Widely considered one of the absolute highlights of Southeast Asia, Halong Bay attracts the bulk of tourism in northern Vietnam, and for a good reason. But because of its massive popularity, it also overshadows other captivating destinations in the region.
From the heaving streets of Hanoi to the rippling rice paddies of Sapa, northern Vietnam offers to thrill you with a number of diverse, unique experiences. So other than Halong Bay, what are the most travel-worthy places in the north of Vietnam? Let us walk you through our subjective list of the region’s most outstanding attractions.
Chock-a-block with color and culture at every turn, Vietnam’s capital city is a great starting point for anyone planning to explore the north of the country. After centuries of both Chinese and French colonialism, modern-day Hanoi boasts its own, original character, but it still maintains an air of the olden days.
The winding streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter teem with little shops selling colorful silk lanterns and handicrafts, but they are also jam-packed with street food vendors dishing out mouth-watering local delicacies like phở, bún chả and bánh mì. If these names sound unfamiliar to you, you’re missing out big time here! Oh, and do try egg coffee, another local specialty.
Hanoi’s top tourist attractions include the Museum of Literature, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Women’s Museum and Hoan Kiem Lake, but wherever you go in Hanoi you are likely to chance upon ancient Taoist and Confucian temples, immaculately preserved Buddhist pagodas and thoughtfully curated museums. Architecture appreciators, culture lovers, history buffs and foodies – you will all find your fix here.
Conveniently close to Hanoi, the impossibly picturesque valley of Mai Chau is your perfect overnight escape from the capital’s hustle and bustle. With ethnic minority villages dotted across a patchwork of rice fields and surrounded by towering mountains, the valley provides some of the best homestay opportunities in the entire country.
Lac and Poom Coong, in particular, are two villages offering accommodation in stilt houses which sit next to verdant rice paddies edged by jungle and limestone outcrops. Be warned that Mai Chau has become a bit of a popular destination for tour groups, so there will be some who will say the charm of authenticity has long evaporated from the valley.
Having said that, Mai Chau is still a great choice for leisure bike rides and hiking trips, and it’s not hard to get away from the crowds anyway. So just get on your bike and disappear into one of the many narrow paths and into a labyrinth of rice fields, or explore some of the local craft shops in the villages and dig into the world-famous delicacies served by the White Thai, the local ethnic minority.
An old French hill station, in recent years Sapa has assumed the role of Vietnam’s top location for trekking and climbing. Standing proudly at over 3,000 metres high, Mount Fansipan is the tallest mountain in all of Southeast Asia, and it is situated just 9 km outside of Sapa.
The area is famed for its picturesque hillside terraces, inhabited since immemorial times by some of Vietnam’s most fascinating ethnic minorities. With Sapa experiencing the effects of the nationwide tourism boom, many locals now offer authentic homestays for a unique glimpse into the lives and culture of local communities.
Make no mistake about it – Sapa is no longer a sleepy mountain town. Tourism has changed its skyline and pushed it upwards with modern, chaotic architecture, but the main appeal of the area lies elsewhere – and you’ll discover it as soon as you venture out of town. With mist rolling between towering mountains, over cascading rice terraces, across the lush green fields surrounding the town, the area is a true feast for your eyes.
Known as “the little Sapa”, Bac Ha is a sleepy town that only comes alive on Sunday – when it does so with a loud bang. Bac Ha’s Sunday market is a bustling bazaar where one can buy or sell all manner of trinkets, handbags and textiles, but also dogs, horses and cattle. The market attracts colorfully-clad villagers from the surrounding hills and valleys – as well as day-tripping tourists from Sapa, drawn to Bac Ha by wonderful people-watching prospects.
Much less developed than Sapa in terms of tourism, Bac Ha retains its backwater feel while being surrounded by countryside no less pretty than that of its more popular neighbor. At 700 metres above sea level, Bac Ha is located at less than a half of the altitude of Sapa and thus offers more pleasant trekking conditions during the winter months, with its year-round temperature of around 19 degrees Celsius.
With little on offer in terms of gourmet meals or luxurious accommodation, Bac Ha is hardly anything more than just a small market town – which is exactly why it might be worth a bit of your time. Go and see those back lanes with their age-old adobe houses before they’re gone for good.
Ha Giang Province
The northernmost frontier of Vietnam, Ha Giang Province is a wonderful choice if outdoor activities such as hiking or camping are high on your priorities list. A mind-boggling mixture of limestone outcrops, winding roads and granite-walled gorges, Ha Giang boasts some of the country’s most stunning landscapes, but they’re mostly hidden up in the north of the province, right at the border with China.
Because of its secluded location, Ha Giang receives just a trickle of Vietnam’s tourist masses. But it’s no longer a lucky wanderer’s secret, and the numbers have been rising sharply in recent years, especially after UNESCO designated the province’s Dong Van Karst Plateau as one of its National Geoparks in 2011.
Other highlights of the area include the breathtaking road between Yen Minh and Dong Van, and the Quan Ba Valley along with the Quan Ba Pass – known locally as Heaven’s Gate for its panoramic views of terraced rice fields, hundreds of metres below you. Don’t miss out on the gem that is Ha Giang!
Ba Be National Park
Designated as a protected area in 1992, Ba Be National Park is one of Vietnam’s first national parks – and among the most beautiful nature reserves in all of Southeast Asia. Also known as the Ba Be Lakes, the area is blessed with a system of lakes, caves and limestone mountains, a wealth of fauna and flora and a tropical climate. It offers ample trekking, kayaking and biking opportunities.
With head-spinning scenery stretching from deep valleys to limestone peaks far above your head, the area is thick with green forests and has scenic lakes at its very center. The park is a safe haven for animals including some endangered species such as the Vietnamese salamander, as hunting is strictly forbidden in the entire grounds of the park. The region is home to hundreds of plant and wildlife species but also to a dozen of ethnic minority villages.
The weather is very agreeable in the park in August and September, but this is also when tourist crowds roll in. If you were rather hoping to go spotting for the other 65 mammal species inhabiting the area, then you need to consider visiting the park in spring and winter instead, for a more pristine exposure to the park’s wonders.
Lan Ha Bay
Our list of highlights of northern Vietnam closes with a bay – and it’s a shout-out to those with a sneaking suspicion that given Ha Long’s popularity, it is bound to be overcrowded. If you’re asking that question already, chances are it will feel that way for you. For a more peaceful alternative, turn your attention to the neighboring Lan Ha Bay.
It is located in a different province but geologically speaking, Lan Ha is an extension of Ha Long and it comes with identical landscape features. It is also equally impressive, with around 300 limestone outcrops and karst islands, but has the added bonus of sandy beaches and feels far more pristine than its hugely popular neighbor. Sure enough, you’ll be missing out on Halong Bay’s headline attractions such as Sung Sot Cave, but you’ll be too busy having a whale of a time in Lan Ha to worry about any other place in the world.
If you can picture yourself bathing in the bay’s azure waters after a day of exploring caves – or just lazing about at one of the many beaches in the area, with nearly no one else around, then Lan Ha Bay should land near the top of your bucket list.
Hungry for even more? Then also check out our list of highlights in all of Vietnam, for even more inspiration!