Ethan, Camille, Emily and Elise take a break on a trek around Sa Pa.

Travel journal: Northern Vietnam

Seen through the eyes of: The Barbin family

Who went: Jeff, Allison, Emily, Elise, Ethan and Camille

We went because: Jeff had a conference in Macao, China. Vietnam was on our bucket list and was easy to get to from there.

View of the valley from the cable car to Mount Fansipan

Hotel recommendations: The Sofitel Legend Metropole in Hanoi, Silk Path Grand Resort in Sa Pa, and Emeralda Resort in Ninh Binh

Food experience: The food in Vietnam is incredible. On our first night in Hanoi, we had a food tour with stops at four restaurants with one stop for local beer. Breakfast was generally included with the hotel stay with a large variety of Western and Asian options. (Noodles are for breakfast!) For lunch, we had set menus in small restaurants in the towns we visited. These were usually five to six courses including soup, salad, spring rolls, two to three meat courses, steamed rice, vegetables and fruit for dessert. One of the members of our group is a vegetarian and this was always easily accommodated.

Item of clothing you shouldn’t leave home without: Vietnam is extremely hot and humid (at least in May). Breathable fabrics and comfortable walking/
hiking shoes are necessities.

Peak above the Mua Cave

Favorite historic landmark: The Temple of Literature in Hanoi—it was built in 1070 as a monument to the importance of education and Confucianism. It became Vietnam’s first national university in 1076.

A great experience off the beaten path: The Sunday Market in Bac Ha. It is the largest tribal minority market in northern Vietnam with every kind of produce, spice, meat, live animal, farm implement and textile imaginable.

Worth the splurge: Having a tour guide and driver

Trang An

Experiences we recommend: Food tour in Hanoi, hiking through tribal villages in Sa Pa, cable car to Mount Fansipan (the highest peak in Indochina), rowboats through the Trang An landscape, climbing the steps to the peak above the Mua Caves, and an overnight cruise on Halong Bay/Bai Tu Long. Halong Bay and Trang An are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Experience we would skip: Cat Ba Island/Cat Ba National Park. It was extremely crowded and the park was devoid of wildlife.

Something surprising we learned on the trip: Vietnam is comprised of over 50 different ethnic groups, each with its own culture and language. We were also somewhat surprised to find that the northern Vietnamese people seem to have no animosity toward Americans.

Insiders’ tips: Eat with a local! Our guide encouraged us to try foods we would never have tried on our own. Venturing into small local establishments gave us a deeper sense of connection to the people and the culture.

We would suggest this trip to others because: It was an immersive cultural experience among people who are extremely kind and welcoming and landscapes that are majestic and diverse.