk around the various markets: most of which are selling fake North Face, Nike, and Adidas clothing that looks pretty real! Be ready to bargain with the owners.
> Hair of the Dog Beach Club: Nice beach where you can rent kayaks, grab some drinks, and relax on the sand.
> Bus back to Hanoi ($10, 2.5 hours, 3 buses a day: 8:00am, 12:00pm, and 4:00pm) so if you have a later flight, take the 4:00pm bus back so you can still enjoy the day in Cat Ba
> Banh Mi: basically a sandwich on a freshly toasted baguette. There's a stand in Hanoi around the corner from Central Backpackers hostel with a duck Banh Mi, and it was the best one I had during my trip
> Spring rolls: veggies and meat rolled up in rice paper, sometimes served fresh and sometimes deep fried
> Pho: noodles in a savory broth, the beef pho was my personal favorite during my trip
> Coffee: vietnamese coffee is very rich and strong on its own. But they have a signature coffee drink called "egg coffee" which is made from egg yolk, condensed milk, sugar, and coffee!
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