Besides the obvious destinations such as Hanoi, Ha Long Bay and Sa Pa, North Vietnam has plenty of places that attract fewer visitors but are equally rewarding. These range from the bustling city of Haiphong to remote areas of natural beauty such as Mai Chau and Ba Be Lake.
Though roads are constantly being upgraded, making travel throughout the north easier, keep in mind that the region is very rugged and that at times your journey may be held up by landslides or collapsed road surfaces. To avoid any unexpected mishaps, hire a 4WD vehicle with English-speaking driver.
With nearly two million inhabitants, this is one of Vietnam’s biggest cities, though few tourists venture here. It’s a shame because the coastal city has lots of interesting colonial-style architecture, including its own opera house, as well as some good-value hotels and stylish restaurants. Do Son Beach, just 20kms south of Haiphong, is a classic Vietnamese seaside resort, packed with karaoke lounges and massage parlours. Haiphong is just 100kms east of Hanoi and the train journey here takes less than three hours.
Ha Giang Province
This is Vietnam’s northernmost province and the country’s last frontier for adventurers. Few visitors come here, partly because you need a permit to travel beyond the town of Ha Giang itself and partly because you must be accompanied by a guide. In fact both are easy to organize in Ha Giang, and the permit only costs around US$10.
Around the settlements of Dong Van and Meo Vac, hard on the Chinese border, you’ll find the most spectacular scenery in the country, even more dramatic than the northwest around Sa Pa, with precipitous valleys and mist swirling round lonely peaks. It’s a great challenge for experienced bikers, but if you don’t like bumpy rides or are fussy about your food, forget it.
Cat Ba Island
For some Cat Ba is just a jumping-off point for tours of Ha Long Bay, but it’s now also fast becoming an adventure sports centre. A mostly young crowd comes here for rock climbing, kayaking, mountain biking and trekking through the Cat Ba National Park, with experienced guides and instructors based in Cat Ba town. Though the town itself is small, it’s a great place to meet other travellers and pick up tips for places to visit.
Located on the loop road between Hanoi and Sa Pa, Mai Chau enjoys a fabulous setting with memorable views of rice paddies backed by saw-toothed mountains. The village itself is occupied by people of the White Thai minority group, whose woven bags and sarongs make striking souvenirs. Tour operators from Hanoi bring groups to overnight in stilt houses and witness cultural shows.
Ba Be Lake
A tranquil lake is the centrepiece of the Ba Be National Park near Cao Bang in Vietnam’s remote north, and though few foreign visitors make it here, there are several attractions, such as boat trips on the lake, caves and tribal villages. There’s some decent accommodation at the park headquarters and park staff can help arrange excursions of the local area.
There’s not much to see in the town itself, but as one of the biggest settlements in Vietnam’s north, it is a transport hub for many villages in the region inhabited by ethnic minority groups such as the Tay, the Nung and the Hmong. It has something of a wild, border-town feel and travellers who make it here will know they are off the beaten track.
Son La is another stop on the loop road between Hanoi and Sa Pa, providing a useful resting point between Mai Chau and Dien Bien Phu. There’s not much of interest in the town itself, apart from the ‘penitencier’ – the former French prison located prominently on a hill. Son La’s real interest lies in the surrounding scenery and villages, which are occupied mostly by ethnic minorities such as the Black Thai, whose women wear brightly-embroidered headscarves and tight-fitting jackets secured with silver buttons.
Hang Pac Bo
Hang Bac Po, or Water-Wheel Cave, is not famed so much for its beauty as for its historical significance. This is where Ho Chi Minh re-entered the country in 1941 (the Chinese border is just a few kilometres away) and spent several weeks plotting his next steps in the anti-colonial struggle. There’s a small museum here and just a few relics from Ho’s days here. The cave is about 60kms north of Cao Bang and the best way to get there is by motorbike taxi from the town.