First-Time Visitor Tips: Hanoi & Halong Bay

Blue skies, Halong Bay with traditional boat

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Vietnam was the second country on our five-week Southeast Asia itinerary. We (Craig and I) had spent a luxurious four days in Singapore, sipping ‘Slings and swimming in rooftop pools, but the backpacker in me was yearning for something different, and Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, certainly provided that. However, don’t fear the unknown; here are first-timer visitor tips for Hanoi and the picturesque Halong Bay.

Things to Do in Hanoi

Hanoi is like one of those annoying friends you can’t shake. You let them stick around because they are fun and the gateway to other opportunities.

Hoàn Kiếm Lake

Hoàn Kiếm Lake, also known as Hồ Gươm, feels like the lungs of Hanoi.

Escape the zooms and fumes by wandering around the pretty green spot.

There is also an opportunity to buy coffee, food, or ice cream around the lake.

Note: just because an area on the city map is marked in green does not mean it is a park.

Craig and I ended up at the equivalent of the Ministry of Defence; soldiers shooed us off *TAXI*!

West Lake, Hanoi

Another refreshing area is Hanoi’s West Lake, not just for the 17 km (about 10.6 miles) freshwater lake but also for the restaurants in the cool area.

Watch the sunset from Summit Lounge (20th floor – Sofitel Plaza Hanoi), but stick around for dark to see the city lights sparkle.

Vietnam Military History Museum

The Vietnam Military History Museum (28A Điện Biên Phủ) has artifacts and weapons and displays information on the 1954–1973 Vietnamese war.

Visitors can also see President John McCain’s uniform, which hangs in a glass cabinet at Hỏa Lò Prison.

McCain was a prisoner of war who spent time in the notorious Hanoi Hilton with other US prisoners of war.

Hanoi Free Tour Guides

A unique way to see Hanoi attractions is to take a free tour with a young person who lives in the city.

The not-for-profit company Hanoi Free Tour Guides runs these walking tours.

Highly recommended on Trip Advisor Hanoi, this looked like a great idea, but unfortunately, our guide did not turn up!

Hanoi By Moped

This is for the brave only!

There are a couple of guided moped tours or the chance to hire mopeds in Hanoi.

Craig’s friend, Iain, lives in Hanoi, so he picked us up on his.

I managed to burn my ankle (ouch) while getting off the bike, so be careful!

One of the Hanoi activities I would be avoiding in the future!

How to Eat Local Food in Hanoi

There are plenty of Western-style cafes and restaurants in Hanoi, but where is the fun in that?

Local food in Hanoi is consumed a little differently from what we are accustomed to in the UK and US.

Each vendor sells one meal with maybe another variation, which means you have to work out where ‘Pork Corner’ or ‘Chicken Street’ is depending on what you’d like for your dinner.

Customers sit on a small child-like plastic chair, and the server brings the super fresh fast food over.

I tried a dumpling starter and a tasty soup with meat and noodles for the main, all washed down with local beer!

Don’t do as Craig did – he advised the server we had not ordered when they initially brought our meal!

Friendly Men in Hanoi

Do not be alarmed if a Vietnamese man (of any age) comes up to you to tell you that they like your tattoos, or that you think you are handsome, or shout Alex Ferguson (big Manchester United fan) at you – this man to man admiration is typical in Vietnam.

I felt like I was backpacking with a celebrity while strolling the streets with Craig.

Leave Hanoi: Halong Bay

You will probably be keen to leave Hanoi after a day or two, and Halong Bay is the place to head to.

Stumbling across pictures of the bay was the draw to Vietnam for me.

However, in the end, hiking through Sapa Valley was the highlight.

Hanoi to Halong Bay

The most popular way to visit Halong Bay is by tour, but you can do it independently.

There is a three-hour bus from the city to the shore, which you can book in advance here.

Hanoi – Halong Bay Day Tours

There are various ways to visit the limestone-lined waters of Ha Long Bay, located in the Gulf of Tonkin.

If you are short of time, there are Halong Bay day trips as group or private tours.

Tour companies also offer this if you are looking to stay overnight on a boat and one of the private islands around Halong Bay.

Blue skies, Halong Bay with traditional boat

Booze Cruise to Halong Bay

We chose a group trip with Halong Bay Castaway Tour, which put us off party boats, but not group tours for the rest of our trips!

The guides weren’t great; one lost my head torch while trying to find someone who dived into the water at night, and they couldn’t tell much about the area.

To add to this, the kayaks were faulty.

Craig made himself a bit sick from exertion trying to save a sinking boat for another backpacker since they would be charged a fee.

The Good Stuff

  • The 2.5 bus journey from Hanoi to Halong Bay was scenic.
  • Halong Bay is a unique place.
  • Most of the people on the Halong Bay Castaway Boat Tour were lovely.
  • The cute monkeys were awesome.
  • The Castaways Island itself was pretty cool.

The Crap Stuff

  • Some backpackers were horrid and rude to the local staff on the boat.
  • The boat staff accused the backpackers of stealing money from the bar.
  • There wasn’t enough food served on the island.

Halong Bay By Public Transport

Our Irish friends were advised that there was a public boat leaving early doors on day three, so we decided to join them.

We took a small boat to the dock, then a larger boat left once it was full of people, animals in cages, and mopeds!

Halong Bay Boat With Locals I First Time Visitor Tips- Hanoi & Halong Bay_

Public Boat from Halong Bay

Hanoi Accommodation

Hotels in Hanoi are relatively affordable.

Hostel dorms are naturally cheaper.

We stayed at Hanoi Backpackers, as this is who we booked our tours with.

They sent us in a taxi to the newer hostel on arrival as they were full.

Currency in Vietnam

Vietnam uses the Dong.

Be prepared to feel like a millionaire going to the ATM!

For the most up-to-date rates, see here.

Hanoi and Halong Bay Weather

Both Hanoi and Halong Bay are prone to storms and heavy downfalls, which may cause your tour provider to cancel the Halong Bay tour.

The warm season starts in May and ends in October, with the hottest day (in June) reaching highs of 34 degrees.

December to March sees the cold season, with the coldest temperature quoted at 19 degrees.

Thunderstorms are most likely in June, July, and August. However, we visited the north of Vietnam in July with no issues.

Final Words

Hanoi was interesting!

The food was fresh and healthy, the people were super friendly (to Craig!), and Halong Bay was beautiful.

However, I won’t be rushing back to Hanoi – or Hanoi’ing, as the Irish coined it about the noise levels buzzing around the city.

Are you heading elsewhere?

See my friend Will The Broke Backpacker’s guide to backpacking around Vietnam.

18 thoughts on “First-Time Visitor Tips: Hanoi & Halong Bay

  1. kes says:

    Please can you give me more specific details of travelling from Hanoi to Halong bay? I am really struggling to plan this leg of my journey.


  2. Bhayacruise says:

    Hey there, how I wish I had read this before my first visit to Hanoi and Ha Long Bay Vietnam two years ago. We were greeted warmly by the crew, both dockside and once on the boat but as you noted, some of fellow cruisers were somehow rude to the attendants. The food is so damn plenty and the eating street food experience was awesome. Stories about the origin of the Ha Long bay was fascinating. LOL, did you mention the issue of local men admiring and pursuing fellow men, guess what, my hubby was a victim. Quite disgusting, right? In my opinion- Yes. This was our second trip on Vietnam’s Hanoi and Ha Long bay having been there in January and tipped that best time to visit Ha Long Bay was between September and December. This round we had great time, so much so we have two more in the diary for.
    Best Regards,
    Julia Miller.

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