For years northern Vietnam has had far fewer visitors than Ho Chi Minh City and the southern coastal cities. That doesn't mean that it's not full of culture and magnificent sites. This region is historically and currently significantly poorer than other regions of the country. Because of this, cultural and political differences are strong. The language is a bit different and the air is certainly a bit more tense than other regions. Given that, there is still a great vacation to be had.
You'll likely begin your trip in the friendly capital city of Hanoi. I say friendly because it is common for people to talk to strangers on the street in this city. Don't be surprised if people on the bus or in the shop stop and begin talking to you. To really get the full background of this rich country, make a trip to the Ho Chi Minh Museum. This massive museum was built in 1990 and the design is intended to depict a beautiful white lotus. The main exhibition is on the third floor showing the turmoil and chaos of the area post-war.
For a more peaceful atmosphere, spend an afternoon at the Temple of Literature. Founded in 1070, this is the country's first university. Wander the courtyard and admire the stone tablets mounted on the backs of tortoises featuring the names of graduates over centuries.
For those who get a charge out of standing on history, take a trip to the Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, also known as The Hanoi Hilton. This old French prison is a good representative of classic French architectural design. Many Vietnamese revolutionaries, as were imprisoned and executed in this prison that is now a museum. Exhibits depict the French colonial regime and the struggles of the Vietnamese people. This is also the site where many American POWs were captured during the Vietnam War. Beware, this section of history is displayed with a propaganda skew only showing regime sanctioned photos that were staged to show prisoners being treated well.
For some of the most stunning nature you'll ever see, take a tour of Halong Bay. A day cruise of this area will give a glimpse of the pristine water and mountains jutting up from the surface, but for the true magic of sunsets, sunrises or moonlit water, book a two or three day long cruise.
If you're ready to trek to some of the most stunning views in the world, head up to the city of Sapa in the northwest near the Chinese border. This charming town is full of mountains and rice terraces. Without question, the most beautiful area of Sapa is Heaven's Gate. This aptly named mountain region is a full day's hike that includes a waterfall. Be sure to bring a camera.
With so many hills, you can travel each of them any way you choose hiking, running, cycling, motorbiking, the adventures are up to you.
Food and Dining
Traditional Vietnamese food is absolutely delicious. You won't want to miss the signature dishes while visiting northern Vietnam. When you sit down for a meal, be sure to look for things like ngan the mollusks only found in the Quang Ninh province, or tu hai the rare shellfish from the Van Don Island district. Sample the gat gu cake made from rice flour, or the sa sung from Halong Bay.
If you plan to travel between cities in North Vietnam, taxis are the most comfortable way to travel long distances. Be ready to negotiate with the driver even if they have a meter. For long distances, they will try to negotiate with you into a more expensive fare, but if you simply turn and walk away, that driver will likely change his mind quickly. Speaking of meters, some of the smaller, less reputable companies will rig their meters to run faster, running fares up very quickly. To avoid this, try to stick with reliable taxi companies. Most drivers speak English, but you may also want to get your hotel to write the name and address of your destination to give to your driver. If you're in Hanoi, Uber is also a new option.
The bus system in Hanoi is scam free and cheap, but not a simple system. You may find yourself very confused. Renting a car is also not recommended as drivers are fairly reckless and traffic jams are the norm.
Otherwise, long distance buses run between most major towns. A train line runs the full north-south length of Vietnam, although it can be slow and costly. A convenient trip northwest from Hanoi will take you to the highlands near the Chinese border (Sapa, Bac Ha, Lao Cai, etc.), while other lines to the north of Hanoi reach other nearby destinations to the northeast, as well as Halong Bay.
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