Hanoi, despite offering travelers wonderful insight to Vietnamese culture and many, many things to explore, is often only used as a base from which to travel to the surrounding provinces and cities. This is understandable, as northern Vietnam offers a diverse range of unbeatable scenery and cultural attractions.
From breathtaking bays, calm beaches and chaotic markets to jungles of endemic wildlife, stunning rice terraces dotted with hill tribe villages, mysterious caves, majestic waterfalls and mountains that reach the sky, this region of the country is not to be missed. So which places make a great getaway from the city chaos?
Cruise through the islands of Halong Bay
Halong Bay (translation: The Bay of Descending Dragons) is the quintessential must-visit place in Vietnam and attracts more tourists than any other city in the country. It’s a mere 170 kilometers east of the capital city, making it a perfect weekend getaway. The name refers to how the silhouettes of the 1,600 or so limestone karsts jutting out of the emerald sea looks like many dragons descending into the water. Legend says that these dragons have protected Vietnam from foreign invasions in the past.
There are plenty of things to see and do in Halong Bay, the most popular of which is to take an overnight cruise. These cruises are tailored to different types of travelers and various budgets. You can find cheap day trips that allow you to enjoy a buffet, sunbathe on the deck, and canoe for a few minutes around some islets.
Others are longer, more expensive and offer a lot more activities than what is mentioned above, including fishing, swimming, snorkeling, chilling on a beach, visiting national parks, dinners under the starry night sky and parties that last until dawn. With longer cruises, you will also be able to avoid the crowds and explore more distant islands.
If a cruise ship is not your thing, you can even choose to do a seaplane tour over the bay. Getting a beautiful bird’s-eye view of the whole bay is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and being a part of that view is also an extremely special experience.
A trekking adventure in Sapa
While Halong Bay is the most popular tourist destination in the northeast of Vietnam, Sapa has called dibs on that title for the northwest region. Not only is Sapa the premier trekking base of the country, attracting trekkers from all around the world, but also houses the tallest mountain of Vietnam, Mt. Fansipan, which stands tall at 3,143 meters. From up there on the roof of Indochina, all you see is a bed of clouds.
Sapa is famous for its rugged mountainous scenery, valleys in between mountain ranges, and it’s unique tribal culture. The region, especially Muong Hoa Valley, is rich in opportunities for treks and exploration. If that’s not your thing, do not worry, Sapa caters towards your style of travel as well. You can still summit Mt. Fansipan, by the way of a cable car system and train.
Beyond that and just exploring the town and the main part of Muong Hoa Valley, what you can do is book yourself a remote hotel located somewhere in the mountains that offers panoramic views of the region. Wake up every day, enjoy a cup of Vietnamese coffee along with the views, go for a herbal bath and massage, and just allow your mind some peace and quiet, away from the stress of your daily life.
Getting to Sapa from Hanoi is a fairly easy 8 hour journey, depending on the mode of transport you opt for. You can take the overnight train which is a very comfortable experience, and your other options beyond driving a motorbike yourself is to hire a private transfer or take a bus. Many companies offer this route so you aren’t short for rides.
Exploring tribal culture in Mai Chau
Mai Chau is a little closer than Sapa (only 4 hours away by bus or car), and offers an almost similar landscape. The district welcomes you with lush greenery, mountain after mountain, and stilt-house villages. The vibrant culture is a melting pot of seven distinct ethnic groups: The H’Mong, Zao, Muong, Hoa, Viet, White Thai and the Tay.
Mai Chau Valley has some serious draws for adventure seekers. Going on trekking and cycling tours, exploring remote parts of the countryside, kayaking over peaceful lakes and getting close with the villagers are some of the most popular activities to do here.
You can also explore a little bit of the underground. Mu Luong Cave, Chieu Cave and Pieng Kem Cave boast marvelous formations of stalactites and stalagmites. Ban Lac village and Pom Coong village are great places to crash over for the night but do not expect any fancy accommodation. Here you can also book your tours.
On the way to Mai Chau you can stop at Moc Chau, a region enriched with green tea hills and waterfalls. The vast tea plantations that cover an area of about 3,000 hectares seem endless, reaching the horizon. There are also several cattle farms and flower fields, all of which together are bound to color your experience.
Row through mysterious caves in Ninh Binh
Ninh Binh may only be 2 hours away from Hanoi, but it seems a world apart when you get there. Compared to Hanoi’s traffic congested streets and bustling districts, Ninh Binh is the complete opposite! Karst mountains surrounding vast rice paddy fields, sprawling rivers, dark caves, and many sites of historical significance to explore, Ninh Binh offers you yet another weekend packed with adventure and relaxation.
Places you must visit for nature are Tam Coc, Trang An and Cuc Phuong National Park. For a little bit of history, check out Hoa Lu Ancient City that once served as the seat of power for ruling dynasties. You can also visit Bich Dong Pagoda, a series of temples built into a cave and Hang Mua Peak that offers panoramic views of the region.
All these spots mentioned in this article are very easily accessible and you will not be wasting too much time on the road, giving you a whole weekend to explore. However, if you do have longer than a weekend to spare, then we recommend you extend your stay!