Nestled in the valleys around Mount Fansipan, lie a cluster of picturesque villages centred around the town of Sapa, a former French hill station, and its surrounding scenery is the focus of many beautiful and often reproduced images of its characteristic hillside rice terraces.


Aside from the magnificent views, cool climate and climbing the mountain through the surrounding Hoang Lien Son Nature Reserve, visitors flock to this area to experience the colours, cultures and local markets of the many diverse ethnic ‘hill tribes’ that inhabit the region.

Each ethnic group has its own distinctive traditions and costumes, preserved intact for centuries, and the varying customs of these minorities differ significantly from mainstream Vietnamese life.

With no nearby airport, Sapa is most usually reached from the town of Lao Cai, close to the Chinese border, via the overnight sleeper train from Hanoi.

Many H’mong minority villages are close enough to Sapa to make for a pleasant and insightful highland stroll, including Sin Chai and Cat Cat together with its waterfall. To get a closer look at the lifestyles of other ethnic groups, such as Dao, Tay and Giay, a longer trek, motorcycle taxi or guided tour will take you to the more distant villages. For deeper encounters with the local cultures, highly rewarding homestays with local families can also be arranged.

The peak of Mount Fansipan is the highest point in Indochina at 3,143 metres (10,311 feet), and for the adventurous traveller, a physically challenging, though not particularly dangerous, 3 day ascent will certainly satisfy the aspirations of outdoor enthusiasts.

A less strenuous and time-consuming ascent can nowadays be made via the modern cable car which will ferry you to the peak above the spectacular valley.

Further afield, but still visitable in a day trip, is the town of Bac Ha and its surrounding villages, which likewise offer a chance to see more of the region's ethnic groups, most notably the Flower H’mong, who visit the local market at Bac Ha to sell their produce on Sundays.

A little further north, the markets at Can Cau, Muong Khuong, Ban Cam, Lun Khao Nhin and Cao Son are less frequently visited by tourists, and provide for a more authentic encounter with local traditions.

To the south of Sapa around Mu Cang Chai, resourceful Vietnamese rice farmers make the most of some challenging terrain.


Travelling northeast of Lao Cai, the town of Ha Giang is the gateway for exploration into the dramatic terrain bordering southern China, especially the area known as Dong Van Karst Plateau, a shapely upland area of outstanding geological significance and a UNESCO global Geopark.

The park comprises the four districts of Meo Vac, Dong Van, Yen Minh and Quan Ba, which collectively teem with unusual geological features reflecting significant insights into the geomorphic processes at work in creation of the Earth’s crust.

The area is a rich source of fossils dating from around five hundred million years ago and evidence of human habitation dates to the Bronze Age. There are several ethnic groups who flourish in the mountainous terrain, growing rice, tea, colourful flowers and vegetables for sale in the local markets along with their brocade weaving.

The remoteness of Ha Giang ensures that the region is one of the least touristy places in northern Vietnam, and the experience of encounters with the wide mix of ethnic cultures that prevail in the area are far more authentic than in those surrounding the more developed Sapa.

Ma Pi Leng Pass, Quan Ba Pass, Twin Mountain and ‘Heaven’s gate’ are the scenic highlights of the spectacular rugged landscape.


Also in the northern mountains, to the southeast of Ha Giang, Vietnam's largest natural freshwater lake, Ho Ba Be, in Bac Kan Province, is the centrepiece of Ba Be National Park. The most popular attractions are visiting its caves and waterfalls, and boat excursions along the seven kilometre lake to view the beautiful forested slopes, islets and limestone cliffs, which harbour a rich diversity of animal and plant life, including bears, tigers and langurs.

Another lake in this vicinity, and sharing the same waterfow as Ba Be over the border in Tuyen Quang Province is Na Hang Lake, part of the Na Hang ecotourism area.


Further northeast of Ba Be, Cao Bang is characterised by its shapely towering mountains and its majestic scenery is home to several of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities, including the Tay and Dao peoples, and a trekking heaven for the outdoor minded. The landscape also hides within it Thang Hen Lake, Nguom Ngao Cave and the caves of Pac Bo, historically significant as the hideout of Ho Chi Minh during his years plotting the liberation of his country from the French colonists.

The waterways of Cao Bang are scattered with the iconic rudimentary but charming waterwheels, used for irrigation to support the agricultural endeavours of the local communities.

By far however, Cao Bang Province’s most stunning natural feature is the amazing Ban Gioc waterfall, a truly breath-taking sight, and one of the world’s most picturesque, reason enough for most travellers who visit this area.