As Vietnam shape is long and thin most people start from the North and go to the South (or vice versa). Since we only had 11 days we decided to skip the South, visit North Vietnam and Laos (Luang Prabang), and take another trip to South Vietnam and Cambodia (as Cambodia and Laos are its close neighbours, and both a must-see).
It has a fantastic countryside (Sapa), a very interesting capital city (Hanoi) and extreme landscapes (Halong Bay). As it is a developing country it is not easy to rent a car and travel alone, but better to travel in a group or at least with public transport. We booked everything ourselves and travelled with internal flights, overnight trains and buses, all booked through the internet. Laos being an hour away by plane is a totally different thing: Unesco protected, much more quiet, serene and primitive.
Our 10 day plan
2 days Hanoi
Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and busiest city. It is an utter and total chaos but a must-see at least for a day (similar to Bangkok even though a bit less busy and a bit more authentic).
Travelling budget to Vietnam was risky so we decided to visit everything and anything accessible during the day but sleep somewhere clean and comfy at night. Sofitel Metropole was fantastic and in the center of Hanoi, quite overpriced but truly luxurious given the surroundings. During the day we walked around the entire city visiting the old center as well as a few temples and museums, but what was truly worth it was the markets in the old town.
We ate at:
Madame Hien (dinner) owned by a French woman and also the best one we tried in Vietnam
Green Tangerine (dinner): more French than Vietnamese, a bit overpriced but good if you are tired of market food
Cha ca la Vong (lunch): the most popular and touristic Vietnamese restaurant, good food but too touristic for being so traditional
Quan An Ngon (lunch): it is more like a food market with stalls all around and benches in the middle. Both locals and tourists go here and it’s good to get an idea of Vietnamese food culture
Don’s Chef Bistro: the most famous chef in Vietnam but we decided it was too European and did not try it
NB restaurant prices in many recommended restaurants that serve good food are close to European prices
Sapa is the mountains in the North of Vietman close to the Chinese borders. To go there we took the overnight train and spent 1 night at Victoria Hotel. We hired a guide for ourselves, (highly recommended and quite economical at around $40 per day with a driver including dinner and lunch), who picked us up from the train, took us to the markets where we saw dogs being sold for dinner, horses being cooked for lunch and chickens being slaughtered for sale. On our second day he walked us through the countryside to see the rice fields, the animal farms and how true Vietnamese farmers live. This was probably the most impressive sight we saw in Vietnam.
3 days Laos
After taking a train back to Hanoi we took a flight to Luang Prabang in Laos, the highlight of our trip. Even before landing we could tell this could be heaven. We stayed at Alila hotel, a “bungalow only” hotel in the center of the town (now that I come to think of it the town is so small that everything is in the center). Surrounded by what looked like the Amazon forest on the Mekong riverbank with only a handful amount of cars and a large percentage of the population being monks, Luang Prabang was a true paradise. Everybody was happy, everything was peaceful and as if the whole town was in a state of meditation. All we did was walk around the village, ride our bicycles through the small streets, take a boat ride across the Mekong river to see the forest and go to the main street at 6am to see the monks collecting food from the locals (must must must!).
We ate at:
Tamarind (lunch): traditional, inventive and unique, no cutlery is allowed
3 Nagas (dinner): must for dinner even though overpriced. Probably the best food we had in the whole trip
Tamnak Lao (lunch): fantastic food, we ordered half of the menu to try, truly worth it
2 days Halong Bay (the descending Dragon Bay)
Upon return to Hanoi airport we were picked up by a bus (organized by our Paloma boat) to take us Halong Bay (Unesco protected). What we saw was a fantastic landscape in the sea consisting of more than 3000 small isles (or limestone clusters) that one can visit only in touristic boats. All of the organized tours are for 1 or 2 nights but 1 night is highly recommended, as there is nothing to do really but go around the small isles. We also went for a canoe competition around one isle to see the floating villages which was quite cool but what bothered me is that it is full of touristic boats which throw all their rubbish in the water, making it more like a stagnant water pond. Nevertheless it is definitely worth seeing
1 day Tam Coc and Hoa Lu tour
As we had one more day we decided to go back to Hanoi and take a day-tour to see as many areas as possible. How wrong were we! I don’t know about other day-tours but this is definitely not worth it. We were cramped in a bus for 3 hours to arrive to a temple, which was one of the same. Then we took a bicycle to ride to Hoa Lu where we had a horrific lunch. Hoa Lu city was quite touristic, but what was worse is that we took a canoe (with a “driver”) to go to what was said to be the Halong Bay of the shore (Tam Coc river), in fact a river packed with canoes for tourist, uncomfortable, hot and long. My crazy boyfriend was so bored he asked the driver if he could take the puddles and drive us.
If one wants to see more of Vietnam, Hoi An and Ho Chi Min are supposed to be the other highlights but more days are needed.
The food market in Hanoi where we saw the most bizarre (and disgusting) sights
The Sapa market, go on a Sunday which is the busiest day
Sapa village walk where we saw the houses of the farmers and had lunch with a Vietnamese family
The monks at 6am in Luang Prabang
How everyone could sit on their feet and chill out
Tips & Useful info
Best period to go is spring or autumn. We went in May
Vietnamese food is supposed to be good but I didn’t like the fact that everything was sweet. Don’t be afraid to try even though boiled meat soup for breakfast (pho) and cooked dogs is not exactly a delicious meal
There are the largest number of moppets I have ever seen. The good thing is they all drive very slowly so to cross a street just start walking and they will drive around you
Alcohol is very expensive (and not so easy to find), except beer
Prices are extremely low if you do what Vietnamese people do, but close to western prices if you go to more proper restaurants
For Vietnam, Cypriots (and most Europeans) need a Visa. You need to apply for a Visa Approval Letter, which they will send through email and has to be shown at the airport to collect the Visa. The process is very easy
For Laos you need a Visa too, which can be collected at the airport
No vaccines are needed but anti-mosquito spray is highly recommended, especially for Laos
There are a lot of flights from Singapore and Hong Kong. We took a flight to Dubai-Singapore-Hanoi (around 1000EUR return with Singapore Air and Emirates)