My husband and I both love Asia, so it didn’t take long for us to decide to honeymoon there.
We went to Malaysian Borneo a few years ago together, and that was one of our favorite trips ever. I had been to Thailand and Cambodia back in 2014 and loved those places as well. Neither of us had ever been to Vietnam. We knew the food would be good, the birdwatching would be exciting, and several of our friends had recently visited and loved it. So it was decided. A Vietnam honeymoon.
Our friends Taylor and Madye, as well as our friend (and our own wedding photographer), Catalina, both visited Vietnam recently. We realized that they all preferred Northern Vietnam to the South. My husband only had two weeks of vacation time, so we decided to take their advice and stick to the north. They were right; it was BEAUTIFUL.
How to plan your honeymoon
When planning our trip, I used several resources. First, I purchased the Lonely Planet Vietnam book. I know people often have mixed feelings about using these types of travel books, but honestly, they are a great place to start! I almost always buy a travel book like this when I start planning an international trip. Since I knew we’d only be in the north, I didn’t have to read the entire book, which helped.
From there, we chatted with Catalina, Taylor and Madye, and other friends who had been to Vietnam. We created lists of must-visit restaurants and must-stay hotels. I used Facebook and Instagram to help crowdsource a lot of recommendations.
Finally, we talked about what WE like to do. This is essential, guys! You can do all the research and get all the recommendations in the world, but if they don’t align with your own tastes, they are useless.
Travel isn’t one-size-fits-all. Listen to your gut. Just because a place has a ton of museums and cultural stuff, doesn’t mean you have to do any of it, especially if you get bored with history. Or, just because somewhere has epic nature locations, doesn’t mean you have to get all dirty hiking if you hate being outdoors. You do you. My husband and I know what we like.
-Hiking, but not anything insane (I can maybe do 10 miles in a day tops)
-Eating (my husband likes street food, and I like fancy food, plus I’m a pescatarian)
-Sitting on beautiful balconies and drinking/reading/talking/relaxing. We enjoy views and the feeling of having a “perch.”
-Beer, wine, and coffee
-Wandering around aimlessly while taking photos
-Contemporary art - seeing it and buying it
-Being in relaxing/beautiful natural settings that feel peaceful.
-Swimming/hot tubbing/taking baths/being in a pool
-Renting cars or having flexible transportation options
We are usually less interested in:
-Spending a lot of time in super intense crazy cities
-Touristy stuff that you “have” to see.
-Big tour groups
-Shopping, unless it’s for art, haha.
If you are planning your own honeymoon, I definitely recommend writing out lists like this to help you create a trip that really resonates with what you love!
Once we had a general idea, we were able to find cheap plane tickets to Hanoi using Scott’s Cheap Flights. I bought tickets 7 months in advance, and they only cost $600 each from Seattle. Easy! I don’t think I have spent more than $700 on a flight in YEARS because I use Scott’s so religiously. If you haven’t heard of them, they basically find all the amazing flight deals on Google Flights every day, and then email you the deals out of your specified airports. The emails aren’t salesy or annoying, they are basically just instructions for how to find the same deal on google flights and book it yourself. It’s free to join, or you can get a premium membership for like $39 a year. Worth it. So so so worth it.
Our Northern Vietnam Honeymoon Itinerary
There are really two itineraries in this blog post. The planned one and the actual one. I haven’t mentioned the global COVID-19 crisis yet, but now seems like an appropriate time. Obviously, we booked our honeymoon flights WAY before the pandemic happened. Our trip was scheduled from Feb 27-March 12th. As February continued, things got worse, but at that point, many people were still traveling, and there weren’t coronavirus cases in the US yet. Vietnam only had a handful of cases, and its borders had been closed to China for weeks already. We considered canceling our trip (and almost went to Europe instead, which is ironic since the virus ended up getting so much worse there). But in the end, we didn’t cancel. We did, however, wait until the absolute last minute before booking non-refundable hotels and planning our actual itinerary.
It turned out that we were fine, the trip was fine, and everything went exceptionally smoothly until day 10. Aside from having most tourist locations virtually to ourselves, wearing masks in public, and doing an extra lot of hand washing, the trip was relatively unaffected by coronavirus. Social distancing measures were not yet in place, and everything was pretty fun and normal. Until that 10th day.
But I can go into that later. For now, let me explain the fun itinerary we planned!
We did something a little different on this trip. Instead of making a loop around a country like we usually do, we used a hub city. I wasn’t sure how much I’d like this, but I ended up LOVING it. Let me explain why.
We flew in and out of Hanoi, and ultimately ended up using Hanoi as our hub. All of our adventures took place north, south, or east of the city, and it made sense to come back to the city in between for a night. This was our planned itinerary:
-Land in Hanoi midday, explore Hanoi, sleep in Hanoi one night at the O’Gallery Classy Hotel and Spa.
-Drive 5 hours north to Sapa, stay at Topas Ecolodge for 3 nights
-Drive back to Hanoi, arrive late, sleep at the Oriental Jade Hotel for one night.
-Wake up and drive 2 hours south to Ninh Binh, stay at Lotus Homestay for 2 nights
-Get picked up by a birding guide through Vietnam Golden Holiday and stay in Cuc Phuong National Park for 3 nights (very close to Ninh Binh)
-Drive back to Hanoi for one more night of eating and shopping. Sleep at La Siesta Trendy Hotel.
-Get picked up in the morning and spent 3 days, 2 nights on the Azalea Cruise on Ha Long Bay
-Return to Hanoi and spend our final 24 hours at the Grand Peridot Hotel before flying home.
We booked four different hotels in Hanoi’s Old Quarter so we could experience a different place each time. The trip began with a super-luxurious ecolodge in the north, then continued with a chill, relaxed, nature-adventure-birdwatching jungle vibe, and finally, was supposed to end with an extremely luxurious cruise through Ha Long and Lan Ha bay. The itinerary included a lot of relaxing nature time, hiking, birding, as well as convenient stops in Hanoi to eat fantastic food in between.
I was worried that I wouldn’t like Hanoi because, as I mentioned, I usually prefer nature over cities when I travel. Wrong. I LOVED Hanoi. It was vibrant, friendly, easy to navigate, and full of fascinating people, food, and art. I was excited we spaced out our time there because I never got overwhelmed or tired of the city. I loved the food and honestly felt so at home.
I wish I took more photos in Hanoi. The first two nights we stayed there, I was still feeling very jet-lagged and tired and just couldn’t bring myself to take pictures, haha. I felt lazy, and I also was operating under the idea that I could take more later. Turns out, that got complicated. Oh well.
Hanoi Food Recommendations
The food in Vietnam was phenomenal. My only gripe is that I wish I got to eat more of it, haha. We only had a few meals in Hanoi, and the rest of the time, our meals were limited to the remote locations we were staying at. Large portions of our trip included meals, meaning we didn’t have a choice about what we ate or where we ate it, haha. It was still amazing, though.
I’m a pescatarian, which makes food a lot trickier since most things have meat! But we still ate really well. Even the meals where they just made random food and put it in front of us, they always respected my dietary restrictions everywhere we went. I learned how to ask for “Anh Chai” or vegetarian, which was easily understood.
A few places stood out that we really enjoyed and would recommend:
-Banh Mi 25 - I had a tofu banh mi with egg and cheese, and it was SO GOOD. Definitely add the egg and cheese to any of them. Also, their passionfruit smoothie was incredible.
-Garden House Restaurant - we found this place on our own, and it had good google reviews, so we tried it. Lots of vegetarian and pescatarian options! It’s a sit-down style restaurant with quirky decor, and the staff was amicable. Not too high-end, more casual vibes. We loved the fried rice, salad rolls, and, most of all, the Cha Ca. Oh my gosh, what an incredible dish. The fish is marinated in advance, then brought to your table and grilled in front of you on a tiny stove with tons of herbs and dill! Then you eat it with bites of vermicelli, more herbs, salty peanuts, and more marinade for dipping. It’s unreal good.
-Bun Cha Huong Lien - This is where Anthony Bourdain and Obama ate! We weren’t sure if it would live up to the hype - but it did. Mikael devoured his Bun Cha, and they were kind enough to bring me a bowl of broth, herbs, and noodles without meat so I could try some too. SO GOOD. The broth is sweet and tangy and spicy. We loved it. Super casual vibes, metal tables, and only 1-2 things on the menu. But very fun.
-Cafe Giảng - this place is known for its egg coffee! It was SO GOOD. Egg coffee is like a custard latte. So tasty. Lots of places in Hanoi sell it, but this one is especially good.
-Ha Noi Social Club - We ate here one night when I was feeling a little off, and it was pouring down rain with thunder and lightning and already pretty late. We ordered the vegetarian laksa and loved it. I liked the coffeehouse, artsy, moody vibe of the place. Dark and cozy, like somewhere you’d go to write a book.
We had a HUGE list of recommendations from friends that we didn’t have a chance to try. Here are a few from that list:
-Quán Bún Riêu Hải Béo - famous for their crab noodle soup.
-BBQ Chicken Street - a street famous for vendors that all make BBQ Chicken! We didn’t go since I don’t eat chicken lol, but we heard it was incredible.
-Hải Xồm Beer Restaurant - supposedly has delicious cheap beer!
-Street Food Tour - we heard numerous accounts from other tourists who had done a street food tour on the back of motorbikes and LOVED it. My stomach gets upset easily, so we didn’t do this. But you should!
After our first night in Hanoi at the O’Gallery Classy Hotel and Spa. (it was lovely), we departed for Sapa and Topas Ecolodge in the north.
I discovered Topas Ecolodge while I was reading the Lonely Planet Vietnam book about Sapa. The short paragraph mentioned that the lodge was WAY out of town, perched on the literal top of a mountain and that it was very environmentally conscious. I was intrigued. Two minutes of googling later, and I was sold. This place looked INSANE from the photos. It was absolutely the type of eco-friendly, yet ridiculously nice honeymoon splurge-hotel that I wanted. They had limited availability, and it was the first place I booked. Our hotel included transport in a luxury van (with snacks and wifi!), as well as a two-day guided hiking tour.
Topas Ecolodge is one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World, a list I did not know existed until now. I’m probably going to try to stay at all of them, now that I know how awesome they are, haha. “Each lodge is deeply rooted in its community and dedicated to protecting the surrounding habitats and cultures—and harnessing their magic to safeguard them for the future,” according to National Geographic’s website. Topas embodies this by employing the vast majority of its staff from the local minority villages, providing them with training, English language skills, and education. The food at their incredible restaurant is all locally sourced (or grown on-site) and organic. The food might have been my favorite part - all fresh, local ingredients with lots of European fusion and traditional meals.
Guests are encouraged to embrace an experience that is simultaneously luxurious, yet rustic. There is only wifi in the main lodge, and bungalows don’t have TVs. The roads to the lodge are long, windy, and admittedly terrifying. Still, there are TONS of trails and free mountain bikes available for rental. Their heated infinity pool is to die for, and the views are unforgettable. I would come back here over and over. I cannot recommend this place enough.
If you do go, the hiking tour with a local guide is terrific. They take you across tiny trails through rice paddies (practically rubbing up against water buffalo) to small villages where local hill-tribes reside. You learn all about their unique ways of life while helping support their culture. It was pretty rainy during one of our hiking days, but we still had the best time. Also, it’s important to note that the local Red Dao tribal women may follow you through your ENTIRE hike to sell you some handicrafts. Come to terms with this and enjoy their company. They are chatty and friendly, and their crafts are worth purchasing. We bought some beautiful scarves from them and respected their hustle, haha (they walked like 7 miles with us one day!)
These are photos from day one of our hiking tour. We hiked roughly 7 miles in the hills directly surrounding the lodge.
For day two, it rained heavily and was CRAZY muddy. This time we took a van and went deep into remote hilltribes and foggy rice paddies. We hiked for hours and then had a delicious lunch and foot bath at a homestay in the mountains.
After doing two days of a hiking package with Topas, we spent our 3rd day in the north exploring the gorgeous city of Sapa. For context, Sapa and Topas are like 30 km from the Chinese border. So when I say north, I mean north haha.
When I read about Sapa in the guidebook, it seemed to have some unkind things to say about the type of buildings, structures, and expanding nature of the city. I remember a line that basically said: “don’t expect a quaint mountain town in the alps.” So my expectations were low, but the transport into the city was free, so I figured why not. As a result, my husband and I were pleasantly surprised. To us, Sapa was astonishing. It sits at 1500 meters or almost 5000ft above sea level, and the town is surrounded by mountains on all sides. The streets are bustling with colorful vendors, hill tribe minorities, a few tourists, and there is something to see or eat in every direction. We loved the reflective lake, the enormous indoor marketplace, and the Art Deco train station that looked straight out of a Wes Anderson movie.
We wandering around aimlessly for several hours, shopping and taking pictures. We ate lunch at this beautiful restaurant with a great outdoor view and friendly service, but food that was just okay (it was a little bland). We were only there for a few hours, but we could have stayed several days.
Lotus Homestay in Ninh Binh
After our time in the north, we took the luxury van back to Hanoi, spent a short and stormy night at the Oriental Jade Hotel, and left the next morning for Ninh Binh! We had Lotus Homestay arrange private door-to-door transportation from Hanoi. Getting around in Vietnam is SO easy (and cheap).
Lotus Homestay was a dream. The owners treat you like family, and everyone eats a big dinner together each night for $5. You get to mingle with the international guests, drink rice wine together, and taste amazing home-cooked meals. The staff is SO NICE. We had such a fun time just sitting on the porch drinking cheap beer and chatting with Anh.
The bungalows at Lotus Homestay are simple but lovely. But the views are unbeatable. The cottages are nestled under a massive limestone cliff, looking out over the rice patties and surrounding mountains.
We spent our first afternoon at the homestay relaxing and exploring. We wandered the surrounding rice paddies, took photos, and birdwatched on our own.
Things to do in Ninh Binh
We only had one full day (two nights) at Lotus Homestay, so we had the staff help us plan our day and hire a local guide! Lotus provides bikes, motorcycles, and car rental options (ranging from free to like $50). There are a TON of cool things to do in Ninh Binh, but we settled on a tour that took us to Bai Dinh Pagoda, Hoa Lu Temples, and included the Trang An Boat tour through caves and karst mountains.
My husband is a BIG history nerd (listens to history podcasts and reads a lot of historical literature). I, sadly, am not. But on this particular day, I gave in. He was STOKED. The only problem was that it rained the entire day and was very cold by Vietnamese standards. But we wore our ponchos and mustered on. Our guide taught us ALL about the history of Ninh Binh and how it used to the capital of Vietnam many centuries ago. We learned that the karst mountains made it very difficult for intruders to attack. So difficult that they were able to defeat the Mongols, twice. We also learned about the difference between pagodas and temples. It was a lot of education and a lot of rain, but still very fun.
Our first stop was Bai Dinh Pagoda, the largest pagoda in SE Asia! It has a building that is over 1 km long. There are usually 100000 visitors each day. Because of the coronavirus, the place was completely empty, and we were some of the only people there. Eerie.
The second stop was Hoa Lu Temples of the Dinh and Le Dynasties.