The provinces of northeast Vietnam, looping eastwards from Ha Giang to Lang Son, lack the grandeur of their counterparts west of the Red River Valley, with the notable exception of the area round Dong Van and Meo Vac. In general the peaks here are lower and the views smaller-scale and of an altogether softer quality; there are also less minority folk wearing traditional dress. Getting to see everything is not as straightforward as in the northwest either, though the upgrading of the road between Meo Vac and Cao Bang means it’s now possible to visit the fabulous landscapes of Ha Giang Province, as well as Ba Be Lake and the region around Cao Bang, without backtracking.
Highlights of the northeast are its rural landscapes, from traditional scenes of villages engulfed in forest to dramatic limestone country, typified by pockets of cultivation squeezed among rugged outcrops whose lower slopes are wrinkled with terraces. However, population densities are still low, leaving huge forest reserves and high areas of wild, open land inhabited by ethnic minorities practising swidden farming. While many have adopted a Vietnamese way of life, in remoter parts the minorities remain culturally distinct – particularly evident when local markets, their dates traditionally set by the lunar calendar, are in full swing.