I have a special thing for the north. Like any other crush, it’s pretty much an irrational thing. Just knowing I’m north delights me. I come from a northern region in Spain (Catalonia) and I love my summers in other regions in Spain, my grandpas places in the Pyrenees and Asturias. I also feel enchanted everytime I put my feet in the Basque Country, for example.

For a Swedish, let’s say, being north in Spain is stupid, it has a whole different meaning. A cold related meaning, probably. So that’s why it’s irrational, it’s just a connection in my brain that sparks when I think ‘oh, I’m north of the country’ or ‘I’m north of the city’, even. So, probably, all of this plays a part when I think of Northern Vietnam as my favourite latitude of the country.

First, Hanoi is amazing and waaaay nicer than Ho Chi Minh City. Then there is green. Lush green, to be precise. Mountains and hills in this part of Vietnam are just everywhere you look at. The rain does its job, and thats why you have to appreciate rain too. I’m saying this after skipping a main tourist highlight such as Sapa. I don’t need to see it to know it just adds more reason into my argument.

For me, North Vietnam was divided between two incredible spots: Cát Bà and Ninh Binh. Both of them are touristy but, in terms of Vietnam’s most travelled routes, are still preserving some off-the-beaten-path allure. So don’t brag too much about and just go!

A cheaper visit in Ha Long Bay

Cát Bà is the largest island in Ha Long Bay. Ah, now it rings a bell! Most tourists skip it because the world famous and UNESCO ‘protected’ bay is usually visited with tours that start and end in Hanoi. Big mistake. You’ll pay double or triple rates and spend half the day in a bus. Departing from Cát Bà I had the most amazing day trip on a boat I can recall. Just 14 dollars, with abundant and delicious food, kayak session and snorkel equipment included.

The most amazing thing of it all was, nonetheless, the guide and his company. Extremely friendly, he went out of his way to please the small passage (8 people) and actually guided us the following day to some great views of the city and its fisheries for free. Keep in mind, we only spent 14 dollars for ALL of it. Chans, the guide, even treated us to free rice wine, the local’s drinking delicatessen, in the evening.

I don’t find more words to explain how great the boat trip was. Cát Bà, to complement the bay, has the beautiful Ba Bé National Park a motorbike ride away, great views and a fun trekking path. And from here, we went to more boats, just of another kind.

Ninh Binh is defined as the Halong Bay inland. The mountains here are more majestuous, some crowned by spectacular dragon statues and pagodas. The area is perfect for biking around and get on local rowboats to explore the rice fields and the caves that give way to the river. You’ll be surprised when you find out how they row there… because they don’t use their hands.

Anyway, my conclusion is that, if I had to repeat this trip, I wouldn’t skip this locations at all.