Nature lovers, culture vultures and gourmet travellers will love this stylish 12-day Northern Vietnam itinerary with five-star luxury and a mind-blowing array of things to do and see! From exploring the vibrant city of Hanoi to cruising through the stunning Halong Bay, visiting the picturesque Ninh Binh, and trekking in the breathtaking Sapa region, this guide will help you make the most of your nearly two weeks in Northern Vietnam.
Words: Rhonda Bannister
While researching and planning for our upcoming trip to Northern Vietnam, I realised that there is an abundance of online travel blogs catering to backpackers and trekkers on a tight budget. Unfortunately, very few resources were available to help couples like us who want to travel more comfortably and more sophisticatedly. If you are in a similar situation, our Hanoi & Northern Vietnam Itinerary is designed to fill this gap and offer you a delightful and memorable journey through Northern Vietnam.
Rather than whizzing through the entire country from north to south in 12 days, we decided to spend the same amount of time discovering northern Vietnam’s untouched charm and diverse beauty. We plan to return later and discover Southern Vietnam with an equally delightful itinerary.
Our journey begins and ends in Hanoi, with the days in between spent immersing in the incredible landscape of Ninh Binh, known as Halong Bay on land, forest-bathing in five-star luxury in the Ba Vi mountains and walking in the luminescent valleys and mountains of Sapa before cruising in luxury on the mystical waters of Halong Bay. This 12-day Northern Vietnam Itinerary covers natural wonders, ethnic minority villages, wellness & spa retreats, luxury cruising, cultural heritage, shopping and delicious cuisine.
The daily activities in Hanoi are, of course, interchangeable, as are the days away. Please do your research to plan your bespoke Itinerary using this one as a start, and check out our tips for hotels, restaurants and the best ways to get around.
12-DAY NORTHERN VIETNAM ITINERARY AT A GLANCE
DAY 1 ~ Arrival in Hanoi – Enjoy a Street Food Tour
DAY 2 ~ The Old Quarter – French Quarter
DAY 3 ~ Cultural Tour – Train Street – Beer Corner – Jazz Club
DAY 4 ~ Full Day Tour Ninh Binh – LAND OF LEGENDS
DAY 5-6 ~ Two Days Forest-Bathing, Ba Vi Mountains
DAY 7-10 ~ Four Days Sapa – Ethnic Tribes & Mount Fansipan
DAY 11-12 ~ Two Days Cruising Halong Bay
Hanoi | 3 Days
Hanoi is the capital of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, situated on the banks of the Red River in the north of the country. The city, founded over 1,000 years ago, is rich in history. Hanoi is what Asia used to be like – chaotic streets brimming over with markets and shops, old ladies wearing traditional conical hats, balancing baskets of fresh vegetables on bamboo poles hung over their shoulders, men sitting on tiny plastic stools on the sidewalk drinking tea, smoking and talking. Cyclos ferrying tourists through the twisting, narrow streets of the Old Quarter under pedal power, accompanied by the honking horns of dozens of motorbikes.
Hanoi is a loud, noisy, eccentric city and one you’ll never forget!
Day 1: Arrival in Hanoi – Unveiling the Capital’s Charms
After checking in to your stylish accommodation, go to La Terrasse cafe at the famous Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel for a light lunch or afternoon tea. This Parisian-style sidewalk cafe is one of Hanoi’s best très chic restaurants and the perfect spot for first-day people-watching!
Afternoon: it’s time to hit the streets of Hanoi on a Hop-on Hop-off bus tour, which runs on a 60-minute loop, allowing you to orient yourself while exploring the streets comfortably.
Evening: Dive straight into the local cuisine with a Private Street Food Tour, which provides a great introduction to the local culinary scene with an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide. A food tour when you arrive is the best way to ground yourself in any city in the world. You’ll be okay with choosing the right one as so many are available. After the tour, go to Binh Minh Jazz Club, the city’s oldest and most famous Jazz bar near the Hanoi Opera House. The music starts at 9 o’clock every night.
Day 2: The Old Quarter and French Quarter
Morning: Grab a map from your concierge and head out after breakfast for a shopping tour around the Old Quarter. A warning: crossing the streets choked with vehicles is downright scary as there are only a few pedestrian crossings, and even if the traffic light turns red, the bikes don’t all stop. They also go the wrong way down one-way streets and drive on the footpath, so walking can be a hazard to your health! My tip is to find other people crossing and stick with them. When you step onto the road, stay at one pace and walk through the motorbikes that will weave around you.
When shopping in the Old Quarter, It’s easy to find what you’re looking for as many of the streets specialise in just one or two things! Hang Gai is full of silk shops and art galleries; Hang Hom has homewares and lacquerware; Lan Ong is Medicine Street, and Hang Bac is Silver Street. Make sure you visit Dong Xuan Market, Hanoi’s largest, with an exciting array of colourful textiles and handicrafts. The Weekend Night Market, open from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday to Sunday, is also a don’t miss if here on the weekend.
While walking around the Old Quarter, try to locate Bach Ma Temple – literally White Horse Temple – which is said to be the oldest in the city. Enter through the lovely old doors of the pagoda to see a statue of the legendary white horse and a beautiful red-lacquered funeral palanquin. Old City Gate, built in the 11th century, is near Hang Chieu and Phan Dinh Phung streets. It was one of 16 gates that provided access to the city and is now a testament to its fascinating history and cultural significance.
After you’re shopped out, make your way to Hoan Kiem Lake, where you can pay respects at Ngoc Son Temple after crossing the quaint red bridge. It’s been a busy morning, so it’s time to relax with a cool drink and delectable food.
Afternoon: Stroll around the French Quarter on Hoan Kiem Lake’s southern and eastern sides. During the late 1800s, Hanoi was under French occupation, and many traditional Vietnamese structures were replaced with magnificent French-style houses and villas in this neighbourhood. The result is a beautiful blend of Vietnamese and French architecture that captivates visitors. On this walk, you’ll come across The Hanoi Opera House, an exquisite architectural treasure built in 1875 as a small-scale version of the Paris Opera. While you’re in Hanoi, check to see if there’s a performance scheduled here.
Evening: Finish the day with sundowners and stunning Hoan Kiem Lake and Red River views at Lighthouse Sky Bar on top of La Siesta Boutique Hotel.
Day 3: Historical & Cultural experiences – Hanoi’s rich heritage
Morning: A guided tour is the best way to get around to see the main sites. Hanoi Kids, a volunteer group of university students established in 2006, is happy to show guests around Hanoi for free (you cover their meals and entry charges). In return, they get to practise their English skills and take joy in showing visitors their city. They will tailor a day or afternoon to what you want to see. It’s best to email them to organise a bespoke tour: firstname.lastname@example.org – https://www.facebook.com/Hanoikidstours/.
If you prefer air-conditioned transport, there are plenty of guided tours.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum: Highly revered Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the independence movement that finally ousted the French and the man who united the country into the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, died in 1969, but you can still see his embalmed body, which lies in a bier inside a glass case at the imposing Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square.
The Temple of Literature: Founded by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong in 1070 as a Confucian University built around a lovely complex of courtyards, gardens and temples, the site preserves relics of the past, including an enormous statue of Confucius.
The Hanoi Hilton – or Hoa Lo Prison: While the Americans gave the sarcastic reference to a brand known more for its comfortable or luxury hotels, the prison today focuses on the Vietnamese revolutionaries who were sentenced and sometimes even executed here during the French reign.
The Vietnam Military History Museum is highly recommended and boasts an extensive collection of weapons, vehicles, and other artefacts from various wars, including the Vietnam War. One of the museum’s highlights is a replica of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, crucial in transporting supplies and troops during the war.
One Pillar Pagoda: Named after its extraordinary architecture, the whole construction is built on a single pillar planted in the middle of a lotus pond within walkable distance of Ho Chi Minh Complex.
Afternoon: One of the most unique experiences in Hanoi is watching the trains that race along tracks jammed between houses at Train Street.
Located in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, the narrow street is flanked by houses on either side, with train tracks running through the middle. Several times daily, trains race past, creating a thrilling spectacle for onlookers.
Not far away is Phung Hung Street Murals, a community art exchange project where artists painted on the arches at the base of the 120-year-old Long Bien Bridge depicting Hanoi’s history!
For a quintessential Hanoi experience, join the Beer Corner crowd at Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen streets. Pull up a small plastic chair and enjoy a cold Bia Hoi beer while watching the chaos.
Evening: If you still need to, download the Grab app (Asia’s Uber) and jump in a car to West Lake, the largest lake in Hanoi and a popular spot to escape the crowds and noise of the Old Centre.
Undoubtedly, the main highlight at West Lake is the impressive Tran Quoc Pagoda. It is Vietnam’s oldest temple, built in the 6th century to symbolise Buddhism in Vietnam. There are many great lakeside bars, cafes and sidewalk food stalls here, so leave a few hours to enjoy the quiet before your early morning departure tomorrow to Ninh Binh.
Where to stay in Hanoi
The best areas to stay so you’re amid the action are the Old Quarter or French Quarter. Great five-star hotels surround West Lake if you are okay with the 15-minute taxi ride into town.
The best hotels in and around the Old Quarter/ French Quarter
Sofitel Legend Metropole // Capella Hanoi // Meliá Hanoi // Meritel Hanoi // Peridot Grand Luxury // La Siesta Classic Hang Thung // Grand Hotel du lac Hanoi
Where to eat in Hanoi
KOTO: Know One -Teach One is a social enterprise restaurant started in 1999 by Jimmy Pham to help disadvantaged youth the opportunity to forge a brighter future with KOTO’s 2-year hospitality training program. With over 1,200 graduates now working as executive and sous chefs, business owners and business executives, this is a worthwhile restaurant to visit, and the food is delicious. Open for breakfast, lunch & dinner with a menu of authentic flavours of Vietnam.
DUONG’S RESTAURANT This restaurant, tucked away in the middle of Ngo Huyen Street near Hoan Kiem Lake, was opened and managed by Hoang Duong, one of Vietnam’s Top Chefs, in 2014. Don’t let the humble facade fool you; this is one of the city’s best restaurants, offering a menu of delicious Vietnamese and European fusion cuisine.
CHAPTER DINING & GRILL A unique grill dining experience created by Chef Quang Dung. Working with fire and using the freshest produce, the chefs have created a brilliant dining experience. Each dish is sculptured around exceptional flavours and plated as a work of art. The faux industrial exterior of rusted steel slats opens up to a sleek, modern interior, heralding new-style dining in traditional Hanoi.
A BẢN MOUNTAIN DEW RESTAURANT Featuring a diverse menu of traditional food inspired by the cultures of minority tribes in northwestern Vietnam, Chef Pham Viet’s birthplace. With the lush foliage, ethnic music and sounds of running water from a waterfall, it’s easy to imagine that you’re dining in a mountain forest.
LE BEAULIEU Operating in its current space at Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel since 1901, Le Beaulieu, the celebrated modern French fine dining restaurant, is believed to be the oldest continually operating restaurant in Vietnam.
BINH MINH’S JAZZ CLUB This is a fantastic find in the heart of Hanoi behind the Opera House with a great atmosphere and brilliant musicians. As Hanoi’s only dedicated jazz venue, you don’t come here for the food, but it is served all day. Live jazz begins every night at 9 p.m. Seating is indoors or outdoors on the garden patio.
BACKSTAGE Your inner celebrity will revel in this opulent, opera-themed restaurant at Capella Hanoi, whose open kitchen takes the front stage. Bold dishes respect the heritage of the north but combine modern techniques with European touches that will leave your tastebuds singing an aria of delight. They also serve steaks from a Josper grill and share dishes for two. The theatrical setting showcases stunning costumes from the opera’s most outstanding performances.
RHYTHMS RESTAURANT was named one of Asia’s best restaurants and Vietnam’s fifth best in 2023! Located on the 7th floor of La Sinfonia del Rey Hotel in Hang Day Street, this is an outstanding culinary destination for couples who love exquisite cuisine, groovy cocktails and excellent wine while drinking in the lovely view over Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter.
Multi-award-winning CLOUD NINE RESTAURANT on La Siesta Premium Hotel’s 9th floor takes you on a culinary journey of authentic Vietnamese cuisine with dishes from all over the country. It was voted one of Vietnam’s best restaurants in Tripadvisor Travellers’ Choice Awards 2023.
Ninh Binh | 1 Day In The Land of Legends
Embark on a scenic drive to Ninh Binh, a region often called “Halong Bay on land” due to its similar limestone karst formations just two hours from Hanoi.
There are many companies to choose from when booking this day trip, so read the reviews and make your choice. They’re similar, including most of the same excursions.
Explore the ancient capital of Hoa Lu, visiting the Dinh and Le temples dedicated to the rulers of the Dinh and Le dynasties. Embark on a boat tour in Tam Coc, gliding through rice paddies and limestone caves. Explore the Bai Dinh Pagoda, the most significant spiritual pagoda in the country, offering breathtaking panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.
Return overnight to Hanoi.
Top photo: Aerial view of Meliá Ba Vi Mountain Retreat; bottom left pool villa; bottom right couple exploring the grounds of the resort.
Ba Vi Mountain Retreat | 2 Days of Serenity & Luxury
Ba Vi is one of the country’s most famous mountain tourist areas 60 km west of Hanoi. After four hectic days, it’s time for some forest bathing at Meliá Ba Vi Mountain Retreat, a ninety-minute drive away from the addictive chaos of Hanoi.
This splendid five-star retreat is a holistic oasis surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery in northern Vietnam. There’s also a delightful cultural mix of Kinh, Muong and Dao ethnic villages to explore.
Here, you can walk or cycle the trails in an almost untouched forest or relax at the wellness area and enjoy the serenity with your spa treatment. Because Ba Vi functioned as a holiday resort during French colonisation in the 19th century, there are also French ruins to explore, plus ancient Vietnamese temples.
Contact the hotel for transfer options from Hanoi and to your next stop if going to Sapa – a five-hour drive away. Also, check the Klook site for transfer options.
NOTE: Another mountain retreat worthy of consideration if you have more time is Avana Retreat, a 36-villa property spread over 15 hectares of terraced rice fields and a jungled mountainside, a 3.5-hour drive from Hanoi.
The stunning property features an untouched waterfall, a spacious, indigenous design, a spa and yoga studio built on a stream, and one of Southeast Asia’s most majestic dining opportunities.
SAPA | 4 Days of Highland Bliss
Where is Sapa?
Sapa is a small village sitting 1.600 metres high in the Hoang Lien Mountains, 350 km north of Hanoi in the province of Lào Cai near the Chinese border.
What is the best area to stay in Sapa?
That depends on whether you’re trekking and staying with locals in a homestay or a good quality hotel. If hiking, the company you book with can arrange your homestay with one of the local hill tribes. If staying in a good hotel, the best ones, such as Hotel de la Coupole – M Gallery, BB Sapa Resort & Spa (formerly the Victoria Hotel), Sapa Horizon and Silk Path Grand, are located close to town. Hotel de la Coupola M Gallery, designed by the famous hotel designer Bill Bensley, is the first international five-star luxury hotel to be built here and is seriously gorgeous.
When is the best time to visit Sapa?
In autumn, from March to May, and in spring, from September to November, you can experience sunny days and cool nights. Winter, from December to February, is frigid and can even snow, while in summer, between April and May, the landscape bursts into colour, and the weather is warm but not too hot – July is the hottest month.
What is the best way to get to Sapa from Hanoi?
A private Limousine or Limousine Bus is the best transport because you travel in the day and go directly to Sapa, arriving in time to check in and get out and about. Check on Tripadvisor Private Transfer for prices and times and also on the Klook site.
If the overnight train is your preferred transport option, Vic Sapa Train is the newest train from Hanoi to Sapa, started in November 2022 with prices for a VIP 2-bed cabin US$85 one way and only available through https://vicsapa.com/
There’s also the luxe Chapa Express, which includes ground transfer to Sapa from the station and pick-up in Hanoi. These companies hire a carriage on the train – there’s one long train with a few companies offering cabins, some good, others not so good, so do your research. The SP3 train departs Hanoi at 10 p.m., arriving in Lao Cai at 6 a.m. – then it’s an hour’s drive to Sapa, so you must book your transfer before you leave Hanoi or have your hotel in Sapa organise it. Return trains leave from 19.35 to 21.40, depending on the train booked, getting you into Hanoi station around 5.30 a.m.
First Day Sapa | Arrive & Explore
Organise a private car pick-up for 9 a.m. so you can reach your hotel in Sapa by check-in time. If arriving by train/bus, you have plenty of time to find your hotel and have breakfast.
This afternoon would be an excellent time to walk around town to acquaint yourselves with the shops, cafes and restaurants. Sapa was a popular summer holiday destination for the French military and civilian personnel in the early 20th century, so there’s still an old-world European sensibility in the architecture of many buildings.
The Sapa markets are on every day, and there are always ethnic girls that walk for up to three hours from home every morning hanging around. They want to sell you jewellery and clothing brought with them and are so hard-working and lovely. I hope you buy something from them before their return hours-long walk home. You’ll be amazed at their language skills as they love to learn the language of the tourists and will follow you practising their new words.
Days 2- 4 Sapa | Reaching the Peak of Mount Fansipan & Hill tribes
Before the cable car was built in 2016, the only way to reach Mount Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest peak, was to trek for a few days. These days, they jump on the cable car and soar high above the jewel-green rice terraces into the clouds and the upper station before boarding the second cable car to reach the peak, which takes around 15 minutes. This experience helps bring over three million tourists here every year!
Spend time visiting the villages of the hill tribes, walking along buffalo tracks through the gently undulating countryside to Cat-Cat Village and the Silver Waterfall. Spend up at the colourful local markets as your money will help the villagers with little other income than their rice crop.
Sapa’s sublime scenery of luminescent green valleys and mountains terraced with rice paddies and its lovely hill-tribe people will leave you with unforgettable memories of cultures far removed from your own and scenery so breathtaking in its grandeur you’ll often see local villagers, people who have seen it every day of their lives, stop on a hillside and gaze in awe at the surrounding beauty.
Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay Cruising | 2 Days
Which is best – Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay?
The area of Halong Bay could be some of Mother Nature’s finest handiwork: a mystical place where thousands of towering karst formations rise from the water like sea monsters garlanded with necklaces of shimmering green. A place of such awe-inspiring beauty, it has been named one of the world’s most beautiful bays and designated a World Heritage site.
Of course, you won’t be lucky enough to have it to yourself as it’s one of the most visited places in Vietnam. It’s very crowded with boats and people, and even accessing caves and outlooks can have long queues.
This area has three bays, Halong Bay, Lan Ha Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay, with magnificent scenery. Halong Bay is the best known, but Lan Ha Bay’s 300-or-so karst islands and limestone outcrops are as beautiful as Halong Bay.
Leading boutique cruise operator Ambassador Cruise launched overnight cruises in Lan Ha Bay in July 2023, stating in their literature that ‘although it retains all the majesty of its superstar neighbour, Lan Ha Bay sees a fraction of the traffic. The two seascapes are virtually interchangeable, but the lack of tourist boats gives Lan Ha Bay a more isolated appeal’.
Having never been to Lan Ha Bay, I can’t personally recommend but I do plan to experience it when I return to Northern Vietnam. A good compromise is a one-day cruise in Halong Bay for bragging rights, staying overnight in a local hotel, followed by a two-day, one-night cruise of Lan Ha Bay.
Whichever cruise you choose, this will be an unforgettable memory of your journey through the wonders of Northern Vietnam!
NEED TO KNOW:
Visa: Australians and Kiwis need to have a valid visa or e-visa. You can get this in 3 different ways:
• Visa – through any Vietnamese embassy
• E-visa – online through the official website of the Vietnamese Immigration Service
• Visa on Arrival – through a local travel agency such as Local Vietnam
We recommend Viettel for most travellers. There are shops on almost every street corner that sell SIM cards, including small supermarkets. But officially, SIM cards must be registered with a passport and recommended to be bought in an official store. You can also buy it at the airport. The SIM card and a 5 GB /30-day package cost approx 100,000 VND (about USD 5).
The climate in northern Vietnam:
Hanoi has a humid tropical climate characterised by monsoons. Summers between May and September are sweltering with plenty of rain, while winters from November to March are cold and relatively dry. The hottest month of the year is June. January is the coldest month, usually beset with north-easterly winds.
Sapa has a sub-tropical climate in summer and a temperate climate in winter. The warmest months are July and August, and the coldest are December and January.
Halong in summer is hot, humid and rainy, while monsoons flourish. In winter, it’s cold and dry and sees little rainfall.
Getting Around: Download the Grab App for taxis and motorbike trips and the Klook app for transfers.
Electricity: Vietnam’s standard household (hotel) power supply is 220 volts, 50 Hertz. Vietnam power outlets usually accept two-pin plugs; flat and round pins are possible.
Travel Agents: There’s a wealth of tour operators available in Hanoi. When researching, we found Local Vietnam very helpful with all aspects of travelling around the country. As a local business, they can arrange everything without an intermediary.
Fun Facts About Vietnam
1) Vietnam’s coastline is 3,269 km long. That is even longer than Thailand (2,815km).
2) Nguyen is the most popular surname in Vietnam. More than 40% of the Vietnamese population has this surname.
3) In Vietnam, there are 60 million motorcycles out of a population of 95 million, making it the fourth-highest number of motorbikes in the world.
4) Vietnam is the second largest coffee exporter in the world after Brazil.
5) Vietnam is the world’s largest exporter of black pepper and cashews. The country produces nearly a third of all black pepper and half of the world’s cashews.
6) The Vietnamese language also uses the alphabet, including five symbols. With this, Vietnam has six different tones. By changing the tone, the word’s meaning changes, or it means nothing anymore.
7) Vietnam was initially spelled in 2 words: Viet Nam – a name dating back to the 16th century. Although it came to be known as Vietnam – especially in English – the Vietnamese government and the United Nations still refer to the country as Viet Nam.
8) The world’s largest and third-largest caves are in Vietnam. The Son Doong cave is so big that a Boeing 747 can fly through the most significant entrance. The cave is big enough for a 40-storey skyscraper and so huge that it has its own climate and clouds can form in it.