Welcome to the nation of rivers and roads. Once divided by conflict, North Vietnam has since become a cultural hotspot for travellers from all walks of life. Promising exciting adventures in a landscape so extraordinarily green, it is easy to see why. From motorbike madness down the lush Ha Giang loop to rowing in the emerald waters of Halong Bay, there are plenty of activities here to keep you energised and entertained. Whether you want to conquer mountains or take in the history of Hanoi, North Vietnam has it all. But with so much to do, and so many places to pick from, how do you narrow it down? Here is our Top Five picks of the iconic trips that you could be taking in North Vietnam; so that you can explore this stunning region to its limits and have the trip of a lifetime.
Ha Giang Loop
Difficulty Level: Medium
Kick-starting our list is none other than the incredible Ha Giang Loop, which can be found amongst the valleys. Surrounded by canyons and mountains reaching unbelievable heights, the Ha Giang Loop will take you through unforgettable sights.
Spanning a total of 350km, completing the Ha Giang Loop is no easy feat. Although the ride can technically be completed in 48 hours, most tour guides will recommend spending four days in this heavenly landscape to soak up all its natural, rugged beauty. With so much rural life to see, the Ha Giang loop is best explored at a leisurely pace. Spot the Lung Cu flag tower soaring on Dragon Mountain, and wind down the descending paddy fields. As you glide along this stunning trail, it will feel like taking a trip back in time.
While many prefer to explore the Ha Giang loop by bike (motorbike mania is real), all is not doomed for the more cautious traveller. Before taking on this adventure, it is important to ask yourself whether you are skilled enough to ride it by yourself. Although the roads are in great condition, the terrain can prove to be a real challenge, especially to those unfamiliar with these kind of extremes.
Fortunately, there are options for people who are less confident in their motorbiking abilities. From guided bike tours to exploring the Ha Giang loop by car, this is an adventure worth catering to your needs. No matter how you choose to see this place, the sights are simply sublime.
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Difficulty Level: Easy
Next up on the itinerary is none other than the magnificent Halong Bay, a twice-recognised UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the world’s Seven Wonders. Even its name is iconic: translating to “land of the descending dragon”, Halong is, in every sense, legendary. Even more enthralling is Halong Bay’s landscape; comprising of over one-thousand islands, there is plenty of wildlife to be admired! From the surge of tourists who flock to Cat Ba island’s shores, to the largely untouched Lan Ha Bay, each corner of Halong Bay promises something new. Exploring one of the several caves here is a necessity, as the ceiling and stalactites are enough to take your breath away! And if you feel like venturing into one of Vietnam’s famous jungles, then look no further than Cannon Fort on Cat Ba island. Offering one of the best views in the country and military artefacts, Cannon Fort is the perfect spot for the travellers who crave an enriching experience.
With so many island-adventures to fulfil, a trip around Halong Bay is best done from a boat. Although some companies offer half-day cruises on junk-boats for those seeking a more authentic experience, many visitors opt for a bigger and bougier boat. With several cruises to choose from, the only issue here is being spoiled for choice! But if you want to do some independent travelling, then not to worry; as an afternoon of kayaking and seeing the limestone up-close is always a possibility. And with such gentle waters to wade your way through, a trip around Halong Bay is smooth-sailing.
Difficulty Level: Medium
Locally referred to as ‘Halong Bay on land’, Ninh Binh’s landscape is alluring. From emerald paddy fields that never seem to end, to magnificent limestone mountains, to wide, winding rivers that curve and bend, Ninh Binh is almost too good to be true. The most unbelievable thing about this place is how underrated it is. Attracting not nearly enough visitors as it deserves, Ninh Binh seems almost removed from the hustle and bustle of mass tourism. Its peacefulness, its simplicity is a breath of fresh air; making the perfect destination for those who want to be alone in nature.
Row on down Tam Coc River and listen to the chirping of birds as you take in the natural sights that do not seem real. Visit the past in a tour around Ninh Binh’s historical districts, most notably ancient capital of Hoa Lu. Strategically chosen to be built amongst the mountains to keep out invaders, Hoa Lu dates back to the 10th and 11th centuries! Belonging to the kingdom of Đại Việt, Hoa Lu contains quintessentially Vietnamese architecture, like the landmark King Dinh Temple. Based at the foot of Ma Yen Mountain, it will take 265 steps worth of climbing in order to reach this temple.
If 265 steps sounds like a piece of a cake, then we recommend a hiking trip up the Mua Cave. Inspired by ‘The Great Wall of China’, a trip up Mua Cave is almost double the amount of steps as King Dinh Temple! Mua Cave may be a tiring trek, but where else will you get to see views like this? Overlooking Tam Coc, this expedition will allow you to take in Ninh Binh’s beauty from an unbelievable view. And depending on what time of year you visit, you may even spot some lotuses!
Difficulty Level: Hard
Sapa is where men and mountains meet. With hills and valleys everywhere you go, Sapa is North Vietnam’s hiking hotspot. From exploring the Sapa Valley Trail to admiring the cascading Silver and Love waterfalls, many adventures await you in Sapa. Most famous of all is Fansipan, the highest mountain in the country and Indo-Chinese Peninsula. Nicknamed as the ‘Roof of Indochina’, reaching the top of this mountain on foot is quite the challenge. With a steep hike ahead of you, booking a permit independently or through a hiking tour agency is a necessity for completing this trip. Depending on your route, planning, and ability, this trip can take you from one to four days. And with a slippery climate, it is best to be prepared for all weather! Who said conquering mountains was ever easy?
If you would prefer to skip the climb, then do not rule out Fansipan just yet! With cable cars open everyday from 7:30am to 5:30pm, this option is not only viable, but desirable. Having once held two Guinness World Records, it is an understatement to say that Fansipan’s cable cars are impressive. As you move up the mountain in just 15 minutes, you can stare out at the stunning scenery above and below. After arriving, you have the option of either taking an additional mountain cable car at Do Quyen station (tickets can be paid for on the spot), or trekking up 600 steps! Once you reach the summit, your head will be in the clouds as you overlooking the breath-taking and ever-changing formations. Get your cameras ready; as this 360-degree vista offers all kinds of photogenic views.
Difficulty Level: Easy
Ending our list is none other than Vietnam’s cultural capital, Hanoi. Over a thousand years old, Hanoi is home to a unique history where the past and present intersect. While the art and music scene has breathed new life into Hanoi, it does so against the memory of French and Chinese occupation. With old temples, colonial buildings, and several museums at your picking, the city’s cultural heritage is impossible to escape. If anything, it is Hanoi’s selling point.
As you wander through the old quarter and move between motorbikes, you revel in the smell of street food markets everywhere you go. Tying with Thailand as one of Asia’s best street food market scenes, it would be unfortunate to miss out tasting these delicacies for yourself. From phở to banh mi, there are a ton of mouth-watering dishes for you to try here. If you crave nothing more than the comfort of a warm plate of food, then it does not get much better than Ta Hien Street. And with a glass of the world’s cheapest beer to wash your meal down, there is truly no better place for fine dining at an economy price.
Hanoi is also the perfect starting place to take the train down to the centre and south of Vietnam, an experience for any keen traveller.