Bordering China, and surrounded by the Tonkinese Alps, Sapa is the gateway to Vietnam’s north highlands, which promise sublime alpine scenery, crisp air, and a total contrast to Vietnam’s chaotic cities. Reached from Hanoi by train, the Sapa hill-station and surrounding regions offer an almost parallel universe to the rest of Vietnam, retaining many of their ethnic traditions even in the presence of French colonialism.
Although Sapa is by far the most touristy part of the North Highlands, a holiday here provides an introduction to the unique and colourfully dressed hill-tribes, and gives active people the chance to hike and mountain bike amidst the most spectacular of mountain scenery.
At a lower altitude than Sapa, the mountain setting at Bac Ha is not as spectacular as the former, but as a result it’s much less touristy and visitors can encounter the hill-tribes here in a more authentic and less harried fashion on their holiday.
Bac Ha is particularly famous for its vibrant Sunday market, which forms a major part of the many hill tribes’ daily life – not only to sell their crafts, but to socialise, and meet potential suitors. Alongside the Phula, Black Dao, Tay, and Nung people, the Flower H’Mong is the most colourful of the tribes, and it is their villagers who trickle down the hills for the market: dressed in their near-fluorescent woven clothes to sell traditional medicines, hand-made dolls, fabrics, and foods.
Ha Giang is one of the most breathtaking enclaves of the North Highlands, encircled by theatrical mountain range, cascading rice terraces, and mountain paths that snake their way along the dizzying passes. As for the unique H’mong communities who live here, they offer a real Shangri-La for travellers seeking an authentic Vietnamese holiday: steadfastly rejecting tourism, modern day industry, and the frenetic pace of life found elsewhere in Vietnam.
Suspended up in the clouds, the fairy-tale esque landscape of Ha Giang has very few visitors and is in no way geared up for tourists. Instead holidays in Ha Giang should be as unobtrusive as possible: visiting the weathered Chinese-style villages, where the men drink home-brewed corn whisky, and the women sell warm slices of bean curd. Trekking further, to the 400 million year old Dong Van plateau, travellers will find that the mysterious H’mong beliefs (including tales of fairies) permeate the giant cone-shaped rocks, caves, and sink-holes that pepper the landscape.
Ba Be Lake
150 m above sea-level in Vietnam’s highlands, the Ba Be Lakes National Park resembles a Chinese water-colour painting: awash with towering limestone mountains, dense forest, grottoes – and the tranquil lakes themselves where the silence is broken only by the splash of dipping kingfishers.
A holiday in the Ba Be Lakes National Park is a real breath of fresh air from the frantic cities. Here visitors will have the chance to kayak through the Hang Puong cave which tunnels right the way through the mountains and is home to over 700 bats; trek to the Thac Dau Dang waterfall, with its spectacular cascades, and generally imbibe the mythology of the lakes as bestowed upon them by the tribal Tay communities (many people do home-stays with the Tay for an authentic taste of minority life).