Town of Sapa, highland Vietnam

Nestled in the valleys around Mount Fan Si Pan, at 3,143m (10,311feet) Vietnam’s tallest peak, lie a cluster of picturesque villages centred around the town of Sapa, a former French hill station, and its surrounding scenery is the focus of many beautiful and often reproduced images of its characteristic hillside rice terraces.

Landscape of Sapa, northern Vietnam 

Aside from the magnificent views, cool climate and climbing the mountain through the surrounding Hoang Lien Son Nature Reserve, visitors flock to this area to experience the colours, cultures and local markets of the many diverse ethnic ‘hill tribes’ that inhabit the region.

Each ethnic group has its own distinctive traditions and costumes, preserved intact for centuries, and the varying customs of these minorities differ significantly from mainstream Vietnamese life.

Mount Fansipan, northern Vietnam

With no nearby airport, Sapa is most usually reached from the town of Lao Cai, close to the Chinese border, via the overnight sleeper train from Hanoi. 

Many H’mong minority villages are close enough to Sapa to make for a pleasant and insightful highland stroll, including Sin Chai and Cat Cat together with its waterfall. To get a closer look at the lifestyles of other ethnic groups, such as Dao, Tay and Giay, a longer trek, motorcycle taxi or guided tour will take you to the more distant villages. For deeper encounters with the local cultures, highly rewarding homestays with local families can also be arranged.

Further afield, but still visitable in a day trip, is the town of Bac Ha and its surrounding villages, which likewise offer a chance to see more of the region's ethnic groups, most notably the Flower H’mong, who visit the local market at Bac Ha to sell their produce on Sundays. A little further north, the markets at Can Cau, Muong Khuong, Ban Cam, Lun Khao Nhin and Cao Son are less frequently visited by tourists, and provide for a more authentic encounter with local traditions. 


Travelling northeast of Lao Cai, the town of Ha Giang is the gateway for exploration into the dramatic terrain bordering southern China, especially the area known as Dong Van Karst Plateau, a shapely upland area of outstanding geological significance and a UNESCO global Geopark.

The park comprises the four districts of Meo Vac, Dong Van, Yen Minh and Quan Ba, which collectively teem with unusual geological features reflecting significant insights into the geomorphic processes at work in creation of the Earth’s crust.

The area is a rich source of fossils dating from around five hundred million years ago and evidence of human habitation dates to the Bronze Age. There are several ethnic groups who flourish in the mountainous terrain, growing rice, tea, colourful flowers and vegetables for sale in the local markets along with their brocade weaving.

The remoteness of Ha Giang ensures that the region is one of the least touristy places in northern Vietnam, and the experience of encounters with the wide mix of ethnic cultures that prevail in the area are far more authentic than in those surrounding the more developed Sapa.

Ma Pi Leng Pass, Quan Ba Pass, Twin Mountain and ‘Heaven’s gate’ are the scenic highlights of the spectacular rugged landscape.


Also in the northern mountains, to the southeast of Ha Giang, Vietnam's largest natural freshwater lake, Ho Ba Be, is the centrepiece of Ba Be National Park. The most popular attractions are visiting its caves and waterfalls, and boat excursions along the seven kilometre lake to view the beautiful forested slopes, islets and limestone cliffs, which harbour a rich diversity of animal and plant life, including bears, tigers and langurs.

Further northeast of Ba Be, at the Chinese border, the magnificent Ban Gioc waterfall is another splendid sight to behold in this area of Vietnam.

Lovely Ban Gioc waterfall, Vietnam




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