Vietnam is a wonderland of flora. With so much to see and do in this beautiful country, it can be daunting to decide where to hit and miss. The south of Vietnam has enough nature to satisfy the average travelers, but it’s in the north where us nature lovers really should spend the bulk of the visit. Below is a list and a brief description of what to expect from the top 7 nature-filled destinations in northern Vietnam.
Tam Coc for ancient caves and romantic boat rides
Just a two-hour bus ride south of Hanoi, Tam Coc is a peaceful getaway destination for local families, couples, and tourists. At its core, Tam Coc’s defining feature is its collection of lakes and rivers, ready to be explored via an unforgettable boat trip. When you’re not getting around on the water, the next best activity is hiring bicycles and getting lost in a playground of rice paddies, encircled by sloping karst mountains in the distance.
If you still haven’t had your fix of nature, then you can always hike up the nearby Mua Cave for one of the best viewpoints Vietnam has to offer. Aside from the amazing daytime attractions, Tam Coc has to offer, it caters to those wanting to wind down, whether that be partying aboard a karaoke disco bus, enjoying a massage, relaxing around a fire, or chilling in a hammock with a fresh falafel wrap.
Cat Ba Island for a cheaper Halong Bay experience
Cat Ba Island is often regarded as a more affordable alternative to Halong Bay. Its main selling point is their cheaper, but less-touristy boat trips. Cruises departing from Cat Ba are mostly 1-day experiences, leaving in the morning and returning the same day in the late afternoon. Expect tranquil journey meandering between floating karst mountains, stopping off at an island of monkeys and finishing off with a quick kayak in some caves.
Aside from the main event boat trip, Cat Ba Island has several other activities to sink your teeth into. Those with an appetite for nature may favour hiking in Cat Ba Island’s stunning national park, with the possibility of spotting the rare white-haired langur monkey. If the sound of Cat Ba Island is making you crave a visit, just hop on board the ferry and bus from Ninh Binh, or a quick 3 hour bus from Hanoi.
Halong Bay for Vietnam’s most stunning UNESCO attraction
Undoubtedly the number 1 attraction for international visitors to Vietnam, Halong Bay is a marvel of nature that you must capture a panoramic shot of. Endless emerald waters, with a scattering of sharp limestone karst mountains emerging from below.
Nothing beats a 2-day tranquil boat cruise, amongst the sloping mountains, snorkelling and kayaking throughout the caves and finishing the day with a seafood banquet and bottomless beer on the top deck of a wooden junk boat.
You can book tours to Halong Bay from one of the many tour shops around the Old Quarter in Hanoi. Opt for a party boat, or opt for a more luxurious boat. The choice is yours. The great thing though, is that there are many different tours to suit all budgets.
Sapa for rice paddies and Hmong tribes
Despite Sapa’s relatively remote location in the countryside, thanks to the tourist demand, there are now plentiful bus companies that run the route from Hanoi.
In the sleepy quiet town of Sapa, tourists venture here to witness the rolling hills, rice paddies and mountain summits. Your first port of call when visiting Sapa is climbing the 3,147 metre Fansipan Mountain. It may take approximately 3 days to climb to the top, but lucky for you there’s a Guinness World Record-holding cable car that can take you to the summit for 700,00 vnd ($30.22) round trip.
Surrounding the outside of the city, in all directions, live small village communities called Hmong. These tribes are friendly and welcoming and would love nothing more than to aid your sightseeing in their beautiful province. So make sure to arrange a trekking tour where you will encounter a different culture, amazing scenery, and local foods. Who knows what interesting facts you may learn along the way.
Pro tip: Be mindful of the time of year you visit, as you may or may not be greeted with thick snow, treacherous wet hiking weather, and gloomy fog.
Ha Giang Loop for an epic motorbike trip
Ha Giang is the most ethnically diverse provinces in Vietnam, with 23 identified minorities, speaking 13 different languages. Ha Giang is a world of its own demographically, culturally and geographically. Ha Giang is best experienced over 3 to 4 days via motorbike on what’s known as the Ha Giang Loop.
To start this adventurous trail, you will first need to travel from Hanoi to the town of Ha Giang. Once in Ha Giang travelers can rent motorbikes from their guesthouses. Culminating in a circuit of winding roads, steep inclines, isolated villages and panoramic scenery, the “loop” is an exhilarating adventure to experience.
Ba Vi National Park for stunning views and flowers
Ba Vi National Park is 60 Km west of Hanoi. A 2-hour motorbike ride at most from the hustle bustle city of Hanoi. It’s the perfect romantic day trip or relaxing family weekend city escape. As you enter the grounds of Ba Vi, it’s a slow inclined drive throughout, making several pit stops for photo ops and quirky attraction until reaching the highest point. If you’re feeling energetic, you can climb the countless steps to the Mountain God shrine up amongst the trees.
Watch out on the road. Locals love to pull up on the side, to grab photos of the colourful flowers that line the road. Visiting Ba Vi in the winter months would be a wasted journey in our opinion. Ba Vi is best experienced on a clear summer’s day when the roads are dry and the flowers are in bloom.
Pro tip: You can rent a motorbike from one of the tourist shops in Hanoi. 1-day motorbike rental costs around 150,000 ($6.48) per day.
Mai Chau for the endless rice paddies
With so much to see and do in Vietnam, Mai Chau is often overlooked by tourists, in favour of more popular destinations like Halong Bay and Ninh Binh for example. However, Mai Chau’s beauty is totally worth the 4 hour journey from Hanoi.
Despite its unfamiliarity on the holiday circuit, it has some unmissable and unique offerings. Mai Chau’s main selling point is her scenery. Layers of shiny green rice fields spanning way out into the distance. Surrounding the fields in all directions are huge megalithic mountains. It’s the most perfect setting for an afternoon bicycle ride around the villages, watching the sun begin to set behind the hills, the shimmer of light reflecting in the water, dodging chickens on the path, waving to the curious local children screaming “hello” as you pass by.
There are several popular options for day trips outside of the idyllic tourist complex. Either you can hire a motorbike and drive there yourself, hire a driver or go as part of a small tour. 14 Kilometres north of Mai Chau is a waterfall popular with both tourists and locals. If it’s a hot summers day, expect to see plenty of people spending the day here, pick-nick in tow.
Alternately, if you wish to venture further from Mai Chau, there is an amazing opportunity to visit one of Vietnam’s mountainous tribes. The Hmong people are located in Pà Cò, a village located 30 kilometres north-west of Mai Chau, going towards Moc Chau. Their ancestry traces them back to southern China, which makes for some worldly customs and traditions to behold.
On your upcoming trip to Vietnam, be mindful of how long you have and what you what to accomplish on your visit. There are so many natural wonders to discover in North Vietnam alone and it’s going to be difficult deciding between these 7 amazing nature spots. From the rice terraces of Mai Chai to the crystal blue waters of Halong Bay, there is something for everyone.