In 2019, I traveled to Vietnam for a month and had such an unforgettable time here. From Southern Vietnam to Northern Vietnam, I tried to cover as much as possible. However, Vietnam is a huge country and I couldn’t visit all the amazing places that this country has to offer.
I started my trip from Ho Chi Minh and covered a few destinations on the way before reaching Hanoi and then flying back to India. In this article, I will share my Northern Vietnam itinerary for you if you are planning for a short 9-day trip to Vietnam.
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Northern Vietnam Itinerary
With majestic mountain ranges, stunning rice terraces, gorgeous bays, and interesting ethnic groups, Northern Vietnam differs from the laid-back and beach-centric Southern Vietnam. Not in just terms of sceneries but food too, Northern Vietnam indulges in bolder and delicious dishes like Bun Cha, Pho, etc. which will easily make your mouth water.
In this Northern Vietnam itinerary, I have covered three main places in this region that you could cover in a relaxed and comfortable manner.
Day 1: Ninh Binh
Located in northern Vietnam, Ninh Binh is known as the Halong Bay of the Land and is a great place to be in touch with nature. When I was traveling from Phong Nha to Ninh Binh, what struck me the most about this place is the greenery and the small hills scattered all over the town. One of the prettiest and least spoilt regions in Vietnam, Ninh Binh is a great place to stop by and enjoy the limestone scenery.
There is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site here where you can go for a boating tour to enjoy the scenery and explore the numerous water caves that are found in this region. Honestly, I do feel that Ninh Binh is one of the top places to visit in Vietnam, especially northern Vietnam and it would be a tragedy if you miss this place.
Ninh Binh Rice Fields
One of the best things to do in Ninh Binh is to drive along with the rice fields here or take a boat tour in Tam Coc to observe the gorgeous rice fields in this region. And the best part is that you don’t have to go far to witness these rice fields because the entire region is covered with it. Why so many rice fields?
Well, because of the extremely fertile here and is rich in soil and water nutrients which is good for growing rice. The entire field looks yellowish-green and with the green-covered limestone rocks as the backdrop, the entire place looks just gorgeous. Although, I went during the time when the rice fields were already harvested but the sight wasn’t any less mesmerizing. If you wish to see the rice fields in full glory, then plan a trip to northern Vietnam between June and August.
Trang An Boat Tour
After exploring the rice fields, you simply have to take a boat tour of the Tam Coc rice fields or the Trang An Landscape Complex. Tran An Landscape Complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the best part is that you can enjoy a boat tour here. What is most impressive about Trang An is that there are several limestone mountains here but they are not connected to each other. Yes, that’s right!
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Sometimes I can't thank God enough for this beautiful life! This life where I can live my fairy tales in real life, every once in a while. A life where I get to explore such beautiful wonders of the earth. A life where I get to meet some really amazing humans and get to learn profound ideas and thoughts. A life which is so much more than the ups and downs. Because in the end, the cribbing and the laughing and the sadness is what makes this life so interesting and a surprise. Don't you think so? 🙃
Instead, these mountains stand separately and are only connected via rice paddies. Although you can access some parts of Trang An via a cycle, car, or even on foot, the best way to experience the scenery here is through boat tours. This boat tour takes you through the landscape of Trang An, covering fields that have been submerged and cannot be used for growing rice now.
Ideally, each boat has 4-6 people, most of whom are local tourists as this place is not so popular. You can purchase the ticket for the boat tour at the Ticket Counter for 9 USD per person (200,000 VND = 650 INR).
The boat tours start at 7:00 a.m. and at 4:00 p.m., you have the last boat leaving for the tour for the day.
There are three routes to choose from and the boat tour usually lasts between 2 to 3 hours. What I absolutely loved about this boat tour is that you can even paddle the boat for a unique experience and you also have a chance to visit the site where King Kong was shot here. How amazing, right!
Also, make sure that you carry a hat and sunscreen because it can be sweltering hot on the boat. And try to opt for the evening or early morning ride because the temperature is cooler and you are able to enjoy yourself better.
Where to Stay in Ninh Binh
A popular destination in Northern Vietnam, Ninh Binh offers a lot of gorgeous accommodation options for you to choose from.
Since I was backpacking in Vietnam, I stayed at Hang Mua Valley Homestay which is perfect for minimalistic backpackers. They offer both dormitory beds and private rooms and the price ranges between 5 USD and 25 USD. Plus, they even provide you with bike rentals and free breakfast options.
How to Reach Ninh Binh
Since I reached Ninh Binh from Phong Nha, I took an overnight bus to Ninh Binh that costs between 10 USD – 25 USD (750 – 1900 INR). This bus takes around 7 – 8 hours and you will reach early morning in Ninh Binh center by 5 a.m.
However, if you are planning to start your trip from Hanoi in Northern Vietnam, then you can leave from Hanoi or Cat Ba to Ninh Binh. You can book your tickets from Cat Ba to Ninh Binh online using Bookaway to avoid any last-minute hurdles.
Day 2: Ninh Binh Tour
After resting on day 1 and doing a little exploring, you can start early on day 2 to explore the other amazing places around here. Personally, I loved the early morning hike to Hang Mua Peak which is easily one of the best places to visit in this northern Vietnam region. If you visit during the right season, you can easily catch a sunrise or sunset from this peak.
Hang Mua Peak
One of the best viewpoints in northern Vietnam, Hang Mua Peak comprises two peaks that can be climbed through the laid-out steps. The taller peak has a stone-carved dragon that watches over the Tam Coc valley. This dragon is of great importance in the Vietnamese culture because Vietnamese people are said to be the descendants of a fairy and a dragon.
The dragon peak is 500 steps away and can take roughly between 20-40 minutes to climb. The climb is a little sleep but it is totally manageable. However, if it is humid or hot, you will be sweating during the climb in just a few minutes.
However, the view from the peak makes up for all the climb as you can see Ninh Binh stretched out on one side of the peak and the Tam Coc rice fields along with the Red River Delta on the other side of the peak. The limestone mountains, the greenish-yellow rice fields, everything just looks so magical from this peak.
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#ReducePlastic #SustainableTraveling Last year, when I traveled to Vietnam, I finally realized how much plastic we end up using everyday. And well, I got this realization because the use of plastic in Vietnam is comparatively more than any other place that I have been to. From street food vendors to hostels, almost every one serves foods and drinks in plastic glasses or bottles only. . . And it felt so horrifying to be contributing to the plastic wastage by traveling in Vietnam and buying food or drinks from here. But I could also not completely avoid it in this country so I took a vow to reduce my plastic intake in July, while I still had a week to explore Vietnam. . . Needless to say, those 7 days were hell and my food and drink options were quite limited. But after a while, it became easy to not buy plastic items, more so when I came back to India. Since then, I haven't taken any flights or bought that many packets of food or water bottle and frankly, it feels good to be doing your own bit. . . And now, I don't even think twice before buying items which are not packaged in plastic. Trust me, once you make a habit out of something, it becomes quite easy to follow it long term. . . Do you have such environmental friendly habits while traveling as well? Share in the comments below with me! 🙂
If you want to stay near the peak and the cave, then there is Hang Mua Eco Lodge also available here. However, it can be quite crowded during the daytime as everyone comes to visit the peak and the cave.
Also, the entry to the Hang Mua Peak starts from 7:00 a.m. in the morning and you need to pay 4.5 USD (100,000 VND = 325 INR) for the entry. The place is open till 5 p.m. and there is a free parking area here.
A lot of locals will tell you there is no free parking and to park outside their shops but don’t believe them.
Bich Dong Pagoda
After Hang Mua Peak and Cave, you can make your way to the Bich Dong Pagoda on your northern Vietnam itinerary. This pagoda is past the Tam Coc fields and is the best pagoda in the region. Located on the side of a mountain, Bich Dong Pagoda has three levels and offers amazing views of your surrounding region.
These temples are integrated with the caves so it is quite exciting as well. But since there are multiple levels, the path is a little steep and there are a lot of bats living inside the caves, so be careful. However, if you love to visit peaceful places then you should definitely pay a short visit here.
Now, although I wasn’t lucky enough to witness the yellow rice fields of Tam Coc, it is true that the Tam Coc scenery is too gorgeous to skip. One of the most amazing sceneries in northern Vietnam, Tam Coc is a great place to enjoy drives beside the rice field and you can take in the calm and peaceful nature around you.
Apart from that, there is the Tam Coc town area as well which is home to many party places and restaurants. This is also the main hub for tourists. Also, you also have the option of taking a Tam Coc tour on a boat which will be as exciting as the Trang An boat tour, just with a different scenic view.
Another great place to visit in northern Vietnam is the Van Long Nature Reserve, close to Ninh Binh. This wetland nature reserve is the perfect place for bird watchers and nature lovers. And since very few tourists come to this place, you will be able to enjoy the beautiful scenery here without worrying about the crowds.
Also, this is protected land so you will find a wide range of flora and fauna here. This is a great place to add to your northern Vietnam itinerary if you are looking for an offbeat destination or are interested in watching the Vietnam wildlife. Since it is just 29 km from Ninh Binh, you can plan a couple of hour’s visit here and enjoy it.
If somehow you manage to not visit Van Long or Tam Coc, then you can always include Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam in 10th century, in your northern Vietnam itinerary. Here, you will find a huge citadel that is home to many scenic temples that you can choose to explore.
So, if you are a history buff, then you would love to visit Hoa Lu to learn the culture and history of Vietnam.
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Day 3: Ninh Binh to Cat Ba Island
After exploring Ninh Binh and Tam Coc, I made my way from Ninh Binh to Cat Ba Island to continue on my northern Vietnam itinerary. Cat Ba was one of my favorite destinations in northern Vietnam and I ended up extending my stay on this island due to an unexpected storm. What I love the most about Cat Ba is that it has many amazing activities for you to indulge in here like mountain biking, boat tours, massages, bar hopping, hiking, and so on.
Most importantly, along with the beaches, you also have the Cat Ba National Park to explore that offers several trails for hiking and trekking enthusiasts.
Cat Ba Town
When you take a ferry + van to Cat Ba Island, you will be dropped at the Cat Ba Town center. While the town itself doesn’t offer a lot, it is a good base and you will find it easier to find shops and restaurants around.
One of my favorite things to do in the Cat Ba Town was to sit at the boat pier and watch the city lights at night. That’s not all, you can also take a boat to reach one of the floating restaurants here for a unique dining experience. These ferries between the floating restaurant and the shore are free of cost and another experience that you wouldn’t want to miss in northern Vietnam.
Apart from that, you have many bars and clubs here where you can party if that’s what you are into. For sunset lovers, Cannon Fort near Cat Ba Town offers an amazing viewpoint. It is a short, windy road to the top and you can enjoy the view of the surrounding bays and islands from here.
Where to Stay on Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba Island is an offbeat destination in Northern Vietnam so, you will find fewer accommodation options available here.
Since I was backpacking in Vietnam, I stayed at Cat Ba Countryside Homestay which is perfect for budget-travelers. This property offers both dormitory beds, private rooms, and even complete bungalows for stay. Plus, they even provide you with bike and bicycle rentals and even have a pool inside the property that can be used by the guests.
How to Reach Cat Ba Island
Since I reached Cat Ba Island from Ninh Binh, I took an early morning bus and then a ferry to reach Cat Ba Island that costs between 10 USD – 25 USD (750 – 1900 INR).
This bus + ferry service takes around 4 – 6 hours and there are several departure times available for Ninh Binh to Cat Ba. You can either book this trip from your homestay owner or you can book your tickets Ninh Binh to Cat Ba online too.
However, if you are planning to start your trip from Hanoi in Northern Vietnam, then you can make your way from Hanoi to Cat Ba.
Day 4: Lan Ha Bay Boat Tour
One of the top things to do in Cat Ba Island is to take the Halong Bay, Lan Han, or Bai Tu Long Bay cruise from here. However, if you are on a budget trip like me but still want to enjoy the tour of the bay then, Lan Ha Bay day tour is the perfect way to do that.
Lan Ha Bay
While Halong Bay is more popular and a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is too crowded as well and has lost its charm. Lan Ha Bay is an amazing alternative as it offers the same scenic view but with barely any crowds. Yes, that’s right! You still are able to see several limestone cliffs all over the ethereal green waters that are lined with white sandy beaches.
This is definitely one of the top locations to visit in Northern Vietnam and the best part is that you can take a day boat tour for just 25 USD! On this boat tour, you not only enjoy the Lan Ha Bay tour but also get a chance to indulge in activities like swimming, kayaking, hiking, and so on. Plus, they also give you delicious Vietnamese lunch that will make your mouth water.
One of the best things about the Lan Ha Bay boat tour is that you also get a chance to kayak in Lan Ha Bay. You can go from the water caves and just make the most of the 1 hour that is provided to you along with the essential kayaking equipment.
Although you do get a chance to enjoy a 1-hour kayaking excursion on your Lan Ha Bay boat tour, you can opt for kayaking otherwise as well. You can easily rent a kayak and then go out to enjoy the ocean while being surrounded by the beautiful yet secluded Lan Ha Bay.
Finally, your Lan Ha Bay boat tour ends with a stop at Monkey Island. Here, you can either choose to enjoy the beach and swim in the ocean or you can hike to the top of the island to enjoy the bay views and the island views.
Remember, the stones at the Monkey Island leading to the viewpoint are jagged so, wear a good pair of hiking shoes here. Also, you only get 1 – 1.5 hours at this island so use it judiciously.
Day 5: Cat Ba Island Tour
After the Lan Ha Bay tour, it is a good idea to keep another buffer day in Cat Ba in your northern Vietnam itinerary. This is because there are still a few places and activities left that you can enjoy here. You can choose to relax on the beaches or go on an exciting hiking adventure, it is completely up to you.
You can also opt for the Cat Ba Island tour from Hanoi itself. Make sure you book your tickets from Hanoi to Cat Ba beforehand for a convenient and comfortable journey.
Cat Ba Beaches
It is no secret that northern Vietnam offers a lot of gorgeous beaches for sunbathing and water activities. And the same is true for Cat Ba Island as well. You can rent a motorbike or use the electric van to reach one of the three beaches of Cat Ba – Cat Co 1, Cat Co 2, and Cat Co 3.
One of the best things about these beaches is that it is flanked by mountains on both sides and you can enjoy the bay view from the beaches. Also, all three beaches are connected by a small walking trail so it is easy to access them. You can get up early to enjoy a sunrise from one of these beaches or pathways.
Cat Ba Caves
After spending a couple of hours on the beach, you can also explore the numerous caves on Cat Ba Island. There are several large and small caves here, out of which Hospital cave and Trung Trang cave are the most popular among tourists.
As these caves are located near Cat Ba National Park headquarters, it is a great way explore both the caves and the national park when you visit this area.
Cat Ba National Park
One of the most prominent national parks in northern Vietnam, Cat Ba National Park is a paradise for nature lovers and hiking enthusiasts. You can get the entry ticket from the national park gate and then can explore on foot the flora and fauna of this region.
Another interesting thing to note about Cat Ba National Park is that it is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. There are several trekking routes available here. You can choose the 1.8 km usual trek route to enjoy a short walk or you can take the 16 km trekking route to the Viet Hai Village.
Cat Ba Pier
Finally, one of my absolute favorite places in northern Vietnam is the winding road near the Cat Ba pier. This is one of the least visited spots by tourists and you will find only a couple of local families coming here during the evening. This place offers the most mesmerizing sunset views from the island and is a must-visit if you like peace and tranquility.
Day 6: Cat Ba Island to Hanoi
Next, you can continue your journey from Cat Ba to Hanoi to end your northern Vietnam trip like I did. Known for its rich culture and gorgeous old architecture, Hanoi is one of the most popular cities to visit in northern Vietnam. It is also the capital of Vietnam and shows the influences of French, Chinese, and Southeast Asian. You can plan a one-day stay in Hanoi or can even set aside a couple of days to properly explore this city.
Apart from the culture, what I loved the most about Hanoi is the food here. Hanoi has distinct dishes than southern Vietnam and if you don’t mind occasional non-vegetarian food, then there is a lot to try out here.
Temple of the Jade Mountain (Ngoc Son Temple)
When you reach from Cat Ba to Hanoi, you are likely to be a little tired from the journey. So, take it light on the first day here. You can head to the Hanoi city center to visit the famous Temple of the Jade Mountain, aka Ngoc Son Temple, which is situated on the Jade islet of Hoan Kiem Lake.
This small temple is dedicated to the Taoist and Confucian philosophers and Tran Hung Dao, a national hero. The temple is connected to the mainland via a small bridge and the entry fee to enter the temple is 1 USD (20,000 VND = 65 INR).
This place looks especially gorgeous during the sunset and sunrise times, so make sure you visit the temple around that time to enjoy the scenery.
Hanoi Old Quarter
Hanoi Old Quarter is one of the top places to visit in northern Vietnam which is found to be the most traditional area in Hanoi. These densely packed streets have their own charm and offer a lot of shops, restaurants, street stalls, etc. that you can indulge in. If you wish to buy souvenirs for home, then this is the perfect place for that.
Apart from that, you can also enjoy a stroll in the Hanoi night market that is held during the weekends here.
Where to Stay in Hanoi
Hanoi is one of the primary destinations in Northern Vietnam so, you will find a lot of accommodation options available here.
When I was backpacking in Vietnam, I stayed at RedDoorz Hostel near Hang Chieu Street which is perfect for backpackers. This property is close to the Hanoi Party Street and is close to most other attractions as well.
How to Reach Hanoi
Since I made the journey of Cat Ba to Hanoi, I took an early morning bus and then a ferry to reach Hanoi that costs between 10 USD – 25 USD (750 – 1900 INR). This bus + ferry service takes around 4 – 6 hours and there are several departure times available for this route.
You can either book this trip from your homestay owner or you can book your tickets for route Cat Ba to Hanoi from Bookaway too.
Also Read: Travel Guide on North Thailand
Day 7: Hanoi City Tour
The next day, you can start a little early for your Hanoi city tour if you want to escape the touristy crowd. I would suggest enjoying a walking tour if you don’t mind the physical activity. You could also rent a cycle to cover more places quickly in the city area.
Hoan Kiem Lake
One of the best places to visit early morning would be the Hoan Kiem Lake that is a popular hangout spot for both locals and tourists. What is interesting about this lake is that it is said to be the home to a mythical turtle who is Vietnamese legend’s hero. A few locals say that this turtle still swims in the lake but even if you don’t believe these stories, it is a great place to enjoy the beautiful vistas across the lake water.
Hoa Lo Prison Relic (Museum)
If you love historical monuments and are interested in learning the history of Vietnam, the Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi is one of the best places in northern Vietnam to do so.
During the Vietnam war, this prison used to keep the United States’ prisoners. Here, you read about Vietnam’s struggle for Independence including a lot of grisly detail as well. So, if you have the stomach for the harsh reality then this is a must-visit place in Hanoi.
Tran Quoc Pagoda
One of the oldest Buddhist temples in Hanoi, Tran Quoc Pagoda was built in the 6th century and is a popular tourist attraction in Hanoi. This pagoda is situated in the middle of West Lake and is connected via a small causeway to the mainland.
You will also find a stupa here with 11 floors that are filled with statues that are covered with gemstones. And this pagoda looks especially at the night when the entire pagoda gets beautifully lit up.
Dong Xuan Market
One of the largest markets in Hanoi, Dong Xuan market is held inside a 4-story Soviet-styled building. This place is filled with a wide collection of apparel, souvenirs, etc. at the best prices! Yes, you heard me!
And even though you might not want to indulge in shopping over here, it is quite fascinating to watch the local traders go about their business over here.
Hanoi Street food and Dishes
If you are in northern Vietnam, then one thing that you must do is taste the delicious food here. Remember, since Vietnam has access to seafood most, you will find very few vegetarian options here. But if you don’t mind eating seafood or other delicacies, then they have a lot to offer.
In northern Vietnam, you will find snails being predominantly eaten by the locals. Although I was definitely not a fan of snails, many people happened to like it over here.
Personally, Bun Cha, Banh Mi, and Banh Xeo were my absolute favorite. But what really took my heart was the portable pancakes that they make in the stalls here. It’s small, it’s delicious, and it costs just 5,000 VND (15 INR).
If you don’t wish to spend 2-3 days at Cat Ba, then you will find day tours from Hanoi to Cat Ba as well.
Day 8: Hanoi City Tour
On day 8 of your northern Vietnam trip, you can explore the remaining places in Vietnam including the famed Train street as well. Again, you could choose to walk or hire a cycle to explore the area on your own.
Thang Long Imperial Citadel
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Thang Long Imperial Citadel has great historical and cultural significance for Vietnamese. This citadel was the center of ancient and was the political center for around eight centuries. You can find this citadel situated in the Ba Dinh square and can access other nearby attractions as well.
Situated in Old Hanoi Quarter, between Le Duan and Kham Tien street is the famous train street of Hanoi. One of the most popular spots to visit in northern Vietnam, this street is still functional and the train passes through this rail track twice a day. What’s interesting about this trains Street is that there are houses on both sides so people shut their homes during the train timings.
One can visit here to watch the train pass by and marvel at this Vietnamese locality.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Of course, most of you must have heard about Ho Chi Minh who was an important figure in shaping Vietnam’s history. One of the greatest leaders to be considered in Hanoi, his preserved body has been safely kept in a glass case in the Binh Dinh region. Yes, the final resting place of Ho Chi Minh is in northern Vietnam and it is a popular attraction to visit.
Temple of Literature
Temple of Literature is another famous attraction in Hanoi which dates back to 1070. This is a huge complex and you will find a lot of building to explore and learn about the literary history of Vietnam.
The most interesting thing about this place is the Stele of Doctors where there are around 82 carved blue stone turtles. As mentioned earlier, these turtles are considered holy in Vietnam. Also, many budding local writers visit this place to pray that one day they will be able to publish a masterpiece.
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
One of the top things to do in Hanoi on your northern Vietnam trip is to attend the Thang Long Water Puppet Show. A unique theatrical experience, you will find that you are looking at the puppets that are being manipulated to move on top of a waist-high water pool filled with water.
In these shows, they tell you the local legends and common Vietnam myths that are extremely interesting to hear. They use bamboo canes to operate the puppets which is quite neat. There are daily shows in the evening and the entry ticket is 4.5 USD (100,000 VND = 325 INR) for a show.
This kind of puppet shows started in rural Vietnam when the rice field got flooded. So, in an effort to entertain themselves, the locals started dancing puppets on water.
Day 9: Departure from Hanoi
This is the last day of your northern Vietnam trip so, make sure you are all packed up. And if you have some time to watch the sunrise, then do head to the Hoan Kiem Lake and watch a beautiful sunrise in Hanoi for one last time. From the city center, you will get a cab or the Airport Bus to reach the Noi Bai International Airport.
From Hanoi Old Quarter, you will get the Hanoi Airport Bus Express (Bus Number 86) that takes 45 – 60 minutes to reach the airport. It costs 1.5 USD (35,000 Vietnamese Dong = 115 INR) and is a safe and convenient way to reach Hanoi Airport. You will find one bus every 20 – 30 minutes on this route, so plan your departure accordingly.
If you choose to take a taxi to the airport, then you will have to pay around 14 USD (320,000 Vietnamese Dong = 1100 INR) and it will take you around 30 minutes to reach. You can always book your transport to airport in advance using Bookaway.
And well, here your Northern Vietnam trip ends and you leave back for home with some beautiful memories. If you have more time at hand or if you wish to see more of this beautiful region, then make sure you add Ha Giang Loop, Sapa, and Mai Chau in your Northern Vietnam itinerary too!
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Did you like our northern Vietnam itinerary? If yes, then do let us know in the comments!