Where to go & what to see in north Vietnam
There is so much to see and do in North Vietnam that travelers are spoilt for choice.
However, finding the right information to make that choice can be difficult. It can be a challenge putting together a broader picture to help make sense of where to go and what to see. Outside of the major cities and key attractions, reliable information on roads less traveled is hard to come by. We know because we’ve lived it!
On this page we aim to present that broader picture. The map below highlights 10 areas in the northern half of Vietnam which we think together offer an amazingly diverse range of destinations and experiences, from exploring high mountains & vast canyons, to cruises by private boat through spectacular islands & cliffs, to discovering palaces, temples & old port towns rich in history.
The areas can be divided into five groups:
the arc of the spectacular Northern mountains, covering areas 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, which bends like a horse shoe around the Red River basin and delta. Mountains, valleys, canyons, rice terraces, lakes, waterfalls, ethnic minority villages & markets, wonderful people, off the beaten path.
the coastal archipelagoes of dramatic karst limestone pinnacles and islands, and golden beaches, of Ha Long Bay, Lan Ha Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay & Cat Ba Island — area 6
the Red River basin and delta with amazing, multi-layered, captivating Hanoi at its center — broadly area 7
the vast complex of caves, including the world’s largest, near Phong Nha; plus excellent less traveled roads through green countryside and forests — area 8
the World Heritage centres of Hoi An and Hue which together present some of the best of Vietnam’s rich history and preserved buildings — old trading ports, palaces, temples & pagodas; plus some wonderful, less crowded coastal roads & country to explore — areas 9 & 10
The Northern Mountains
Area 1: Ninh Binh and Cuc Phuong
A few hours’ drive south of Hanoi are two beautiful but very different regions — the spectacular World Heritage landscapes of soaring karst limestone cliffs, hidden waterways and ancient temples of Ninh Binh / Tam Coc / Trang An; and the wonderful tropical rain forest of Cuc Phuong, Vietnam’s oldest national park.
The Tam Coc / Trang An complex of karst mountains, hidden waterways and temples is one of the most extraordinary places you will visit in Vietnam. You explore the narrow waterways by small boat, rowed by skilled locals using their feet rather than arms. The waterways thread and twist their way between the karst cliffs, sometimes disappearing into caves beneath a mountain before reappearing on the other side. Gliding through the caves is a highlight of any visit!
Dotted along the waterways are beautiful temples, often only accessible by boat. Quiet rural roads in the surrounding areas wind between shallow lakes and endless rice fields, and are perfect for exploring by bicycle or motorcycle. Nearby are the great Buddhist temple of Bai Dinh and the ruins of the ancient capital of Hoa Lu. There is a good range of accommodation, from inexpensive homestays to luxury resorts, some of which offer other activities such as yoga and cooking classes.
Cuc Phuong’s Endangered Primates Rescue Centre rehabilitates animals for release back into the wild, and a visit to the Centre is a great way to observe some wonderful animals — such as langurs & monkeys — only rarely seen otherwise.
With easy access from Hanoi, the Ninh Binh and Cuc Phuong area is suited to short trips of just 2 -3 days, but there is so much to see and do that we recommend taking a few more days and being less rushed.
Click here for more details, more photos and to look through our tours and options, which include detailed itineraries.