8 Top Places to Visit in Northern Vietnam
Although Northern Vietnam gets fewer visitors than Ho Chi Minh City and the coastal cities in the south, this is a region of the country not to be missed. Not only is the region home to Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, it is also where you’ll find breathtaking bays, stunning rice terraces and unbeatable scenery. Northern Vietnam’s cultural attractions are just as diverse ranging from the chaotic highland markets to the hill-tribes in the far north. Narrowing down the many options to fit your itinerary can be tricky, but this list can help point you to the region’s top destinations.
Read more: Discover Northeast Vietnam Travel
If you only visit one place in Northern Vietnam, it will likely be Hanoi. As the nation’s capital, Hanoi is an exhilarating blend of eastern and western culture. French colonialism is visible through cuisine as well as architecture, particularly in the French Quarter in the Hoàn Kiếm District. Hanoi is packed with incredible temples, and a visit to the 11th century Temple of Literature is a must-do activity. The side-by-side Ho Chi Minh Museum and Mausoleum are also major attractions in Hanoi, and both are striking buildings from the exterior.
Ha long bay
Towering limestone pillars and tiny islets topped by forest rise from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Designated a World Heritage Site in 1994, Halong Bay’s scatter of islands, dotted with wind- and wave-eroded grottoes, is a vision of ethereal beauty and, unsurprisingly, northern Vietnam’s number one-tourism hub.
Sprawling Halong City (also known as Bai Chay) is the bay’s main gateway, but its high-rises are a disappointing doorstep to this site. Most visitors opt for cruise tours that include sleeping on board within the bay, while a growing number are deciding to eschew the main bay completely, heading straight for Cat Ba Island from where trips to less-visited but equally alluring Lan Ha Bay are easily set up.
All visitors must purchase entry tickets for the national park (40,000d) and there are also separate admission tickets for attractions in the bay, such as caves and fishing villages (30,000d to 50,000d).
The mountainous town of Sapa is known for its culturally diverse population as well as its proximity to incredible scenery. Sapa itself is home to the members of many hill tribes, including the Hmong, the Dao, the Muong and the Tay. The town also overlooks the magnificent Muong Hoa Valley and its terraced rice fields, which are staggering to behold. If you want to get an inside look at the local residents and their cultures, then head to Sapa for an overnight trek or a homestay. You can hike out to the more remote villages and then spend the night, dining and learning from the hill tribe residents.
Ha Giang is the final frontier in northern Vietnam, an amazing landscape of limestone pinnacles and granite outcrops. The far north of the province has some of the most spectacular scenery in the country – if not the region – and the trip between Yen Minh and Dong Van, and then across the Mai Pi Leng Pass to Meo Vac, is quite mind-blowing. Ha Giang should be one of the most popular destinations in this region, but its distance from just about everywhere else keeps visitor numbers at a low level.
Travel permits (US$10) are required to travel on the road north from Tam Son to Dong Van and Meo Vac, but these are simply paid directly with whichever hotel you choose to overnight in along the way.
Ba Be National Park
Often referred to as the Ba Be Lakes, Ba Be National Park was established as a national park in 1992. The scenery here swoops from limestone mountains peaking at 1554m down into plunging valleys wrapped in dense evergreen forests, speckled with waterfalls and caves, with the lakes themselves dominating the very heart of the park.
The park is a rainforest area with more than 550 named plant species. The hundreds of wildlife species here include 65 mammals, 353 butterflies, 106 species of fish, four kinds of turtle, and the highly endangered Vietnamese salamander. The 233 bird species include the spectacular crested serpent eagle and the oriental honey buzzard. Hunting is forbidden, but villagers are permitted to fish, and the government subsidises the villagers not to cut down the trees.
The region is home to 13 tribal villages, most belonging to the Tay minority plus smaller numbers of Dzao and Hmong.
In the heart of the Hòa Bình Province is Mai Chau, a district with lush greenery, beautiful mountains and a vibrant culture. Mai Chau is a wonderful place to explore if you’re looking to get an authentic view of the many cultures that have found a home in Northern Vietnam. Mai Chau is a sort of melting pot, serving as the home to seven distinct ethnic groups: Hmong, Zao, Muong, Hoa, Viet, White Thai and Tay. In addition to the verdant valleys, Mai Chau is noteworthy for its stilt houses. These houses are constructed 3 meters (10 feet) off the ground, and they often provide shelter to animals escaping inclement weather.
Tam Coc – Ninh Binh
On paper, Tam Coc can be described as rice paddies surrounded by limestone cliffs and rock formations. In reality, Tam Coc is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful destination in the entire region. The best way to explore is by boat, and you can set off on a rowboat that takes you up alongside the lush green paddies and between striking limestone cliffs. You’ll even float through three tunnels that run through the mountains, which were carved over time by the river itself. From your boat, vendors may tempt (or deter) you with local souvenirs and handicrafts.
Cat Ba Island
In Vietnam’s Halong Bay is the Cat Ba Archipelago. While the archipelago boasts more than 360 islands, the largest is titled Cat Ba. Although there are many beautiful places to explore on the island, Cat Ba town is not among these, with its low-rise concrete hotels along a once-lovely bay. Fortunately, more than 50 percent of the island is a national park, which was created to protect the rare Cat Ba Langur, an adorable but difficult-to-spot primate. If you’re not able to spot any langurs, take a ferry over to Monkey Island. There, macaques are in abundance. Cat Ba Island is also home to the incredible Cannon Fort, which was constructed in 1942. You can tour the fort and take advantage of the elevation to snap some amazing pictures of the views below.