Hanoi Temple of Literature lotus flowers

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.  Beyond the major cities and key attractions, reliable information on roads less traveled is hard to come by.  It can be a challenge making sense of where to go and what to see.

We know because we’ve lived it!

To help you, we’ve gathered here information on 10 key 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 boat through spectacular islands & cliffs, to discovering palaces, temples & old port towns rich in history these are the places we come back to ourselves.

Browse, dip and come back — there is a lot of information here.  Enjoy.  For information on weather and when to visit, see here.

Other Path Travel's key areas for exploring North Vietnam
Other Path Travel’s key areas for exploring North Vietnam

We think of the 10 key areas in five groups:

Group 1.  The spectacular Northern Mountains which bend in a great horseshoe around the Red River basin and delta and includes areas 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5.  Mountains, valleys, canyons, rice terraces, lakes, waterfalls, ethnic minority villages & markets, wonderful people, off the beaten path.

Group 2.  Ha Long Bay and the limestone archipelago coast, with its dramatic cliffs & pinnacles, beautiful islands and golden beaches, covers famous Ha Long Bay and its less visited neighbours Lan Ha Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay — this is area 6

Group 3.  The third group encompasses the Red River basin and delta with amazing, multi-layered, captivating Hanoi at its center — broadly area 7

Group 4.  This group covers the vast complex of caves, including the world’s largest, near Phong Nha.  As well, there are wonderful less traveled roads to explore through green countryside and tropical forests — area 8

Group 5.  The last group covers 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.  As well, there is Da Nang and some wonderful, less crowded coastal roads and 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 landscape 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, waterways and temples is one of the most extraordinary places you will visit in Vietnam.

Small boats carry visitors along waterways threading between cliffs and rice fields
Small boats carry visitors along magical waterways threading between cliffs and rice fields

You explore the narrow waterways by sampan, a 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!

Tam Coc waterways from a temple lookout
Tam Coc waterways from a temple lookout on a dramatic overcast day

Dotted along the waterways and in the surrounding countryside are beautiful temples, waiting to be discovered.  Quiet rural roads 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.

Gorgeous old temple nestled into a cliff in the Ninh Binh area
Gorgeous old temple nestled into a cliff in the Ninh Binh area

Cuc Phuong is completely different.

The largest national park in Vietnam and an important site for biodiversity, it is a place of quiet tropical rain forest, verdant karst mountains and lush valleys, relatively little visited and mostly unspoiled.  Ancient trees are still standing, and walking in the forest is beautiful.

Langurs at the Cuc Phuong Endangered Primate Rescue Centre
Langurs at the Cuc Phuong Endangered Primate Rescue Centre – the orange fur goes dark with age

Cuc Phuong’s Endangered Primates Rescue Centre, run in collaboration with Germany’s Leipzig Zoo, rehabilitates animals for release back into the wild.  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  3-4 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.

Area 2: Mai Chau, Pu Luong & Moc Chau

From the steep, tropical hills and dreamy valleys of Pu Luong, to the stunning patchwork rice fields of Mai Chau nestled among dense green mountains, to the highland plateaus and beautiful tea plantations of Moc Chau, this area offers some of the most evocative scenery in North Vietnam.

Each of the three centres is very different to the others.

Pu Luong rice terraces and green clad mountains
Pu Luong rice terraces, village path and green clad mountains — great trekking & motorbike riding

Even though it’s relatively close to Hanoi, Pu Luong feels remote, very mountainous and less traveled, with deep valleys and rice terraces falling down thick green slopes.

There is great touring along wonderful back roads among spectacular scenery; some excellent easy and more challenging trekking through fields, forests and small villages; and perhaps some lazy rafting along a quiet river, depending on the season.  A typical day might be finished relaxing with an evening drink on the terrace of a boutique resort, looking out on the view — Pu Luong is that kind of place.

Pu Luong mountains
Relaxing with a view of Pu Luong mountains in the late afternoon

Mai Chau is bigger, busier, more popular, with some good resorts in quiet places among beautiful rice fields or perched on the edge of a stunning lake.

The paths among the rice fields make for terrific bicycle riding, or walking.  There are good treks, as well as some great roads for motorbiking, and some fantastic excursions on the lake.

A peaceful Mai Chau hotel
A peaceful Mai Chau hotel set among beautiful rice fields and hills

There are interesting ethnic minority textiles, and a small but interesting and colorful ethnic minority Sunday market nearby.  Mai Chau is beautiful, diverse and relatively upmarket.

H'Mong skirts in a market near Mai Chau
H’Mong skirts hanging in a small but active market near Mai Chau

Moc Chau is different again — a busy tea plantation center, with beautiful tea fields surrounded by low mountains, somewhat off the tourist path.

The tea rows, snaking across the hills, are spectacular, and make for great walking in the plantations and excellent photography. The views at sunset are something else.  The women pickers work hard all through the picking season, but always seem to be in good humor and happy to have a laugh with a trekker or photographer.

Picking Moc Chau tea leaves
Laughing women picking Moc Chau tea leaves on a Spring early morning

It is also possible to visit some local, family-owned tea processing factories — typically geared up for export markets.  The factories are a fascinating mix of old and new technologies, much like Vietnam as a whole.  The owners are generally friendly and happy to chat about the process and their business, and of course to share some tea.   It makes for a great excursion. 

Moc Chau is a bit quirky, interesting and very pretty.

Moc Chau tea rows
Moc Chau tea rows and spectacular late-afternoon clouds

Different ethnic minorities — predominantly Thai, Muong and Hmong — are scattered across the region.  Especially in the smaller villages and more remote valleys, traditional ways remain strong, with different minorities having their own distinctive building styles and cultures, and colorful ethnic costumes.

It is this diverse tapestry of landscapes and cultures across the Mai Chau, Pu Luong and Moc Chau areas that makes the overall region so special — and a wonderfully rich place to explore as you travel from the southern lowland ranges and rice fields to the highland tea plateaus.

Click here for more details, more photos and to look through our tours and options, which include detailed itineraries.

Area 3: High Mountains and the Roof of Vietnam — Sapa, Mu Cang Chai, Xin Man, Ta Xua

The High Mountains stretch from the great peaks of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range around and north of Sapa, south to the broad rice valleys, high mountains and magnificent rice terraces of Nghia Lo and Mu Cang Chai, and further south to the rugged, twisted foothills around Ta Xua. 

East of Sapa they extend to the mountains around the frontier towns of Muong Kuong and Xin Man.

High mountains and valleys in the Sapa region
High mountains rise above green, rice-terraced valleys in the Sapa region

These are the tallest mountains and deepest valleys in Indochina, with a grandeur and scale found nowhere else in Vietnam.  This is spectacular country, offering classic touring through fabulous and often remote mountain scenery. 

For motorbike riders, it is some of the best and most diverse motorcycle touring in Vietnam on relatively good roads through amazing landscapes.

A mosaic of ethnic minority hill tribes live throughout the mountains, concentrated in the valleys and lower slopes, including Hmong, Thai, Dao, Tay, Nung and Giay. 

Traditional ways of life and culture remain strong, with women often wearing their colorful ethnic costumes in the fields and villages.

Xin Man ethnic minority Sunday market
Buying traditional patterned cloth at the Xin Man ethnic minority Sunday market

The immense, rice-terraced valleys around the hill-town of Sapa offer excellent easy to challenging trekking and exploration of ethnic villages — once one gets away from the crowds of town into the lesser visited and quieter side valleys.

While Sapa has become rather commercial, it is still a buzzing and interesting place to explore if you are selective about it — the upside is some good food, good coffee and some interesting shops; the downside is fast food, crowds, touts and junky shops.

One result of Sapa’s increasingly commercial nature is the new gondola which provides easy access from the town center to the summit of Fansipan, at 3,143m the highest peak in Indochina.  On a clear day there are outstanding views over the entire mountain range.

On the byways away from the major mountain towns, the local people you will meet are incredibly friendly, and the children, always laughing and curious, are a delight.

The high mountains area has some of the best, most authentic ethnic minority weekly markets, where many villagers might walk miles from remote homes to socialize and trade.

The Sunday market at remote Xin Man is especially good and relatively little visited — we think it’s one of the best in North Vietnam; if you like ethnic markets, it’s worth the journey.  The market at Bac Ha is also wonderful but because it can be reached as a day trip from Sapa it is more popular with tourists. 

It’s worth the effort to see at least one weekly ethnic market — they are amazing and exploring a busy market, full of the color of traditional costumes and of people buying, selling and chatting, is a highlight of any tour.  Over near Ha Giang (key area 4), the Meo Vac Sunday market is also fabulous.

Around Mu Cang Chai and Nghia Lo, the rice terraces are considered some of the most beautiful in Vietnam.  They are famous with photographers.

Golden rice terraces just before harvest at Mu Cang Chai
Golden rice terraces tumbling down the hillsides, just before harvest at Mu Cang Chai

In May / June the higher terraces are ploughed and flooded before the new rice is planted — the reflections of the sky in the flooded terraces cascading down the mountain slopes is one of the grand vistas of Vietnam.

Mu Cang Chai rice terrace reflections
Stunning reflections in flooded rice terraces, falling down the mountainsides near Mu Cang Chai, just before the new rice is planted

Further south, the tangled lower ranges around Ta Xua offer great ridge walking above spectacular valleys.  Sometimes the valleys are full of early morning cloud, and trekking the famous Dinosaur Ridge above the clouds is a magical experience.

Ridge trekking at Ta Xua
Trekking the renowned Dinosaur Ridge at Ta Xua, suspended between earth and sky

Click here for more details, more photos and to look through our tours and options, which include detailed itineraries.

Area 4: Spectacular Ha Giang — Ha Giang city, Xin Man, Hoang Su Phi, Dong Van, Ma Pi Leng Pass, Meo Vac

The great Northern Mountains of Ha Giang run along the Vietnam / Chinese border, stretching from Xin Man in the west, through Ha Giang province to the border towns of Dong Van and Meo Vac, before turning south towards the neighboring province of Coa Bang.

They are wild, remote and ridiculously scenic, and are populated by a large number of ethnic minorities. 

What sets the area apart are the amazing, jagged karst limestone mountains and rock needles that are most concentrated in the famous and otherworldly Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark, one of only two UN recognized Geoparks in South East Asia (the other is near Coa Bang).

From Xin Man through Hoang Su Phi to Ha Giang city and a little beyond, the landscapes are of deep rice-terraced valleys and gorges between tall mountains, plus scattered sharp karst outcrops, a foretaste of the mountains further east.

Hoang Su Phi rice terraces
The vast rice terraces of Hoang Su Phi, centuries old, are a National Heritage Site – great small-roads touring and exploration

The famous rice terraces of Hoang Su Phi, formed from the mountain sides over centuries of digging and irrigation works, are some of the largest and most beautiful in the country, and are a National Heritage Site.

Cris-crossed by a network of paths and small roads, they offer fabulous trekking and motorbike riding through unspoiled country with sublime views.

Most people travel through in just a day, but the Hoang Su Phi area is so stunning, with some great places to stay, that we recommend going a bit slower and experiencing a lot more.

The regional capital of Ha Giang
The regional capital of Ha Giang, nestled among karst mountains, from a nearby lookout

Ha Giang city itself is a likable regional center.  It has some interesting streets, an excellent market operating every day of the week but especially good on Sundays, some good cafes and bia hois, and good food both in town and in local, less-traveled restaurants in the surrounds, where people watching is one of the attractions.

There are beautiful nearby valleys, gorges and mountains for trekking and exploring by motorbike — just a bit further off the beaten path and little visited.

View of Tam Son from Heaven's Gate pass, with karst limestone peaks beyond
View of Tam Son from Heaven’s Gate pass, with karst limestone peaks beyond

Heading north east from Ha Giang, towards Yen Minh and then Dong Van and Meo Vac, the country is spectacular and mixed, with vast valleys, rice terraces, karst ranges, modest towns and switchback roads.

Rice terraces tumble down the slopes of vast valleys in Ha Giang, with karst limestone peaks in the background
Rice terraces tumble down the slopes of deep valleys near Yen Minh, east of Ha Giang, with karst limestone peaks in the background

This is great touring by car or motorbike, with many possible side excursions along the way, from delicious home-stay food, to amazing caves, to excellent trekking, to visiting traditional hemp-weaving and dyeing textile villages.

Limestone cave near Tam Son
A fabulous limestone cave in Ha Giang, with excellent formations
Traditional hemp weaving, pattern making and dyeing
Ha Giang woman creating a hot-wax pattern for traditional hand woven and dyed hemp cloth

Around and south of Dong Van and Meo Vac the landscape becomes one of dark karst peaks rising steeply like teeth out of a high plateau.  A tangle of narrow valleys and villages twists between the mountains.  The landscape is fantastic and quite surreal.

This is the spectacular and otherworldly Dong Van Karst Plateau Global Geopark, recognized by UNESCO for its unique geology and mix of landscapes and ethnic cultures.

To the north west, the karst mountains continue into south Yunnan in China, while to the north east they are bounded by the vast gorge of the Nho Que river, more than 1,000 meters deep.

Karst limestone pinnacles near Dong Van
Karst limestone pinnacles dot the landscape near Dong Van, surreal and otherworldly

The Northern Mountains are home to 17 ethnic minorities, including Hmong, Mong, Dao, Lo Lo, Tay and Nung, who have lived and adapted to the cold, rocky environment for centuries. 

It is this combination of two extraordinary landscapes — tall mountains and deep valleys and gorgeous rice terraces to the west, and the stunning karst plateau and contorted valleys and vast gorges to the east — plus the rich ethnic minority overlay that make the Northern Mountains of Ha Giang so special.

Ha Giang has many ethnic minorities -- some of the friendliest people you will ever meet
Ha Giang has many ethnic minorities — some of the friendliest people you will ever meet
Renovated head man's house illustrates old Ha Giang stone and wood styles
A renovated head man’s house illustrates beautiful old Ha Giang stone, tile and wood building styles

A highlight of the mountains is the Ma Pi Leng pass, which runs between Dong Van and Meo Vac.  It is probably the most spectacular mountain road in Vietnam, and one of the greatest stretches of touring road anywhere. 

The views into the Nho Que canyon are amazing.  Trekking and exploring the backroads, local villages & markets of the region is superb — there are wonders to be found off the beaten path.

Clouds wreath the mountains near Ma Pi Leng pass
Clouds wreath the mountains near Ma Pi Leng pass, with the valley far below
The great chasm of the Nho Que river below Ma Pi Leng pass
The great chasm of the Nho Que river, more than 1,000 meters below Ma Pi Leng pass

Click here for more details, more photos and to look through our tours and options, which include detailed itineraries.

Area 5: Serene Ba Be Lake, Spectacular Ban Gioc waterfall, and the karst pinnacles of Cao Bang

To the North East of Hanoi lie the less-traveled marvels of tranquil Ba Be Lake, spectacular Ban Gioc waterfall on the Chinese border, and the fabulous karst mountains east and north of the town of Cao Bang.

This is wonderful, varied, off the beaten path country, with great touring roads and some real gems to discover.

About 240km north of Hanoi (and at least 5 hours) is Ba Be National Park and within that Ba Be Lake, the largest natural lake in Vietnam, set among towering karst mountains draped in green. The lake is incredibly pretty and peaceful, with calm waters fringed by overhanging forest.

The calm waters of serene Ba Be Lake
The calm waters of serene Ba Be Lake, best appreciated in the early morning or late afternoon when there are no or few boats

The best way to experience the lake is by one of the local hire boats, or by rented kayak.

Out on the clear water, the rest of the world is far away. Ba Be is a place to spend a while, not to rush.  Apart from being on the lake, there is good trekking, some caves to explore and backroads with beautiful forest to wander along.  We love it there.

East and a little north of Ba Be Lake is the rather appealing town of Coa Bang, the gateway to some of the most dramatic karst limestone mountain landscapes in Vietnam, which have recently been declared the second geopark in Vietnam (the first is the Dong Van Karst Plateau). 

Touring the backroads here is fabulous.

Jagged karst mountains and beautiful valleys in the Cao Bang region
Amazing, jagged karst mountains and beautiful valleys in the Cao Bang region — fabulous and little visited

Further south there are more areas of karst, including the stunning landscapes near the little-visited town of Bac Son. 

The valleys are broad here, supporting a patchwork of rice fields through which flow sinuous, meandering rivers.  Just outside the town, a steep path leads to a renowned view over the fields, villages and mountains.

Beautiful valleys and limestone mountains near the town of Bac Son
Beautiful valleys and limestone mountains near the town of Bac Son, seen from a local viewpoint

On the Chinese border beyond Cao Bang is Ban Gioc, which we think is is the finest waterfall in Vietnam — spectacular, wide, multiple falls interlaced with green forest, a deep pool at the bottom where you can ride in a boat close to the great walls of water.

One of our customers, on seeing the falls, promptly extended his tour just to spend more time there, to write, to read and to absorb the extraordinary beauty of the place.

The best times to visit are when there is a good flow of water — May to October.   It’s hot, but worth it. 

Nearby there is a splendid cave to explore, with excellent stalactite and flow-stone formations.

The whole Ban Gioc area is another off the beaten path gem.

Spectacular Ban Gioc waterfall
Spectacular Ban Gioc waterfall — perhaps the most beautiful in Vietnam

Click here for more details, more photos and to look through our tours and options, which include detailed itineraries.

Ha Long Bay and the limestone archipelago coast

Area 6: Ha Long Bay, Lan Ha Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay, Cat Ba Island

With its karst limestone cliffs and islands soaring straight from an emerald sea, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ha Long Bay is a spectacular and instantly recognizable landscape.

It is simply an outstanding destination, one of the great wonders of the natural world.

Ha Long Bay fisherman between cliffs
In Ha Long Bay, a solitary boat rows between limestone cliffs on an overcast day

But the most popular parts of Ha Long Bay have become victims of their own success.

During peak season around October – November and also April – May, and even in other months, the most popular routes (which are followed by most boats) can be very crowded.

Karst limestone pinnacles and golden beaches in Lan Ha Bay
Karst limestone pinnacles, golden beaches and almost impossibly blue water on a sunny day in Lan Ha Bay

You may be criss-crossing with other tourist boats all day, and at night you might be sharing your patch of water with more than 20 other boats anchored nearby.

Ha Long Bay boats and limestone pillars
Cruise boats and spectacular limestone pillars on a popular Ha Long Bay route north of Cat Ba Island, on a hazy day

Of course Ha Long Bay is large and can absorb a lot of visitors.  And even with a lot of cruise ships on the major routes, it is still an amazing experience — especially if you travel on a smaller boat with fewer cabins (ideally no more than 10). 

Smaller boats feel less crowded in general, and are much better when you anchor to go kayaking in a quiet bay, or swimming from a beach or exploring a cave.

Ha Long Bay kayaking
Kayaking on a quiet Ha Long Bay backwater on a perfect late September day, surrounded by limestone cliffs and islands

However, for people who want to experience Ha Long Bay in all of its extraordinary and serene beauty, away from the crowds, the way it should be done, the good news is that there are several options.

The first is to focus on the less visited but just as beautiful Lan Ha Bay or Bai Tu Long Bay.  See the Google map below. 

Lan Ha Bay extends east and south-east of Cat Ba Island and lies south west of the core Ha Long Bay area; while Bai Tu Long Bay lies to the north of the Ha Long Bay core area (and locals would say that Bai Tu Long Bay extends a lot further south than is suggested by Google’s map).

Together, these three areas form the overall Ha Long complex of waterways and islands.

The Ha Long complex includes Lan Ha Bay, Ha Long Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay

Most Ha Long cruises are short, start from Ha Long port and visit primarily those Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba islands that are relatively close to Ha Long port — saving fuel and time but limiting the overall experience.  The further reaches of Ha Long Bay, and most of Lan Ha Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay, are much less visited.

So a good option is to go for longer (at least 2-3 nights) on a smaller boat (10 cabins or less is best; up to 16-18 cabins is OK; more than that and it starts to feel pretty commercial), start from Cat Ba island for exploring Lan Ha Bay or Hong Hai for exploring Bai Tu Long Bay, and look for boats that visit the farther reaches.  Insist they show you the actual route they will follow.

Ha Long Bay small junk on emerald waters
A small junk (with nice interiors), typical of those used for private boat charter, lies at anchor above an emerald sea in a quiet part of Ha Long Bay

A second option, and in our view the best way to experience the wonders of this magical place, is to charter a private boat — your own boat, captain, chef, crew and guide.  

You can customize an itinerary to suit your preferences, be as active or relaxed as you want, and cruise far from the crowds into a magnificent, serene world. 

You can meander through spectacular waterways and cliffs; swim, kayak and snorkel off deserted golden beaches; have a private lunch on your own stretch of sand; explore spectacular bays, islands and caves where you may be the only cruise boat; moor somewhere private at night; and enjoy delicious food prepared by your own chef.

Lan Ha Bay rowing through a cave
In a quiet corner of Lan Ha Bay, local women row small metal boats through a dramatic cave to a hidden lagoon beyond

Of course it’s more expensive, but if you charter a two or three cabin boat, for example, and share costs between four to six people, it’s all pretty reasonable.  This is one of those fabulous, once-in-a-lifetime things, and if you can do it then a private boat is what we recommend.

Lan Ha and Bai Tu Long offer quite different experiences to Ha Long. 

Lan Ha Bay - Cat Ba floating houses, islets and emerald blue waters
Floating houses, forest covered islets and emerald waters at the edge of Cat Ba Island

With Lan Ha, in addition to the beautiful islands and spectacular cliffs you see in Ha Long, there are large floating aquaculture villages, more lovely beaches than elsewhere, and you also have the option of exploring Cat Ba Island, with its mountainous, deep-green forested interior and on the coast lively Cat Ba town. 

Much of Cat Ba Island and its surrounding archipelago are a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, and a good deal of Cat Ba itself is a National Park.

From Cat Ba town there are great hikes in the National Park rain forest to peaks with superb views over the sea and islands; some beautiful roads to explore by motorbike; interesting caves and history to discover; really delicious seafood in Cat Ba restaurants; some good hotels and great rooftop bars; good beaches to relax on; and even rock climbing on sea cliffs.

Cat Ba sunset from hotel sky bar
Sunset view from the rooftop bar of a hotel in the middle of Cat Ba town

Cat Ba has developed quickly over the last few years and it is no longer the somewhat sleepy town it was. 

There are now hotels on what were quiet beaches, and cheap cafes along the waterfront.  It can all can get very crowded — so unless you want to join the backpacker crowds, it’s best to avoid weekends and other peak times. 

Or for something completely different and to get away from from the crowds entirely, explore Cat Ba during the day but stay overnight at a quiet eco-lodge with its own beach on one of the small islands off the coast (contact us for this).

Taking into account transfers from Hanoi to Cat Ba island, we recommend a 4 day / 3 night visit — one night in Cat Ba and two nights on a boat.  You could easily spend longer.

Bai Tu Long Bay - emerald lagoon with boat and canoe
A pristine emerald lagoon in Bai Tu Long Bay shelters a small boat and canoe

Bai Tu Long Bay is a little more remote and off the beaten path.  The islands and beaches are just as beautiful and the cliffs just as spectacular as Ha Long, but there is more of a feeling of being away from it all and having the place to yourself. 

For a complete break, relaxing and losing yourself in idyllic waterways and islands, there is nothing like less-traveled Bai Tu Long Bay.

You need at least 3 days / 2 nights to visit Bai Tu Long Bay; possibly as part of a combined Ha Long Bay / Bai Tu Long Bay cruise.  We highly recommend this — it’s one of the best things you can do in Vietnam.

Click here for more details, more photos and to look through our tours and options, which include detailed itineraries.

Hanoi — the heart of North Vietnam

Area 7: Amazing Hanoi and surrounding villages

Hanoi, located on a sweeping bend of the Red River at the heart of the Red River basin, the birthplace of the Viet peoples and one of the oldest capitals in the world, is one the great cities of South East Asia. 

It is a sprawling, multi-layered, deeply Asian metropolis of 8 million people and 5 million motorbikes, traditional and yet increasingly contemporary, constantly changing, full of contrasts, contradictions and surprises. 

It is an absolutely fabulous city to wander in and explore.

Looking over Truch Bach and West Lake to Hanoi city centre
Modern Hanoi – looking over residential Truch Bach and West Lake towards the Old Quarter and the city’s vast, bustling center

Over its long history, Hanoi has assimilated influences from China, other parts of Asia, France and the West. 

This has given it a rich and uniquely Vietnamese mix of ancient pagodas, colonial buildings, modern architecture and office towers, rickshaws and Mercedes, diverse neighborhoods, an Old Quarter of crowded narrow streets that still display their craft-based origins dating back centuries, a vibrant multi-cultural community, a delicious cuisine, and amazing street food.

Hanoi - the oldest and most beautiful Buddhist temple
Chua Tran Quoc, the oldest and perhaps most beautiful Buddhist temple in Hanoi
Delicious street food on Hanoi's back lanes
Delicious street food is found on the lanes of many Hanoi neighborhoods, if you know where to look

Hanoi is filled with things to do and see. 

Most people focus on the top attractions. Exploring the crowded streets of the Old Quarter.  Walking around Hoan Kiem Lake and visiting the Opera House and St Joseph’s Cathedral.  Strolling through the beautiful Temple of Literature and National University, a gorgeous example of historical architecture.  Visiting the Ethnology Museum, perhaps the best in Hanoi.

Seeing Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.  Visiting some of the other museums (we particularly like the National Museum of History and the Vietnam Womens’ Museum) and Hoa Lo Prison.  Exploring the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long.  Seeing a performance at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater.

Busy traffic and old buildings in Hanoi's Old Quarter
Busy traffic in Hanoi’s Old Quarter streams by old buildings and shops selling Tet festival items – but one rider stops to gaze

Wonderful as they are, these are only a part of what the city has to offer. 

There is another Hanoi, the insiders’ Hanoi, richer and deeper, off the beaten path, that tourists rarely see, that locals know and love. 

There are hidden gems all over the city and the near surrounding countryside, to explore and enjoy.

Sunset view over West Lake from a rooftop bar
Sunset view over West Lake from a rooftop bar, a world away from Hanoi’s bustling streets

There are fabulous less-visited temples, wonderful local wet and dry markets, fascinating backstreets and suburbs, cool cafes, quirky bars, beautiful lakes, terrific restaurants with authentic and fusion cuisine, amazing rooftop views.

A deeper dive into the fantastic street food and lane-ways of the Old Quarter.

Daily life in all its Asian complexity played out on the streets and lakes, great bicycle and motorbike rides through the less visited parts of the city and the urban fringe, interesting craft and historical villages just beyond the edges of the city.

Gathering lotus blossoms from a city lake during the flowering season
Gathering lotus blossoms from a city lake during the flowering season

So, step off the beaten path a little and see the other Hanoi that locals know.  You’ll love it.

Hand made lacquer in a Hanoi craft village
Hand made lacquer in a Hanoi craft village

Click here for more details, more photos and to look through our tours and options, which include detailed itineraries.

The amazing caves of Phong Nha

Area 8 — the world class caves of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

In Vietnam’s upper-central-coast region, inland from the busy fishing port of Dong Hoi, lies the wild, deeply forested Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, dotted with craggy karst limestone peaks and cut by almost inaccessible rivers. 

The area was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003 as one of the finest examples of a complex karst landscape in South East Asia.

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park from Ho Chi Minh Trail
A deeply forested valley in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, seen from the Ho Chi Minh Trail

As it turns out, it is also home to some of the world’s most amazing caves — including the worlds largest known cave, Son Doong which was discovered in 2009 by British and Vietnamese explorers.  Son Doong is so large that it has its own forests inside some of its caverns.

A reasonably challenging trek through the cave, including 2 nights camping inside it, takes 4 days — by agreement with the Vietnamese Government, Son Doong tours are run exclusively by the excellent Oxalis company.  Expensive but fabulous.

Beautiful cave formations
Beautiful flow formations dwarf barely visible visitors in a vast blue-roofed cavern in a Phong Nha cave

For those looking for something less demanding than Son Doong, fortunately there are plenty of other caves you can visit that are easier and shorter, from half day visits to trips of a few days.

The day visit caves you can mostly do yourself, without a guide (but where the approach requires boat access, you will need to hire a local boat and boat person).  The caves are many and varied — but nearly all are magnificent, and the whole experiences is really worth the journey.

Boats row slowly along a river in a huge cavern in a vast limestone cave near Phong Nha
Visitors in boats — just visible in the lower left, with red jackets — row slowly along a river inside a cavern in a large limestone cave near Phong Nha

The small but pleasant town of Phong Nha serves as the base for cave explorations and jungle treks.

In addition to caves, the area has excellent touring roads that traverse the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.  Stretches of the Ho Chi Minh trail near here are fabulous motorbike riding — good road, wonderful tropical mountain scenery, and little traffic.  How good is that?

Fabulous Hoi An and Hue

Areas 9, 10 — the UNESCO World Heritage towns of Hoi An and Hue

Hoi An and Hue, both UNESCO World Heritage sites, offer history, architecture, temples, pagodas, beaches and food.

Hoi An was a major South East Asian trading port from the 15th to the 19th centuries, and the old part of Hoi An with its trademark faded yellow rendered buildings, hung with silk lanterns, is regarded as one of the most beautiful and best preserved historical trading ports in Asia.

Old yellow rendered buildings and colorful silk lanterns in Hoi An
Old yellow rendered buildings and silk lanterns in Hoi An

These days Hoi An has become crowded with tourists during peak periods, and so many lanterns have been hung that it has made it almost kitsch. 

But the architecture is still lovely, the old shops with their dark wood interiors are as beautiful as ever, and it has become somewhat of a hip destination for good, contemporary Vietnamese food and funky cafes and bars.

Mango fruit seller on old Hoi An street, festooned with lanterns
Mango fruit seller on an old Hoi An street, festooned with lanterns

The historical merchant houses dotted throughout the town are among some of the best preserved in Vietnam, with rich wooden interiors in the old style, and wandering through them imagining their vanished world is an experience not to be missed.

Hoi An - old shop selling antique ceramics
The rich wooden interior of an old merchant’s house speaks to Hoi An’s history as a major trading port between the 15th & 19th centuries

People also visit Hoi An for its beaches — as of late 2021, we understand that An Bang beach is still OK (though we prefer beaches further south in Nha Trang and Phu Quoc), but erosion has pretty much washed most of Cua Dai away.

We’d say visit Hoi An for its history, beauty and food; think of the beaches as an extra, not the main attraction.

Hoi An - old shop selling antique ceramics
In Hoi An, a traditional shop with fabulous interiors, sells antique ceramics, including pots from centuries old shipwrecks

Hue is equally historic, but quite different — it was the capital of the Dang Trong Kingdom from 1738 to 1775 and of the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945.

Dominating the town is the huge 19th-century citadel, lying to the north of the Perfume River, surrounded by a moat and thick stone walls, and including the Imperial City, with its palaces and shrines; as well as the Forbidden Purple City, once the emperor’s home; and a replica of the Royal Theater. 

Nowhere else in Vietnam can you see such a large group of well preserved historic buildings.

Hue - Royal Palace building above the Forbidden City moat
Hue – a Royal Palace building rises above the Forbidden City moat

There is so much to see in the Citadel —  the palace, courts, colonnades, temples, pavilions, imperial gates, gardens, tombs, moats — and so much history, that it will take the best part of a day (at least) to wander and explore.  Start early to avoid the heat and crowds.

Magnificent colonnade within the Hue Citadel
Magnificent colonnade within the Hue Citadel

Beyond Hue, some of Vietnam’s most beautiful temples and pagodas lie along the banks and river flats of the Perfume River.

Some are grand, others like jewels, with gorgeous gardens.  Many are accessible by boat plus a short walk from the river; others by bicycle or motorbike from Hue.

We suggest you do both.  An excursion by boat, getting off to explore various temples and pagodas, is a great way to visit some of the best sites.  Riding through the river flats and villages by bicycle or motorbike will give you a feel for the splendid countryside around Hue, and enable you to visit fabulous temples not reachable by the river.

Hue small temple building with garden
Hue – a small temple building with a pretty garden, part of a larger temple complex, is like a jewel on the banks of the Perfume River

Not far to the east of Hue lies the coast, so different it could be another world — flat rice fields giving way to a series of lagoons just behind the sand dunes that mark the edge of the sea with its long, hard-packed beaches.

In it’s own way, this is strangely beautiful country, surprisingly less visited, sparsely populated and very remote feeling.

Veneration of ancestors is strong here and there are numerous cemeteries with elaborate family tombs, often grander than the houses the current day descendants are living in.  It makes for a fascinating and contrasting day trip from Hue.

Elaborate family tombs on coast east of Hue
Elaborate family tombs on the coast east of Hue speak to the importance here of ancestor veneration

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