One of the most appealing aspects of this part of Vietnam is how easy it is to get to all the major points of interest from Hanoi. Although the 3½-hour journey from the capital to Halong Bay may seem like an inconvenience, it is a mere trifle in a Vietnamese context. Likewise, Haiphong and Ninh Binh are an easy hop from the big city, with plenty of comfortable and convenient transportation services operating the routes. In fact, if your time is very limited, you can even take in a selection of attractions in a (long) day trip from Hanoi. However, such is the visual manna on offer, a few days to absorb the area’s splendor is far preferable.
Ninh Binh and Nearby. A short trip (around 100 km or 62 miles) south of Hanoi, the provincial city of Ninh Binh is pleasant enough, but it is the quintessentially Vietnamese limestone karst scenery surrounding the city that puts it on the tourist map. Dive headlong into the landscape while getting rowed along lazy rivers and through intricate cave systems.
Haiphong. Overlooked by many visitors, Haiphong is well worth a day or two of anyone’s time. Although it is one of Vietnam’s most important ports and an industrial center, the city’s tree-lined boulevards, colonial architecture, and excellent transportation links with Hanoi make it a fine addition to a travel itinerary.
Halong Bay and Nearby. The karst-studded seascape of Halong Bay (around four hours by road from Hanoi) is one of the world’s most arresting sights and a trip here is an absolute must if you are in northern Vietnam. Farther east, Bai Tu Long Bay showcases virtually the same visual splendor, but welcomes a fraction of the tourists. Cat Ba Island is a rugged, jungle-clad paradise that has become a favored center for adventure sports.