Earlier this year, my good friend Barbie and I were discussing our upcoming travels plans and Vietnam came up. Her family and a few friends had gone recently and talked it up, and now it was at the top of her list. Vietnam isn’t the first country that comes to mind for a ‘girls trip’, but I agreed that we needed to see Ha Long Bay and the charming town of Hoi An. We got to work planning our Vietnam itinerary.
I researched the best time of year to go and settled on April, hoping we’d get sunny weather (Vietnam is notoriously cloudy). Our original goal was to hit Cambodia and Laos as well, but Vietnam is a bit more complicated to get around than I expected. Most cities require overnight trains or flights as the country is narrow and spread out – similar to our recent trip to India. We opted for flights, and decided we would hit the area of Cambodia we wanted to see the most: Siem Reap.
Since this would be a girls trip with just the two of us, our priorities were ease of travel, good food, hidden gems, cute shops, and overall relaxation. Read on for how we made sure to hit the best of Vietnam, with plenty of hidden gems…
Hanoi • 3 days
One of Vietnam’s most major cities, full of outdoor markets, coffee shops, and bustling neighborhoods.
Tam Coc • Day Trip
Limestone mountains and surreal rice fields, plus caves, located 1.5 hours south of Hanoi.
Sapa • 2 Days
A lush, mountainous region north of Hanoi dotted with local villages and rice paddies.
Hoi An • 3 days
A charming ancient town and UNESCO world heritage site, featuring thousands of lanterns and lazy boats, with a beach close enough to bike to.
Ha Long Bay • 3 days
Surreal limestone rocks jut out of the water in this area, perfect for exploring by boat.
+ a stopover in Siem Reap, Cambodia (2 days)
Best time to visit – March & April, August to October
Getting around – flights and trains; ‘Grab’ cars (similar to Uber) in the cities
Currency – Vietnamese Dong
Visa – a visa is required to enter Vietnam. Apply online in advance here.
[U.S. -> Vietnam, round-trip flights through Hanoi]
I flew from NYC while Barbie flew from LA. It made sense for us to start here and make our way south during our time in Vietnam, since there were a number of locations near Hanoi we wanted to visit. Hanoi is crowded, noisy, and a bit gritty — one of those cities that has gems hidden in the last corner you look. We loved trying the local cuisine here and using it as a jumping off point to visit our other destinations like Tam Coc, Sapa, and Ha Long Bay (if you book any excursions near Hanoi, most will include a car pick-up in the city).
Where we stayed: Delicacy Hotel, which I can’t recommend enough. It’s newly opened and located adjacent to the old part of town, a two minute walk from Hanoi’s famous railroad tracks. Definitely the right call, as most hotels in the city center are cramped and loud. Delicacy Hotel’s rooftop bar is incredible, and their restaurant is one of the best in the city! We also loved their spa (by the end of our visit we booked 3 treatments each), as well as their kind and helpful staff. Tip: Request a room facing the street as these have small balconies – the other rooms face the interior stairwell.
Where to Eat
- Bun Cha Huong Lien – made famous by a visit from President Obama and Anthony Bourdain.
- Pho 10 – great pho in this unassuming spot in the center of the city.
- Jalus Vegan Kitchen – the perfect fix if you’re looking for something a bit different (or for a great interior).
- Cong Ca Phe & Giang Cafe – for egg coffee, one of Hanoi’s coffee specialties.
- Chestnut Restaurant – one of the best fine dining restaurants in the city, located below the bar rooftop at Delicacy Hotel.
- Luk Lak Vietnamese Restaurant – one of the dinner places on our list we didn’t make it to, but wish we did!
- La Vong Grilled Fish – recommended by our guide as the best ‘local’s spot’ for grilled fish.
- Bao Wow – sadly closed for renovations during our visit, but we’ve heard the bao is to die for.
Dishes to try in Hanoi:
Cà Phê Trứng (egg coffee, in Hanoi @ the original Giang Cafe est 1946)
Cà phê dừa (coconut coffee)
Jackfruit & Mangosteen fruits!
Bánh Xèo (sizzling pancakes)
Bánh Cuốn (thin savory rice crepes)
Chả Cá (fish with turmeric & dill)
Bánh Mì ốp La (fried egg sandwich)
Bún Chả (pork & noodle dish)
What to Do
- Explore the local temples. There are a handful of temples in Hanoi, including one situated on an islet on the lake (Tran Quoc Pagoda). We stopped by Ngoc Son Temple but opted to admire it from the outside – it’s the busiest during the day. The Temple of Literature is one of the more photogenic temples.
- Hit up the night market. Starting around 7:00pm on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, the streets of the Old Quarter are transformed to host Hanoi’s night market. We loved the atmosphere leading up to the market as well, as the streets are blocked off as the city starts to come to life at night.
- Visit the old train tracks. Catching a glimpse of the train speeding through the heart of Hanoi city while local residents pull up chairs, duck into doorways, and grab their coffee is a sight in itself. Go early — it gets crowded. Here is a great place to start from and walk north-east toward the city center. *Update October 2019: Hanoi recently announced they have closed these train tracks to the public. As of right now, this area is no longer accessible.
- Get a massage. We tried hole-in-the-wall places and 5 star hotels, and the spa at Delicacy Hotel was still our favorite of the trip. Don’t miss their special discount (40% off if you book a treatment before 12:00pm).
- Try all the local cuisine. This one speaks for itself! One of the best parts of Hanoi is the endless food and restaurant options. Booking a food tour is one of the most popular things to do in the city. I love this food tour, since it’s a small group (no more than 6) and they are able to adjust for any food allergies or intolerances.
[2 hour drive from Hanoi, Vietnam]
After spending a couple days in Hanoi, we booked a day trip to Tam Coc in the Ninh Binh province. Its absolutely beautiful here, and a total escape from the city life in Hanoi. We opted for an early morning hike up to Mua Caves, a beautiful viewpoint 500 steps up to see the region (photo above). Afterwards, we headed down to take a boat ride on the river. I don’t love traveling with a group, so we booked a private tour in advance. We were able to customize the tour because of this, and after lunch we also added in a visit to Bich Dong, an ancient pagoda tucked into the mountains. The full day tour came out to around $200 total for the two of us, including transport, food, a driver and tour guide. Well worth it in my opinion!
Tips for Tam Coc
- Hike in the morning to avoid the heat and crowds. You can buy a hat for a couple dollars from vendors on the way to the rice paddies. It’s hot and there is little shade, and the hat makes for a fun photo!
- The boat ride is quite long (almost 3 hours). While beautiful, we could’ve turned around halfway through and enjoyed it just as much. Don’t be afraid to ask the person rowing your boat to turn around as you will be sweating from the start.
- Don’t underestimate the power of traveling with a local. Since we went on a private tour with a guide, he spoke Vietnamese and saved us from an hour-long line in the sun waiting for a boat. So worth it!
- Try the local cuisine, and opt for the no-frills spots. I couldn’t even tell you where we got lunch, but it was absolutely delicious. Picture jam-packed tables, loads of dishes, and a crowded restaurant with no tourists in sight. That’s where you’ll want to stop! (P.S. the local dish to try here is goat.)
- You can always stay overnight. There are a number of hotels and homestays in the region, but they book up in advance. I’d recommend checking out Mua Caves Ecolodge, which is highly rated and in a convenient location to see the local attractions (unfortunately, it was booked full during our stay!).
Day Trips and Overnight Trips in Tam Coc:
From a day trip, to a private tour, to an extended trip to Sapa – here are some of the tours I’d recommend checking out that include transport and logistics from Hanoi.
[5 hour drive from Hanoi, Vietnam]
After our day trip to Tam Coc, we left the next morning for two nights in Sapa. It’s a 5 hour drive from Hanoi and our hotel, Topas Ecolodge, picked us up. We booked a package through Topas so that we could stay one night in their river lodge property and see the local minority villages in the region. We hiked, tried a homemade herbal bath, swam in the river, and met the locals in the village. I loved starting our trip in a more rural area. Be warned though: the accommodation here is quite different from their other luxury property. Think shared bathrooms, necessary mosquito nets, and very basic food. If you’re in it for comfort, I’d book two nights at their world-renowned Topas Ecolodge property instead.
Topas Riverside Lodge
[Hanoi -> Hoi An, 1.5 hour flight into Da Nang Airport]
Hoi An was my favorite! This ancient town not far from the beach feels like a combination of towns in Bali and Kyoto, Japan. We loved staying halfway in between the town center and the ocean, rather than the ancient center of Hoi An (which gets crowded and noisy in the evenings). It was a 15 minute bike ride for us to Hoi An ancient town, and 20 minutes to the beach.
Where we stayed: we opted for a more basic hotel on this part of the trip, the family-run Fig Tree Boutique Villa. The hotel only has 8 rooms, each with easy access to their central pool. They also provide free bikes and are very helpful with providing recommendations and tips for spots around the city. Plus, their fresh fruit spread each morning was the best of our trip!
Where to Eat
- 92 Station Restaurant & Cafe – amazing rooftop with views of the old town, where we had one of the best meals of our trip!
- Rice Drum – we sat outside here in the evening and ordered the local specialties: rose dumplings and cao lau (pork noodles). Delicious!
- Pho Xua – known for their pho, of course.
- Madam Khanh (The Banh Mi Queen) – the most basic cafe with the tastiest Banh Mi you’ll have on your trip.
- Secret Garden – we would’ve loved to make it here, but ran out of time. It’s a little oasis tucked away in Hoi An.
- Little Faifo Restaurant – perfect for fine dining dinner in the heart of the ancient town.
Coffee & Tea houses to try in Hoi An:
- Faifo Coffee – the best view of Hoi An’s rooftops, a great spot to visit on day one (note: the rooftop gets busy).
- Cocobox – known for the coconut coffee in particular.
- Reaching Out Teahouse – the most serene spot, run by a hearing impaired staff. Unique and beautiful – don’t miss it.
- Hoi An Roastery – a classic coffee house, with many locations throughout the city.
- T’Aroma Coffee – if you need to get some work done, this is the best spot to bring a laptop and grab some tasty coffee.
From left to right: the courtyard at Reaching Out Teahouse; rooftop at Faifo Coffee; interior of Reaching Out Teahouse; bowls at Cocobox.
Dishes to try in Hoi An:
Cao lau (Hoi An’s pork and noodle dish)
Rose Dumplings (original at White Rose Restaurant)
Hoi An Banh Mi (locally famous sandwich)
Mi Quang (noodle dish)
Bánh Bèo (water fern cake)
Xi ma (sweet black sesame soup)
Bánh Xoài (mango cake)
What to Do
- Explore Hoi An at night. Right before sunset, head to the town to see the lanterns light up and the streets come to life. It’s beautiful at this time, and many shops stay open late so you can shop before grabbing a table outside.
- Go shopping. My favorite purchases in Hoi An were a vintage movie poster, the best green tea from Tra Viet, and a floral scarf from Sunday in Hoi An (which also has a great pink wall for photos!).
- Get custom clothing made. Hoi An is famous for its tailors, which can make anything for you in a matter of hours. I completely forgot about how cheap and easy this is for almost any store to do, so don’t miss it.
- Take a cooking class. There are plenty around the city. Or you can book one in advance, like this 3-hour cooking class located in a nearby coconut forest!
- Head to the beach. Grab a towel, sunscreen, and a hat and head to the nearest beach by bike. There are loads of restaurants dotting the shoreline so you can easily spend a day here.
My #1 Hoi An Tip: the local beaches can get crowded on a sunny day, but the stretch of sand directly in front of Sound of Silence Coffee is still relatively unknown. Grab a drink and walk straight through the shop. The beach here has lounge chairs, umbrellas, and a hammock perfect for photos!
Siem Reap, Cambodia
[Hoi An -> Siem Reap, Cambodia; 2 hour flight via Da Nang Airport]
From Hoi An, Vietnam we flew direct to Siem Reap, Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. While it was a very short stopover (only 2 nights), it gave us enough time to visit 5 temples in this area and explore the night market in Siem Reap. Click here for my guide to Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Ha Long Bay
[4.5 hour drive from Hanoi, Vietnam]
This unmissable part of Vietnam is made up of thousands of little islands off the northern shore. There’s two main ways to explore it: from the mainland, which offers local beaches and local points; or by boat on a multi-day trip. Though I usually opt out of group excursions, we wanted to be immersed in the crazy landscapes of the region so opted for a boat tour. If I’m being honest, I’m not sure if I’d recommend it. On one hand, we were able to see islands and parts of Ha Long Bay that most people never get to. On the other, I found the tight schedule to be mostly an annoyance and the excursions to be somewhat fabricated. Though, a highlight was getting to have lunch on our own private beach one day!
1 Day and Multi Day Cruises in Ha Long Bay:
The tour we went on was Indochina Junk’s Red Dragon tour, since it was a maximum of 11 people. Here is the tour. If I went again, I’d go on something shorter. The trips below offer day trips and 2-night trips to beautiful parts of the bay (and are much more affordable).
A few places we also considered during a trip to Vietnam: Lan Ha Bay, Ban Gioc Falls, Pu Luong, Mekong Delta, and Ho Chi Minh City. There is a lot to see in Vietnam – and endless reasons to come back!