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  • Writer's pictureMarion Mueller

Blog Series Vietnam – Part 2 – What to do around Hanoi

Updated: Feb 10

This is the continuation of my Vietnam Blog Series, for all general information please refer to Part 1.

After having explored the buzzling city of Hanoi we ventured out to see a bit more of the countryside.

1. Ninh Binh Province

Our first excursion brought us southwards from Hanoi to a very picturesque rural landscape of rice fields and limestone mountains.

First stop was at Hoa Lu Ancient Capital, which can be dated back to the 10th and 11th century. It features several dozen monuments, including King Dinh and King Le Temple & Tombs.

Tip: the main temple area is usually very busy and the small temple inside crowded. Escape the crowds – opposite the entry bridge to the main temple grounds you can find a small road that is leading you towards the mountains. Here you have a tunnel through the mountain that brings you to a very picturesque and peaceful lake.

You can walk around the lake and climb up steps to two different temples at each end of the lake. The whole setting is nestled in a lush green valley full of tropical trees and flowers.

Afterwards we continued our drive to the spectacular sight of Hang Mua (Dancing Cave) and Ngoa Long mountain, from where you will have an impressive panoramic view over the Tam Coc area (a landscape full of rice fields and limestone mountains). Hopefully you have better luck than us with the weather as on our visit the sky was cloudy with slight rain, so the view was very limited.

After the parking area the path will guide you through a visitor area with some snack and souvenir shops all surrounded by a nice garden area.

Don´t miss to walk onto your right and follow the wooden bridges over the rice fields – from there you have a great view on the mountain.

Then it is time to climb up the 500 stone steps in order to reach the top of Ngoa Long mountain. In between the path you kind find various platforms with great views from different perspectives.

Once you are coming down from the mountain take the trail on the right-hand side that will lead you to the Hang Mua Cave (Dancing Cave) – it is easy accessible through a footpath.

For the afternoon we had a sampan boat tour on the program. Sampans are relatively flat-bottomed wooden boats. The boats are typically rowed by one or two local women who are selling embroidered goods.

Our tour started at the embroidery Village of Van Lam, from where our female boat captain rowed us down the Ngo Dong River. The tour through the scenic landscape lasted for around 2 hours and brought us through 3 natural caves, the largest was 125 meter long with a ceiling of 2 meter height above the water.

The tour itself is really very nice and the landscape like out of a fairy tale – however it is similar to many other places now in Vietnam – the beauty and tranquillity is disturbed through the massive touristic development around, so unfortunately places like that are losing their magic. I was really shocked when I saw the sheer number of rowing boats in the super touristic Van Lam village. So the bad weather on that day was also a kind of blessing as there were not much visitors. But I don´t want to imagine a normal sunny day over here!!!

2. Halong Bay excursion with overnight

As the drive from Hanoi to the Halong Cruise Port takes around 2 hours – most visitors are taking a tour with an overnight on one of the many cruise ships. Depending on the company that you have booked they will usually pick you up and drop you back to Hanoi.

So, what was I expecting? The Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s most famous attraction – and not without a reason – as these mystic and scenic limestone mountains that are growing just out of the sea are really a fantastic and very unique landscape. Of course I have not expected that we will be alone over there. However the crazy number of cruise ships and people has really overwhelmed me, I was torn between disappointment and fascination.

It already starts with the city around the cruise port, which once was a small fishing town. Now you are facing a Mini-Manhattan plus a Disney-like entertainment city there. What might work for Chinese or Asian travellers is rather shocking for the rest of the visitors.

After the embarkation process we boarded our ship the – Ambassador Cruise ( I can´t say anything negative about the ship itself. It was very modern and clean with lots of nice features and a tasteful interior. We had a spacious cabin with a balcony and we also really enjoyed the charming sundeck of the ship. The crew was super friendly and very attentive and helpful.

The Ship

Our cabin



All the meals on board were very good as well, especially the 5-course dinner.

The cruise ship leaves the port around lunch time and will come back in the late morning of the following day. The cruise has a tightly synchronised program inclusive of various stops en route. As all the hundred of ships of the other companies are following a similar schedule, expect to be surrounded by hordes of other visitors on each stop.

First stop was at Tung Sau Pearl Farm, an area in Halong Bay dedicated to growing pearls and practicing a handmade technique based on Vietnamese tradition and Japanese technology. We skipped that stop and enjoyed an almost empty sundeck instead. You can also opt for a Kayak Tour – but you will see that the nature has to pay its toll for these big number of visitors – the water looks polluted and is not inviting for any kind of water activity.

Second stop will be at Titop Island – a secluded paradise island? I will let the pictures talk……

Most of the boats will then anchor around Coconut Tree Island for a Sunset Cocktail and the dinner on board. Also at night you won´t be alone out in the sea, some boats even play quite loud music.

The next morning, we started with an indeed peaceful Thai Chi class on the sundeck.

Afterwards it was time for the tourist caravan again, when all the ships spit their passengers out for a visit of Sung Sot Cave, which is the largest and for sure most magnificent cave in the bay with thousand-year-old stalactites in a variety of unique forms. Lighting is set-up in a real good way, so it is a magnificent experience – well, at least if we would have been alone there.

Hmmmm, this one looks like???.......

Then back for breakfast and slowly the ship made its way back to the cruise port from where we were transferred back to Hanoi.

My overall opinion: for sure Halong Bay is something very unique. If you are limited on time and you prepare yourself for all the negative aspects of mass tourism it is still worth to go there, but choose a good cruising company.

If you have a bit more time you could go on a longer cruise for 2 or 3 nights – as on these cruises, ships will sail further into the Halong Bay away from the hotspots that all the one-night cruises are having in the program.

Another suggestion is to start the tour further north from smaller villages to avoid any kind of over-tourism. This will require some research, but Halong Bay is just one bay of many similar alternatives like for example Bai Tu Long Bai or Lan Ha Bay. I found the following interesting Travelblog that is comparing these alternatives -

What is coming next? Check out my following Blog for an adventurous overnight train ride to another very scenic part of Vietnam - the mountain area of Sapa.

Last impressions on Tam Coc and Ha Long Bay


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