Photo: Canals of Ca Mau, Mekong Delta.

Vietnam forum

how to avoid packages tours and cruises on a budget in north vietnam

Posted by melmariet on 30/1/2013 at 09:37

Hello! I'm traveling to Vietnam in a few weeks from northern laos and looking for some help on itinerary. I'm a nature lover, and hoping to take in views of the mountains as well as lots of karst scenery. The pancake trail would lead me through Sapa, hallong bay, and Hanoi... I'd really like to get off the beaten path, towards cheaper and less tourists tours. I'm interested in independent treks, kayaking, caving, etc. No over priced noisy tours is the goal.

That being said, can anyone give me advice on good destinations or areas to explore? I'm thinking of cao bang, ba be national park, bai tu long bay, and lai chau.
Some of these places sound pricey to get to.. Any thoughts or ideas for routes ending in Hanoi, lasting around three weeks?

#1 melmariet has been a member since 10/4/2009. Posts: 22

Posted by somtam2000 on 31/1/2013 at 22:31 admin

This is a slightly old report, but certainly some off the beaten path travel in the north -- may be a starting point.

#2 somtam2000 has been a member since 21/1/2004. Location: Indonesia. Posts: 7,507
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Posted by UsTwo on 2/2/2013 at 00:03

I used Cao Bang as a base for a day trip to the Chinese border at Ban Gioc waterfall, and a day trip to Pac Bo, where Ho Chi Minh had a well hidden cave as headquarters during the French occupation. Apparently, the Chinese blasted the entrance to it during their 1979 (?) incursion into Viet Nam. Cao Bang is a large town, with lots of accommodation. It reputedly has the largest market in Vietnam.

Ba Be is a very peaceful place to zap out. I took a trip on a boat along the river flowing into the lakes, and then onto the lake. There is a small island with a lake in it, where the bird life is incredible. The noise of the birds, and also the wild life, is almost deafening. Hordes of various types of butterflies there, also. Lots of accommodation at Pac Ngoi on the southern end of the lake.

I spent time at Cai Rong at Bai Tu Long bay, again as a base for exploring from. Took a ferry across to Minh Chau, on one of the outer islands. It has a beautiful half-moon shaped beach of white sand, and the locals were starting to build lots of 'cabanas' there, where they sold refreshments. Several hotels there if you want to stay on the island.


Can't say a lot about Lai Chau. Passed the town on a very cold, foggy, wet and miserable ride from Muong Lay to Sa Pa. The approach to the town from the west was three, dual lane highways side by side. It was on a Sunday, which may have explained why I didn't see a soul anywhere in the town. I understand that it is an administrative town, very new, and held no attraction for me.

Can't help with transport information, sorry. I bought a bike in Ha Noi, as I wanted complete freedom in travel plans. Sometimes public transport is not too dependable. It also meant I was able to travel to out of the way places not serviced by transport.

Hope this is helpful. Enjoy your trip.

#3 UsTwo has been a member since 22/4/2010. Posts: 70

Posted by daawgon on 2/2/2013 at 09:58

The public bus system in N. Vietnam is quite extensive, and I'm sure the locals will help you. Don't get overly upset when you are charged considerably more than the Vietnamese. Lack of English can be a problem when you get too far away from the tourist trail, but when there's a will, there's also a way. I remember being on one bus where no one else spoke English, but we all had a grand old time - the Vietnamese are wonderful, generous people with a very healthy sense of humor.

Independent travel is so much more rewarding that sitting on a bus of overfed foreign tourists!

#4 daawgon has been a member since 17/4/2007. Posts: 1,093

Posted by AndrewAbroad on 4/2/2013 at 04:33

I've just returned from Vietnam and Laos. The Son La - Mai Chau route to Hanoi is well worth considering. My wife and I were the only Westerners in both places (sometime between Christmas and New Year), and it was easy to do simple one-day treks without guides in both places (take a compass). People we met in both places were very friendly, and the few that could speak English went out of their way to talk to us. Both Son La and Mai Chau were 100% hassle free. Note that Son La is not mountainous in the sense that Sa Pa is - but at this time of year you'll be lucky to see anything but mist in Sa Pa, and the road from Dien Bien Phu is not currently in a good state.

In Ha Noi, I'd recommend hotels away from the heart of the Old Quarter if you want to feel less like a tourist. We found the cathedral area preferable. From Ha Noi you can take a train to Haiphong (again, very untouristy) and a hydrofoil to Cat Ba, which, though a resort, is very out-of-season in the winter (e.g. $6 for a clean, air-conditioned, ensuite double with large balcony and views of the bay). If you hire a motorbike there, you will probably have the roads to yourself as soon as you are out of Cat Ba Town, and the beaches will be deserted (but too cold to swim). We thought about Bai Tu Long Bay as an alternative, but when its damp and misty, there is a benefit to having a few things to do and a bit more infrastructure - unless sitting on a cold, windswept beach for hours appeals!

Ha Long Bay tours from Cat Ba are currently around $20 for a full day including a good lunch (and no guides, fortunately - you are left to relax and take in the scenery, which doesn't really require much commentary). There's generally some kayaking on these trips, whether you want it or not. Take lots of layers of clothing. We found eight hours more than enough on a sunny day - I'm not sure what people gain by doing 2-day and 3-day trips (visit lots of caves?), and in damp weather even a half-day trip could be gruelling.

#5 AndrewAbroad has been a member since 4/2/2013. Posts: 1

Posted by melmariet on 13/2/2013 at 03:44

Posted from within Vietnam.

Thank you all for the excellent advice!

#6 melmariet has been a member since 10/4/2009. Posts: 22

Posted by kykywrig on 5/3/2013 at 00:38

Posted from within Vietnam.

You should try some ecotourism. I know of a community based ecotourism run by a non-profit organisation that runs out of Hanoi. It is in the Khe Ro forest in the Bac Giang province. Is is great because the project is still very small and has no funding so any visitors will make a huge impact on the local villagers of An Lac. this is the web site www.anlac-khero.com. I am going in a few weeks!

#7 kykywrig has been a member since 5/3/2013. Posts: 3

Posted by Want2BHappy on 5/3/2013 at 02:30

http://www.travelfish.org/board/post/tripreports/19580_3-days-round-in-ha-giang-province (The old report is pretty good...)

I would recommend both the area around Ha Giang which can easily take a week on a motorbike if you go exploring... It's all a bit off the beaten track up there. I'd also recommend Mr Nam with whom I spent a week in 2010 and where I rented a bike in 2012. In his defence, and like all such operators, he gets lots of phone calls from people negotiating for the best deal who then never show up.... so he's in a bit of a cleft stick. I'm also not sure where else you could rent bikes in Ha Giang :-|

(Back that way in July and hoping to revisit and explore some more....and get over to Ban Gioc/Cao Bang) And I though he was a pretty good guide....

#8 Want2BHappy has been a member since 23/2/2013. Location: United Kingdom. Posts: 69
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