Hanoi was everything I imagined from Vietnam's capital city: pulsating streets, vendors in conical hats with baskets of fruit balanced over their shoulders, motorcycles zooming over gutters and weaving through traffic to a bizarre rhythm only they can hear. It is energising and overwhelming, and I clearly liked it because I arrived there a total of three times in a week as I flitted around the northeastern region of the country.

As a history nerd I was thrilled to visit the Vietnam Women's Museum there, which spotlights the bravery of female guerrillas in the war and the struggles of today's mothers, wives and professionals. I also visited the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, where 2008 presidential candidate John McCain and others were held as POWs during what's known here as the American War. My biggest regret of the trip, however, is missing my chance to see Ho Chi Minh's preservative-pumped body at his mausoleum. Next time.

After several days of history knowledge-polishing, stall-perusing and sandwich-eating (I'll talk more about the sandwich opportunities in my guide to Vietnam), my friends and I took a couple of buses and a boat to Cat Ba Island, the jumping-off point for trips to the famed Ha Long Bay. Cat Ba is a beautiful scenic area – riding in formation through its moody, emerald mountain-studded national park and searching for its hidden beaches remains one of the highlights of my whole trip. We took a day trip to Ha Long Bay, pausing to dive off the boat among the picturesque karsts, and that honestly wasn't as exciting as exploring the island on our own two wheels.

Next up were two nights at a homestay near Tac Ba Lake, in a village called Vu Linh. This was a real slice of Vietnam, the authentic local experience that backpackers desire (and for good reason). A traditional house, elevated on stilts and built by the homeowners in the middle of their fruit farm. A communal room for us and the family where we ate, talked and slept in a row under mosquito nets. Dinner, prepared from the pig that was slaughtered this morning. And most importantly, rice wine: brewed by the owner's brother and poured liberally, litres and litres of it, from a petrol cannister. The copious amounts of rice wine went down after the local 'cheers', and led to a series of karaoke-related decisions that I'd rather forget. It was a brilliant two days.

Next stop: Tam Coc.