Vietnam offers excellent trekking and less strenuous walks. The scenery is often remarkable – think plunging highland valleys, tiers of rice paddies and soaring limestone mountains. Northern Vietnam is your best hiking bet: its dramatic mountain paths and fascinating minority culture are a huge draw. Elsewhere, national parks and nature reserves have established trails.
Established as a hill station by the French in 1922, Sapa today is the tourism centre of the northwest. Sapa is oriented to make the most of the spectacular views emerging on clear days; it overlooks a plunging valley, with mountains towering above on all sides. Views of this epic scenery are often subdued by thick mist rolling across the peaks, but even when it’s cloudy, local hill-tribe people fill the town with colour.
If you were expecting a quaint alpine town, recalibrate your expectations. Modern tourism development has mushroomed haphazardly. Thanks to rarely enforced building-height restrictions, Sapa’s skyline is continually thrusting upwards.
But you’re not here to hang out in town. This is northern Vietnam’s premier trekking base, from where hikers launch themselves into a surrounding countryside of cascading rice terraces and tiny hill-tribe villages that seem a world apart. Once you’ve stepped out into the lush fields, you’ll understand the Sapa area’s real charm.
Sleepy Bac Ha wakes up for the riot of colour and commerce that is its Sunday market, when the lanes fill to choking point and villagers flock in from the hills and valleys. Once the barter, buy and sell is done and the day-tripper tourist buses from Sapa have left, the town rolls over and goes back to bed for the rest of the week.
Despite being surrounded by countryside just as lush and interesting as Sapa, Bac Ha has somehow flown under the radar as a trekking base so far. In town, woodsmoke fills the morning air, the main street is completely bereft of hawkers, and chickens and pigs snuffle for scraps in the back lanes where a small clutch of traditional adobe houses valiantly clings on in the age of concrete.
Set in an idyllic valley, hemmed in by hills, the Mai Chau area is a world away from Hanoi’s hustle. The small town of Mai Chau itself is unappealing, but just outside the patchwork of rice fields rolls out, speckled by tiny Thai villages where visitors doss down for the night in traditional stilt houses and wake up to a rural soundtrack defined by gurgling irrigation streams and birdsong.
The villagers are mostly White Thai, distantly related to tribes in Thailand, Laos and China. Most no longer wear traditional dress, but the Thai women are masterful weavers producing plenty of traditional-style textiles. Locals do not employ strong-arm sales tactics here: polite bargaining is the norm.
Due to its popularity, some find the Mai Chau tour group experience too sanitised. If you’re looking for hard-core exploration, this is not the place, but for biking, hiking and relaxation, calm Mai Chau fits the bill nicely.
Ba Be National Park
Often referred to as the Ba Be Lakes, Ba Be National Park was established in 1992 as Vietnam’s eighth national park. The scenery here swoops from towering 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 (mostly rarely seen) 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.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
Designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 2003, the remarkable Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park contains the oldest karst mountains in Asia, formed approximately 400 million years ago. Riddled with hundreds of cave systems – many of extraordinary scale and length – and spectacular underground rivers, Phong Nha is a speleologists’ heaven on earth.
The Phong Nha region is changing fast. Son Trach village (population 3000) is the main centre, with an ATM, a growing range of accommodation and eating options, and improving transport links with other parts of central Vietnam.
The caves are the region’s absolute highlights, but the above-ground attractions of forest trekking, the area’s war history, and rural mountain biking means it deserves a stay of around three days.
Lonely Planet | Wanderlust Tips | Cinet