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Vietnam for vacation? The traveler’s guide to Hanoi and Ninh Binh

Joshua Berida

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Vietnam for vacation? The traveler’s guide to Hanoi and Ninh Binh
Hanoi is hectic and vibrant, while Ninh Binh is famous for its painting-like landscapes

Hanoi has a long and storied past that dates back several centuries. Visitors will see Chinese and French influence scattered all over the city. Like many Vietnamese cities, Hanoi is hectic and vibrant, with many motorcycles crisscrossing the streets and even occupying sidewalks. Many affordable cafés and roadside restaurants line the streets of each district. It’s also a popular destination for those who plan on visiting Halong Bay or just want an affordable travel destination.

A busy day in Hanoi. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

Ninh Binh, meanwhile, is famous for its beautiful, painting-like landscapes. It’s a noteworthy addition to your itinerary whenever you consider visiting Northern Vietnam.

This budget and itinerary guide helps you plan a visit to Hanoi and Ninh Binh. 

Visa requirements

Filipinos don’t need to apply for a visa to enter Vietnam as long as their trip is within 21 days. If your trip is longer than that, you’ll have to apply for a visa.

Get into Hanoi

It’s easy and convenient to reach Hanoi from the Philippines because of multiple direct flights from Manila operated by Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines. Buy your tickets weeks or months in advance to get the lowest possible prices.

It’s better to withdraw cash from an ATM than changing currency at the airport. If you’re planning to change money at the airport, change just enough to get out. You’ll get better rates in the Old Quarter or anywhere in the city.

As of this writing P1 = VND 428

Get out of Hanoi Airport

By public transportation

Buses 7 and 17 travel to the city center. The fare is around VND5,000.

By private transfer

You can get a taxi, a transfer from your accommodation, or a Grab ride to get out of Hanoi Airport. A private transfer costs up to VND375,000.

Getting around

There are taxis, cyclos (similar to a pedicab), motorcycle taxis, and Grab in Hanoi and Ninh Binh. I would recommend Grab instead of a taxi in the city. Vietnamese taxi drivers are notorious for overcharging tourists. It’s also easy to explore the city on foot. For Ninh Binh, you’re better off renting a motorbike if you know how to drive one or book a motorcycle taxi for the day.


Hanoi is an easy city to explore on foot because most attractions are within walking distance from each other. Ninh Binh’s attractions require transportation to explore but you have many options to do so. You can spend around five days seeing the highlights of both places.

*This itinerary assumes you start with one full day.

Day 1

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

Start your day with a stop at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. Many locals visit this mausoleum to pay respects to the country’s former leader. Inside you’ll find personal items of the late leader, details about the Vietnamese Revolution, and his embalmed body in a glass case. Not too far from the mausoleum is the One Pillar Pagoda. This historic Buddhist temple dates to 1049. Around 20 minutes’ walk from the mausoleum complex, you’ll reach the UNESCO-listed Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. It used to be an important military stronghold during its heyday. You’ll learn more about the area’s centuries old history if you decide to stay a bit longer exploring. 

One Pillar Pagoda. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

After dropping by the citadel, make your way to another famous destination in the city, the Temple of Literature. The latter is a Confucian temple that was originally a university dating to the 11th century. During medieval times, literature and Confucianism were taught here. Fast forward to today, the temple commemorates the country’s scholars. You’ll find students’ names carved into some of the pillars around the temple’s entrance. 

Temple of Literature. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

Grab a bite somewhere near the Temple of Literature before making your way to Hanoi’s Old Quarter. The latter is a charming neighborhood that mixes (as the travel cliché goes) the old and new. The neighborhood is centuries old, where you’ll find dilapidated and new buildings, roadside restaurants and cafés, plenty of local shops, and the occasional historic building. Not too far from the Old Quarter is one of the most famous landmarks in Hanoi, Hoan Kiem Lake. The red bridge connecting to Ngoc Son Temple on a small island is a photogenic view. Spend the remainder of the day in the Old Quarter where you’ll find many restaurants, cafés, and tour operators. Negotiate the price of your Halong Bay tour the next day among the many agencies in the neighborhood.

Hoan Kiem Lake. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler


  • Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum – VND25,000
  • Imperial Citadel of Thang Long – VND30,000
  • Temple of Literature – VND30,000

Day 2

Cave in Halong Bay. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

If you booked a Halong Bay day trip or overnight cruise, your driver will pick you up at your accommodation. They’ll pick up other passengers that will be on the tour as well. The drive to the port can take up to four hours one-way. Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. It has a few islands, caves, and stunning rock formations rising out of its waters. The itinerary for a day or overnight cruise usually includes a stop at an island, a cave, and a viewpoint. Your guide will tell you a story about the views and places you’ll visit. 

Halong Bay. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

*I would recommend taking an overnight cruise if you have the time and budget. The day trip feels packed and rushed because you’ll spend more time on the road than on the cruise. Packages include lunch on the boat.

Day 3

Bai Dinh. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

Depart as early as possible to Ninh Binh from Hanoi. There are regular bus trips between both cities. The trip can take up to 2.5 hours. After settling in your accommodation, hit the ground running and visit some of Ninh Binh’s attractions. If you know how to ride a motorbike, you can rent one starting from VND100,000 per day or hire a motorcycle taxi to take you around. The latter option costs up to VND250,000 depending on your itinerary. 

Hang Mua. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

For this day, plan a trip to Bai Dinh and Hang Mua. Bai Dinh is a sprawling Buddhist complex. The latter is home to many towers, temples, and the towering pagoda. The natural setting of the complex adds to its charm and serene ambiance. The old pagoda dates to 1136 and a more recent one built in the early 2000s is a few minutes’ walk away. 

Hang Mua. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

End the afternoon with a stop at Hang Mua. The ride to this destination is already worth the trip. Make your way up the stairs to see the views that most people go to Ninh Binh for. The overlooking views of the countryside, the river below, and the rock formations are spectacular. 


  • VND50,000 to go up the tower
  • VND30,000 for electric car ride per way
  • VND100,000 for Hang Mua entrance fee

Day 4

Van Long Nature Reserve. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

After eating and checking out of your accommodation, head on over to Van Long Nature Reserve. Don’t forget to bring a snack and drink. This destination is one of my favorites in Vietnam. It’s a “waveless bay” because of its flat, calm, glass-like waters. You’ll see reflections of the surrounding landscape throughout your boat ride.

Trang An. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

Your next stop is Trang An. This UNESCO-listed destination is a popular spot for both locals and visitors with its fetching landscape. Many say the views are similar to Halong Bay but on land. I would agree with them after going on a 2+ hours boat ride (we were on a small paddle boat) during my visit. After exploring Trang An, your final stop before returning to Hanoi is Hoa Lu. The latter was the country’s former capital centuries ago. The complex has many ancient monuments such as tombs, temples, pagodas, and grottos. 

After exploring Hoa Lu, return to your accommodation and pick up your things for the bus ride back to Hanoi.


  • VND80,000 for ticket and boat ride for Van Long Nature Reserve
  • VND200,000 for Trang An boat ride
  • VND20,000 for Hoa Lu entrance fee

Day 5

Depending on the time of your flight, you can still go last-minute souvenir shopping.

How much will you spend?

Overall, Vietnam is a budget-friendly destination. The Vietnamese Dong you spend goes a long way whenever you pay for accommodation, food, tours, rentals, and others. Many people I know (including myself) are often surprised at how much they got for what they paid for. Your biggest expense will most likely be the Halong Bay Cruise. A day trip costs around VND1200,000 or P2,800. The price gets higher when you decide to spend the night in Halong Bay; it costs somewhere up to VND3,600,000+++ or P8,300+++ per person depending on the type you book. There are cheap cruises and more luxurious ones. 

A budget of VND5,000,000 or around P11,500 per person for five days includes a bed in a dorm or an affordable private room, a day trip to Halong Bay, entrance fees to the attractions above, boat fees, food and drinks, and motorcycle taxis or motorbike rentals. It’s possible to spend less than this amount depending on your spending habits while in Hanoi and Ninh Binh. You can significantly reduce your spending if you don’t go to Halong Bay. You can also spend more because of the many fancy cafés and restaurants, hotels, and shops scattered all over Hanoi.

Budget tips

Try the local dishes at the many roadside restaurants in Hanoi. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

Vietnam is already an affordable destination regardless of your budget, but you can still save more money for your upcoming trip.

  • Consider staying in a hostel dorm since you’ll be out and about most of the day anyway. It’s also a great place to meet other travelers.
  • Eat at roadside restaurants; the food’s good and affordable.
  • Rent a motorbike for a day if you know how to ride one.
  • Negotiate the price of items in markets and tours. You might get a last-minute deal for a Halong Bay cruise and save a lot of money.
  • Book bus tickets at least the day before your trip. Prices are usually cheaper in-person compared to booking online. 


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