Wandering around Hanoi, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by endless posters and signs inviting you to book the ‘best’ day trips, overnight adventures, weekend tours, sleeper coach tickets and more. It’s easy to become overwhelmed in this city full stop, with its constant cacophony of car horns and local sellers.
This is what you’d call a true ‘melting pot’ of cultures and cuisines – relics of French colonialism are evident in everything from the food (banh mi is borrowed from the French baguette, with the doughy filling scooped out) to the architecture (Hanoi Opera House was inspired by Palais Garnier in Paris). It’s an unforgettable place to visit – but you might find you need a break from the chaos.
Escape the city
Hanoi’s wealth of tourist offices (real and ramshackle) are ready to cash in on that fact, so they share one thing in common – a glimpse of mythical Halong Bay. A peaceful, sublime UNESCO World Heritage Site just three hour’s drive from Hanoi, it’s the picture of serenity – all the more alluring viewed from a smoggy street packed with tourists, street food sellers, bikes, cars, and people.
It can be hard to know who to give your money to, but that shouldn’t stop you from getting out of the city. Halong Bay is truly worth sitting in some traffic for (just make sure you leave the city super early or super late, to avoid rush hour queues).
After all, getting a real flavor for Vietnam requires some movement – ideally, you’ll start North and work your way down South (or vice versa) to tick off gorgeous spots like Hoi An, Sapa and the majestic namesake of this story.
Behold Halong Bay’s natural beauty
Halong Bay is an epic, mythical site worthy of hyperbole – thousands of emerald green karsts burst through blue waters, topped by thick rainforest. At their base, you’ll find secluded beaches to explore via kayak, and on the junk boats themselves (we tried out a Flamingo Cruise, which was great) you can learn to squid fish, sunbathe and eat yourself silly.
Choose the cruise that is right for you
A two-day cruise begins with boarding at Tuan Chau Wharf, where you can find amenities like ATM machines, toilets and shops – stock up on sun cream, sun hats and a swimming costume (if you left yours behind!).
A small boat will pick up your group and transfer you to your preferred junk boat, where the fun begins with a welcome drink and a rundown of your itinerary. Typically, most cruises start with early morning Tai Chi on the top deck, followed by excursions, a big lunch, more activities, or spa treatments if you’re feeling really fancy.
Evening entertainment can span anything from group karaoke to cooking classes, and there’s a wealth of boozy parties for younger travelers to choose from – so be sure to spend time researching which type of trip you’re looking for.
Watch the chaos from afar
When you’re ready to go back to the madness (trust us, you will start to miss it), a three-hour drive from Halong Bay to Hanoi awaits.
Our gang of eight piled into a luxury limousine (not quite what you’d expect in the West, but nonetheless, a super fancy minivan) to make the journey. Looking out of the window, you can see colorful graveyards, lush rice paddies and construction sites eventually give way to built-up cityscapes, providing a bustling backdrop to the spectacle of finely-dressed locals speeding to their destinations.
On the road, you’ll probably see how locals, balanced on motorbikes, (sometimes five people at a time) can juggle anything from their pet dog, to 200 bananas, to a 6 ft pane of glass as they navigate the roads, beeping their horns all the while. Crossing the road in major cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, you almost want to close your eyes until it’s over; hundreds of bikes jostle for a spare inch of space, going in both directions, and spill onto the pavement.
The motorways can be just as frantic, so a safe, seamless drive (with air-con, WiFi, iced coffee stops and friendly drivers, to boot) can put your mind to rest when navigating your way to a new place.
A drive through Vietnam affords views of an ever-changing landscape – a country constantly in development and flux, it’s super exciting to get a glimpse of what’s coming next.