The north of Vietnam is a world unto itself, standing in complete contrast to south Vietnam. You won’t find the buzzing commercialism of Ho Chi Minh City, the pancake-flat rice paddies of the Mekong Delta, nor the blissful beaches of Da Nang or Nha Trang; instead, the north is a dramatic landscape of soaring mountains and cascading rice terraces, littered with tiny, picturesque villages, home to a cornucopia of ethnic minorities.

We’ve put together all the information you’ll to plan your trip to northern Vietnam – read on below.

Street Pho in Hanoi

About Northern Vietnam

The people of North Vietnam have long seen themselves as culturally different from those in the south. The north looks more to China, and you’ll find echoes of this in its temples (with typically Chinese curved roofs and arched entrances), food (hearty noodle soups such as pho), and language. 

Political divisions between the north and south of Vietnam – with the former looking to become an independent communist state after the break-up of French Indochina – began in 1954, and ended with the conclusion of the ‘American War’ in 1973. The north ultimately succeeded, and Vietnam remains a (technically) communist state to this day, with Hanoi as the nation’s capital. 

In reality, the more dramatic landscape and harsher weather of the north sees it the less economically productive end of the country. Administratively and culturally the north has the upper hand, but the financial engine of modern Vietnam comes from Ho Chi Minh City in the south, and the agricultural and industrial heartlands which surround it.

Karst peaks in Halong Bay

When to Visit

A long strip of land, flanked by coast from tip to toe, predicting the best time to travel in Vietnam can be a tricky business. Across Vietnam there are a series of microclimates, with each region having a slightly different ‘best time’ to visit. 

As you head further north in Vietnam the winter temperatures can get surprisingly chilly. Hanoi and Halong Bay will see temperatures around 15C / 60F in December and January, and further north still – Ha Giang, Sapa, Lao Cai – there can even be snowfall! 

If your trip is concentrated purely in the north, we recommend visiting from mid-spring to early summer, March through to May, when you’ll find gorgeous temperatures and little risk of rainfall.

When to visit Vietnam
Railway tracks through the Old Quarter, Hanoi

Highlights

Hanoi & Halong Bay

All visitors to Vietnam will pass through its bouncing, bustling capital Hanoi. Hanoi is markedly different from other Asian capitals: a collage of cultural influences from the Chinese, French, and northern Vietnam which is rapidly modernizing but wears its history on its sleeve. The heart of the city is its picturesque, kaleidoscopic Old Quarter: a labyrinth of streets, some more than 1,000 years old.

The jewel in the north’s crown is of course Ha Long Bay – Vietnam’s most famous tourist attraction. Luxury cruises through the staggering limestone peaks are a highlight of any trip. As Halong has become heavily touristed in recent years, we also highly recommend alternative cruises through neighboring Lan Ha and Bai Tu Long bays – equally stunning, but with significantly fewer visitors. 

Our sample 'Highlights' tour featuring Hanoi and Halong Bay
Tam Coc - Halong on Land

Highlights

Rural Escapes

Around 2.5 hours drive south of Hanoi, the Ninh Binh region is fast becoming one of the north’s most popular destinations. Nicknamed ‘Halong on land’, its soaring karst peaks and limestone caves can be explored on foot hikes, or by gentle boat ride along a series of canals. Pulling in nearby Tam Coc and Trang An, and the mysterious temples of Bich Dong and Hang Mua, the area is worth at least a two-night stay. 

Situated around 4 hours west of Hanoi, out in rural Thanh Hoa province, Pu Luong is a protected nature reserve offering a bucolic escape from the city. The scenery here is emerald rice paddies, crisscrossed by small streams, set against a backdrop of tropical green hills. The area is home to a wide array of hill tribes, each with a distinctive clothing style and culture, and is a base for trekking, rafting, and immersive cultural tours.

Our sample 'Complete Vietnam' tour featuring Pu Luong
Dramatic pass in Meo Vac

Highlights

Far Northern Highlands

An enticing side trip from Hanoi takes you up to the highland capital Sapa. The journey is best by overnight train, arriving into Lao Cai on the Chinese border and then transferring up to Sapa by winding mountain roads. Once arrived, Sapa is a gateway for enticing treks through mountain scenery, meetings with a rainbow of hill tribes, or taking the cable car up to the peak of Mount Fansipan – the highest peak in Vietnam. 

The extreme north is arguably the most scenic part of Vietnam. A wall of mountains rises up as you approach the border with China. Historically impassable, the districts of Ha Giang, Meo Vac, Cao Bang are the most remote in the country – heaven for more intrepid travelers. The area is best explored by motorbike, but we can arrange private chauffeured tours through the mountains, with a typical loop taking 5-6 days.

Where to go in Vietnam
Red Dao Villagers, Ha Giang Province, Vietnam

Things to Do

Tribal Villages

The Vietnamese people include a whole rainbow of ethnicities and minorities tribes – with the vast majority of diversity found up here in the hills and valleys of northern Vietnam. 

Head north or west of Hanoi in any direction for a few hours and you’ll start to gain access to these intriguing ethnic villages, held amongst gorgeous rural scenery. The intricately curated rice fields and watercourses around Mai Chau and Pu Luong are the most accessible area to explore – typically warranting a two-night stay before looping back to Hanoi. 

Further north, the villages around Sapa and Lao Cai hold the widest variety of colorful tribal groups. Village treks are highly recommended, as are visits to one of the region’s fascinating weekly markets, which see ethnic groups come in from all over the hills to meet and trade.

What to do in Vietnam
Villager overlooking rice fields, Sapa

Things to Do

Hiking

The eye-popping scenery of the north, with its misty mountains and tumbling rice terraces, make for the best hiking in the country. 

Dedicated walkers should make a beeline for Sapa, where a full range of hikes and treks are on offer to suit all tastes. The scenery is most dramatic, and the hikes most challenging, in the extreme north around Ha Giang. 

Being in the city is no barrier to walking either, with walking tours of Hanoi’s Old Quarter one of our favorite things to do – and a perfect warm-up for exploring the city, and Vietnam as a whole.

Read more on Vietnam’s Natural Wonders
Heritage Line Ylang in Lan Ha Bay

Things to Do

Cruises

Cruises through Halong Bay and around the Cat Ba island group are the most famous in Vietnam. We strongly discourage day trips from Hanoi – you’ll spend just over half the day in transit and be taken only to the most densely touristed spots – with cruises of one night, or better two nights, our preferred option. 

We love the Heritage Line boats for their small cabin count, luxurious cabins, and high-end service. Itineraries are thoughtfully put together and endeavor to take you away from the bulk of the crowds.

Special mention should also go to Pandaw’s pioneering Red River Delta cruise, a 7-night itinerary starting and finishing in Hanoi which links up the capital, Ninh Binh, and Halong Bay, with alluring Delta scenery taken in along the way.

Saigon to Angkor Wat in Style - a luxurious Mekong Delta cruise
La Siesta Hang Be, Hanoi

Our Favorite Hotels

In Hanoi, we love the breathlessly atmospheric Sofitel Metropole and the stylish La Siesta Hang Be, both in prime position for street food and shopping in Hanoi’s buzzing Old Quarter. 

Up in Sapa, there are some good quality hotels in town, but for the best views we recommend the dramatically situated Topas Eco Lodge. Accommodation in the extreme north is largely basic and only for the most adventurous of travelers.

In rural north Vietnam we have a selection of favored lodges. In Pu Luong the Pu Luong Retreat is a favorite, similarly the Mai Chau Eco Lodge in Mai Chau. Down in Ninh Binh, the Tam Coc Garden is a boutique treasure. 

Where to stay in Vietnam
Temple and pagoda, Ninh Binh

Recommended Itineraries

The classic north Vietnam itinerary forms a triangle between capital Hanoi, Halong or Lan Ha Bay, and coming inland to Ninh Binh and Tam Coc. Each of these destinations is within a 3-4 hour drive of each other and offers a distinctly different experience from the last. 

A ‘square’ itinerary would also take in the village walks and rural bliss of Pu Luong or Mai Chau. Adding on the hill tribes of Sapa, with overnight journeys required there and back, and is an additional endeavor and usually results in dropping one of the other locations. 

An adventurous itinerary through the extreme north is a trip in itself, with loops from Hanoi up through Ba Be Lake, Meo Vac, Ha Giang, and Sapa taking a good 10-12 days. This itinerary is highly recommended for those of an adventurous nature taking their 2nd or 3rd visit to Vietnam, and really looking to get off the beaten track. 

Our Luxury Vietnam Tours

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