A heady landscape of towering evergreen peaks, fertile river valleys and scattered hill-tribe villages, northwest Vietnam is the most dramatic and mountainous region in the country. It’s a sparsely populated area (most of the town are little more overgrown villages) so it’s a great place to get off the beaten path and escape the urban sprawl and heavy traffic that characterize much of the travelers’ trail in Vietnam.
The northwest is a heartland of hill-tribe culture, and the display of textiles and traditional costume are mastering. The weaving skills of the women astounding and you’ll witness a riot of color in the markets: the scarlet headdresses of the Dzao women, the indigo fabrics of the sociable and chatty Black H’mong, and the incredibly intricate aprons of the flower H’mong
Sapa, an old French hill station, makes a great base for a few days, with some superb hiking and stunning vistas of Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest peak. Northeast is Bac Ha, home to an astonishing Sunday market, and the province of Ha Giang, where you’ll find the valley of Dong Van. The fabled northwest loop road snakes an incredibly scenic path across to Dien Bien Phu and down to Mai Chau through lush lowland valleys and over chilly high mountain passes.
Public bus services are improving, and though they are slow it’s perfectly feasible to get around this way. However most travelers opt to explore the region by motorbike or 4WD. The main roads are virtually all paved, but still grueling, and are regularly wiped out by landslides during the wet season.
North West adventure from Sapa
The Northwest offers captivating mountain scener,; you can hike or trek into valleys around key towns. 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. Key destinations in the Northwest include Dien Bien Phu and Sapa. Dien Bien Phu, toward the Lao border, is a small town that was the site of the Vietnamese communists' victory over the French in 1954, ending the Indochinese War I.
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.