Here are a few notes on northern Vietnam, namely Sapa (Lao Cai), Hanoi, & Halong Bay.
We really enjoyed our 3day/2night tour of Halong Bay with Bai Tu Long Bay company.Â We wanted to get out of the well-known and therefore crowded Halong Bay, so we chose the less famous Bai Tu Long Bay area.Â Incidentally this meant, also traveling with Bai Tu Long Bay boat company on their ship called the White Dolphin.Â The first and third day we were a bit crowded in with other boats, but the second day we (the 4 of us) had the whole boat as well as the whole area to ourselves, which was very peaceful and relaxing.Â We were able to enjoy the scenery without feeling we were just one of many out see the same thing.Â Obviously tourism has taken off here and its possible to get away from other tourists, but not easy.
Our boat (White Dolphin) was very nice and the food was excellent.Â They even tried to cater to the non-fish eaters among us.Â The staff’s English was limited and they didn’t do a very good job of telling us the plan or preparing us for what was to come next.Â Nonetheless, we had an excellent tour of Bai Tu Long (Halong) Bay.Â Cost (3D/2N) including roundtrip transport and all meals (but not drinks): $195/person, which was rather on the expensive side, which I attribute to the deluxe boat.
89 Ma May Street
We booked both our Lao Cai – Hanoi return train tickets and our Halong Bay tour with ET Pumpkin and were overall very satisfied with their services.Â They were thoughtful and willing to help us with confirming other reservations and offering other services as necessary.Â They were also cheaper than some of the other places we looked at.Â They accept credit cards.Â Funny name, good company.
Hanoi Holiday Hotel – Old Quarter, Hanoi – This place was a good value, with breakfast included and airport pickup for $10.Â The rooms were nice and well-cleaned.Â However, the water heater in the bathroom was so noisy that it woke me up throughout the night.
Phu Do Hotel
68 Hang Bo Steet, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
This hotel was nicer and a little more deluxe than some of the others we stayed in, and the price reflected it, as it was about $10 more than the other hotels we stayed in.Â This was the only hotel we were at that had a bathroom that was properly designed and executed such that the entire bathroom wasn’t covered in water after taking a shower.Â That was a plus.Â The breakfast was mediocre.Â The staff was a bit awkward at times and didn’t seem to offer the best rates/deals or be completely honest with us.Â Their hotel car service was $15, more than the Holiday Hotel and more than ET-Pumpkin’s ($12) so we opted for Pumpkin.
Cat Cat Viet Hotel
046 Cat Cat Road – Sapa
020 871 946
Excellent Hotel! Stunning views from the terrace.Â Some of the most affordable and best food we found in Sapa.Â Friendly, helpful staff, including a Westerner.Â Able to organize tours to markets & villages as well as do laundry very affordably and pickup/drop-off from the train station in Lao Cai.Â The hotel sent a driver to pick us up at the train station and he was there waiting for us when we got off the train.Â Then when we arrived at the hotel, the hotel was expecting us (though the rooms weren’t ready).Â This was reassuring after the driver tried to charge us for the ride, but we insisted on being taken to the hotel first so we could check whether we were supposed to pay through the hotel or pay the driver (the hotel did in fact pay, then bill us with the rooms).Â This hotel is a little off the main strip but this makes for lower prices and a more relaxed enjoyment of Sapa.
57 Hang Buom Street, Hanoi
84-4 926 1863
I think this restaurant was all of our favorite restaurant during the trip.Â The food was flavorful, but not over powering.Â An excellent selection and some of the best prices we found on the trip.
Baguette & Chocolat
Hanoi – Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
84-4 243 1116
Sapa – Thac Bac Street
84-20 871 766 (I could never get this phone number to work; it said it had been changed)
Baguette & Chocolat is run by the Hoa Sua School for disadvantaged youth.Â Their pastries were absolutely scrumptious, some of the best I’ve had in Asia.Â I highly recommend, particularly their Sapa location when the chocolate is pure indulgence after a long trek.
Taxis in Vietnam
In Vietnam, unlike in mainland China, its most of the time better to bargain for a taxi, assuming you know what a good rate is.Â Both of the times, that I got scammed in Vietnam were due to taxis. A good rule of thumb is to offer them about 30-40% of their starting price when bargaining.Â For example, a metered taxis from the Old Quarter to the Museum of Ethnology might run anywhere from 100,000VND to 210,000VND, but a bargained taxi should less than 70,000VND.
In Hanoi, there are a number of taxi companies some more reputable than others.Â It seems they can all set their own rates.Â Airport Taxi seems to be on the cheaper side, whereas Hanoi TourisTaxi was much more expensive per kilometer and the driver drove us around to run up the meter.Â (Although when we arrived we paid him less than 3/4 of the meter price).Â Anyway, be wary of taxis.
Other notes on Hanoi
The shopping is amazing! The chocolate croissants are so good.Â I highly recommend the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, especially if you’re visiting any of Vietnam’s minorities.Â Watch out for the traffic.Â In only 8 days in Vietnam, 3 times (three!) the mini-bus I was inÂ hit a motor scooter.Â If you don’t get hit by monsoons, November has the perfect temperature for this region, but not really warm enough to go swimming in Halong Bay.
There’s lots to see and take in in Vietnam, including comparing and contrasting it to China and other Southeast Asian countries.Â Vietnam seems very up and coming, though its largely still less developed than China.Â Overall, I’d say Vietnam is a great place for travelers, particularly backpackers, as it very affordable and very interesting; however, don’t expect a high level of English and make sure you come prepared to bargain and keep a little wary of locals trying to take advantage of your tourism dollars.