Weekend Getaway for Expats Living in Hanoi

Hanoi is great city to live in, but it can get really congested sometimes. Moreover, you probably have explored all the places recommended by TripAdvisor, tried all the food and activities recommended by local friends after staying here for awhile. I’ve got a solution though, how about a weekend getaway from Hanoi?

There are countless awesome destinations for expats to visit that are not too far away from Hanoi. You can travel there after work on Friday, enjoy a peaceful two-day rest before heading back on Sunday evening.

I’ve compiled a list of places you should consider, most are within just 2-3 hours of traveling time and rest assured that your weekend will be well spent.

1. Weekend Getaway to Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay is the most popular attraction site to expats in Vietnam. It’s also a natural heritage site by UNESCO, thanks to the many limestone islands located closely to one another, creating a breathtaking view of seascape for visitors.

Previously, Ha Long city was only known for its famous Bay. Therefore, visitors were primarily tourists.

However, there has been many developments here recently, including a new route that cuts the traveling time from Hanoi to just 2 hours. Since, it has been more popular as a weekend destinations for Hanoians.

If you haven’t taken a cruise trip (the shortest is about 3 hours) around Ha Long Bay yet, that’s the first thing you must do here. Some cruise trips even allow you to kayak on the Bay (which is awesome). I guarantee you it’s one of the most Instagram-worthy experiences in Vietnam.

There are many other reasons to visit Ha Long. The city also has a theme park, lots of high-end hotels, spas and a golf course, all overlooking the Bay.  There’s even a casino here, too.

If you’re a person who doesn’t like any of that touristy stuff, you can always book a quiet, beachfront Airbnb, wake up to the sunrise and enjoy very fresh seafood for three meals a day. The seafood here is incredibly good.

If you’re an extremely lazy person who doesn’t want to do any research (like me), I’d recommend Airbnb Trip. Despite being a local, I still book trips/experiences with great reviews via the platform. And even if you’re not looking to book via Airbnb, the well-reviewed trips have all the details of different experiences you can consider.

How to Get to Ha Long from Hanoi

Hanoian families prefer to travel to Ha Long by driving. However, if you’re not used to the traffic, I strongly recommend against it, for your safety. Booking a cab or private car will set you back $60-90 (one way).

A more affordable option is to get there by bus. Express bus (usually seats 12 or less) ticket goes for around $8-10 and the trip will be about 2.5 hours. The seats are pretty comfortable too. On the other hand, a coach bus (45-seater) ticket will cost $4-6 with much less comfort and there are a lot more people traveling with you.

Needless to say, I prefer and recommend express bus. You can book tickets online here. Take into account the pickup and dropoff locations of each bus and also, the reviews!

Actually, there’s another way you can consider, which is by seaplane. Yeah, that’s right.

It costs from $180-420, depending on season and the flight timing, to fly from Noi Bai International Airport to Ha Long Bay (one-way). It lands on water and you’ll get to enjoy the awesome view of Ha Long Bay from above.

The flight isn’t necessarily faster. Although flight time is 45 minutes, if you factor in the check-in and waiting time at the airport, seaplane takes as long as driving to get to Ha Long.

Regardless, it’s still a great experience if you can afford it. The view from above is absolutely spectacular!

Pros and Cons of A Ha Long Weekend Getaway

Pros:

  • Great sightseeing experience
  • Short travel time from Hanoi
  • High quality accommodation available
  • Fresh seafood
  • People here (especially those in tourism-related job) speak decent English

Cons:

  • More expensive compared to other options
  • The public beach can get really crowded sometimes, especially during summer
  • It’s a “day” city. After 10pm, all the stores are closed and streets are empty

2. Getaway to Cat Ba Island – alternative to Ha Long Bay

Cat Ba Island (Hai Phong) is located at the southwest of Ha Long Bay and surrounded by many awesome towering limestone islands (Lan Ha Bay), which is why some argue it’s part of the Bay itself. If you prefer an area much less developed than Ha Long, Cat Ba Island can be considered.

This 285-km² island is part of Hai Phong, a coastal city that’s connected to Hanoi via a highway that takes only 1.5 hours of travel time.

Cat Ba National Park (UNESCO Biosphere Reserve) takes up a large portion of the island and to protect the endangered species, there has been little development here in decades. If you’re a “nature” kind of person, you’ll love it here.

Because of little development, some dislike Cat Ba Island because of the lack of high-end accommodation, road infrastructure and even maintenance of the beach.

However, if you’re an adventurous person, you’ll love this place. A hike around Cat Ba National Park can take up to a day. Rock climbing is available here too. And because the island is part of Lan Ha Bay, you can also kayak, go on a cruise or snorkeling trip.

Getting to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi

Although it takes just 1 hour 30 minutes to travel from Hanoi to Hai Phong, it takes an additional hour to get to Cat Ba Island. The reason is because you first need to get to Cat Hai Island (connected to Hai Phong via a bridge), then take a ferry ride followed by another 30-minute drive.

The most common way expats (especially the adventurous type) choose to reach Cat Ba Island from Hanoi is to take a coach/shuttle bus to Hai Phong, then rent a motorbike to get to there.

You can also book a private car, which costs way more, to get you from Hai Phong to Cat Ba.

Pros and Cons of spending the weekend at Cat Ba Island

Pros:

  • Lots of attractions for the nature-lovers
  • A much cheaper destination for a quick getaway
  • Spectacular sightseeing experience
  • Much less crowded compared to Ha Long Bay

Cons:

  • You might not enjoy it here if you’re not a big fan of adventures
  • Traveling here can be exhausting (since it takes a ferry ride)
  • Majority of the accommodation options here are of the low-end
  • The locals don’t speak fluent English here

3. Sapa

Sapa is a beautiful, highland town located northwest of Hanoi (Lao Cai Province). It’s often a go-to holiday and weekend getaway destination for many Hanoians.

This small town is popular among expats too, thanks to its many trekking options, unique variety of local tribes and breathtaking views of the terraced rice fields everywhere. Fansipan, the highest mountain of Vietnam (and Indochina region) at 3143 meters above sea level, is accessible here as well, via cable car.

There are endless activities for you to enjoy here, from experiencing tribal lifestyle to exploring local villages to trekking on the sides of mountains.

Because each activity here takes at least half a day, you should plan your day carefully to make sure your short weekend is well spent and you’re not physically exhausted by the time you’re back to Hanoi.

Since Sapa is a very popular destination, you should book accommodation as early as possible. During summer, the peak season here, it’s hard to find a great hotel or Airbnb just a couple days before.

Mid-winter (January and February) is also when many Hanoians visit Sapa because it’s one of the few locations in Vietnam where temperature can drop so low that there will be snow to enjoy.

Getting to Sapa

This is going to be a great turnoff choosing Sapa for a weekend getaway from Hanoi. It takes about 5 hours to get here. Yes, 5 hours.

To get here, you first need to travel to Lao Cai via Noi Bai – Lao Cai Highway, which takes approximately 3-4 hours. After that, you have to travel on a mountain side roads leading up to Sapa (about 1-2 hours).

Getting here by bus is probably the best option. It’s cheap and safe since the bus driver is experienced with the route.

If you’re thinking of driving to Sapa, I’d recommend not to. The mountain side roads have so many dangerous switchback/hairpin turns that discourage many local Hanoians from driving up here.

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also ride a motorbike to Sapa. There are a lot of tours offering this unique (and very dangerous) experience. I haven’t had the courage to try but I’ve heard many stories about it.

However, motorbike is a horrible option when it comes to a weekend getaway since it’ll take you 6-8 hours to get there including (many) rests along the way.

Pros and Cons of A Weekend Getaway to Sapa

Pros:

  • Awesome weather: cooling in the summer and snowy in the winter
  • Great sightseeing everywhere, the kind you’ve never seen before
  • Inexpensive option
  • Countless activities available

Cons:

  • Traveling for at least 5 hours and the roads are dangerous
  • Locals here only speak very basic, if any, English
  • Sapa is not known for having good food
  • Accommodation here is only acceptable

The Perfect Weekend Getaway Depends on Your Preferences

Of course, there are a lot of other options for a weekend getaway that Hanoians consider. Except for the most common destination, Ha Long Bay, thanks to its developments and the close distance from Hanoi, expats typically visit other places just to explore for the first time.

It also depends a lot on what you define as a “perfect weekend”. Are you a sport person? Or do you enjoy exploration and new adventure? Or, are you a lazy person who enjoys a very slow, inactive weekend (like me)?

You probably need to try out a lot of different destinations, which will take many weekends, to find out which you enjoy the most.

I’ve been on both great and horrible trips and I want to hear about yours. Drop me an email at [email protected] about your last (or next) weekend getaway.

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