If you want to get away from it all, this land of cinematic green mountains, cascading rice terraces, and hospitable hill tribes is the place for you. Undeveloped and staggeringly beautiful, northern Vietnam makes a refreshing contrast to modern life. On this 10-day guided road trip, you'll set off from Hanoi and venture anticlockwise through verdant valleys and highlands threaded by homely guesthouses.


  • Ride a boat through the lush landscape of Ba Be National Park
  • Visit the idyllic Ban Gioc Waterfall, Southeast Asia's biggest falls
  • Hike to the Heaven Gate viewpoint at the edge of the Himalaya
  • Browse Bac Ha, Vietnam's biggest ethnic-minority market 

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Hanoi, Transfer to Ba Be National Park Ba Be District
Day 2 Explore Ba Be National Park Ba Be District
Day 3 Transfer to Cao Bang Province Cao Bang
Day 4 Morning Tour of Ban Gioc Falls, Transfer to Bao Lac Bao Lac
Day 5 Transfer to Dong Van Dong Van, Ha Giang
Day 6 Transfer to Quan Ba District Quan Ba, Ha Giang
Day 7 Transfer to Hoang Su Phi District Hoang Su Phi, Ha Giang
Day 8 Hike from Hoang Su Phi to Heaven Gate Hoang Su Phi, Ha Giang
Day 9 Transfer to Bac Ha Bac Ha, Lao Cai
Day 10 Visit the Bac Ha Market, Return to Hanoi & Depart  
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Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Hanoi, Transfer to Ba Be National Park

Ba Bể National Park
Journey into the unspoiled highlands of Ba Be National Park

Welcome to Vietnam! Upon arrival in the nation's capital of Hanoi, you'll meet your driver-guide and set off for the country's far northwest. Your destination is Ba Be National Park, a protected area of 56,834 acres (23,000 ha). The park is centered around Ba Be Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Vietnam.

Along the way, you'll stop at a tea plantation for a tour and lunch and continue by car to your guesthouse. This region features many ethnic-minority communities, including your hosts' ethnicity—the Tày people, whose ancestors were master hunters. Stretch your legs with a short walk around the village, and cool off with a swim in the lake (the water is clean and safe). But the best part of the day is still to come: a motorbike ride about 9 miles (15 km) outside the village to see one of the region's many caves. Head back in time for dinner, and catch up with the locals before bed.

Day 2: Explore Ba Be National Park

Ba Bể National Park
Spot wildlife and birds on a boat tour of Ba Be National Park

Wake up to birds chirping and throw open your curtains to the incredible landscape of Ba Be National Park. This region is known for its lowland evergreen forests, limestone mountains, lakes, rivers, and caves—an ecosystem home to hundreds of bird, reptile, and mammal species.

After breakfast, you'll get a sense of the full scope of this protected land on a boat tour of Ba Be Lake and its surrounding rivers. The excursion includes a visit to a large cave occupied by chattering bats, plus a stop at a romantic waterfall. Enjoy a picnic lunch near the falls before hopping on the boat and returning to Ba Be Lake. Here you can take another refreshing dip before hiking through fertile green valleys until you reach your homestay.

Day 3: Transfer to Cao Bang Province

Cao Bằng Province
A patchwork of rice fields in the Cao Bang Province

Bid farewell to your hosts this morning and hop in the car for the drive to Cao Bang Province, located in the country's northeast corner near the Chinese border. Surrounded by forested peaks, this is one of the most beautiful regions in Vietnam, so settle in and enjoy the drive! The drive lasts about three hours, and along the way, you'll stop at a house in the village of Phia Thap. Here you'll meet locals of the Nung ethnic minority and learn traditional crafting techniques, such as how to make your own incense.

You'll then enjoy a fresh lunch and continue driving to the Trung Khanh district of Cao Bang. Your guide will show you Nguom Ngao, a massive cave system created by an underground river stretching for miles. After touring the cave, you'll check in to a homestay and enjoy dinner while getting to know your host.

Day 4: Morning Tour of Ban Gioc Falls, Transfer to Bao Lac

Ban Gioc Falls
Boat around the base of the spectacular Ban Gioc Falls

Wake up early to make the most of the mesmerizing Ban Gioc Waterfall, the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia—essentially, Asia's answer to Niagara Falls. This massive cascade, 98 feet (30 m) high and 984 feet (300 m) wide, comprises two waterfall systems straddling the border of Vietnam and China. Getting there early will allow you to enjoy the beauty of the falls without the crowds.

After time to relax and go boating at the waterfall's base, you'll drive back to Cao Bang for lunch. Then it's another couple of hours on the road to Bao Lac, a district in the western part of Cao Bang. Welcome to another jewel in Vietnam's crown: a vivid green shade renders the mountains and rice terraces that are carved into the slopes. You'll arrive in the late afternoon and check in to a guesthouse, where you can enjoy the sunset over a meal.

Day 5: Transfer to Dong Van

The Nho Que River winds through the slopes of Ma Pi Leng

After breakfast at a local restaurant, hit the road for the 3.5-hour drive east to Dong Van Province. The drive will be broken up with stops at rural villages, where you'll get to meet several distinct hill tribes. Pause for lunch in the town of Meo Vac, along a scenic road hugged by karst mountains. The outdoor market here is the area's greatest expression of the rich culture of the hill tribes. It's the perfect place to pull up a stool at a soup vendor and slurp noodles with locals.

Then you'll continue on the last leg of the day's trip, for the most show-stopping scenery of the day. The route crosses the Ma Pi Leng mountain pass on the Dong Van Plateau. During the drive, you'll be treated to views of the Pi Leng peak above you and the jade waters of the Nho Que River below. Your guide will let you out of the car at the best vantage points—epic photos guaranteed. Eventually, you'll arrive in Dong Van and settle into your accommodation.

Day 6: Transfer to Quan Ba District

Stop in the Tam Sơn area and visit Vuong Palace
Make a stop in the lush Tam Son area on today's drive

Start your day with a coffee in Dong Van, then it's onward bound for about three hours to the Quan Ba District. En route, stop in the Tam Son area to visit Vuong Palace. French colonialists built this two-story mansion in the 1920s to honor the king of the local Hmong ethnic people. So, the architecture of green stone, pine wood, peat, and terracotta, represents a mixed cultural style. Then, the journey continues through limestone mountains, green valleys, and bucolic villages.

Stop for lunch in the village of Lung, where there's a local hemp industry to discover. Hemp textiles are popular in this region, as several hill tribes favor hemp clothing. After meeting a few of the residents and visiting a hemp shop, you'll continue on to the cool and misty region of Quan Ba. Upon arrival, you'll check in to a guesthouse, enjoy dinner, and rest up for the next day.

Day 7: Transfer to Hoang Su Phi District

The terraced rice paddies of Hoàng Su Phì
Admire the rolling rice terraces of Hoang Su Phi

After breakfast at a local restaurant, resume the road trip and head to Hoang Su Phi District, known for its sweeping rice terraces. These terraced paddies are carved into the mountainside and gleam golden or bright green, depending on the season. With the rice fields undulating as far as the eye can see, it's like something out of a surrealist painting.

The drive follows a southwest route that takes about four hours, but you'll stop for lunch in Ha Giang town. It's an idyllic spot in a green valley surrounded by looming karst mountains. After lunch, you'll hit the road again for the last leg of the trip to Hoang Su Phi. Upon arrival in the village, your guide will take you to their favorite vantage points to snap photos of the surrounding rice paddies. Enjoy dinner at your local homestay and chill out for the rest of the night.

Day 8: Hike from Hoang Su Phi to Heaven Gate

Heaven Gate
Sunshine over the panoramic viewpoint of Heaven Gate

It's time to get out and explore the mountains on foot on a five-to-six-hour hike through Hoang Su Phi to the village of Suoi Thau. Despite being close to the popular mountain resort town of Sapa, Suoi Thau is virtually untouched by tourism, and most of its residents are comprised of the Dao ethnic group. The village also lies beside the largest and most impressive terraced rice field in the Hoang Su Phi District, which you'll see on the hike.

After a break in Suoi Thau, the trek continues through a setting of streams, waterfalls, bamboo forests—and more paddies, of course—until finally, you reach Heaven Gate. You'll soon see how this spot earned its name: this awe-inspiring viewpoint looks out to Tram Ton Pass, the highest mountain pass in Vietnam at 6,233 feet (1,900 m). It runs around the north side of Mount Fansipan, part of the Hoang Liên Sơn mountain range (the eastern edge of the Himalaya).

You'll then break for lunch in the home of a family belonging to the Man Ta Pan ethnic group. Afterward, you'll head to your homestay, run by a family of Dao ethnicity. 

Day 9: Transfer to Bac Ha

Highland locals at the Bac Ha Sunday market

Enjoy a freshly prepared breakfast in your homestay before a brisk walk around the village to chat with locals and tour the rice paddies. Then, set off in the car three hours west to Bac Ha, in Lao Cai Province. This otherwise tranquil village comes alive once a week during its Sunday market, the largest ethnic-minority market in Vietnam. More than a marketplace, it's also a social gathering for the various minorities living in the remote highlands.

When you arrive in Bac Ha, you'll stretch your legs on another short hike. It's an excellent opportunity to meet the locals and snap some wide shots of the expansive rice terraces. You'll then continue the drive to Bac Ha and check in to your homestay.

But the day isn't over yet. With your guide, you'll visit the nearby commune of Ban Phung, home to the La Chi ethnic people. They pride themselves on their traditional dress, which they make from cotton grown themselves. The outfits are embroidered with intricate patterns and usually dyed indigo. This hand-sewn clothing is so detailed that a single outfit can take months to complete. Afterward, you'll return to Bac Ha and can explore the town before dinner.

Day 10: Visit the Bac Ha Market, Return to Hanoi & Depart

Clothing vendor at Bắc Hà Market
A clothing vendor at Bac Ha Market

There's another chance to experience the Sunday market today, depending on when your trip falls. Or, if your travel itinerary doesn't place you in Bac Ha on a Sunday, there are other nearby markets to explore. Stock up on handcrafted souvenirs to remember your time in this dreamy part of Vietnam.

With convivial local culture fresh in your heart, it's time to say goodbye. You'll hop in a car for the six-hour drive to Hanoi, where you'll transfer to the airport and catch your flight home. Safe travels!

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Map of Off the Beaten Path in Northern Vietnam - 10 Days
Map of Off the Beaten Path in Northern Vietnam - 10 Days