As Vietnam fans out above Hanoi towards the Chinese and Lao borders, it attains its maximum width of 600km, most of it a mountainous buffer zone wrapped around the Red River Delta. This wild, remote region contains some of Vietnam’s most awe-inspiring scenery, sparsely populated by a fascinating mosaic of ethnic minorities. Most visitors gravitate to the northwest, where the country’s highest mountain range and its tallest peak, Mount Fan Si Pan, rise abruptly from the Red River Valley. Within its shadow lies Sa Pa, a former French hill station and the base for trekking through superb scenery to isolated minority hamlets. To the east of the Red River, Bac Ha’s major draw are the Flower Hmong, whose markets are great fun. These two towns – and the historic battlefield of Dien Bien Phu, the site of the Viet Minh’s decisive victory over French forces in 1954 – are the most visited places in the north. From Dien Bien Phu, it’s worth considering the scenic route back to Hanoi, passing though Son La, with its forbidding penitentiary, and Mai Chau, with its gorgeous scenery. Plan your trip with our Northern Vietnam Travel Guide.
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Best time to visit Northern Vietnam
The best time to visit the northern mountains is from September to November or from March to May, when the weather is fairly settled with dry sunny days and clear cold nights. Winters can be decidedly chilly, especially in the northeast where night frosts are not uncommon from December to February, but the compensation is daybreak mists and breathtaking sunrise views high above valleys filled with early-morning lakes of cloud. The rainy season lasts from May to September, peaking in July and August, when heavy downpours wash out bridges, turn unsealed roads into quagmires and throw in the occasional landslide for good measure. Peak season for foreign tourists is from September to November, while the rainy summer months of July and August are when Hanoians head up to the mountains to escape the stifling heat of the delta.
Getting around Northern Vietnam
Whether you travel by public transport or with your own vehicle, you need to allow around six days’ actual travelling time to cover the northwestern region. Touring the entire northeast also requires at least six days including Ha Giang Province, but more if you want to spend time on Ba Be Lake, or visit Pac Bo Cave or Ban Gioc Waterfall near Cao Bang. Combining the northwest and northeast loops gives you an unforgettable two weeks of exploration, but bear in mind that travelling these roads is unpredictable, becoming downright hazardous during the rains, and it’s advisable to allow some flexibility in your programme. If you’ve got only limited time, Sa Pa, Mai Chau and Ba Be National Park make rewarding two- or three-day excursions out of Hanoi, either by public transport or hired vehicle. The other alternative is to join an organized tour with one of Hanoi’s tour agencies.
Top cultural attractions in Northern Vietnam
We’ve selected six of the best things to see and do from our Northern Vietnam Travel Guide.
- Mount Fan Si Pan
Ride the record-breaking cable car from Sa Pa and stand on top of Mount Fan Si Pan, Vietnam’s highest mountain.
- Bac Ha Sunday market
Have your camera ready for the Sunday market in Bac Ha, which is frequented by the Flower Hmong – perhaps the most flamboyant dressers in the country.
- Thai minority villages
Sleep in a Thai stilthouse in Mai Chau, cycle or trek through the rice fields in the valley and watch traditional dance performances.
- Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark
Vietnam’s first geopark, recognized by UNESCO for its unique geological significance, harbours some of the country’s most spectacular scenery.
- Ba Be Lake
Glide around in a boat on the lake’s glassy waters or hike to minority villages near the shore, and spend a night in a welcoming homestay.
- Ban Gioc Falls
Take a ride amid karst landscapes from Cao Bang to the Chinese border to reach these attractive falls, an image of which adorns the walls of cafés throughout the country.
What to see in Northern Vietnam
The little-travelled provinces of Ha Giang and Cao Bang also deserve attention, especially the stunning scenery and ethnic minorities in the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark, which occupies over 2300 square kilometres of Ha Giang province. Cao Bang’s attractions include the pretty Ban Gioc Falls and Hang Pac Bo, where Ho Chi Minh plotted his country’s liberation. The northeast region also features Ba Be National Park, where Vietnam’s largest natural lake nestles amid forested limestone crags and impenetrable jungle.
Not surprisingly, infrastructure throughout the northern mountains is poor: facilities tend to be thin on the ground, and some roads are in terrible condition. However, this area is becoming increasingly popular with tourists as Hanoi’s tour agents organize new tours and independent travellers venture into uncharted terrain by jeep or motorbike. New homestays are also opening all the time, especially in Ha Giang province.
Cities to Visit in Northern Vietnam
The obvious, most popular city to visit in Northern Vietnam would be Hanoi, the capital. With roughly 7,600 million inhabitants Hanoi is a hub of life made up of colonial buildings and ancient pagodas. Famous for its well-made silk and handicrafts, it is a must-see when in the country. Plastic chairs and tables crowd the small streets at night, surrounded by hungry locals and tourists enjoying delicious cuisine from the food stalls. One of the most ancient capitals of the world with heavy influences from China, France and Russia, Hanoi is a city with much to offer. Motorcycle tours are thriving in the city, with short trips to beautiful landscapes within spitting distance and local tour guides who show tourists hidden gems that might otherwise go unnoticed by visitors.
Around 175km from Hanoi, sits Ha Long Bay. A much smaller city located on the Northern coast of Vietnam. Famous for its emerald waters and hundreds of towering rainforest islands dotted around the bay, it is no wonder that it has been deemed a natural wonder of the world. Popular for activities such as scuba diving, rock climbing and kayaking it is a place many flock too to get active whilst enjoying the idealistic scenery. It is also a common theme to partake in boat tours around the bay, where often tourists will venture to cave formations and hidden temples.
Most people who visit Northern Vietnam stop off in Sa Pa. The town provides a great base for trekking and visiting some of the region’s minority villages. The town can make for a much-needed breath of fresh air after the humidity and chaos of Hanoi. There are also great views of Mount Fan Si Pan and the surrounding mountains, especially from the cable car. Discover more about Sa Pa.
The small town of Bac Ha, nestling in a high valley 40km northeast of Highway 7, makes a popular day-excursion from Sa Pa. There’s little to see in the town itself except on Sunday, when villagers of the Tay, Dao, Nung, Giay and above all Flower Hmong ethnic minorities trek in for the lively market. At 1200m above sea level compared to Sa Pa’s 1600m, Bac Ha is less spectacularly beautiful, although it’s still scenic, with cone-shaped mountains bobbing up out of the mist, and it’s also much less touristy, giving out a workaday sense of a bustling agricultural community rather than an alpine resort.
Bac Ha provides a stark contrast to Sa Pa, with little in the way of tourist facilities beyond a few guesthouses. As Sa Pa becomes saturated with tourists seeking out a more authentic experience, so Bac Ha has attempted to emulate Sa Pa’s success by developing its own trekking business focused around the nearby rural markets. For the moment, however, it lacks sufficient infrastructure – which, in many ways, is the key to its charm.
If you’re travelling independently it’s worth spending a whole weekend in Bac Ha, in order to take in the rustic and colourful market at Can Cau on Saturday. Bac Ha also makes a good base for trips out to the surrounding Flower Hmong villages of Ban Pho and Coc Ly.
The Sunday market
The Sunday market, the town’s one big attraction, gradually fills up from 8 to 10am, and from then till lunchtime it’s a jostling mass of colour, mostly provided by the stunningly dressed Flower Hmong women looking for additional adornments to their costume. The scene is filled out with a sizeable livestock market, meat and vegetable sellers, wine sellers and vendors of farming implements. The town returns to a dusty shadow of its former self by 5pm when the ethnic tribes return to their outlying villages.
Hoang A Tuong Palace
At the northern end of town, on the left along the main road, you’ll find the remarkable folly of Hoang A Tuong, formerly known as Vua Meo, or Cat King House. Two storeys of pure wedding cake surround a courtyard built in 1924 by the French as a palace for a Hmong leader, Vuong Chiz Sinh, whom they had installed as the local "king" (Meo, or "Cat" in Vietnamese, is a disparaging term formerly applied by Vietnamese and French to the Hmong). The building is now a tourist information office, with a few displays of local ethnic dress and a shop selling hilltribe gear.
The Northwest Loop
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.
Dien Bien Phu
South of Muong Lay the road splits: Highway 6 takes off southeast to Tuan Giao and is the shortest route to Son La; Highway 12 ploughs on south for more than 100km (about 3–4hr), making slow progress at first but then zipping through the second 50km, to the heart-shaped valley of Dien Bien Phu, scene of General Giap’s triumph in a battle that signalled the end of French Indochina. Though the town’s trickle of tourists tend to be French history buffs, it’s starting to become more popular as a base for trips to local minority villages: the valley’s population is predominantly Thai (53 percent), while the Viet are concentrated in the urban area. With the recent opening of the border to foreigners, it’s also being used as an alternative gateway to Laos.
Dien Bien Phu Victory Museum
On the right-hand side as you head south out of town, the museum is set back slightly from the road. The displays of weaponry include American-made guns of World War II vintage captured from French troops. Alongside them languish Viet Minh guns, also American-made but newer: these were booty from the Korean War which came via China into Vietnam, to be dragged up the battlefield’s encircling hills. Familiar photos of the war-torn valley become more interesting in context, as does the scale model where a video describes the unfolding catastrophe – the message is perfectly clear, even in Vietnamese. To the left of the main museum is a small room displaying outfits of the ethnic minorities that live in the region.
Viet Minh Cemetery
Directly opposite the museum, some of the fallen heroes are buried under grey marble headstones marked only with a red and gold star. In 1993 an imposing imperial gateway and white-marble wall of names was added in time for the fortieth anniversary of the battle. The outside of this wall features bas-reliefs in concrete of battle scenes.
A small hill overlooking the cemetery, known as Hill A1 to the Vietnamese and as Eliane 2 to French defenders, was the scene of particularly bitter fighting before it was eventually overrun towards the end of the battle. You can inspect a reconstructed bunker on the summit and various memorials, including the grave of a Viet Minh hero who gave his life while disabling the French tank standing next to him, and you also get a panorama over the now peaceful, agricultural valley.
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu
More than fifty years on, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu remains one of the most significant military conflicts of the twentieth century, with its importance in Vietnam’s struggle for independence commemorated in nearly every town by a street named in honour of that famous victory.
De Castries’ bunker
There’s little to see at the last battle site, a reconstruction of de Castries’ bunker, located on a dusty country road across the river a couple of kilometres from central Dien Bien Phu; Captured tanks, anti-aircraft guns and other weaponry rust away in the surrounding fields. Carry on past the bunker and you’ll come to a concrete enclosure with a memorial to "Those who died here for France".
Son La’s welcoming, low-key charm is enhanced by its valley-edge setting, and it merits more than the usual overnight stop. If time allows, there’s enough of interest to occupy a few days, taking in the old French prison and a nearby cave, as well as making forays to nearby minority villages on foot or by motorbike.
Certain minority villages stage events for tour groups, such as traditional Thai dancing or supping the local home brew, a sweet wine made of glutinous rice; it’s drunk from a communal earthenware container using bamboo straws, and hence named ruou can, or stem alcohol. The major part of Son La lies off the highway, straggling for little more than a kilometre along the west bank of the Nam La River.
The French prison
Son La’s principal tourist sight is the French prison, which occupies a wooded promontory above To Hieu and offers good views over town. The two turn-offs from the highway are both marked with chunky stylized signs suggesting incarceration; walk uphill to find the prison gates and an arched entrance, still announcing "Pénitencier", leading into the main compound. This region was a hotbed of anti-French resistance, and a list of political prisoners interred here reads like a roll call of famous revolutionaries – among them Le Duan and Truong Chinh, veteran Party members who both went on to become general secretary. Local hero To Hieu was also imprisoned for seditionary crimes but he died from malaria while in captivity in 1944. Most of the buildings lie in ruins, destroyed by a French bombing raid in 1952, but a few have been reconstructed, including the two-storey kitchen block (bep), beneath which are seven punishment cells. Political prisoners were often incarcerated in brutal conditions: the two larger cells (then windowless) held up to five people shackled by the ankles. Behind the kitchens, don’t miss the well-presented collection of prison memorabilia. Enter the second arched gate and upstairs in the building on your right you’ll find an informative display about the dozen or so minorities who inhabit the area, including costumes, handicrafts, jewellery and photos.
Que Lam Ngu Che Cave
The cave most convenient to Son La is Que Lam Ngu Che Cave, which is situated just north of the town centre and has a small shrine inside surrounded by strange formations in the rock. A five hundred-year-old poem written by King Le Thai Tong carved into the stone remains visible today on the outside of the cave. You can go there alone – just look for the sign 150m as you head north out of town, or a guide from the Trade Union Hotel will take you for a small fee.
An interesting destination for a day’s trek or visit by motorbike is Ban Mong, a Black Thai village six scenic kilometres along a luxuriant valley south of Son La. The houses of this village are solid, wooden structures surrounded by gardens of fruit trees rather than vegetables. The women of the village usually wear their hair piled up high on their head and secured with a head-dress, on top of which they often wear a precariously-perched crash helmet. The dress of the Black Thai women is particularly striking – especially the brightly embroidered headscarves that they drape over their long hair piled up in huge buns. Their tight-fitting blouses with rows of silver buttons, often in the shape of butterflies, are also distinctive. In colder weather, many wear a green, sleeveless sweater over the blouse, or a modern jacket in pink, blue, green or maroon.
On to Mai Chau valley
From Son La Highway 6 climbs east, passing Yen Chau – a town famed for its fruit – and some very pretty Black Thai villages on the right after about 80km, particularly La Ken, which can be visited by crossing swaying suspension bridges over the river. With your own transport, you could make a detour about 20km west over rolling hills to the Chi Day Cave, a popular pilgrimage site for Vietnamese; look for a right turn about 36km south of Son La. The main road from Son La climbs onto a thousand-metre-high plateau where the cool climate favours tea and coffee cultivation, mulberry to feed the voracious worms of Vietnam’s silk industry and herds of dairy cattle, initially imported from Holland, to quench Hanoi’s thirst for milk, yoghurt and ice cream. Just less than 120km out of Son La, the sprawling market town of Moc Chau provides a convenient place for a break. For the next 4km heading towards Hanoi, the road is dotted with stalls selling local milk products such as three kinds of flavoured milk, thick home-made yoghurt and blocks of condensed milk (which they advertise as chocolate when cocoa is added), as well as green tea. The rigid lines of tea bushes that border the road round Moc Chau create curious patterns, and though there are few side roads, this is a region in which some might want to linger. Most, however, head on down Highway 6, through valleys where the Hmong live in distinctive houses built on the ground under long, low roofs, and surrounded by fruit orchards, to Mai Chau, which lies up a side valley south of Highway 6.
The minority villages of the Mai Chau Valley, inhabited mainly by White Thai, are close enough to Hanoi (135km) to make this a popular destination, particularly at weekends when it’s often swamped with large groups of students. The valley itself, however, is still largely unspoilt, a peaceful scene of pancake-flat rice fields trimmed with jagged mountains.
Mai Chau is the valley’s main settlement – a friendly, quiet place that has a bustling morning market frequented by minority people who trek in to haggle over buffalo meat, star fruit, sacks of tea or groundnuts.
The Northeast Loop
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 more remote parts the minorities remain culturally distinct – particularly evident when local markets, their dates traditionally set by the lunar calendar, are in full swing.
Ha Giang is the capital of the north’s most remote and least-visited province, where Vietnam’s border juts into China and almost reaches the Tropic of Cancer. Until the early 1990s, this region was the scene of fierce fighting between Vietnam and China, and it is still considered a "sensitive area", though its inhabitants nowadays are peaceful and welcoming. It is a sizeable town, and though its buildings are of no great architectural merit, its setting is very impressive, hemmed in by the imposing Mo Neo and Cam mountains. The ochre waters of the Lo River carve southward through the centre of town, and traffic is thick on the bridges that connect the west and east districts.
The town itself has a few attractions, but the main reason for coming is to head on to Meo Vac and Dong Van, both set in valleys surrounded by forbidding peaks and connected by a hair-raising road with spectacular views. The trip from Ha Giang to Dong Van, then on to Cao Bang via Bao Loc, is about 300km and takes at least two (more often three) full days of driving along narrow, bumpy roads, which may become impassable during the rainy season. This border area is home to several minority groups, including the White Hmong and the Lo Lo, the latter having only a few thousand members; most towns along the route, including Dong Van and Meo Vac, have a Sunday market attended by villagers from the surrounding valleys, where you might just be the only foreigner.
The town of Ha Giang straddles the Lo River, with two bridges connecting the older part on the east bank and the newer part on the west bank.
Ha Giang market
Located in a purpose-built hall just northeast of the northern bridge, Ha Giang’s market is a frenzy of activity in the early morning when members of minority groups can often be seen. If you plan to go to Dong Van, however, you’re likely to see more authentic markets along the way.
Ha Giang museum
The Ha Giang museum, located just west of the northern bridge, is well worth a visit to get a preview of the outfits of the many different minority groups who inhabit the region, as well as to see artefacts such as bronze drums and ancient axe-heads that have been unearthed by digs in the region. Archeological evidence shows that there has been a settlement here for tens of thousands of years, and the region seemingly flourished during the Bronze Age judging by the number of beautifully designed drums that have been found.
Ba Be National Park
Designated as Vietnam’s eighth national park in 1992 and covering an area of about one hundred square kilometres, Ba Be is a region of astounding beauty, from the lush vegetation mirrored in the lake’s still waters to towering limestone pinnacles that reach over 1500m. The main attractions for visitors are boat trips to visit caves, waterfalls and minority villages, with the added bonus of seeing at least a few of the 220 animal, 417 plant and 49 fish species recorded here. Bears, tigers and one of Vietnam’s rarest and most endangered primates, the Tonkin snub-nosed langur (Rhinopithecus avunculus), live in a few isolated communities on the fringes of the park, but nearer the lake there’s a good chance of spotting the more common macaque monkeys, herons and garrulous, colourful flocks of parrots. Few people are around to disturb the wildlife and outside the months of July and August, when Hanoians take their holidays, you’ll usually find only a handful of tourists. What puts some people off Ba Be is difficulty of access by public transport, but if you join a tour or hire your own transport in Hanoi it becomes easier to justify, especially when combined with a visit to a minority market. Even then, though, a two-night stay is sufficient for most people.
Ba Be Lake
Vietnam’s largest natural lake, Ho Ba Be forms the core of the delightful Ba Be National Park, a feast of limestone and tropical forest. Enclosed by steep, densely wooded slopes breaking out here and there into white limestone cliffs, the lake is 7km long, up to 30m deep and a kilometre wide in parts. A few islands decorate the surface.
Ba Be Itineraries
The Ba Be itinerary usually begins with a boat trip along the Nang River to Hang Puong, where the waters have tunnelled a three-hundred-metre-long, bat-filled cave through a mountain. From here they go on to the Dau Dang Waterfall, a stretch of beautiful but treacherous rapids. Take care if you walk on the slippery rocks around the falls as there has been at least one tourist fatality here. Next up is a visit to a Tay village on the lakeside, and on longer trips an overnight stay in a stilthouse. A road around the south end of the lake has made Pac Ngoi less of an isolated Tay community than it used to be, but several other villages in the area, such as Buoc Luom, Ban Vang and Bo Lu, can accommodate visitors too. Few Tay wear traditional dress these days, and you’re most likely to see it at a minority show at the National Park Guest House.
Cao Bang lies approximately halfway along the route from Ha Giang to Lang Son, and has enough appeal to merit a stopover. The journey from Ha Giang along Highway 34, via Bao Lac, takes the better part of a day, passing through small villages and excellent scenery. Few travellers venture this far north, but those who do usually make the pilgrimage out to Pac Bo Cave, where Ho Chi Minh lived on his return to Vietnam in 1941, and to Ban Gioc Falls, Vietnam’s highest waterfall, right on the border with China. The province is home to several ethnic minorities, notably the Dao, Nung and Tay who still maintain their traditional way of life in the more remote uplands.
The town itself is a likeable place: its centre may be dusty and noisy, but its riverside setting, with dense clumps of bamboo backed by sugar-loaf mountains helps to blur the edges. The town is built on the southwestern bank of the Bang Giang River, on a spur of land formed by the confluence with the Hien River. Highway 3 drops steeply down from the hills and enters town from the west, crossing a bridge onto a tree-lined avenue of self-important edifices, including the People’s Committee, theatre, bank and post office, before turning right along the river. The narrow, shady park on top of the low hill in the centre of town is worth a wander, and the statue of Uncle Ho is a reminder of the fact that this region was vital to the thrust for independence that he led.
Southeast to Lang Son
At Cao Bang you join Highway 4, an ambitious road that was originally part of a French military network linking the isolated garrisons right across northern Vietnam’s empty mountain country. This road is more subject than many others in the north to falling into disrepair, and the 140km journey to Lang Son takes about four hours, depending on conditions. Beyond Dong Khe, a nondescript town roughly 40km out of Cao Bang, the virtually traffic-free road climbs through a gorge of sheer limestone cliffs before cresting the dramatic Dong Khe Pass. In 1950 this pass was the scene of a daring ambush in which the Viet Minh gained their first major victory over the French Expeditionary Force. In the ensuing panic, forts all along the border were abandoned, an estimated six thousand French troops were killed or captured, and the Viet Minh netted 950 machine guns, eight thousand rifles and a few hundred trucks.
That Khe lies exactly halfway between Cao Bang and Lang Son, and beyond here the road winds through Na Sam, an attractive town snuggled beneath a dramatic setting of outcrops. The villages in this area are inhabited by Nung and Tay; their bamboo rafts and huge wooden waterwheels, which form part of sophisticated irrigation works, grace the river that weaves along beside the road. Unfortunately this rural idyll comes to an abrupt end, as the speedy Highway 1 from Dong Dang brings you hurtling into Lang Son.