I'm not gonna lie, when it came to Vietnam, I had ZERO idea of what to expect - aside from the fact that it is one of Anthony Bourdain's favorite places in the world which obviously put it at the top of my list.
Immediately upon getting into our Uber driver's car in Hanoi, we knew we weren't in Myanmar anymore 😂Hanoi is a big, crazy city (with a population bigger than New York!) with pretty much zero traffic laws, and people here LOVE to honk.
The hotel we stayed at was in a perfect location within the Old City - which meant it was walking distance to pretty much everything that we needed.
Hanoi is an incredible mixture that I would compare to the craziness of Bangkok mixed with the culture and history (and coffee! and baguettes!) of Europe. I immediately fell in love with this city, and had the time of my life just walking through the streets if the Old City without an agenda (one of the BEST parts of traveling, in my opinion).
Throughout the streets you'll see tons of street vendors, beautiful flowers everywhere, fruit stands, and locals sitting on small plastic stools sipping egg coffee (literally Vietnamese coffee mixed with egg - paleo peeps get excited) and eating Pho - at all hours of day/night.
Restaurants in the Old City, hanoi
Another great thing about Hanoi are the restaurant options! Of course, you can get a ban mi (Vietnamese baguette sandwich) or pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) on pretty much any street corner - but there are also tons of restaurants with plenty of allergy friendly, gluten free, paleo, and vegan options if that's your jam.
Here were some of my favorite places to eat in the Old City, Hanoi:
Jalus Vegan Kitchen (V, DF, GF, P): Even if you aren't vegan, Jalus Vegan kitchen has tons of delicious options like nori wraps, sweet potato fries, roasted vegetable salads, and dairy free pesto pasta that totally impressed me. They also have things like smoothies and coffee with cashew/soy milk (not easy to find "alternative" milks here!)
Lifted (V, DF, GF, P): We went to Lifted cafe the first day we were in Hanoi for breakfast, and the avocado mushroom omelette was freaking delicious. The iced coffee was great as well (and they do have soymilk) but I will say that the service wasn't great and it was pretty expensive - even for US standards.
Hanoi Social Club (V, DF, GF, P): Another brunch place we visited that had quite possibly the BEST cold brew coffee i've ever tasted. The only bummer is that they only give you about 2 oz. which is not enough if you're a coffee-chugger like myself :) Their breakfast options were great as well! I got poached eggs with a roasted tomato salad.
Other things to do in Hanoi:
- There is a night market in the Old City that happens every Friday-Sunday night that is super fun and interesting to be a part of. TONS of people are out and about, eating, drinking, and even playing games in the streets.
- Check out the S. Joseph's Cathedral in the Old City! It is absolutely beautiful and will make you feel like you are in Europe.
- Walk through the streets and people watch!
- Visit the Lotte observation deck! This is one of the highest points in all of Hanoi, and you can see an incredible view of the city from here. There is also a creepy glass floor if you're brave and want to get some cool pics (and try not to vom)
- Get drinks and watch sunset at the Summit bar - we visited this rooftoop deck and ordered cocktails and spring rolls and it was so much fun! You guys know how I love a good rooftop bar, and this one did not disappoint. Again, it's a little on the pricy side for Vietnam but totally worth it for this view.
Next up: Ha Long Bay
After Hanoi, we took a shared "luxury" (<-- not sure what that really even meant but it was only 5$ more so, YOLO 😂) taxi to Ha Long Bay.
From the (little) research we did prior to coming to Vietnam, we knew Ha Long Bay was going to be a must-see. I mean, just look at this view:
Upon getting to Ha Long Bay, I was amazed with how beautiful it was there, but also what a sleepy and non-touristy area it was! I thought this place would be swarming with tourists like Koh Phi Phi or Koh Phangan. Don't get me wrong, i'm a big fan of calm, less crazy places, but this also meant that Ha Long Bay's restaurant scene was pretty slim pickings.
Food in Ha Long Bay
Of course, like anywhere in Vietnam, you can get street food pretty much everywhere. But coffee shops were a little harder to come by, and an American breakfast was literally impossible to find 😂 we even went to about 4 different places until we decided to get some eggs and cook them ourself back at our Airbnb.
Don't let this scare you though, I completely recommend putting Ha Long Bay on your travel plans if you're coming to Vietnam, but i'd say 2 days is probably more than enough time (and make sure to get an Airbnb with a kitchen so you can cook your own food if you have any specific preferences).
Things to do in ha Long Bay
To be honest there isn't a whole to do in Ha Long Bay, besides hiking up to the viewpoint (on top of Bar Tho, or Poem Mountain) but the view from the top is totally worth it.
How to get to the Bar Tho (Poem Mountain) Viewpoint:
The entrance to this hike is REALLY hidden so you have to know where you're going. There is literally a staircase hidden between two store fronts that you must climb up, then through someones house (they charge you about 10,000 to 25,000 VND per person), followed by a gate you have to climb before you get onto the hike. Bar Tho (Poem Mountain) viewpoint is really an experience, and a ton of fun.
The hike to the top is mostly paved stairs and takes about 20-30 minutes, but as you near the top it gets pretty sketchy so make sure you're in decent shape and have good balance if you plan to go all the way to the top. And FYI - the gate is open from 6am to 6pm, so if you get down the mountain at 6:30 like we did, you'll have to scream until someone comes to unlock it for you like I did 😂
Here is a pin I dropped (the heart) at the entrance (the hidden stairs) to get to the top of Bar Tho viewpoint:
This is what it looks like once you're there:
And when you get to the top of the viewpoint...
The only other thing I wish we had done while in Ha Long Bay was to take a boat or cruise out the water, but we didn't end up having enough time.
To be honest, our trip to Sapa was a bit of a whirlwind. We decided last minute to take a sleeper bus from Hanoi to Sapa as soon as we returned to Ha Long Bay, with a plan to stay one night in Sapa to see the beautiful rice terraces.
As soon as we arrived (bright an early after 6 hours on a bus!) we realized how under-prepared for the temperature changes we were. Not only was Sapa FREEZING (40 degrees and high humidity when you're coming from Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar and have no warm clothes is pretty rough 😂) but none of the restaurants, cafes, or even our hotel had central heating. It was also extremely foggy and rainy during our time in Sapa, so we decided to cut our time short and head back to Hanoi early.
If I could do it again I would: 1) go to Sapa in the fall when the weather is nicer 2) plan to go on a short trek to the rice fields (assuming the weather was good) 3) come prepared with WARM clothes, boots, gloves etc.
Oh well, you live and learn right? But we did have a chance to scope out the restaurant situation in Sapa and I was actually pretty impressed!
Restaurants in Sapa, Vietnam:
Viet Emotion (GF, DF, V): This place had a wood burning stove which was the main reason we went there, and their food actually ended up being delicious and inexpensive as well! They also had lots of variety as well as Vietnamese and American options.
Gecko Cafe (GF, DF, V, P): We spent the morning working at this cafe (there are actually two Gecko cafe's in Sapa, one is a little more fancy than the other but they pretty much have the same stuff) and I was impressed by their tea and coffee selection! They even had soy and coconut milk, delicious lattes, AND it smelled like cinnamon rolls in there which isn't a bad work environment if you ask me.
That's it, because, well...we were only there for about 12 hours 😂
Now we're back in Hanoi for the next 3 days and I am super excited because i'm OBSESSED with this city. I'm already planning our trip back to Vietnam because there are still so many places to visit here like Da Nany and Ho Chi Minh City...have you ever been?!? Tell me all your recommendations below!