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Northern Vietnam in Depth

22 days, 21 nights 

Introduction

The true colour of the northern Vietnam accented by trips to local markets, remote villages not quite caught up the technological age, war vestiges of Dien Bien Phu, treks, visits to hill tribe communities, rides along mountainous terrain amid the clouds and gentle relaxing time along lakes combine to give you a full exposure to the varied beauty of remote northern Vietnam.  A concluding voyage amid the limestone islands of Ha Long Bay caps off a fantastic expedition sure to be an enduring memory.  As with all our trips, the schedule can be reversed or modified as you wish.


Brief  Itinerary

Day 1: Hanoi - Mai Chau - Short trek
Day 2: Mai Chau - Moc Chau - Son La - Visit Son La town
Day 3: Son La - Pha Din Pass - Dien Bien Phu - Visit Dien Bien Phu Relic
Day 4: Pa Khoang Lake - Drive to Lao/Vietnamese border – Visit the centre market
Walking Leaves northern Vietnam
Day 5: Dien Bien Phu - Muong Lay - Visit Le Loi historical relic - Muong Te
Day 6:  Muong Te - Paso - Boat ride
Day 7: Paso - Lai Chau - Tam Duong - Sapa - Topas Eco-Lodge
Day 8:
Ban Ho Valley Trek to Tay and Red Dao minority’s villages
Day 9:
Topas Eco-Lodge - Sa Pa market - Heaven’s Gate - Than Uyen - Mu Cang Chai
Day 10:
Mu Cang Chai - Nghia Lo Market - Thac Ba Lake
Day 11:
Thac Ba Lake - Bac Ha - Short walk to Ban Pho Village of Flower Hmong and Tay minority
Day 12:
Bac Ha - Xin Man - Ha Giang - Visit the minority and Ho Chi Minh museum
Day 13:
Ha Giang - Dong Van - Visit to the Vuong Palace - Meo Vac
Day 14:
Meo Vac - Bac Me - Bao Lac
Day 15:
Bao Lac - Tinh Tuc - Pac Po Cave - Uncle Ho Museum - Cao Bang
Day 16:
Ban Gioc Waterfall - Stop at giant irrigation water-wheels - Visit Cao Bang town
Day 17:
Cao Bang - Cho Ra - Ba Be National Park/Ba Be Lake
Day 18: Boat trip in
Ba Be Lake
Day 19:
Ba Be National Park - Cho Ra - That Khe - Dong Dang - Lang Son
Day 20:
Lang Son - Nhi Thanh-Tam Thanh Caves and Mac Dynasty Citadel - Van Don Island
Day 21: Van Don - Boat to visit the remote outlying island - boat to Ha Long Bay
Day 22: Ha Long - Hanoi


Day to Day Itinerary


Day 1: Hanoi - Mai Chau - Short trek

Your guide and driver will pick you up at your hotel at 09:00 and we are headed off on our 21 day trip around the north of Vietnam.  Our destination today is the Mai Chau valley where we will overnight in a traditional Thai Stilt House but modern amenities are available. Upon arrival we will take a walking tour through the rice fields and enjoy a little peace and quiet compared to Hanoi.  Dinner tonight is at the home we stay in.


Accommodation: Traditional Thai Minority Stilt House
Transit: 3 hours drive
Walking time: 3 hours
Walking difficulty: Easy
Meal plan: L/D


Day 2: Mai Chau - Moc Chau - Son La - Visit Son La town

After breakfast we continue north to Son La and have plenty of time to stop along the way for photos of the brilliant landscape.   Along the way we visit Moc Chau, a highland town which produces some of Vietnam’s best tea and milk products.  Upon our arrival in Son La, we check in to our hotel and have lunch.  After lunch we will tour the old French Prison and learn about the history of the area.  We then will explore the local market and mingle with different minorities and maybe find some handicrafts of interest. 


Accommodation: Guesthouse or Hotel from our list
Transit: 4 - 5 hours drive
Walking time: 2 hours
Walking difficulty: Easy
Meal plan: B/L/D


Day 3: Son La - Pha Din Pass - Dien Bien Phu - Visit Dien Bien Phu Relic

We will try to get an early start and continue north driving over some impressive mountain passes with fantastic views on our way to Dien Bien Phu.  The Pha Din Pass is definitely a photo stop before we descend to Tuan Giao town.  Upon arrival in Dien Bien Phu, we’ll begin our tour of this valley city with a visit to the battlefields that shaped modern Vietnam.  We’ll start with the bunkers used by the French, Bunker Headquarters and A1 Hill where bitter fighting took place.  We then visit the Dien Bien Phu Museum for an overview and relics of the battlefield.

Black Thai women in Dien Bien Phu

Accommodation: Guesthouse or Hotel from our list
Transit: 4 - 5 hours drive
Walking time: 2 hours
Walking difficulty: Easy
Meal plan: B/L/D

 

Day 4: Pa Khoang Lake - Drive to Lao/Vietnamese border - Visit the centre market

In the morning, we will go to Pa Khoang Lake, slightly east of town.  There is an excellent one hour boat ride and we can visit the bunker of General Giap, the most recognized soldier in Vietnam.  A remote Thai village is near to the lake and we’ll take time to see it as well.

After lunch we’ll take a scenic drive between Dien Bien Phu and the Tay Trang international border crossing to Laos.  Vast rice fields line the road until the ascent up the surrounding hills and we’ll take time to find a few good vantage points for taking photos.  We return to Dien Bien Phu and take a short walk to visit the centre market

Accommodation: Guesthouse or Hotel from our list
Transit: 4 hours drive
Walking time: 2 hours
Walking difficulty: Easy
Meal plan: B/L/D


Day 5: Dien Bien Phu - Muong Lay - Visit Le Loi historical relic - Muong Te

 Note - Maps of this area unless printed after 2007 are inaccurate, all major towns between Dien Bien Phu and Sa Pa have been renamed after the provinces were redrawn.

We depart early and drive north along Highway 12.  We’ll stop a few kilometers outside of Muong Lay (Old name Lai Chau) and have a vantage point of the valley soon to be flooded by the Son La Dam Project that will provide green energy to Vietnam.

We continue to Muong Te, one of Vietnam’s remote outposts.  About 8 km after turning off the main road, we stop at a historical relic: an ancient poem carved in a stone in 15th century by Emperor Le Loi who had succeeded in expelling Chinese from the region.  We will also encounter tiny villages along the ride.  We’ll be returning via the same road the next day so noting the kilometer markers where you would like to stop and take photos on the return trip is advisable.  Muong Te is not developed for tourism like other places in Vietnam and is one of the more simple places not quite caught up to the technological age.  If you are lucky to get there on Sunday, a very colorful market full of ethnic minorities such as Lahu, Si La and Ha Nhi can be seen.


Accommodation: Guesthouse or Hotel from our list
Transit: 5.5 hours
Walking time: limited
Walking difficulty: Easy
Meal plan: B/L/D


Day 6:  Muong Te - Paso - Boat ride

 We leave Muong Te along the same road we traveled the day before and if you have photo stops you saw on the previous day, we’ll take time on the way.  We continue to Paso, a town you may not find on your maps, and upon arrival we’ll enjoy lunch by the Nam Na River.  We then take the afternoon by boat down the river and see local life and the truly remote aspect of life in the northwest of Vietnam.  We return to the hotel before sunset.


Accommodation: Guesthouse or Hotel from our list
Transit: 4 hours
Walking time: limited
Walking difficulty: Easy
Meal plan: B - L


Day 7: Paso - Lai Chau - Tam Duong - Sapa - Topas Eco-Lodge

Topas Eco Lodge Vietnam - stunning viewDeparting Paso, we are starting on one of the most beautiful drives in all of Vietnam.  Our destination is the Topas Eco-Lodge, 20 km south of Sapa, again it might not be on your map!  Along the drive we will pass many different minority villages and see a vast rainbow of colours from the minority dress.  Black Hmoung, Black Thai, Black Dao, Lu People, and Giay minority dot the landscape.  We’ll leave the main road after Lai Chau and take in some parts of the north not seen by many. 

We’ll have lunch in Tam Duong (old Binh Lu) and our ascent up to the highest road pass in Vietnam, Tram Ton Pass/Heaven Gate, begins.  The beauty of the climb will force us to take several stops for photos and depending on the time of year, there will be a fine layer of fog at the pass.  We continue down the other side and pass thru Sapa town on our way to the Eco Lodge.  Upon arrival at the Eco Lodge you can take a rest on your bungalow’s balcony - for those with vertigo, maybe not! 


Accommodation: Guesthouse or Hotel from our list
Transit: 4 - 5 hours drive depending on photo stops!
Walking time: limited
Walking difficulty: Easy
Meal plan: B/L/D


Day 8: Ban Ho Valley Trek to Tay and Red Dao minority’s villages

You will travel by car to Su Pan from where you will commence your walk downhill through the breathtaking scenery. On the way you will pass through the Tay Minority village of Ban Ho village where you will be able to see the stunning views of the valley and rice paddy terraces. You will have the opportunity to explore the Ban Ho village of Tay minority before crossing the suspension bridge over the river, where your guide will prepare a delicious lunch in a local house.

 

The walk then continues through the rice fields to the Red Dao village of Nam Toong, where you will enjoy a cup of tea before heading back to Ban Ho to take a nice swim in the river nearby. You will then take the walk uphill to Su Pan. Here you return to the lodge by car.

Accommodation: Guesthouse or Hotel from our list
Transit: 30 minutes driving
Trekking time: 4 + hours
Trekking difficulty: Moderate
Meal plan: B/L/D


Day 9: Topas Eco-Lodge - Sa Pa market - Heaven’s Gate - Than Uyen - Mu Cang Chai

Departing early from the Eco-Lodge, we make a short stop in Sapa town to visit the daily market and see Sapa Marketmany minorities in daily shopping mode.  We take time for you to search for handicrafts and buy directly from the maker!  There is a fair chance a local Hmong girl will befriend you and inquire in perfect English about you and what you are doing, as well as try to sell you some souvenirs.  We are going back over Heaven’s Gate (Tram Ton) mountain pass and along the way we stop at Silver Waterfall.  We are taking the same road twice since it is so beautiful and we want to give you another chance to see the beauty of it in case the previous day was cloudy or fogged out.

 
We’ll have a picnic lunch on the road to Than Uyen and when we pass thru the town, will stop and visit the daily market for comparison to the Sapa market.  We continue on to Mu Cang Chai, a very small town on the Black River and tonight we’ll stay in a traditional home stay or simple guesthouse.  It’s not really on the tour plans of most companies and not listed in most guidebooks but we know its charm and remoteness are special.


Accommodation: Guesthouse or Hotel from our list
Transit: 4.5 hours driving
Walking time: limited
Walking difficulty: Easy
Meal plan: B/L/D


Day 10: Mu Cang Chai - Nghia Lo Market - Thac Ba Lake

Today we are again going on the road less traveled and filled with stunning scenery of mountain sides layered with rice terraces and amazing vistas.  We snake along this mountainous road and stop for lunch in Nghia Lo.  We will take some time as well to visit the local market, famous for silks and intricate embroidery. 

 

From here we follow over a smaller but still beautiful passes before coming to flatland again and heading east to Thac Ba Lake.  We will pass through Yen Bai City but not stop, we’re not on the road for cities and unfortunately we can’t bypass it.  We’ll be at a home stay tonight again at the southern end of Thac Ba Lake and enjoy a second night away from bright lights and get back to basics.  There are few home stays here and if we are not able to book one in advance, there are simple and descent hotels in the area around the lake.


Accommodation: Home stay
Transit: 4.5 hours driving
Walking time: limited
Walking difficulty: Easy
Meal plan: B/L/D


Day 11: Thac Ba Lake - Bac Ha - Short walk to Ban Pho Village of Flower Hmong and Tay minority

Flower Hmong breakfast

We turn north today with Bac Ha as our destination.  Weekly minority markets happen on Saturday and Sunday in this area and if we are arriving on one of these days we’ll make every effort to see as much as possible of the event.  If not, there are many other attractions in the area.  Upon arrival in Bac Ha, we’ll have lunch and check into the hotel and freshen up.  After lunch in Bac Ha, we take a short walk to Ban Pho Village (Flower Hmong/Tay minority) for a look at village life.  The rest of the afternoon is free time and this is the first day in many we are somewhere with internet or you can take the time to update your trip journal.



Accommodation: Guesthouse or Hotel from our list
Transit: 5 hours driving
Walking time: 1 -2 hours
Walking difficulty: Easy
Meal plan: B/L/D


Day 12: Bac Ha - Xin Man - Ha Giang - Visit the minority and Ho Chi Minh museum

Today we turn east.  We’ll depart after breakfast and drive north for a while and then off your map and over a small mountain range and descend into Xin Man.  Again, stunning vistas of massive mountainsides covered with rice terraces dot the landscape.  We are off the beaten path again today and will get curious looks from the minorities here!  Our goal today is to arrive in Ha Giang before 13:30 to get a permit to travel to Meo Vac.  Upon arrival at the hotel, your guide will apply for the permits and you can visit the minority/Ho Chi Minh museum located on the banks of the Lo River. Ha Giang is located at kilometer marker 0 on Highway 1 and this is Vietnam’s longest road traversing the country over 2000 km to the deep south of the country.


Accommodation: Guesthouse or Hotel from our list
Transit: 5 +/- hours driving
Walking time: limited
Walking difficulty: Easy
Meal plan: B/L/D


Day 13: Ha Giang - Dong Van - Visit to the Vuong’ Palace - Meo Vac

After breakfast, we head toward the most remote part of the north.  Northern Ha Giang Province has some of the most picturesque and varied scenery.  Our drive will take us over high passes and we can view deep valleys along the entire journey.  We’ll stop along the way at The Vuong Palace, the beauty of Chinese-style architecture.  This was the seat of government for the Hmong during the first Indochina war.Young minority girl near Ha Giang Province  We continue on to the town of Dong Van, a small outpost, but won’t be disappointing as it the starting point to a wildly scenic road, one of the top 5 of Vietnam.

The road is only 22 km long but most of it has been simply cut into the side of a cliff face.  Below, the Nho Quy river flows and above, the towering cliff rises to the clouds, a truly beautiful gorge below is completes one of the most spectacular natural sights in the country. Take your time and soak it up, as this is one journey to savor!


Accommodation: Guesthouse or Hotel from our list
Transit: 5 hours driving
Walking time: 1 -2 hours
Walking difficulty: Easy
Meal plan: B/L/D


Day 14: Meo Vac - Bac Me - Bao Lac

Today we drive on one of the most remote roads in Vietnam from Meo Vac to Bao Lac via Bac Me. You may encounter various minorities along the ride.  Besides stunning mountain scenery, the minorities dressed in colorful and unique costumes make the trip more interesting. Our simple lunch will be served along the road and we spend the night in a simple local guesthouse in Bao Lac.


Accommodation: Guesthouse or Hotel from our list
Transit: 5 hours driving
Walking time: limited
Walking difficulty: Easy
Meal plan: B/L/D


Day 15: Bao Lac - Tinh Tuc - Pac Po Cave - Uncle Ho Museum - Cao Bang

Following breakfast, we continue to Cao Bang following the least traveled road. Arriving at lunch time, you check into your hotel and have lunch in a local restaurant.

After lunch, we drive northwest of Cao Bang to visit Pac Po Cave.  Here, Ho Chi Minh re-entered Vietnam ready to lead the revolution after living abroad.  It is a lovely, quiet spot and undeveloped.  At the entrance to the cave, there is an Uncle Ho Museum to visit.  We then return Cao Bang for the night. Cao Bang is high above sea level and has pleasant climate.  We spend two nights in Cao Bang as the area attractions can be seen in one day and further travel completed.

Accommodation: Guesthouse or Hotel from our list
Transit: 5 hours driving
Walking time: 2 hours
Walking difficulty: Easy
Meal plan: B/L/D


Day 16: Ban Gioc Waterfall - Stop at giant irrigation water-wheels - Visit Cao Bang town

Today, we drive to Ban Gioc Waterfall, a very scenic spot directly on the border with China.  Half the pleasure of the visit to Vietnam’s largest waterfall is walking across rice paddy fields to reach the base of the falls.  On the way back, we may have time to stop at several giant irrigation water - wheels that lies along the road overlooking villages.

We return Cao Bang and stretch your legs with a walk to the market nearby. We make a climb to the War Memorial with an overview of the town.


Accommodation: Guesthouse or Hotel from our list
Transit: 4 hours driving
Walking time: 2 hours
Walking difficulty: Easy
Meal plan: B/L/D


Day 17: Cao Bang - Cho Ra - Ba Be National Park/Ba Be Lake

Today we leave for Bac Kan Province and our destination is Ba Be Nation Park. We’ll stop at Cho Ra, the tiny town locates as a gateway to the park.  From here the 18 km road becomes narrow and runs along the lake.  The road is shaded by large trees and limestone mountains with some spectacular views over the lake. 

We arrive at the park in early afternoon and stay overnight at a lakeside stilt house.  You have free time to relax until dinner and have a wander.  The park is a tropical-rainforest area with over 550 identified plant species, 300 or so wildlife species that include rare mammals, birds, butterflies and insects. Hunting is forbidden, but villagers are permitted to fish.


Accommodation: Lakeside stilt house
Transit: 3 - 4 hours driving
Walking time:  limited
Walking difficulty: Easy
Meal plan: B/L/D

 


Day 18: Boat trip in Ba Be Lake

 We spend the whole day exploring the lake. The boat trip is combined with trekking to a Tay village.  The boat takes us to Dau Dang Waterfall, a series of spectacular cascades between sheer rock walls.  Puong Cave is also visited and we enter the cave on one side of a small mountain and exit on the other side, making an interesting cruise.  We journey by Widow Island and hear about the legend of this tiny islet in the middle of the lake.

 The day trip is very pleasant.  Enjoy yourself!


Accommodation: Stilt house
Transit: 5 -6 hours by boat
Walking time: 1 - 2 hours
Walking difficulty: Easy
Meal plan: B/L/D


Day 19: Ba Be National Park - Cho Ra - That Khe - Dong Dang - Lang Son

We enjoy fresh morning air in the park and then return to Cho Ra. From here we drive southeast on a secondary road. The road is narrow passing undeveloped rural area as you will see by where we have lunch along the way.

We arrive in Lang Son, check into your hotel and stretch the legs by taking a walk to the market for a look.  Lang Son was partially destroyed in February 1979 by invading Chinese forces.  On the way to Lang Son, we stop at Dong Dang to have a look at the ruins of town and the devastated frontier village.  The town was rebuilt and little remains of the Chinese incursion but the memory still lingers with the older residents.


Accommodation: Guesthouse or Hotel from our list
Transit: 4 - 5 hours by car
Walking time: limited
Walking difficulty: Easy
Meal plan: B/L/D


Day 20: Lang Son - Nhi Thanh-Tam Thanh Caves and Mac Dynasty Citadel - Van Don Island

 In the morning, we are off to visit some interesting sites around Lang Son.  Close to Lang Son, there are a couple of impressive caves, Nhi Thanh and Tam Thanh Caves, deep in the surrounding limestone hills.  We then continue to Mac Dynasty Citadel, a lovely remote spot with stunning views across the countryside.  We return to town for lunch.

 In the afternoon, we depart for Van Don Island. Van Don is the largest and most populated island of Bai Tu Long Bay.  The bay is as enchanting as its famous neighbour and in some way it is even more beautiful as it is not visited by many tourists. We spend the night in Van Don Island.  Just offshore there are stunning rock formations similar to those in Ha Long Bay.  If we are lucky, the fishing fleet rigged for squid will set sail after sunset, truly a unique and bright site!


Accommodation: Guesthouse or Hotel from our list
Transit: 4 – 5 hours by car
Walking time: 1 hour
Walking difficulty: Easy
Meal plan: B/L/D

Day 21: Van Don - Boat to visit the remote outlying island - transfer to Ha Long

 After breakfast, we get on a boat at Cai Rong pier to visit the remote outlying island.  We try to take you to less visited areas as possible as we have done in the northern mountains!  We then return to Van Don for a late lunch before taking the short drive to Ha Long.

 On arrival in Ha Long, we embark again on the junk where we spend the night in the Ha Long Bay. The cruise passes various rock formations until sunset. You will then have dinner on board while watching sunset.  Should you feel like taking another swim, there will plenty of time.


Accommodation: Junk from our list Peaceful Ha Long Bay
Transit: 2 hour by car
Meal plan: B/L/D


Day 22: Ha Long – Hanoi

You enjoy breakfast in the fresh air morning and serenity of the bay and the junk will continue its way among thousands of islets. You will then cruise through several beautiful views of Teapot Island, Chopstick Island, Horse Saddle and even Charles De Gaulle Island. You may wish for a swim before your lunch is served. The Junk will disembark Ha Long wharf at noon, where your bus is waiting to transfer you back to Hanoi. You will arrive in Hanoi about 16.00.

On arrival in Hanoi, we have an end of trip drink at a local Bia hoi!  Farewells are made and we hope you enjoyed the trip as much as we did when we first went on it!

Accommodation: Guesthouse or Hotel from our list
Transit: 2 hours by car or minivan
Drink: not included
Meal plan: B/L


Our trip includes

  • English speaking guide
  • Accommodation as indicated
  • Meals as indicated
  • Transportation by car or minivan with air condition
  • Tour as indicated
  • Entrance fee

 

Our trip excludes

  • Domestic and international flights
  • Visa & visa arrangement
  • Meals not indicated
  • Drinking water, soft drink and alcohol
  • Tips & personal expenses

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