Things to Do in Northern Vietnam
You can be forgiven for thinking that Halong Bay couldn’t possibly be a real place. After all, beauty like this only exists in movies, where high-tech equipment can create a landscape that is mesmerizing, awe-inspiring and perfect. Not only is Halong Bay real, however, but it’s a convenient side trip from fast-paced Hanoi that should be on the itinerary of any traveler passing through North Vietnam.
Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the seven New Wonders of Nature, Halong Bay contains over 1,900 islands and jagged limestone islets. Cruise in silence on a traditional junk through the morning Halong Bay mists, and watch as vertical karst formations appear and then fade from view. In addition to the islands and turquoise waters, Halong Bay is riddled with grottoes that feel like hidden lairs. Dock the boat at Bo Hòn Island and descend into Sung Sot Cave, a 130,000-square-foot chamber that drips in dozens of stalactites.
Ninh Binh, a city located in the Red River Delta of Northern Vietnam, is a famous base for exploring the nearby limestone karst scenery, particularly at Tam Coc 4 miles (6 kilometers) away. At Tam Coc, or “three caves” in English, limestone formations tower above verdant rice paddies in what is considered one of Vietnam’s most spectacular places. The area is best experienced by sampan on the river meandering through the landscape.
Also close by to Ninh Binh are the Trang An Grottoes, a series of caves similar to those at Tam Coc an easy bike ride outside of town. Bich Dong Pagoda, located just west of Tam Coc, dates back to the 15th century with temples built directly into the limestone caves. Phat Diem Cathedral, located a bit farther afield, was built during the late 19th century using typical Vietnamese temple architecture. History lovers should make time for a visit to Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam 9 miles (15 kilometers) outside of Ninh Binh town.
Sprawling off the southeast coast of Cat Ba Island, the remote Lan Ha Bay is an idyllic spot to escape the crowds of Halong Bay and those looking to venture off-the-beaten-track will find a natural playground ripe for exploring. Like the rest of Halong Bay, the best way to get around Lan Ha Bay is by boat and the startling turquoise waters are peppered with more than 300 karst islands and dozens of white sand beaches.
Aside from swimming, rock climbing, hiking and kayaking are the most popular activities in Lan Ha Bay. Additional highlights include the Monkey Island resort, so called for its boisterous population of free-roaming monkeys; camping on Hai Pai Beach (Tiger Beach); and visiting the Cai Beo floating village, one of the oldest of its kind in Vietnam.
The dramatic karst cliffs and iridescent waters of Bai Tu Long Bay are just as mesmerizing as the neighboring Halong Bay, but the comparative lack of crowds adds a tranquillity often lost amidst Halong’s sea of junk boats. Part of the Halong Bay UNESCO World Heritage site and largely dominated by the lush Bai Tu Long National park, Bai Tu Long Bay makes a worthy addition to any cruise, and with such striking scenery, it’s unlikely to stay off-the-beaten-track for too long.
Highlights of Bai Tu Long Bay include Van Don Island, the bay’s largest and most visited island; the traditional fishing village of Vung Vieng; the white sand beaches of Quan Lan Island; and the remote Co To Island, while popular activities include trekking through the jungle in the Bai Tu Long National Park, spotting wild butterflies on Tra Ban Island and kayaking to Thong Thien Cave.
The rugged and scenic Cat Ba Island is the largest island in Halong Bay. About half of it is a dedicated National Park, home to both marine life and mammals, including the endangered Cat Ba langur (also known as the golden-headed langur), civet cats and Oriental giant squirrels. In 2004, the park was recognized by UNESCO as a Biosphere reserve of the world. (Many tour operators offer trekking and canoeing options through the park.)
The eastern side of the island is home to several beaches worthy of exploration, fishing villages and a small town (population 8,000) that tends to get crowded on weekends and public holidays. Here, you’ll find a promenade, and a strip of hotels, bars and restaurants.
The Old Quarter is the cultural heart of Hanoi where the pulse of life has constantly beat for nearly 2,000 years. Daily routine starts early and builds to a friendly bustle. Streets have distinct character and are named after the crafts once made there - silver, ladder, silk, paper.
St. Joseph's cathedral rings for mass regularly throughout the day, follow the bells to check its Neo-Gothic style. Huyen Thien Pagoda is another of the many temples peppered around this part of town. The Old City Gate is one of four original entrances to the heart of the Royal City to survive over a thousand years.
Take time to sample the spirit, atmosphere and shopping on offer here - nothing says Hanoi like its Old Quarter.
Not your average Vietnamese pagoda, the Bai Dinh Temple (Chua Bai Dinh) is actually an almost-three-square-mile complex of temple buildings and gardens dominating the slopes of a rounded hill in Ninh Binh province. The impressive site—whose three-tiered-roof hall leads to attractions such as 30 foot, 200,000 lb. bronze Buddha statue statue; intricate laquerwork and stone carving; a 72,000 lb. bronze bell housed in the 13-story Phap Chu pagoda; and 500 arhat (wisened Buddhist) statues—is a relatively new attraction. Though a much older temple exists up 300 stone steps and tucked into caves at the back of the complex, some of the larger and showier additions, including the bell and its tower, were built only in the last 15 years.
More Things to Do in Northern Vietnam
The capital of Sa Pa District in the Lao Cai province of Vietnam, Sapa and its surroundings are home to eight cultural minorities, including H'mong, Dao, Tay, Giay, Muong, Thai, Hoa, and Xa Pho. As there are numerous markets in Sapa as well as locals selling their wares on the streets, a good chance for interacting with these people is by perusing their local goods. Sapa is known for its embroidery, so if you’re looking for an authentic local souvenir this is a good idea.
Along with being home to an array of rich cultures, the mountain town of Sapa is a haven for hikers. Sapa resides in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range and is home to Indochina’s highest peak, Fansipan at 3,143 meters (10,312 feet). Spend some time exploring the mountain scenery, rice terrace and farms through treks like the one to the ethnic Cat Cat village or Y Linh Ho.
The Hanoi Opera House (Nha Hat Lon) is a 100-year-old performance hall with architecture modeled on the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris. Nha Hat Lon was erected by the French colonial administration at the turn of the 20th century and is a landmark building in Hanoi. It was built in a typical French style with classic gothic features.
In 1997, the modernization and repair of the building was undertaken by Vietnamese French architects, and the decorative designs on the ceilings, arches, walls, and doors were renewed. Home to the Vietnam Symphony Orchestra, the Opera House also hosts the Hanoi Philharmonic Orchestra, the National Ballet, plus both traditional and modern local productions.
No tours of the building are offered but the exterior makes for some good photo opportunities. In terms of atmosphere, the Opera House is best seen at night when it is illuminated by lights.
The Lake of the Restored Sword holds as big a place in local folklore as it does in Hanoi’s city culture. According to local legend, an ancient emperor was once floating along the lake when the Golden Turtle God requested his magic sword. It’s an age-old story that locals still tell to curious tourists who wander the lake’s scenic shores. It marks the divide between Hanoi’s Old Quarter and French Quarter and is also home to an endangered species of massive soft-shell turtles that gave nearby Turtle Temple its name.
Today, travelers flock to the lake to escape the hustle of the city. And while the morning hours prove a calming way to greet the day (locals like to gather at one of the many quiet cafes to sip cups of strong, sweet coffee as the sun rises), it’s worth sticking around after dark to capture pictures of Hanoi’s skyline aglow with glittering white lights.
At this mausoleum the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh, founder of unified Vietnam and the country's liberator from Western colonialism, lies in a glass case for public viewing.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex was built with assistance from the USSR and the austere and impressive architecture is recognizably Soviet/Communist in design. Around the building lie 240 ordered squares of manicured grass cut with concrete walkways. This dedication to 'Uncle Ho,' as he is affectionately known, is unsurprisingly one of the nation's most revered sites and as such this is a moving, and eerie, experience. Nearby is the popular Ho Chi Minh Museum dedicated to his life and work.
Don't leave Hanoi without seeing a Thang Long Water Puppet Theater show. These musical stories portrayed are of historical legends and folk tales. These ever-popular performances are given by a troupe of talented actors and accompanied by a traditional Vietnamese pit orchestra. Great entertainment for all ages. Charming, curious, and enchanting - you'll be pleased you experienced it.
The Temple of Literature (or Quoc Tu Giam) was originally built as a Confucian Temple in 1070 AD. Six years later on the same grounds was founded Vietnam's first university to educate the administrative and military warrior Mandarin classes.
Over the years buildings have been added and renovated but much of the architecture dates back to the Lý (1010 - 1225) and Trần dynasties (1225 - 1400). The university operated for more than 700 years but today you can experience the tranquility without its warrior students, with its beautiful gardens and pavilions in a series of courtyards.
A distinctive pair of karst islets jutting out from the calm waters of Halong Bay; the unique Hon Ga Choi Island has become one of the bay’s most memorable landmarks and among the most photographed attractions for cruise visitors. Located right in the heart of the bay, the jagged rock formations loom 12 meters over the water, improbably perched on narrow, weatherworn bases and appearing to lean towards each other.
It’s this peculiar creation of nature that afforded the island its name - Hon Ga Choi (Fighting Cocks Island), or Trong Mai Island (Cock and Hen Island), depending who you ask. For the full effect, pass by the islands at sunrise or sunset, when the dreamy sunlight casts a red hue over the rocks, further enhancing their cockerel-like appearance.
Legend has it that while Emperor Ly Thai Tong was troubled about being childless, he dreamt that he met the bodhisattva, Quan Am, who, sitting on a lotus flower, offered him a son. Soon after he married a peasant girl who bore him a son, and in gratitude he built the One Pillar Pagoda (or Chua Mot Cot) in the design of a lotus flower on its stem rising from a square pond.
The original temple was destroyed by the French Union in 1954, it was rebuilt on a single concrete pillar of 1.25 meter (4 foot) diameter. The temple itself is made from wood and bears a statue of Quan Am, to whom it is dedicated, inside.
Designed by Parisian architects and built between 1899 and 1902, Hanoi’s Long Bien Bridge was the first steel bridge spanning the Red River and has long been a point of pride for the Vietnamese. During the war against the French in 1954, the bridge served as a vital transportation link for moving food into Northern Central Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, the bridge was bombed by American air attacks, and yet today, it still stands as a testament to the nation’s tumultuous history.
Apart from its historical significance, the bridge has a pedestrian path where vendors often set up stalls selling some of the city’s tastiest street foods. It’s also one of the best spots in Hanoi for watching a sunrise or sunset, and it’s not unusual to see young couples having their wedding pictures taken on the historic structure.
Cat Cat Village, located in the hills of the Sapa District, is a great place to witness the distinct culture and traditions of the Hmong people. Originally from mountainous regions of China and known for being independent artisans and farmers, the Hmong escaped to the south to other Asian countries due to political unrest.
Travelers can wander the village where welcoming locals are eager to teach about the ethnic group’s fascinating customs—including a three-day engagement event called “pulling wife.” Shops of traditional craftsmen, like brocade weavers and blacksmiths who make custom gold and silver jewelry, line the dirt streets that wind through Cat Cat Village. These local shops provide the perfect opportunity to gather gifts for friends back home. Visitors can also trek through the mountains to a scenic waterfall or through nearby rice patties.
Located just over 6 miles (10 kilometers) from Sapa, the emerald green Muong Hoa Valley features some of the most breathtakingly picturesque landscapes in Vietnam. Home to Ban Ho, Lao Chai, Ta Van, Hau Thao, Ta Phin and Su Pa ethnic minority populations, the valley is one of the biggest rice-growing areas in the region. The rolling emerald hills, epic views and fascinating traditional villages are just part of what greets travelers who opt to trek here.
Journeys ranging from two to six hours wind through low-lying grasslands, rice paddies and quiet villages where local women share fascinating stories about life in the countryside of Vietnam. Visitors can get an up-close look at the Hmong people’s way of life while peeking into homes, exploring farms and tasting traditional dishes. A voyage into Muong Hoa Valley is a multi-sensory experience that is not to be missed.
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- Things to do in Hanoi
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- Things to do in Northern China
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