56. Exploring Vietnam’s Far North

Thoughts on planning a trip from Hanoi to the mountain resort town of Sapa, as well as the Perfume Pagoda and lovely Ninh Binh.

Morning sun breaks through the clouds in Sapa. (iStock photo by Sirichai Asawalapsakul)

Hanoi is not only Vietnam’s capital and second largest city. It is also the gateway for exploring the far north of this dragon-shaped country, where its highest peaks rise above 10,000 feet in the rugged Hoàng Liên Son mountain range.

I am planning to be here in February. The altitude and the latitude, 1,314 kilometers (817 miles) north of Saigon, are sufficient that I might expect a little winter snow. That would be a welcome occurrence for a former competitive skier who has experienced little but tropical temperatures for the past two years.

I’m not expecting to ski. I only hope I can find enough pre-dawn snowflakes in the resort center of Sapa (elevation 1,500 meters, or 4,921 feet) to toss a couple of snowballs. Sapa has become the tourism hub of the northern border area, a center both for outdoor recreation and for visiting the villages of numerous ethnic-minority tribes. Outfitters lead hiking, rafting, climbing, zip-lining and other adventures, and a cablecar spans a steep-sided valley to summit lofty Fansipan — for those not inspired to undertake the 19km (12-mile) hike.

The mighty Red River (Sông Hồng) flows from these heights. So does northern Vietnam’s other major stream, the Black River (Sông Đà), which joins the Red just above Hanoi on íts course through Haiphong to the Gulf of Tonkin. Rice is the dominant crop in these lowlands. Hills rise to the west along the long Laotian frontier; the climactic battle of the French colonial period took place at Điện Biên Phủ in May 1954, and that town remains a “must-visit” destination for history buffs.

The Perfume Pagoda is Vietnam’s leading site of Buddhist pilgrimage. (iStock phôt by heckepics)

The Perfume Pagoda

Now that I have (finally!) received my first Covid-19 vaccination, I can begin to confirm travel plans. After spending the better part of two weeks in Hanoi and stunning Ha Long Bay, I intend to travel west through Hoa Binh to Mai Châu. If my timing is right, I could be there during the annual Perfume Pagoda (Hương Sơn) Festival in mid-February.

The most revered site of Buddhist pilgrimage in Vietnam, Hương Sơn is a broad complex of temples and shrines built (beginning in 1686) in a range of karst hills that rise dramatically above picturesque rivers and rice fields. Its central temple nestles within a sacred limestone cavern that features 18th-century statues of the Buddha and Quan Âm. Tens of thousands of pilgrims annually climb a long set of stone steps to offer their prayers for the coming year.

I look forward to spending several nights at the Mai Châu Sol Bungalows, recommended by a friend as the lap of modest luxury in the heart of this stirring landscape.

Then I will continue to Điện Biên Phủ, where a museum, cemetery and various monuments commemorate the 57-day siege that put an end to Gallic control of Vietnam. But I won’t stay long. The mountains will be calling.

At 3,143 meters (10,311 feet), Fansipan is the highest peak in Vietnam. (iStock phôt by Vladyslav Danilin)

The roof of Vietnam

Travelers don’t come to Sapa to sit in town and gape at the summit of Fansipan (3,143 meters, or 10,311 feet) from a café terrace. The less intrepid may settle for a ride on the 6.3-kilometer (3.9-mile) cablecar to the gift shops on the mountaintop. I’ll be more interested in making the town a base for treks to nearby hill-tribe villages, home to such colorfully costumed ethnic minorities as the Tay, Hmong, Dzao, Nung and Thulao.

Depending upon the amount of time I want to spend in the highlands, I might also visit such destinations as the Bắc Hà market, where many of the area’s hill tribes gather every Sunday morning to sell their handicrafts. I may detour to Hà Giang province, where narrow roads through mountain passes challenge drivers but offer spectacular vistas of lakes and canyons framed by the Chinese border.

I’m keen as well to visit the mountains and dense rainforests of Ba Bể National Park, with its central lakes, grand waterfalls and ancient caverns. It sounds like a piece of paradise for a nature-lover such as myself, with 65 kinds of mammals (from bears and pangolins to primates and at least three different flying squirrels), 233 species of birds, dozens of reptiles and amphibians, and a great diversity of butterflies. Trekking routes wind through more than a dozen tribal hamlets.

Women of the Flower Hmong tribe gather at Bac Ha’s Sunday market. to sell their woven fabrics. (iStock photo by Nikada)

Fertile wetlands

A full day of train or bus travel links Hanoi with the communities of the far north. But before I turn my back on the Gulf of Tonkin region and begin traveling south again, I’ll want to tarry awhile in Ninh Binh, southwest of the capital.

The scenic wetlands of Tràng An have been occupied for more than 30,000 years, and UNESCO has given them World Heritage Site status. Tràng An is known for its cave temples accessible by boat tours, which begin near the 17th-century temples and pagodas of Hoa Lư, an ancient Vietnamese capital.

Also in the area is Cúc Phương National Park, an environmentalist’s dream with an even greater range of fauna and flora than Ba Bể. Declared as Vietnam’s first national park by Ho Chi Minh in 1962, its highlights include an Endangered Primate Rescue Center and a Turtle Conversation Center. It is also home to the Con Moong Cave, whose multiple soil layers have revaled human graves and tools from three diferent cultures dating back as far as 13,000 years.

In nearby Thanh Hóa is another UNESCO site, the Citadel of the Ho Dynasty. The design (in 1397) of the two riverside towers is said to demonstrate the influence of China’s Confucian philosophy in a traditionally Buddhist culture.

The town of Phát Diệm is known for its massive Roman Catholic cathedral, among Vietnam’s largest. Built of stone in 1891, in traditional Vietnamese style, it offers European-style neo-Gothic walls and a wooden interior, and was fully restored after a 1972 bombing. Graham Greene readers may recall a description of the church in The Quiet American.  

Rice fields wrap arround karst limestone hills in Ninh Binh province. (iStock phôt by photogilio)
Planted rice cascades down steep-sided terraces in Yen Bai Province near Sapa. (iStock photo by NanoStockk)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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