We were so looking forward to this part of Vietnam. There’s the landscape similar to Tam Coc, one you have seen in movies like Kong: Skull Island! Steep towering mountains, scattered across the vast bay, leading to the South China Sea, it’s magically overwhelming. However, as per our research, to get to the best part of Halong Bay, you need to book a cruise tour and only eight agencies (among almost 50 private tour operators) have the permission to go as far as Bai Tu Long Bay. Well, we did. US$93 per person was expensive but we couldn’t miss the experience after coming so far. We had booked with the IndoChina Junk, supposed to be the best in the business but I thought it to be a bit too exploitative pricing. The US$ 93 does include your welcome drink (non-alcoholic) and a 3 course lunch (local cuisine), trip to the Bai Tu Long Bay, optional kayaking in Bai Tu Long Bay (if you remember the Bollywood Movie “Kaho Na Pyar Hai”, some of the sequences were shot here!) and a small cave tour. Also, IndoChina Junk offers pick up and drop at your place in Hanoi.

I wish I could have spent more time amidst the towering mountains but that’s not to be. It’s so representative of a fantasy world, coming close to even the landscapes from the movie Avatar. All in all, loved the experience, but it was an expensive tour.

Photo Credits: Halong Bay - Istock
Photo Credits: Cao Bang - madhumaymallik.com

Cao Bang

8 hours from Hanoi, Cao Bang shares its northern border with China. Not many tourists go here, not because of the distance but because it’s completely off-track from the better popularized places across Vietnam. The Cao Bang City however, is such a happy place to be in. You wouldn’t get an all-night restaurant but the small shops are cozy and authentic. There are enough decent hotels and this is also the only place in Vietnam where I saw people actually following traffic rules! Away from the hustle of a typical tourist hotspot like Hanoi, Cao Bang is laid back and so rich in its experience. I do also have to mention about the hospitality of the people. Since not many foreigners come here, people are curious and so inviting. One particular gentleman actually came forward to know about us, did a Namaste in Indian style and secretly paid for our Banh Mi! We came to know about it when we were done eating and the person was long gone!

Banh Mi

This perhaps is the best part of my whole trip in Vietnam. To reach the waterfalls, you will need to hop on a bus from the Cao Bang City and a 2.5 hours ride takes you right to the border of China. The Ban Gioc actually is the international border and you feel like being transported to a completely different place. If Halong Bay was not crowded, it would have been a similar feeling, but here is where you get the vibe of a truly exotic setup. The waterfalls itself is so beautiful, dropping down from the mists of the high mountains and makes an emerald mirror before you. It’s an expansive natural magic and you can spend a whole day just sitting and smiling and being happy for just being alive.

Photo Credits: Sapa rice fields - incredibleasiajourneys.com
Photo Credits: Bich Dong Pagoda - haoifor91days.com

Ninh Binh Province, Vietnam

Other popular destinations in North Vietnam are Sapa and Ha Giang. However, we were traveling at the wrong season for these places. The Sapa rice terraces are at their best during the early summers of early winters.

Ninh Binh

The heart of Vietnam, this place gets mostly backpackers, searching for the traditional Vietnamese authenticity. It’s an 2.5 hours of bus ride from Hanoi but totally worth the trip. It is necessary that you rent a scooter or a bicycle (if you are okay with a lot of exercise!). This place lacks a public transportation system. Alternatively, if you are planning on booking a cab, it will be expensive and you could well miss out of many small offerings along the way. The roads are great to drive and people, super friendly!

Bich Dong Pagoda

It’s an extremely delectable pagoda that you will see in Vietnam. Nestled in the laps of the towering mountains, it’s a well-preserved ruin that takes you back to the age of the sages. A Buddhist establishment, you will certainly get a sense of peace and calm, just by being here and watching the architecture carved out of the stones. The Bich Dong Pagoda has secret cave-ways that take you to the top of the mountain, and shouldn’t be missed.

Photo Credits: Dragon Mountain - lolaplantravel.com
Photo Credits: Bai Dinh Pagoda - Madhumay Mallik

Mua Caves / Dragon Mountain

This is seriously exotic and out worldly. Sprawled across a huge area, this ancient space has now been transformed to a very happening and attractive attention. At the base of the rugged mountains is a theme park, typical of Vietnamese setup. However, the real excitement awaits when you manage to climb the 486 steps to the top of the mountains. It’s the best panoramic view of Vietnam you will ever get if you aren’t using a drone! The place is incredible and in addition has a stone dragon carved on top! Make sure you are timing your visit during sunset and sunrise.

Bai Dinh Pagoda

The largest Buddhist complex in South East Asia, the Bai Dinh Pago stands up to its fame. There are several small and huge temples scattered about 10 million sq meters of picturesque landscape. You do need to walk and climb several steps to get to each temple and also for the best views.

Photo Credits: Trang An Lake - asiavacationinggroup.com
Photo Credits: Trang An Lake - busstopsandflipflops.com

Trang An Boating

Another unique experiences in Ninh Binh is this 3 hour boat ride across the Trang An Lake. There are three routes that you can take but Route 1 takes you through 9 amazing caves. You will have to duck down to your knees to avoid the rocks from smashing your head when boating through the caves but the views are incredible. Another amazing thing about this place, apart from the landscapes is the maintenance. There isn’t a single piece of debris, even broken grass floating in the expansive mountain lake. The water’s crystal clear and the sky, the bluest! The soft ripples of the boat oar takes you gliding across the lake, offering you an experience you will never forget.

Part 3 of this series will conclude our articles on Vietnam travel.

Photo credit: Banner Left: Bich Dong Pagoda – Bich-Dong-Trip-HLTC; Banner Center: Halong Bay – holidify.com; Banner Right: Sapa rice fields - bestpricetravel.com