Introducing Northern VietnamView Gallery
From Hanoi most visitors strike out east to where northern Vietnam’s premier natural attraction, Ha Long Bay, provides the perfect antidote to such urban exuberance, rewarding the traveller with a leisurely day or two drifting among the thousands of whimsically sculpted islands anchored in its aquamarine waters. Ha Long City, on the northern coast, is the most popular embarkation point for Ha Long Bay, but a more appealing gateway is mountainous Cat Ba Island, which defines the bay’s southwestern limits. The route to Cat Ba passes via the north’s major port city, Hai Phong, an unspectacular but genial place with an attractive core of faded colonial facades.
To the north and west of Hanoi mountain ranges rear up out of the Red River Delta. Vietnam’s northern provinces aren’t the easiest to get around, but these wild uplands are home to a patchwork of ethnic minorities and the country’s most dramatic mountain landscapes. The bustling market town of Sa Pa, set in a spectacular location close to the Chinese border in the far northwest, makes a good base for exploring nearby minority villages, though a building boom has taken some of the shine off its laidback vibe. Southwest of Hanoi, the stilthouse-filled valley of Mai Chau offers an opportunity to stay in a minority village. Though few people venture further inland, backroads heading upcountry link isolated outposts and give access to the northwest’s only specific sight, where the French colonial dream expired in the dead-end valley of Dien Bien Phu. East of the Red River Valley lies an even less-frequented region, whose prime attraction is its varied scenery, from the vertigo-inducing valleys of the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark to the limestone crags and multi-layered rainforest of Ba Be National Park, and the remote valleys around Cao Bang, farmed by communities still practising their traditional ways of life.