Vietnam’s north has been inhabited for thousands of years, but little of its history was documented until the French occupation. The French established a hill station at Sapa in the 1920s but their dominion did not last long. Vietnam’s independence movement secured the liberation of the northern provinces from French rule between 1945 and 1952. In the far west, close to the Laos border, the valley of Dien Bien Phu is of great historical importance as the site of the final Viet Minh victory over the French in 1954 – a triumphant chapter in Vietnam’s history.
Relations between China and Vietnam deteriorated in the 1970s due to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia, whose genocidal regime under Pol Pot was supported by China. In 1979 the Chinese sent 200,000 troops into Northern Vietnam, destroying hundreds of border towns – they were later driven out. Though much of the damage from the war has been repaired, unmarked minefields along the frontier remain. Most areas, and certainly those visited by tourists, are safe, but in more remote parts it’s best to stick to the official, well-trodden paths.
A tour of the North of Vietnam will take you off the beaten path to see beautiful places and meet culturally diverse peoples. It can be done independently or through one of the tour agencies run by indigenous peoples in Hanoi.
2 WEEKS in Northern Vietnam
Day 1: Perfume Pagoda
Head off early from Hanoi to My Duc, from where local women ferry visitors on wooden boats upriver through the countryside to Fragrant Vestige Mountain. Walk up the mountain to Perfume Pagoda (p204). This complex of around 30 Buddhist shrines is one of the most spectacular in the country; some are located in pleasant grounds on the wooded slopes while others are set deep within the rock, the meager lighting inside reflecting off gilded statues through thick wreaths of incense smoke. You can easily spend most of the day here, with lunch at one of the vegetarian restaurants, before moving on south to Ninh Bin in time for dinner.
Day 2: Ninh Bin
Spend the morning taking a boat trip upriver to the flooded caves at Tan Coc, passing through the stunningly beautiful countryside, often called “Halong Bay on Land”, where the karst outcrops jut majestically from a brilliant-green sea of rice paddies. Then, after lunch in Ninh Binh, hire a taxi to take you to the many interesting sights around the town such as Hoa Lu, the largely restored capital of the 10th-century Dinh Dynasty, whose impressive imperial buildings are set around a picturesque lake. From there, it’s not too far to Vietnam’s biggest temple complex, Bai Dinh Temple, which features an imposing pagoda and an amazing array of Buddha statues including an enormous 100-ton bronze Buddha.
Day 3: Cuc Phuong National Park
From Ninh Bin it’s a short hop to the lush primary tropical forest at the Cuc Phuong National Park the oldest in the country thanks to its very diverse flora and fauna. You can spend the day wandering some of the shorter treks which take you through the raw jungle, past pretty waterfalls and to the botanical gardens and the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre where you can see langur, gibbons, loris, and other primates at close range. Stay overnight in a homestay in one of the Muong villages nearby.
Day 4: Mai Chau Valley
Another short journey will take you to the charming and fertile Mai Chau Valley (p210), where you can enjoy the warm hospitality of the White Thai people in a traditional stilt house. Spend a day wandering or cycling through the rice paddies, tea plantations, tiny hamlets, and jungle trails here. To venture farther off the beaten trail, trek in Pu Luong Nature Reserve before dining with your hosts, followed by watching traditional music and dance show while sipping on potent ruou can homebrew.
Day 5: Moc Chau to Dien Bien Phu
After leaving Mai Chau, the long road northward to Dien Bien Phu offers a couple of rest stops along the way. Located among the tea fields, the market town of Moc Chau makes an excellent spot for lunch. You might want to spend a couple of hours exploring the picturesque hamlets and rice-terraced hills that surround it. Make a visit to the historically significant town of Son La; the former prison and museum is a good place to learn about the horrors of French colonial rule and discover more about the local hill peoples who live in the area. Head back on the road to reach Dien Bien Phu by sunset. Situated near the Laos border, it was the site of the decisive battle of the First Indochina War in 1954, where French troops suffered a major defeat by the Communist Viet Minh forces.
Day 6: Dien Bien Phu
Spend the morning in the Dien Bien Phu Museum to learn about the history of the battle. Then head out to the valley to see monuments to the dead and the main battlefield, which is dotted with burned out tanks and Viet Minh tunnels.
Days 7, 8, and 9: Sapa
Visit the famous mountain town of Sapa, a delightful summer retreat due to its cool climate, fresh air, and stunning views. The best-developed tourist destination in the mountains, it also has pretty colonial architecture and is a melting pot of various hill peoples. Around Sapa are a multitude of trekking routes. Take a gentle hike to Ham Rong hill, where you can see traditional dance performances. For a more challenging hike, walk up to the summit of the 10,300-ft (3,140-m) Mount Falisan, the highest peak in Vietnam (the less energetic can take the cable car to the top). Walk or cycle through verdant valleys to the traditional Hmong villages of Cat Cat and Sin Chai, or the Red Dao village of Ta Phin. It’s also worth checking out Thac Bac, a magnificent 328-ft- (100-m-) high waterfall that is accessible by road northwest of the town.
Day 10: Hanoi to Uong Bi
Catch the morning bus from Sapa to Hanoi (5 hours), and a connecting bus to the town of Uong Bi (3 hours), a convenient stopover for visiting the holy mountain of Yen Tu (p208). Have a quick wander and dinner in this typical town. If you have a few hours, visit the grand Chua Va Bang temple just to the north of town.
Day 11: Yen Tu Pilgrimage Site
Make an early start to the pilgrimage sites on nearby Yen Tu mountain, which form one of the oldest and most significant in the country. A holy place for around 2,000 years, Yen Tu has over 800 religious structures, the majority built from the 13th century onwards, nestled among the mountain’s verdant slopes. Either walk up thousands of steps or take a cable car to the Hoa Yen Pagoda about halfway up, followed by another to visit the beautiful Bronze Pagoda, dating to the 15th century, at the mountain’s 3,478-ft (1,060-m) peak.
Days 12, 13, and 14: Bai Tu Long Bay
For stunning natural beauty, take a bus (3–4 hours) from Nam Mau to Cai Rong, the jumping-off point to explore the little-visited Bai Tu Long National Park in Bai Tu Long Bay (p206). From Cai Rong, a two-hour ferry ride to Co To Island will take you through the marine national park, with its crystal-clear waters, golden beaches, and karst limestone islands. At Co To stay next to the beach in the main town, or at one of the more remote resorts. Spend a couple of days cycling around this tiny island, stopping at the many delightful coves and beautiful beaches that decorate its coast. Enjoy lovely vistas from its many hills, one of which boasts a lighthouse. If lazing on the beach doesn’t appeal, explore the relatively intact red and green coral reefs that surround the island for a snorkeling or scuba diving adventure.