As Vietnam fans out above Hanoi towards the Chinese and Laos borders, it attains its maximum width of 600km, the majority of it a mountainous buffer zone wrapped around the Red River Delta. Much of the region is wild and inaccessible, yet it contains some of Vietnam’s most awe-inspiring scenery, sparsely populated by a fascinating mosaic of ethnic minorities. Most popular for visitors is the northwest region where the country’s highest mountain range and its tallest peak, Fan Si Pan, rise abruptly from the Red River Valley. Within the shadow of Fan Si Pan lies Sa Pa, an easily accessible former French hill station, famous for its minority peoples and for its superb scenery with opportunities for trekking out to isolated hamlets. On the other side of the Red River, a couple of hours’ drive away, Bac Ha has one of the most colourful of all minority groups in the form of the Flower Hmong, whose markets are great fun. The attractions of these two towns and the historic battlefield of Dien Bien Phu, site of the Viet Minh’s decisive victory over French forces in 1954, draw most tourists, while those with enough time are well rewarded if they follow the scenic route back to Hanoi, passing through Son La, Moc Chau and Mai Chau.
The little-travelled provinces east of the Red River Valley also deserve attention, especially the stunning scenery and mountain people in the border area of Ha Giang and Cao Bang provinces. The northeast region also features Ba Be National Park, where Vietnam’s largest natural lake hides among 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.
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 (see When to go), 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.
There is little recorded history of this region of the country prior to the French establishing a hill station at Sa Pa in the 1920s, and even then their tenure was brief. Remote uplands, dense vegetation and rugged terrain suited to guerrilla activities, plus a safe haven across the border, made this region the perfect place from which to orchestrate Vietnam’s independence movement. For a short while in 1941, Ho Chi Minh hid in the Pac Bo Cave on the Chinese frontier, later moving south to Tuyen Quang Province, from where the Viet Minh launched their August Revolution in 1945. These northern provinces were the first to be liberated from French rule, but over in the northwest some minority groups, notably from among the Thai, Hmong and Muong, supported the colonial authorities and it took the Viet Minh until 1952 to gain control of the area. Two years later, they staged their great victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu, close to the Laos border.
During the late 1970s Sino-Vietnamese relations became increasingly sour for various reasons, not least Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia. Things came to a head on February 17, 1979 when the Chinese sent two hundred thousand troops into northern Vietnam, destroying most of the border towns: seventeen days later, however, the invasion force was on its way home, some twenty thousand short. Though much of the infrastructural and political damage from the war has been repaired, unmarked minefields along 1000km of frontier pose a more intractable problem: most areas – including all which regularly receive tourists – have been cleared and declared safe, but in the more remote areas it’s sensible to stick to well-worn paths.