We spent a week in Hanoi in April of 2019, plus a one night excursion out to Ha Long Bay. We enjoyed the city but what we remember most was the Ha Long Bay cruise. We had heard some amazing stories from others who visited Ha Long Bay, and to be honest we weren’t sure it would live up to the hype. But the experience was fabulous, worth every penny, and definitely makes our bucket list!
Where’d We Stay?
I chose an Airbnb in the Old Quarter for our first 6 nights in Hanoi, with a total cost of $180.82. I thought the area we were in looked fun online, and the apartment itself was very comfortable for me and Alison with a full kitchen for cooking our meals in. The main snafu was that I thought I had picked a place with a foldout couch for our friend Laura to use on her one night with us there, but the couch was not actually a foldout and not a great place for Laura to sleep. That was just another one of those reminders for me to be extra careful when I review photos and read descriptions before picking homes!
While we were in Hanoi we loved our views of the Old Quarter since our place was across from the historic water tank. But I would choose a slightly different location next time, preferably very close to Hoan Kiem Lake since that’s where we enjoyed walking every day. The area around our apartment was not very easy to walk safely in, and it took us about 30 minutes to walk from there to the lake while dodging cars and scooters along the way.
After our one night cruise we were taken back to Hanoi for one more night before our flight to Japan. So we booked one night at the Hilton Garden Inn, which only cost 10,000 points and included free breakfast. That’s the area we want to stay in next time since it’s more walkable and there are lots of markets, restaurants, and museums near by. Lesson learned.
What’d We Eat?
Our stay in Hanoi was one where we mostly cooked for ourselves at home. We shopped at the Intimex Supermarket by Hoan Kiem Lake and picked up some additional produce from street markets.
We did find a fabulous neighborhood lunch place a few blocks from our apartment. We loved the food and really enjoyed the ladies who cooked the food and ran the place. There was one lady who liked to have me stand with her to point at things while she put our bowls together, and then she would kind of shove me back towards the tables when she was done getting my input. When our friend Laura arrived in Hanoi we were pretty excited to take her over there because the experience was so much fun and those ladies were hilarious. We love finding places like this when we travel!
We also wanted to have one fancy dinner out with Laura in Hanoi at a nice restaurant, and we chose Luk Lak for that. It was quite fabulous!
What’d We Do For Fun?
Walk Around Hoan Kiem Lake
The streets and sidewalks around our Aibnb were quite chaotic, so our favorite activity was walking around Hoan Kiem (Lake of the Restored Sword) everyday. When you look out at Tortoise Tower, the three-tiered tower in the middle of the lake, it’s hard to tell how big the tower is and we agreed it looked magical and mysterious out there. The park setting is very green and full of trees, bushes, and flowers as well as excellent walking paths all the way around the lake. There were always people enjoying the walking paths, picnicking on the grass, chatting with friends on the benches, or doing tai chi under the trees. There were also a few people walking around with fruit or cigarettes for sale. This was definitely our favorite place both for taking walks and also for people watching in Hanoi. If we do come for a second visit we will definitely find a place to stay that is very close to Hoan Kiem Lake.
Visit the Vietnamese Women’s Museum
We were all pretty excited to visit this museum which is dedicated to Vietnamese women throughout the country’s history. The stated mission of the museum is “to enhance public knowledge and understanding of history and cultural heritage of Vietnamese women… thus contributing to promoting gender equality.” We actually enjoyed all of the exhibits, including those on family and fashion, with displays of clothing and jewelry from different regions. We got a bit mesmerized looking closely at examples of very intricate and complex weaving. But what we were most interested in were the history related exhibits, especially those focused on the roles and accomplishments of women in the resistance wars who helped liberate Vietnam from occupation by French and American forces. The portraits of Vietnam’s heroic mothers were amazing.
We also stumbled across a special exhibit next door that focused on women working in the garment industry in Vietnam and other locations. The exhibit showed the factories and working conditions women endure in the garment industry today.
Best Excursion Ever – Ha Long Bay Cruise
Visiting Ha Long Bay is one of the most popular tourist activities in all of SE Asia, with around 10 million visitors cruising through there every year. The Vietnamese government has set a lot of strict regulations on this specialized cruise industry which helps protect the marine system from all of us tourists. The cruise boats follow prescribed routes and take turns stopping for short stays at various excursion points. We were a bit concerned that the experience would feel overcrowded, and we did see lots of people at the excursion points but when we were out on the water we were mostly on our own with no other cruise ships in sight.
Wanna Hear More About Our Fabulous Cruise?
The shuttle bus picked us up at 7:45am at our apartment and most of our fellow passengers at their hotels. We drove for about 90 minutes to a rest stop in Hai Duong Province that had artisan crafts for us to enjoy, as well as places to buy snacks and drinks and use bathrooms. After a 30 minute break we were back on our shuttle for another 90 minute drive to the cruise harbor.
Once we arrived at the boat and all piled on, it was time for lunch. The crew set two tables, one for a big family traveling together and one for the other 12 of us. This turned out to be ideal for getting to know the other people in our small group while the big family on our boat was enjoying their time together. We had a yummy seafood lunch and then we all checked into our cabins. After that we were up on the deck with our 10 new friends enjoying the fabulous views together.
That afternoon our boat took us to Luon Cave for some kayaking. There were some other boats there also so we didn’t have the area all to ourselves, but there weren’t very many people kayaking with us. We paddled around in a double kayak, and our friend Laura was in her own kayak, and our new friends Arun and Arunima had a double kayak as well. It was fun paddling around and exploring Luon Cave with them by boat. And it was a great chance for us to get up close looks at the limestone all around us.
After that our group reassembled and we went to visit Titop Island for a hike while others from our group were swimming. There were a few other boats docked there as well and the trail up to the top was crowded. The little swimming beach was also pretty crowded. We weren’t there very long and when our boat pulled away from Titop there were plenty of other boats ready to take our place.
That afternoon our boat cruised over close to Rang Dua Island and anchored out in the water for the night. There were no other boats around us that night which we thought was awesome. We enjoyed a little cooking class where we made spring rolls, followed by a very good dinner and some cocktails.
After that we were out on the deck hanging out and getting to know our new friends better over cocktails and fabulous views. Later that night as some people started to drift away to their cabins, the family that made up the other half of our boat were all dancing and asked us to join them, which we did. We are not great dancers but we aren’t afraid to be nerds and we’ll try anything! We had a blast dancing with this family and we were thrilled that they invited us over to join them.
After an excellent breakfast the next morning the boat took us to Surprising Cave (Hang Sung Sot) on Bo Hon Island for some more geology nerd time exploring. The cave system is extensive and makes for a great walk along the meandering path. We walked through two larger caverns, both full of stalagmites and stalactites and our tour guide pointed out lots of unusual rock formations and told some wild stories about them.
After our cave adventure we gathered back on the boat to enjoy the sundeck with our fellow passengers. We spent a couple of hours chatting, and of course oohing and awing at the limestone islands as we cruised along. We also had a last lunch on the boat before we landed back at the pier where we got back in the shuttle for the return trip to Hanoi.
Is Ha Long Bay Really that Interesting?
Yes it is! The name Hạ Long means “descending dragon” and the area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site of international geomorphological significance. The limestone islands are made of finely-grained, folded limestone monoliths that are around 300 million years old. So basically, Ha Long Bay has an incredible variety of geologic and marine characteristics that would thrill any science nerd. Including us!
Some of the islands are hollow and contain enormous caves, like Hang Sung Sot which we explored. There are also beaches along some of the islands, like the one at Titop island. When our boat was close enough to some of the islands so we could see the jungle like vegetation on top, we noticed birds in the trees and sometimes monkeys as well. Around 40 of the islands are said to be inhabited, and there’s a thriving fishing industry in the bay along with a few fishing villages.
Finding the Right Cruise
A few months before our trip I did some research on Ha Long Bay cruises and found tons and tons of options. The first thing we did to narrow our search was to make the hard choice between a one night cruise and the two or more night cruise options. That was a challenge because we knew if we loved the experience then one night might not seem like enough, but if we didn’t love it one night would be plenty. Since our good friend Laura was joining us for the cruise we had a third vote in the debate, and we all agreed pretty quickly on the idea of a shorter cruise package that covered one night and two days.
The next factor that helped us narrow our cruise options was to look at the excursions. For example, some boats prioritize things like visiting pearl farms, which was something I was not interested in doing. So we narrowed down to the cruises planning some hiking, a cave visit, and some kayaking because that was the perfect itinerary for us.
The last thing I did to narrow the search was to focus on the small boats with fewer people, and drop all of the larger boats with more people. We always prefer smaller groups of people in general, so we try to avoid the type of travel that puts us in crowds of people trampling trails together. The boat we chose was the Lavender Cruise with Swallow Travel, with a total of 12 cabins. The boat one of my friends chose for his cruise earlier in 2019, the Dragon Legend with Indochina Junk, was twice the size of our boat and had 24 cabins. And there are other options available that are even bigger, like President Cruises, which has boats with around 31 cabins if that’s your thing.
City Cost Research
Out of curiosity about Hanoi I researched the cost of living there. We had recently been to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) in Vietnam and also Chiang Mai in Thailand so I compared costs in Hanoi to those two cities. It was interesting to see lower rent and restaurant prices in Hanoi compared to HCMC and Chiang Mai. Those comparisons from numbeo.com are included below.
What We Spent
Our total stay included 7 nights in Hanoi, along with one additional night in Ha Long Bay. Our total combined spending for the trip was $704.48, or $44.03 per person per day (PPPD).
The Ha Long Bay cruise was a roundtrip excursion out of Hanoi, with a total cost of $260. Since it was an overnight adventure our spending for the cruise was $130 PPPD. The costs included our cabin on the boat as well as transportation from the city to the boat and back to the city again. Meals, kayaking, and other adventures were also included in that price.
If we look at Hanoi costs on their own without including any costs for the cruise, our spending was $444.48, or $31.75 PPPD for 7 nights in the city. Costs were very low because we cooked for ourselves most of the time, and we spent one night in a hotel that was paid for with points instead of dollars. The main reason things were so affordable though is that this is a low cost of living area. No matter how we look at it, our Hanoi trip was lots of fun and very affordable.
Where We Spent Our Time
Money Crush Score: Relatively low cost and well within our budget
We did not have any trouble with our spending in Hanoi, even with our fabulous excursion to Ha Long Bay. Because of our cruise and the fact that a friend joined us in town for 2 nights we had a good balance between grocery shopping and cooking at home much of the time, along with a fair amount of eating out in restaurants. We also paid for some admissions in addition to our cruise. But prices are so low in Hanoi that our spending overall was very low.
Travel Score: Hanoi is a good stopover location for exploring Northern Vietnam, and Ha Long Bay is AMAZING!
Hanoi was a little harder for us to navigate compared to HCMC, and we were definitely more focused on our Ha Long Bay cruise than we were on actually being in Hanoi. We had a good visit but we didn’t feel especially connected to this city while we were there. And when we think about returning we imagine Hanoi as a stopover again, so that next time we could use Hanoi as a jumping off point to see some smaller Vietnamese towns in the north. We enjoyed this city but we aren’t trying to fall in love with every single place we visit. Hanoi was fine and we were comfortable there, but we aren’t anxious to return for a long stay in the city.
LGBTQ Score: Great for tourists, lots of room to improve for locals
Hanoi has bars, restaurants, and hotels that cater to LGBTQ travelers, though we didn’t check any of them out personally. What we noticed is that we just generally felt comfortable and safe ourselves in Hanoi. We found Hanoi and Vietnam as a country to be very open to gay travelers, and we appreciate that. We also appreciate that Vietnam has never had anti-gay laws. We never noticed any rude or awkward behavior from anyone during our stay. Everyone we interacted with was very friendly and welcoming. We also know that LGBTQ tourists receive more acceptance in Vietnam than Vietnamese citizens do because of some more conservative family traditions that have not quite evolved enough yet. There’s a lot of room for improvement in terms of rights and protections for LGBTQ people in Vietnam, but things are improving and we are grateful for that.