Superb scenery, trekking, mountain climbing, and many ethnic groups
The Northwest is the site of the famous battle of Dien Bien Phu, where the garrison was overrun by Viet Minh soldiers in 1954 ending nearly a century of French occupation of Viet Nam. With the exception of Sa Pa, there are few hotels in the northwest as it is relatively undeveloped. However, homestays are possible for adventurous visitors. Sa Pa has several reasonable hotels, including one of international standard. Those in Bac Ha are very basic.
Two main roads wend their way into the north western mountain area: the latter part of the trip offers good views, but the roads are poor and the journey is tiring. Venturing much beyond the immediately accessible areas is only for the more adventurous traveller - we can arrange motorcycle or bicycle expeditions if required. For most visitors, overnight train travel to Lao Cai and by road to Sa Pa is the best option. A flight to Dien Bien Phu and a car journey is another possibility.
The main attraction of this area, apart from its superlative natural beauty, is Viet Nam’s largest concentration of ethnic groups. Many distinct groups live in this area and, apart from those living around the tourist centre of Sa Pa, their dress, buildings, traditions and lifestyles have changed little over the last hundred years. The markets held in the area attract large numbers of ethnic people to sell the intricately embroidered and decorated clothes and material produced in the villages.
For the fit visitor, the opportunities for trekking are considerable. Overnight stays during a trek are usually in ethnic houses. Washing and toilet facilities are 'au naturelle' and you sleep on the floor in a large communal area – blankets, thin, but adequate, mattresses and a basketwork ‘pillow’ are provided.
The ascent of Mt. Fan Si Pan can be undertaken in three or four days, but requires an above average amount of stamina and a head for heights. The route to the top requires no specialist skills or equipment and, provided walkers take common-sense precautions, is safe.
The best times to trek are during the relatively dry months of October, November and December, and March, April and May. The wetter months between these two periods are less pleasant, as the ground is muddy and slippery, and river levels are high. Mountain ascents and heavy trekking are definitely not advisable at this time. However, walking is fine providing you don’t mind a few showers.
The mountains of the northeast are lower than those in the west, and mainly composed of limestone. Ba Be Lake, one of Vietnam’s National Parks is quite well visited, but few people travel much further. It’s an attractive destination, with good views, caves, forests and ethnic groups.
Not far north of Ba Be is Cao Bang province, a remote area on the border with China. Cao Bang is sparsely populated: it has very few large settlements, but several ethnic groups in villages hardly touched by tourism. The limestone ‘karst’ scenery is attractive. Few visitors venture further north than Ba Be, so Cao Bang is one of the best places to see truly authentic ethnic lifestyles.
From Cao Bang, it’s possible to loop round to the south via the border town of Lang Son to Quang Ninh Province and Ha Long Bay. However, the road is poor, and the scenery is not particularly interesting.