The Vietnamese adventure starts when we get on the plane to Hanoi and meet a Frenchie on the plane. She goes to Hanoi every month and nicely offered us to share a ride to town with her and her hanoi-born-and-bred boyfriend. From there, we rode the same taxi to our host’s place ( we couchsurfed in Hanoi- thank you again Mi Dan for a lovely time in your home!) this was just perf! We were already planning on getting scammed by a taxi at the airport, that saved us a challenge.
Hanoi has pretty good air-conditioned buses for 5,000 VND per ride so we took those for all of our city stops. Google Maps is pretty on top of it when it comes to public transportation directions. Tripadvisor helped us make a selection of the must-sees of the city but our priority was to pick a tour for Halong Bay for the next day and go to the train station to get our ticket for Sapa/Hué. Hoam Kien lake is considered the center of the city, where all the backpackers, hostels and tours roam. Perfect to look for a tour while getting a first impression of the city and country. The French architecture is still very present in Hanoi so we almost felt at home walking around the city- despite the millions of motorbikes that you have to dodge at every crossroad aka walk at your risk.
The weather being scorching hot, we hid for two hours in an air conditioned facility and skipped going to the train station (hence later having to go to Hué and skip Sapa).
We visited two tour agencies for Halong Bay and decided with the second one: Aurora Luxe Cruise. We read gazillions of reviews online and it was impossible to make the decision between prices, reviews and activities which is why we decided to visit the agencies directly. You can also choose to do halong bay on your own, it may require more steps, but may be even more rewarding.
The tour was $80 per person with pick up from Hanoi to Halong, amazing food, kayaking, and return to Hanoi. Beverages, alcoholic and not, were not included except for a mini bottle of H2O in your room. Prices for the tours start as low as $40 per night/ $65 for two nights, but expect some discomfort – “but I think, it’s not good for you” said the tour agent.
The tour owned up to its rave, I was overall more than satisfied with the experience – especially with all of the horror stories we read about some people not even getting on the boat – the bay is BREATHTAKING. The only thing was that the staff is really pushy about selling you drinks, a lot of ‘ oh no i’m okay thank you’ going on. This was our must for Vietnam and we had an amazing time, so YAY! Success.
Getting back to Hanoi was a funny moment too as the tours stipulate a drop-off at your hotel but that is code for “in your hotel area” meaning either by Hoam Kien lake or a street close to the cathedral, ‘just turn left then right and you’ll be there, bye!’. We laughed.
We were back in Hanoi the following day by 5 pm, and on a mission: train station. Thanks to The Man in Seat 61’s website we were able to locate the train station and know our way in there. Prices ($45) and train schedule were accurate and we hopped on the overnight train, Livitrans – only seats left were in the most expensive wagon, soft-sleepers, targeted to tourists but at least we knew it would be clean and comfy and we would be well rested to visit Hué in a day. We depart at 7pm and ended up having the whole cabin to ourselves. We heard stories from fellow travelers who purchased hard sleepers tickets and they slept uncomfortably in an overcrowded cabin, with 9-10 people when it is supposed to hold 6 people. With that said, it is a cheaper option, overcrowding may not be that frequent so perhaps good for budget travelers.
For those on a tighter budget, the Open Tour bus is a great option (in spite of negative reviews read). We considered it a little too late into the country unfortunately but took it a few times afterwards. Since we did not actually purchase a full-country ticket, we are not able to confirm the exact price but it was between $25-35 from Hanoi-Ho Chi Minh and vice versa.
- Hanoi to Halong Bay transportation (hanoiairportpickup.wordpress.com)