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Northwest

Activities: Trekking, cycling, river rafting, 4WD expedition, motor biking

Elevation: 100m – 3143m

Climate: Cool climate with the average winter temperature of 10°C (50°F) and the average summer temperature of 30°C (86 °F) in the peaks of the season

Cultures: The north-western culture is made up of diverse cultures of the local ethnic minorities. The hill tribes inhabiting the valleys here include Thai, H'mong, Zao and Muong groups. Some live in raised long houses. May still dress in traditional garb; intricate hand-embroidered clothing and silver jewelry are worn by the women. The best time to see minority people is on market day in the towns, when the mountain people hike in for days from surrounding areas. The big day is usually Sunday.

Landscape: A rich palette that provides some of the most spectacular scenery in Vietnam

Best time to visit: From March to May and from September to November

 

Northwest of Hanoi toward the Chinese border lies the roof of Vietnam – the Hoang Lien Son Range (christened the Tonkinese Alps), with Mount Fansipan, the highest peak of Vietnam (3,143m). Forbidding and unforgiving terrain for lowlanders, the mountains have long been a haven for an eclectic mix of hill tribes.  Limestone largely comprises this frontier where dramatic hills rise from the plains. The Northwest offers captivating mountain scenery, you can hike or trek into valleys around key towns.

From Hanoi to the Northwest several routes will get you there, the most spectacular via Dien Bien Phu to Sapa. At Lao Cai, close by, you can cross into China and continue by rail to Kunming. The stretch from Lai Chau into Sapa offers some of the best mountain vistas in Southeast Asia, as the roads climb more than 1000m over the Tram Ton Pass. The northwestern roads are always improving; the northwest loop from Hanoi, via Dien Bien Phu and Sapa, is a definitive road trip to discover the secrets of the region. For a more limited time Hoa Binh and Mai Chau offer good one-day or two-day trips with light trekking.

 

Sapa

For many budget travelers and packages tourists, Sapa, an atmospheric old hill station set amid stunning scenes of near vertical rice terraces and towering peaks, is the most popular place to go in the Far Northwest. By using Sapa as a base you can hike off to more remote ‘traditional’ hill tribe villages and sometimes you will be offered a bed in a village for the night. The village of Sapa remains the jewel of the northwest, a former French hill resort with splendid mountain scenery, a market thronged with people, and excellent hiking opportunities.

Sapa is preparing itself for the continuing tourist boom considerably well. Behind Sapa, towards Phong Tho is a high pass forming part of the Hoang Lien Mountains that were known to the French as the Tonkinese Alps. This range includes Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam at 3,143m, which view at dawn could be spectacular. You can hike in the surrounding area and visit a number of fairly traditional predominantly Mong hilltribe villages. Further afield is the colourful Red Zao, Dzay, Tay and Xa Pho people. A home stay in the Tay village would be unforgettable experience.

 

Dien Bien Phu

Dien Bien Phu is famous as the historical site of a battle that was truly decisive. The French colonial forces were roundly defeated at the hands of the Viet Minh on 7 May 1954 and the days of their Indochina Empire were finally numbered. History is the main attraction here and the scenery is more stunning on the journey to or from Dien Bien Phu than around the town itself.

Dien Bien Phu is considered the strategic cross-roads between Laos to the West, Son La to the South and Lai Chau to the North and a transit stop on the caravan route from Myanmar and China to northern Vietnam. The town itself was established in 1841 by the Nguyen dynasty to prevent raids on the Red River Delta by bandits. It is now enjoys the prestigious status of provincial city, like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, although it is not quite in the same league. Set in one of the most remote parts of Vietnam, the town is 34km from the Lao border in the flat, heart-shaped Muong Thanh Valley, surrounded by steep, heavily forested hills. The size and look of the city is surprising considering the remote location, especially if you managed to survive getting here overland.

The area is inhabited by Montagnards, most notably the Thai and H’mong. The government has been encouraging ethnic Vietnamese to settle in the region and they currently make up about half of the Muong Thanh Valley’s total population.