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From Phở to Paddy

Our colleagues in Vietnam have long waxed lyrical about the dramatic scenery, unspoilt natural beauty and traditional cultures of the country’s remote northern regions. They speak so enthusiastically about Mu Cang Chai in the north west, and far-northern Ha Giang nestled up against the Chinese border, that they instantly became areas we wanted to explore.

In order to get the most out of visiting Mu Cang Chai and Ha Giang you’ll need to set aside at good few nights in each, and to take in both we’d recommend a week or more. Add in some dedicated time exploring Sapa, and a couple of nights to experience the contrasting urban edges of Hanoi, and you’ll get a full-flavoured feast of Vietnam’s beautiful north.

Vietnamese hills
Vietnamese farmer
Ha Giang
Vietnam rural scenes
Vietnamese hills
Woman eating noodles
Hanoi vespa
Hanoi Vespa Tours
Food market Hanoi

We love the thrill that comes from getting even a little way off the well-trodden routes, and in ever-popular Vietnam it’s areas like Mu Cang Chai and Ha Giang that offer the best opportunities to do that. Although gradually starting to open up to more visitors, their remote locations and journey-intense routes set natural limits, meaning that the rewards of these areas are still the preserve of the intrepid few. As with so many things in travel - and, indeed, in life - the more you put into this experience, the more you’ll get out.

It’s important to be prepared for long journeys and simple accommodation, although the roads and hotels in these areas are improving all the time. Our destination specialists will discuss how best to fit these extraordinary destinations into your tailor-made itinerary, and in the meantime here are a few more ideas to get you thinking about the shape of your trip…

The rewards of the less-trodden path…

So, exactly what are these rewards for leaving the comfortable, well-worn travel trail? Well, for starters, there’s the truly spectacular scenery - arguably some of Vietnam’s finest. Imagine high clouds, undulating horizons, rice terraces clinging precariously to the hillsides, jagged limestone peaks, and rivers snaking through valleys below. Every stop is likely to provide a humdinger of a view. In your mind’s eye, dot that perfectly-imagined landscape with the traditional villages of some of Vietnam’s 54 different minority communities. You’re likely to encounter members of the Hmong, Thai and Pa Then communities, amongst others, each having their own unique culture, customs, and traditional dress. 

In Ha Giang, wander through the weekly markets, where traders from the surrounding communities gather to sell everything from livestock to embroidery, and locals come to barter, gossip and enjoy the ambience. These aren’t in any way tourist-centric, but are an essential, and sociable, part of life in these remote regions. Vietnam's far north is perfect for keen walkers and trekkers, too, with plenty of routes to choose from, depending on how energetic (or not) you might be feeling. Navigate your way through this beautiful landscape and get closer to the lives of the people who inhabit it.

Misty mountains & stunning scenery

Drive over the Hoang Lien Son Pass from Mu Cang Chai, reaching altitudes of 5,250 ft, to reach the area around the mountain town of Sapa. This stunning region of mountains and rice terraces is home to several minority communities including Black H’mong, Tay and Xa Pho, and is just a short distance from Fansipan: Vietnam’s highest peak. Sapa has been connected by railway to Hanoi since 1906, and as Vietnam opened up to the world it became one of the most popular stops for visitors to the country. Its popularity has been reinforced by the recent opening of the expressway from Hanoi, and the cable car taking visitors to the summit of Fansipan.

Our top suggestion for avoiding the crowds is to stay at a duo of rustic lodges in the Sapa Valley: one set in a small riverside village, the other high on a hillside overlooking yet more picture-perfect scenery. Learn about the surrounding landscape from those whose families have lived in the area for generations; gain an insight into the local lifestyles, traditional remedies and herbal medicines; and watch local artisans weaving, embroidering, and creating elaborate silver jewellery.

And don’t ‘pho’get Hanoi...

Whether heading onwards by car or taking an overnight train, you’re almost certain to begin your trip exploring the lively streets of the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. This vibrant city shows a side to Vietnam that seems very far from the serene, traditional, and undeniably tough, day-to-day life of the rural north. Hanoi has a rich history to explore, from the Old Quarter that branches off from the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake, to the Temple of Literature , the grandiose French Quarter, and the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. 

As Hanoi continues to transform itself into a cutting-edge capital and cultural hub, its history is being combined with a fresh energy. It’s exhilarating to feel part of, even for a moment. After a few days of enjoying simple fare in the north, we’d enthusiastically recommend that you devote some time to tasting everything that Hanoi has to offer. From the region’s famed (and supremely comforting) phở noodle soup, banh cuon rice rolls and banh goi meat pastries, to contemporary and innovative Asian fusion masterpieces, our guides will show you the city’s very best street food specialities. Alternatively, you can treat yourself to dinner in a more luxurious setting; the city is your oyster!

A note on cost…

The guide price of £2,190US$2,490 is a per person price (not including international flights) staying 2 nights in Mu Cang Chai with a total of 4 nights in Ha Giang staying at different lodges and basic hotels typical of the region. Combine this with a total of 3 nights close to - but not in- Sapa, allowing for an excellent trekking programme. You will also be well served by adding a couple of nights in Hanoi at each end, so 4 in total. We can easily build these northern off-the-beaten-track adventures into a far more complete Vietnam itinerary.

How yours looks is up to you, our tailor-made specialists work with you to create your perfect journey.

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