Greg Alexander

Side Trips from Hanoi: Halong Bay and Sapa

Just Say Go, June 15, 2009

Visiting Hanoi is a trip in itself with its French architecture, warm people and delicious culinary options. However, one of the best things about Hanoi is its strategic location and opportunities to visit the water and the mountains via two easy side trips.

Situated only three hours from Hanoi is the majestic Halong Bay, a collection of almost 2,000 islands and islets, mostly uninhibited limestone formations that dramatically rise from the water. Overnight cruise options abound, but for a truly luxurious cruise, opt for the new Jasmine boat by Cruise Halong ( Decorated in 1930s Indochine style, the Jasmine is decadent with dark wood accents and limited to only 24 cabins. Two suites are offered, but we were more than comfortable in a Jasmine Deluxe cabin, which featured a spacious room, surprisingly large bathroom, mini bar and private balcony. A private car picked us up in Hanoi and transported us to the dock, and the drive there is an interesting journey past rice fields and small towns. Once on board, a welcome drink is served as an overview of the boat and activities is explained while the crew delivers luggage to each room.

After getting settled, an eight-course lunch is served. Unlike some cruises where everyone eats together, each couple is allowed to select their own private table, each offering breathtaking views of the islands. The lunch was amazing – crab soup, spring rolls, baked mussels, king prawns, fish, fruit, rice and vegetables (the chef will also prepare special meals for vegetarians and those who don’t like seafood).

Next, you’re transported via tender to the “Surprise Cave,” a 30,000-square-foot cave packed with stalactites and stalagmites. The hike up to the cave is a fairly easy one, but bring hiking or running shoes. Later, we visited a unique fishing village before returning to the boat to freshen up for dinner. The Jasmine also has a beautiful bar for relaxing and meeting the other guests, as well as huge outside decks for great photo opportunities. We met fun couples from Australia, France and the U.S., while enjoying the views. Dinner is another gracious affair with a fantastic buffet and an extensive wine list.

After a sound sleep, we enjoyed hot coffee on deck at 6:30 a.m. An hour later, we arrived at Titop Island where we tried our hand at sunrise Tai Chi. I had never done Tai Chi before, but found it a fun and exhilarating way to start the day under the guidance of an instructor. Sufficiently warmed up, we then hiked to the top of Titop Island, a steep, 400-plus-step hike but well worth it. At the top is a pagoda with gorgeous 360-degree views. Back on board, a hearty brunch is served and we sadly had to then say goodbye to the crew and our fellow passengers. Everything on the Jasmine is handled efficiently, and the crew really makes you feel at home. Additionally, all activities are optional for those who would rather rest and relax on board.

If you’re more into the mountains than the sea, Hanoi is also a convenient location to take the beautiful Victoria Express Train to Lao Cai and then a car to Sapa, 235 miles northwest of Hanoi among the Hoang Lien Mountains, in Lao Cai Province, near the Chinese border. The overnight train departs six times a week, and the trip takes a little more than 8 hours. Be sure to book early as the train has a capacity of only 52 passengers and two private cabins. The train is operated by the Victoria Hotel group, and limited to those staying at the picturesque Victoria Sapa Resort & Spa (

When you arrive at the Hanoi train station, a Victoria staff member is there to greet you and take care of your tickets and luggage. It’s a hike to the two Victoria cars (they attach to a no frills train, mostly for backpackers and locals), so the escorted service is a nice touch. Once settled into our private cabin, we headed to the dining car for some warm Beef Pho for dinner, along with French wine. Around 5:30 a.m., a quiet knock on your door alerts you that we are nearing Lao Cai and that coffee is served in the dining car. We opted for the private car transfer to Sapa, about a 40-minute drive. A huge storm had hit the area the previous night, and we were lucky that our car had four-wheel drive to get through the mudslides.

The Victoria Sapa Resort & Spa is a traditional mountain chalet style that fits in perfectly with the charming town, situated more than 5,000 feet above sea level. We were allowed to check in immediately and get a few more hours of sleep, and the views from our third-floor room were breathtaking. One cute touch is the use of small goats to trim the resort’s grounds, a much quieter alternative to a lawnmower. The town is a quick walk from the hotel where you can enjoy wonderful food, historic sites and great shopping at the local market, as well as buying directly from some of the 30 hill tribes that walk around Sapa. The friendly ladies sell their colorful homemade blankets, purses and scarves on the street and their craftsmanship is amazing. I had the most fun playing the classic game of “Rock, Paper Scissors” with a 12-year-old girl while enjoying a cold beer.

We also hiked to Cat Cat Village where a hearty walk downhill takes you to a meandering path through the village where you can observe how the ethnic minorities live and feel as though you have stepped back in time. We were graciously welcomed into their homes to meet their families; however, always ask before taking photos. The hike was tiring, so we decided to hire a local motorcycle rider to take us back to town … $5 and well worth it for the exhilarating ride.

What makes Sapa fascinating is due to its height, clouds continuously roll in and out and the weather changes throughout the day. It was cool when we visited in March, so the hotel’s inviting fireplace in the lounge was nice, as was a dip in the indoor heated pool. Needing a break from two weeks of Vietnamese fare, we opted to eat at the hotel’s restaurant and enjoyed delicious Italian cuisine. On our second day, we simply relaxed and people watched from various restaurants and cafes and enjoyed insanely cheap beer (40 cents) and delicious warm chicken soup, perfect on a cool Sapa afternoon.

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