The north of Vietnam makes a statement with majestic mountain ranges, centuries-old rice terraces, and fascinating ethnic groups.
Along the banks of the Red River lies Hanoi, a city locked in time yet simultaneously leaping forward. Hanoi’s atmospheric Old Quarter, beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake and classic colonial architecture will leave you enchanted. There are excellent museums and art galleries to tour and when you get hungry, you’ll find the northern streetfood is both abundant and delicious. Pull up a chair at one of many charming cafes to watch life unfurl and gain a sense of the city’s timeless rhythm.
Not far from Hanoi waits the fairy tale landscape of Ninh Binh, where sheer limestone cliffs rear straight up from paddy fields, and rowboats will bring you on a mesmerising journey through river caves. No visit to the north is complete without a cruise on Halong Bay to soak in the sight of thousands of islets and the bay’s deep emerald green waters.
TOP DESTINATIONS IN NORTHERN VIETNAM
Founded over one thousand years ago, Vietnam’s capital city is rich in history, with the streets of its rambling Old Quarter dating back to the 14th century. Wandering these tree-lined lanes past crumbling colonial facades will transport you back in time. However, today’s Hanoi is about much more than the past. The ancient city is being invigorated with modern cafes, world-class restaurants, and cool art galleries. When the sun goes down, you have your pick of watering holes, from sophisticated rooftop bars to buzzing bia hơi.
Top things to do in Hanoi
Sample the street food
For an authentic taste of Hanoi, look to the street kitchens of the Old Quarter. Steaming pots of its star anise-infused Phở broth simmer on every corner; while every day, the scent of bún chả fills the air as barbecued pork sizzles over hot coals.
Stroll the Old Quarter
Hanoi’s Old Quarter serves up a sensory overload. Wisps of incense drift out onto streets from ancient temples, while the clang of blacksmiths’ hammers mingles with mobile fruit sellers’ call. Jump in a cyclo and tour this intoxicating maze.
Explore Hanoi’s cafe culture
Fast-paced on the surface, the true rhythm of Hanoi life is far from hurried and is reflected well in its leisurely coffee hours. Alongside traditional coffee houses, an ever-growing band of unique cafes serve new brews in cool caffeine dens.
Check out the art scene
Hanoi is Vietnam’s art capital. The elegant Fine Arts Museum houses the country’s foremost collection, such as ancient Cham artifacts and impressionist pieces. For something more contemporary, head for Manzi or the Vietnam Art Gallery.
Join the locals at Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake rests in the heart of Hanoi. Every morning it comes alive with walkers, aerobics classes, and even a laughing yoga group; and bursts back into activity at sunset, thronged with locals taking in the evening air.
Ha Noi Weather
Hanoi is most inviting from April to June, but the capital is particularly beautiful in May when trees suddenly come into bloom. September and October are also excellent months to visit as temperatures cool and the sky clears.
Ha Noi Transport
Vietnam’s capital is served by Noi Bai international airport, 45km from the city centre. The Reunification Express line has trains to many major destinations including Lao Cai (Sapa) and Dong Hoi (Phong Nha.) There are many options for getting around Hanoi, including taxis, buses, and motorbikes. Grab, and a few other ride-hailing apps offer on-demand services for getting around. Hanoi’s bus network has an extensive network around the city and low-cost fare. Finally, the classic cyclo can be hired to take you around the Old Quarter on a sightseeing tour.
For many, the seascape of Ha Long Bay is synonymous with Vietnam. Cruises sail emerald green waters among thousands of rugged islands and islets, stopping at spectacular caves through which visitors can wander, viewing impressive, centuries-old formations. Ha Long Bay’s mystical beauty has made it a bucket list attraction within the country, but it’s still possible to find secluded corners to call your own.
Top things to do in Ha Long Bay
Cruise the bay
Nothing beats spending watching the sun set over the calm waters of Ha Long Bay and waking up to a serene morning surrounded by karsts. Relaxing on a sun deck surrounded by magnificent panoramas is the highlight of many a trip.
Explore a floating village
Ha Long Bay is not just a UNESCO-listed site, it’s also home to a number of fishing communities who have lived on the water for centuries. Take a boat tour around a floating village for a glimpse of this rare and beautiful way of life.
Paddle out in a kayak
Even if you’re not an experienced kayaker, you can’t miss the chance to navigate your way around Ha Long’s gorgeous seascape. Just before sunset is an ideal time to kayak to see quiet lagoons and fishing boats up close.
Clamber into a cave
Beneath their rocks and jungled exteriors, many of Ha Long’s ancient karsts have been carved out by rain and water currents. Take a look inside these geological wonders on foot — some are a squeeze while others are enormous.
Try your hand at rock climbing
There are countless routes in the bay to keep climbing junkies entertained. Deep water soloing is becoming increasingly popular in beautiful Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay, especially on Butterfly Island.
Ha Long Weather
Ha Long Bay’s climate can be cool with clear skies from September to November. Mist drifts in from December to March making the bay look more mysterious. April and May offer sunshine and a refreshing breeze, while the monsoon season can make visits unpredictable from June to August.
Ha Long Transport
Most visitors to Ha Long Bay opt for a packaged cruise, including transport to and from Hanoi. Independent travelers can take a bus to Ha Long City or Hai Phong and a taxi to the port. It is also possible to charter a seaplane for a 45-minute ride direct from Noi Bai International Airport. Travelling Ha Long Bay is best by boat. Those looking for a bird’s-eye view can book a 15-minute seaplane ride over the bay. In Ha Long City you can hire a taxi to get around town.
Sapa town stands at the head of a deep valley of magnificent rice terraces that are still farmed today as they have been for centuries. Backdrops do not get much more spectacular. Enticing ribbons of road lead the eye down to the valley floor, white-water rivers rush among rice fields, and lush green mountains stretch into the distance as far as the eye can see. The highest peak in the region, Mount Fansipan, crowns the ragged ridge line high above town.
Top things to do in Sapa
Summit Mount Fansipan
A 6-kilometre cable car journey will whisk you 3,143m to the summit of Mount Fansipan in just 15 minutes. Wander the pagoda complex before climbing the last few steps to the summit. The views from the ‘Roof of Indochina’ are unmatched.
Visit an ethnic minority market
Every Sunday the Bac Ha market bursts into life, as hundreds of traders from the Dzao, Han, Xa Fang, Tay and Thai tribes descend on the market, decked out in traditional garb. Expect a riot of colour and excited haggling.
Go trekking in the hills
Sapa offers some of Vietnam’s best trekking, and some villages such as Cat Cat and Ta Phin can be seen without a guide. Book an overnight trek to wander through rice terraces, bathe in waterfalls and experience ethnic culture firsthand.
Stay in a mountain lodge
Stay outside the tourist hub of Sapa in simple comfort at a mountaintop lodge. Sapa is home to excellent lodges and homestays. Set among the rice terraces, you will brush shoulders with farmers as they go about their daily lives.
Mountain biking is a great way to get out and explore lesser-visited corners of Sapa. The annual Vietnam Mountain Marathon attracts some four thousand competitors who run buffalo-beaten trails ranging from 10 to 100 kilometers.
The best time to visit Sapa is in September and October when the rice terraces are at their most splendid; or in April and May when the weather is ideal and skies are clear. For those who do not mind hot weather, June to August is a fine time to visit. Expect chilly weather from November to March.
Overnight trains are the most popular way to reach Sapa via the neighboring province capital, Lao Cai. Upon arrival, transfer vans finish the journey up the mountains. Alternatively, regular buses and shuttle vans run from Hanoi with a journey time of five to six hours, stopping in the centre of town. As a former hill station, Sapa has plenty of steep roads and pathways. Many visitors get around by foot, or by taxi. Adventure-seekers can rent mountain bikes to explore the trails along the valley.
The Mai Chau’s proximity to the capital makes it an ideal escape for nature lovers. Here, small ethnic minority villages sit among a patchwork of paddy fields surrounded by green mountains. Spend a night or two immersed in Vietnam’s rural culture, dining on delicious home-cooked cuisine, and learning about the traditions of the ethnic groups.
Top things to do in Mai Chau
Sleep in a homestay
The Mai Chau Valley is home to two excellent homestay tourism villages: Lac and Pom Coong. In both villages, White Thai families offer simple accommodation in stilt houses in an idyllic setting of verdant jungle, limestone outcrops, and mountain tops.
Cycle around the valley
Exploring the many quiet ribbons of paths that connect clusters of stilt houses might be the greatest pleasure you will have in Mai Chau. It doesn’t take long to feel like you’ve found your own quiet corner, riding past humble villages and rice paddies.
Shop for local crafts
Mai Chau has no shortage of intricate fabrics woven by skilled weavers on ancient looms. A little gentle bargaining is expected and even welcomed. On Sunday, the morning market attracts ethnic minorities dressed in their finest traditional clothing.
Eat with the locals
Known for their warm hospitality, the White Thai are also fantastic cooks and serve up excellent home-cooked feasts for dinner. The meals you’re served at the homestays in Mai Chau might be some of the best on your Vietnam trip.
Plan a day trek
For a full day trip, spring for a kayaking excursion on Hoa Binh Lake, a beautiful body of water surrounded by jungled hills. Or venture further to Pu Luong Nature Reserve where cool, fresh streams run among the trees, feeding waterfalls and aquamarine pools.
Mai Chau Weather
Mai Chau Valley is at its best from March to May and September to November. October is perhaps the most ideal month because harvest takes place, and the rice takes on a glorious golden hue. Be careful if visiting from June to August, as monsoons can flood local roads.
Mai Chau Transport
Mai Chau is approximately 140km from Hanoi. Local buses from the capital run directly to Mai Chau town just a short walk from Lac and Pom Coong villages. If coming from Son La or Dien Bien Province, ask the driver to stop at the Mai Chau turn off. In Hanoi, it is possible to hire a motorbike or a private car for the journey. Bicycles are the best option for getting around the valley floor, as small paths crisscross villages and farms. Electric carts are available for hire to take you from one village to another.
Far too few travelers make it to Ninh Binh, a mesmerizing area known locally as ‘Ha Long Bay on Land’ thanks to its magical riverine landscape, with sheer limestone mountains rising from the paddies. The best way to get a sense of this UNESCO-protected site is by taking a paddleboat tour along its shimmering rivers, and climbing to the top of its fabled peaks.
Top things to do in Ninh Binh
See the view from Hang Mua
Get a bird’s-eye view of Ninh Binh at Hang Mua, where five hundred steps have been dramatically carved into the steep face of a mountain. At the top, a lookout point offers a surreal vista of the river winding lazily among paddies and limestone outcrops.
Take a sampan tour
At the Tam Coc and Trang An boat docks, each sampan is guided by a boat person who rows with their feet, not their hands. You’ll be expertly guided along gentle waterways, past towering karsts, and into dripping grottoes.
Visit the ancient capital
Today the capital of Vietnam is Hanoi, but in the 10th and 11th centuries that honor was held by Hoa Lu. This small ancient city was naturally protected from invasions by karsts and rivers. Today, it’s a good place to get a history fix.
Go in search of wildlife
An exotic rowboat experience is a must-do at the Van Long Nature Reserve. Keep your eyes open for exotic friends, such as the black-faced spoonbill and the Delacour’s Langur, one of the world’s most endangered primates.
Pay a visit to the Bai Dinh Temple
The largest complex of Buddhist temples in the country, Bai Dinh is a mix of old and new styles. Ancient temples are housed in caves you can only reach via a pretty climb of three hundred steps, while the new temple area covers an area of five hundred hectares.
Ninh Binh Weather
The temperatures in Ninh Binh are ideal from March to May and September to November. For the finest views, go during harvest season in October. If you visit in the hotter months from July to August, be prepared for random downpours and stormy moments.
Ninh Binh Transport
Regular buses depart to Ninh Binh from Hanoi every day. You can book a luxury van which includes transfer to Tam Coc, where plenty of charming accommodation options await. Private cars make the journey even quicker. For those with more time, several trains leave for Ninh Binh from Hanoi daily. The best way to get around Ninh Binh is by motorcycle tour or taxi. Cycling is a great option for visitors staying in Tam Coc.
A border province and official Frontier Area, Ha Giang lies in the remote far northern region of the country. To visit this province is to journey back in time and encounter some of Vietnam’s most rugged and grand landscapes. Ha Giang is best experienced as a road trip on two wheels, soaking up the majesty of the landscape and the atmosphere of the remote towns and minority villages.
Top things to do in Ha Giang
Drive Ma Pi Leng Pass
The roads of Ha Giang serve up the ultimate motorcycle adventures. The drive into Dong Van is impossibly beautiful, however Ma Pi Leng — where the road snakes past the Nho Que River — is the jewel in Ha Giang crown.
Get lost in the hills
Trekking opportunities are plentiful in Ha Giang. The Quan Ba Pass holds a lookout that lives up to its name: Heaven’s Gate. Quan Ba is also the gateway to the lofty limestone peaks and rock-strewn fields of Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark.
Visit the Sa Phin Hmong Palace
Near the border with China stands a Hmong King Palace in the village of Sa Phin. Built in 1902 during the French occupation, the wood-framed palace is done in the traditional Chinese style and oozes character.
See the king of flagpoles
Make time to journey north to Lung Cu, where a gigantic Vietnamese flag blows proudly at the border. The best time to arrive is late afternoon as the heat subsides, making the climb of 200 steps a little kinder.
Ha Giang Weather
September through to November is a good time to visit this remote province, with cooler temperatures. In November, Ha Giang is hugely popular during the Buckwheat Flower Festival. April to June is pleasant and warm, July and August can be extremely hot with regular monsoons.
Ha Giang Transport
The small city of Ha Giang is the gateway to the province, and approximately 300km from Hanoi. Buses run day and night from the capital, ranging from sleepers to smaller VIP mini-vans. Depending on the vehicle and driver, the journey there takes around six hours. Public transport around Ha Giang Province is limited. Experienced drivers can rent a motorcycle in town. Another option is to book a tour either on the back of a motorbike or by private car.