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Traveling through Northern Vietnam is unlike crisscrossing the rest of the country. With natural beauty behind every bend, the cities in the north, with one notable exception, are more like gateways to the wild than standalone urban centers. They all have their own charm, yet it’s what lies beyond that sets them apart. These are our five favorites.
The seat of government and the cultural and historical capital of Vietnam, Hanoi hides remnants of the past down every boulevard and alleyway. The city is perhaps the largest and best preserved piece of history Vietnam has to offer. Those visiting will most likely be centered around the winding narrow streets of the Old Quarter. It’s a district made up of ancient shops and storefronts dating back more than 1000 years.
Whole days can be spent exploring the streets of the city and effort should be made to visit as many treasures of the past as possible. These include Hoan Kiem Lake and its tortoise tower, Tran Quoc Pagoda, the colonial era Sofitel Metropole Hotel, the opera house, the Temple of Literature and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. The city is renowned for water puppetry and a night should be spent on the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater.
Located in the distant and mountainous northwest, Lao Cai sits on the intersection of the Red and Nanxi Rivers just across from the Chinese border. Those spending any time in the city will be based either around the banks of the Red River or by the backpacker-heavy neighborhood near the train station. A night should be spent exploring the bars and restaurants in the glow of neon lights reflecting on the river. Like many other Vietnamese cities, Karaoke is wildly popular in Lao Cai and there are dozens of clubs running late into the night located near the backpacker area.
The majority of travelers who find themselves in Lao Cai are stopping through on their way to see nature. The city is less than an hour away on a motorbike from the rice terraces of Sapa, the Tam Tron Pass which is Vietnam’s loftiest road, and the towering peak of Mount Fansipan which is Vietnam’s tallest mountain.
Near to Lao Cai, yet wholly dominated by the tourist industry, the mountain town of Sapa is a nice option for those seeking western comforts in the midst of their Vietnamese adventure. The city has a number of western bars and restaurants and is a mainstay of the northern backpacker trail. Hundreds of affordable hostels, guesthouses and hotels line the winding streets.
The city is also a jumping off point for countless treks and hikes that traverse along peaked ridges, through mountainside rice terraces and into minority villages. The region is home to a number of ethnic minorities, including the Hmong, Dao, Pho Lu and Tay, and the hillsides are dotted in the vibrant mix of their colorful clothing.
Cao Bang is the capital of the similarly named province, located in the northeast of Vietnam. It’s a common stopping point for those riding east from Ha Giang or north from Hanoi. The city of little more than 100,000 climbs from the banks of the Bang Giang River and most of the shops, restaurants and bars are located on the main streets nearby. A number of great food stalls line the back end of the city’s central market, Cho Xanh. The sprawling, fun shopping center should be visited by any travelers passing through.
Most individuals traveling to the region will use Cao Bang to visit any number of nearby natural attractions. The stunning Ban Gioc Falls break through jungled walls just two hours to the north and mythical Hai Giang lies several hours west.
Ha Giang is the capital of what is arguably the most beautiful province in all of Vietnam. This was an area once left alone, that has since seen a recent spike in visitors. The city is bordered by picturesque limestone juts framing the horizon in all directions. A number of great hotels sit on either side of the Lo River. Seafood restaurants can be found nearby as well. For those looking to rent a motorbike to explore the nearby Dong Van Karst Plateau, Ha Giang is the place to do it. Most hostels and hotels will be able to set this up and the cost should never be more than seven or eight USD per day.