The vast and beautiful North of Vietnam is home to a wide range of dramatic scenery, ethnic villages and tranquil destinations. With destinations ranging from the jaw-dropping inland Ha Giang, bustling streets of Hanoi and coastal islands of Lan Ha Bay, the north has an experience for all.
Visiting North Vietnam: What to Expect
North Vietnam experiences four seasons, unlike the all year heat of the south. As a result, the scenery in the north is made up of lush green jungles, rolling mountain ranges, leafy green streets, and seasonal destinations. The best times of year to visit North Vietnam are the months of April to June and September to November. During these periods the north experiences its lowest rainfall and most moderate temperatures.
Visiting the north can be enjoyable for all. Outdoorsy visitors can enjoy activities such as rock climbing, hiking and motorbiking. City dwellers can explore the busy and fascinating streets of Hanoi. And beach lovers can visit the many hidden coves of Lan Ha Bay. However, if you truly want to make the most of your time in the north we suggest you plan in time to experience it all!
In this post, we will discuss our top 9 destinations in the North of Vietnam. Exploring reasons you should visit, what you should do and how long you should stay for.
Our Top 9: North Vietnam
At the very centre, north Vietnam lies the capital city, Hanoi. This city is one of the top destinations in the whole of the country and is busting at the seams with Vietnamese culture and French architecture. Visitors can expect to experience life as a city dweller among the busy historic streets of the city.
It is easy to spend 3 days in Hanoi simply wandering the streets, drinking endless ‘ca phes’ and eating street food until your heart is content.
Days should include:
- Sitting on a tiny stool in the street whilst enjoying a traditional northern dish, such as pho (noodle broth), bun cha (bbq pork and noodles) or my xao (stir-fried beef and vegetables on noodles)
- Sipping one of Vietnam’s famous egg coffees in one of Hanoi’s 1000+ coffee shops whilst admiring the chaotic street in front
- Wandering the bustling streets of the old quarter, shopping for souvenirs and admiring the historic French architecture
- Strolling around the lively night market at Hoan Kiem on a Saturday night and watching in awe of the local street performers
- Walking the narrow train street, drinking a beer in one of the many bars and waiting for the train to come charging past inches in front of you
- Drinking a few too many beers in one of the local Bia Hois and getting to know the locals
- Visiting Hanoi’s many museums and galleries, such as the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, the Military History Museum or the Fine Art Gallery
- Admiring one of Hanoi’s various temples, such as the Temple of Literature or the Tran Quoc Pagoda
- Visiting the Lotte Tower at sunset to enjoy a cocktail at the Top of Hanoi Bar, looking out over the sprawling city as the daylight disappears and the streetlights bring out the veins of the city
If you’re hoping to experience Vietnamese culture in it’s rawest form, make sure you add a few days in Hanoi to your itinerary. Wander off the beaten tourist track to see locals going about their day-to-day lives, drinking coffee, carrying unbelievable loads on the backs of their small bikes, eating in the street, selling local produce and napping in every possible location.
2. Cat Ba Island/Lan Ha Bay[ps2id id=’cat-ba’ target=”/]
Located 120km east of Hanoi is the stunning mountainous island of Cat Ba. Buses run regularly from Hanoi to Cat Ba Town and take around 4-5 hours. Well connected by road and ferry, the island is also easily reachable by motorbike.
This mountainous island in north Vietnam and surrounding islands of Lan Ha Bay are packed full of different activities for all to enjoy. Spending 2-3 days there will be enough to have you enjoying a wide range of experiences, from free solo rock climbing above the sea to snoozing in a hammock under a palm tree.
What to do:
- Visit Cat Ba National Park and embark on a 2-hour hike to an incredible view of sprawling jungle-covered mountains spanning the whole island
- Cruise along the winding coastal and mountainous roads by motorbike at sunset, stopping to take in the breathtaking views over the ocean
- Eat the freshest of fish at one of Cat Ba Town’s floating restaurants
- Visit one of Cat Ba’s many caves, such as the Hospital Cave where soldiers were treated during the Vietnam war
- Go rock climbing at Butterfly Valley and experience climbing the largest mapped limestone wall on the island
- Head out to explore Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay by boat using one of the many boat tours that run from the island, taking part in activities such as kayaking, paddleboarding, and rock climbing
- Observe the many on water fishing villages snuggled between the limestone islands from the boat
- Visit one of the surrounding islands many hidden beaches such as, such as Moody Beach and Tiger Beach
Cat Ba is the ideal destination in the north for beach lovers and outdoorsy people alike. Despite it being a destination full of various activities, it can also offer that piece of tranquility we all seek whilst on holiday. And at just 4 hours from Hanoi, it is a destination that should not be missed!
3. Ha Giang[ps2id id=’ha-giang’ target=”/]
At just over 300km and 6 hours north of Hanoi, Ha Giang province is the farthest north you can be in all of Vietnam. This mountainous region borders China and offers visitors a place to embrace some of the most dramatic and remote scenery in the country.
At an impressive 7929km2, Hai Giang province should be explored over 4-7 days. With various different ways to make the most of the region, visitors should expect to travel via motorbike, bus, taxi, and foot. Buses run daily from Hanoi and can be booked in advance online.
What to do:
- Visit Lung Cu and stand underneath the flagpole at the northernmost point in Vietnam looking over to China
- Experience life as one of the H’Mong / Dao / Thai people, staying in a homestay, joining them for dinner and exploring their local land
- Hike the short climb to Lung Khuy Cave and then explore the cavernous grotto inside.
- Stop for photos at the Hmong King’s Palace and wander around the adjacent market.
- Drive the winding road of Tham Ma Pass and stop on the cliffside to take in the jaw-dropping view
- Hike to the highest point of Ma Pi Leng and take time to observe the 360 views of the surrounding mountain range
- Conquer the many winding and challenging roads of Ha Giang loop by motorbike and take time to explore the regions natural beauty
- Visit some of the most rural ethnic villages and mix with the locals
Ha Giang is truly one of the most scenic destinations in North Vietnam. In our opinion, the best way to explore is by motorbike. For those who aren’t confident riding alone, there are various different tour providers who offer guided motorbike tours of the area.
Remember, the roads in this region are challenging for even some of the most experienced riders, therefore taking your time is important. We suggest you spend at least 4-5 days completing Ha Giang loop, planning plenty of rest stops.
4. Cao Bang[ps2id id=’cao’ target=”/]
300km directly north of Hanoi the province of Cao Bang sits bordering China, neighboring Ha Giang. Famous for its impressive waterfalls, Cao Bang is a destination in North Vietnam worth visiting. Like Ha Giang, buses run regularly from Hanoi and take up to 8 hours.
Similar to Ha Giang, we believe Cao Bang is best explored by motorbike over 6-7 days. Giving you more opportunities to stop and explore some of the countries’ most impressive scenery. For those who aren’t confident riding a motorbike, there are various different tour providers who can arrange your trip.
What to do:
- Visit the jaw-dropping Ban Gioc Waterfall (largest in all Vietnam) and stand at the base listening to the thunderous sound of water exploding over the edge
- Head beneath the ground at Ban Gioc into the Động Ngườm Ngao cave, where you can take in the natural fascinating structures that have appeared over thousands of years
- Wander through Ban Gioc Market and find yourself basically standing in China
- Complete the Cao Bang Loop by motorbike over 4-5 days and experience some of the most incredible mountain passes in the country
- Visit the KMO marking the point where Uncle Ho returned to in Vietnam following exile
- Visit the villages of Tra Linh, Ho Thang Hen, and Quang Nguyen, wandering through the markets and finding places to rest
It is possible to connect the Ha Giang and Cao Bang Loops to extend your trip whilst in this region. When heading this far north it is important to make the most of your time and enjoy rural Vietnam at it’s finest.
5. Mai Chau[ps2id id=’mai’ target=”/]
Mai Chau sits around 150km west of Hanoi and takes around 4-5 hours to reach. Part of the Hao Binh province, the area of Mai Chau is made up of patchwork rice paddies, ethnic villages, rolling green hills, and the impressive Hoa Binh lake.
As an easy destination from Hanoi, Mai Chau offers a remote cultural experience for travelers hoping to escape the busy city streets. It is possible to spend as little as 1-2 days in Mai Chau exploring the surrounding scenery and ethnic culture.
What to do:
- Drive the lakeside road connecting the AH13 to the QL15 for incredible views of Hoa Binh Lake and a winding mountainside path
- Experience the impressive Hoa Binh Lake by kayak, boat or foot
- Explore the area by bicycle, cruising between vast rice paddies and clusters of authentic stilt houses
- Admire the hardworking locals as they tend to their crop and livestock in their extensive farmlands
- Sleep and eat with a local ethnic Thai family by staying in one of the areas many authentic homestays
- Spend a day trekking the area, following mountainside paths and stopping to take in breathtaking views of the area
- Go to the market in Mai Chau on a Sunday, shop for souvenirs and see local tribes in their traditional ethnic dresses
- Visit the neighboring Pu Luong Nature Reserve to discover even more dramatic scenery and hidden villages
Mai Chau is an easy to visit destination in North Vietnam and is also well connected to the destination of Pu Luong. Visiting both in one trip is advisable to make the most of your stay. Buses run regularly to Mai Chau from Hanoi and take around 4-5 hours. To read more about where to stay and what you can do in Mai Chau read our destination post.
6. Pu Luong[ps2id id=’pu’ target=”/]
Located 150km, 5-6 hours west of Hanoi is the not so commonly known destination of Pu Luong. Popular with local Vietnamese wanting to escape their busy lives in Hanoi, Pu Luong is a somewhat undiscovered destination in north Vietnam. Therefore, it is not commonly on the usual tourist map.
Pu Luong Nature Reserve is a vast and mountainous area, home to some of Vietnam’s most dramatic scenery. The jungle-covered mountains have steep drops to low valley floors, dotted with tiny villages. Due to its many hills and mountains, locals farm rice in tiered terraces, which are beautiful to behold.
The local ethnic minority in this area is the hospitable White Thai people, who have begun to welcome tourists into their homes in recent years. Due to this, there are now a number of homestays offering visitors an authentic experience of the area.
What to do:
- Go on a guided hike over for up to 3-7 days, staying with local families, exploring the area with a local guide and learning about the ethnic way of life
- Visit one of the many tiny villages dotted around the area, such as Ban Nua and Ban Hieu
- Go swimming at the village of Ban Nua and enjoy the cooling natural crystal clear pool on a hot day
- Drive some of the most challenging and exciting roads in the area by motorbike and stop to take in some the most incredible views
- Swim at one of the areas many waterfalls, such as Thac Hieu and Mu waterfall
- Look out in awe at some of the countries most impressive tiered rice terraces climbing the many hillsides
Pu Luong is a true rural escape from Hanoi and should be given at least 2 days to explore. Visitors can enjoy spending time with a local family in one of the reserves many homestays or can experience a more luxury and relaxed experience in a resort. To read more about what to do in Pu Luong and where to stay read our posts, Pu Luong: Exploring Wild Vietnam and Pu Luong Accommodation: Top 5
7. Xuan Son National Park[ps2id id=’xuan’ target=”/]
130km East of Hanoi is the untouched national park of Xuan Son. The park itself offers visitors a completely remote experience in North Vietnam and is only 5 hours from the hectic city streets of Hanoi. 1-2 days is enough to have visitors feeling completed removed from their day to day lives. In recent years the local ethnic minority groups, Muong and Dao have begun to open their doors to visitors looking to experience Vietnamese nature at it’s finest.
The villages of Ban Coi and Ban Lap at the very center of the park sit in a valley surrounding by towering limestone mountains. Completely secluded from the stress and going on of the outside world. The area is also home to rolling tea plantations that are a rare sight in Vietnam. Hills upon hills covered with lines of tea hedges, a beautiful sight to behold!
What to do:
- Embark on a guided hike through the park, exploring the hidden jungles paths, sleeping under the stars and embracing nature
- Stay with a local family in their traditional stilt homes in the Ban Coi and Ban Lap villages, eating and sleeping as a local
- Swim at the local natural bathing spot, and Hang Coi Cave in the crystal clear waters running from the surrounding mountains
- Follow the signposted 6km route along the waterside to the waterfall in the center of the park, going off-road when needed due to recent flooding damage
Xuan Son is not a destination that appears in the tourist guide books and is sure to have you experiencing true Vietnamese culture. At this point in time, foreign visitors can find themselves being the only ones for miles. A truly remote experience.
8. Sapa[ps2id id=’sapa’ target=”/]
Sapa is a destination in North Vietnam that has been popular with tourists for many years. Famous for it’s impressive, dramatic and mountainous scenery, Sapa is a location that has been explored by many. Home to the highest mountain peak in Vietnam, Fansipan, the destination is popular with Vietnamese and foreign tourists alike.
Located 300km northeast of Hanoi, Sapa is well connected by train and bus. Many tourists opt to arrive in Sapa on the 8 hour overnight sleeper train, an experience in itself. Sleeper buses also offer the option to travel through the night. The motorbike drive to Sapa is not particularly interesting in terms of places to see. Many opt to arrive in Sapa via Mai Chau to allow for a more scenic route.
Read our post on Hanoi to Sapa for our best route options and more on what to do.
What to do:
- Stand on the top of Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam (option to go via cable car from Sapa town or by completing the challenging but beautiful 4-day hike)
- Go trekking through the breathtaking Sapa valley and admire the valley steep side that climbs into the clouds
- Trek along the Huong Hoa Mountain and observe the valley from above
- Walk to the viewpoint over Sapa town from Ham Rong Mountain
- Trek to the Love and Thac Bac Waterfalls and watch as the water gushes from a height in the luscious surrounding scenery
- Visit one of the areas many villages and markets, walking amongst the locals in their traditional ethnic dresses
Sapa town itself is very accessible for tourists and it is even possible to have a western pizza or Indian. We suggest staying in one of the smaller villages at a homestay to get the most authentic experience of Sapa.
9. Ba Vi[ps2id id=’ba-vi’ target=”/]
At just 80km and under two hours from Hanoi, Ba Vi National park is the easiest accessed location in the north of Vietnam. Home to 3 mountain peaks and sprawling hills, Ba Vi offers visitors an easy escape from the city. Popular with local Vietnamese holidaymakers, Ba Vi is not a common destination for foreign tourists.
The park has various different swimming spots, hikes, and an impressive mountain top pagoda. It is possible to spend 1-2 days exploring the area and making the most of the fresh air.
What to do:
- Visit the water park and swim in the crystal clear pools beneath the waterfall
- Drive the winding path to the highest possible point in the park and embark on the hike to the mountain top pagoda
- Stand at the mountain top listening to the sound of prayer and looking out over the surrounding villages
- Sit at one of the many viewpoints and enjoy a picnic with the local tourists
- Go off-road and hike through the jungle (be wary of leeches!)
- Visit the ruins of an old French church, an extremely eery experience on a misty day
Ba Vi is easy to visit by bus, motorbike or taxi and definitely worth it if you have one or two days to kill whilst staying in Hanoi. The park’s fresh air will come as a welcome treat after walking the hectic streets of the city. Read more about what to expect from Ba Vi in our destination post.