Vietnam’s most mountainous provinces lie immediately west of the Red River Valley, dominated by the country’s highest range, Hoang Lien Son. Right on the border where the Red River enters Vietnam sits Lao Cai Town, a major crossing point into China and gateway to the former hill station of Sa Pa and nearby Bac Ha, both now firmly on the tourist map for their colourful minority groups and weekly markets. From Sa Pa a road loops west across the immense flank of Fan Si Pan, the country’s tallest peak, to join the Song Da (Black River) Valley running south, through the old French garrison towns of Muong Lay (formerly Lai Chau) and Son La, via a series of dramatic passes to the industrial town of Hoa Binh on the edge of the northern delta. The only sight as such is the historic battlefield of Dien Bien Phu, close to the Laos border, but it’s the scenery that makes the diversion worthwhile. Throughout the region, sweeping views and mountain grandeur contrast with ribbons of intensively cultivated valleys, and here more than anywhere else in Vietnam the ethnic minorities have retained their traditional dress, architecture and languages. After Sa Pa, the most popular tourist destination in these mountains is Mai Chau, an attractive area inhabited by the White Thai minority, within easy reach of Hanoi.
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