It is probably the richest region filled with spectacular landscapes, stretching from the wonderful Ha Long Bay to Dien Bien Phu and to the Chinese borders, Lao Cai.
1. Ha Noi
As the capital of Viet Nam for almost a thousand years, Ha Noi is considered to be the cultural centre of Viet nam, where every dynasty has left behind their imprint. Hanoi hosts more cultural sites than any city in Viet nam, including over 600 pagodas and temples. Even when the nation’s capital moved to Hue under the Nguyen dynasty in 1802, the city of Ha noi continued to flourish, especially after the French took control in 1888 and modeled the city’s architecture to their tastes, lending an important aesthetic to the city’s rich stylistic heritage. The city boasts more than 1,000 years of history, and that of the past few hundred years has been well preserved.
Under French rule, as an administrative centre for the French colony of Indochina, the French colonial architecture style became dominant, many examples remain today: the tree-lined boulevards (e.g. Phan Dinh Phung street), The Grand Opera House, The State Bank of Vietnam (formerly The Bank of Indochina), The Presidential Palace, (formerly Place of The Governor-General of French Indochina), The cathedral St-Joseph, Hanoi University (formerly University of Indochina), historic hotel Sofitel Metropole…
Some others prominent places are: The Temple of Literature (Van Mieu), site of the oldest university in Vietnam; One Pillar Pagoda (Chua Mot Cot); Flag Tower of Hanoi; The Old Quarter and HoanKiem lake.
The Old Quarter, near Hoan Kiem lake, has the original street layout and architecture of old Ha noi. At the beginning of the 20th century the city consisted of only about 36 streets, most of which are now part of the old quarter. Each street then comprised of merchants and households specialized in a particular trade, such as silk traders, jewelry, etc. The street names nowadays still reflect these specializations, although few of them remain exclusively in their original commerce. The area is famous for its small artisans and merchants, including many silk shops. A night market (along HangDao st.) in the heart of the district opens for business every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evening with a variety of clothing, souvenirs and food.
2. Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay with over 3,000 rugged islands protruding from the clear waters of the Gulf of Tonkin remains one of the most romantic area and is regarded as the worlds 8th wonder. A kayaking trip or cruise in sailing junk offers a picturesque panorama of the many islands and grottoes.
3. The Huong Pagoda
The Perfume or Huong Pagoda is actually a complex of pagodas amidst mountains, forests, lakes and caves. Here the faithful believe that the deities purify souls, cure sufferings and grant offspring to childless families. It is 75km south of Ha Noi and the journey there is by road an then river. The boat trip through the rice fields to the mountains is particularly beautiful.
4. Hoa Lu and Tam Coc
It was the ancient capital of Viet nam before Hanoi and still as temples remaining from the Le Dynasty (980-1009). Known to travelers as “Ha Long bay without water”, Hoa Lu, 97 km south of Ha noi, boasts breathtaking scenery. Sampan trips along mysterious and peaceful rice fields to Tam Coc caves are the highlights of a visit to HoaLu.
5. Cuc Phuong National Park
Cuc Phuong, Vietnam’s first National park was established in 1962. It covers an area of 200 square km mostly of mountainous rain forest, where the prolific vegetation is sheltered by limestone cliffs. It is popular with hikers particularly during the relatively cool months of October to January. However flowers are at their best during February, while March and April and May are the best time to see the rare and beautiful butterflies.
The park contains about 250 bird species, 36 reptile species and more than 60 mammal species, of which some such as the red-bellied squirrel and the underground river catfish were first discovered in CucPhuong. Several species of bat and monkey, including the endangered Delacour langur, are to be found here, while cloud leopards and tigers are still occasionally spotted on higher ground. The park is really worth visiting for its magnificent vegetation: including the 1,000 years old, 45 meters high Cho Xanh tree (Terminalia Myriocarpa), Cho Chi (Parashorea Chinensis), Cay Sau (Dracontomelum Duperreanum), Cay Dang (Tetrameles nudiflora), tree ferns and the kilometer long corkscrewing lianas, as well as a treasure trove of medicinal plants.
There a re still in the park some ethnic Muong villages, noted for their traditional way of life and their gigantic wooden water wheels.
North West Passage
Taking the long road through the North West traverlleres enter a remote land of mountains and colorful tribespeople whose songs of love ring out about the din of the Sarturday market.
The northwest loop is a fantastic route for cyclist. Save your 2 weeks for over 1,000km cycling from Ba Be national park to Bao Lac, Bac Me, Ha Giang, Hoang Su Phi, Bac Ha, Lao Cai, Sa pa, Lai Chau, Dien Bien, Son La etc…. this is the best cycling route in Vietnam so far.
6. Mai Chau – Hoa Binh
76 km from Ha Noi, Hoa Binh is home to many of the Montagnard (hill tribe) people, including Thai and Muong. Its stilt houses have palm or thatch roofs. You can enjoy folk dancing and music and take a sip of Thai rice wine from the communal pot; or you can take a boat trip on the immense reservoir of Hoa Binh hydro-electric dam. Fresh water fish is a delicacy here.
60 km up in the hill from Hoa Binh, Mai Chau is a timeless and beautiful Thai hill tribe villages. You can spend the night with a Thai family in their stilt house and go on treks to other villages.
Having no time for trekking in Sa pa ? Mai Chau valley and Pu Luong natural reserve is a good option. You can find more details about this area at:
7. Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu was the site of that rarest of military events- a battle that can be called truly decisive. On 7 May 1954 VietMinh forces overran the beleaguered French garrison at DienBienPhu after a 55 day siege, shattering French morale and forcing the French government to abandon its attempts to re-establish colonial control of Indochina.
Dien Bien Phu, a provincial capital of Lai Chau province, is in one of the most remote parts of Viet nam. The town is 16 km from the Laos border in the flat, heart-shaped Muong Thanh valley. The area is inhabited by hill tribes, most notably the Thai and Hmong. For centuries, Dien Bien Phu was a transit stop on the caravan route from Myanmar and China to northern Viet nam. History is the main attraction here and the scenery is also fantastic that you can enjoy during your journey between Son La and Lai Chau.
8. Lai Chau
The route from Lai Chau to Sapa meanders through grass valleys to climb alongside crescent paddies and corn fields into a ring of mountains the French once dubbed the ” Tonkinese Alpes”. Above all else towers Fansipan, at 3,143 metres Vietnams highest peak. On Saturdays and Sundays Sapa town market is the local point for Red Dao men and women from the surrounding area, who come to town in search of an evening companion.
9. Sa Pa
Sa pa resort was established by the French in 1922. It is on a plateau at 1,500 meters in an area famous for its forests of precious woods and peach and plum orchards. You can hire a horse and cart to visit Hmong and Dao villages and such scenic spots as the Silver falls and the marvelous Oquiho mountain pass. Vietnam’s highest mountain, Fansipan (3143 m) is nearby. Minorities from all the surrounding villages don their most colorful costumes for the Saturday market, where you can purchase ethnic clothing and exotic hats. Furthermore there is a lively and crowded Sunday market in Bac Ha district. You will see plenty of flower Hmong – so called because the women embroider flowers on their colorful shirts. Items on sale include water buffaloes, pigs, horses and chickens.
10. Cao Bang
300 km north of Ha Noi, many inhabitants in Cao Bang are minorities, who maintain their traditional way of life: the Tay, Nung, Dao, LoLo, SanChay. The people live on forestry and farming and construct step rice fields. Nice excursions into the surrounding scenic countryside are: BanGioc falls, ThangHen lakes, Pacbo cave and BaBe National park.