A trip to northern Vietnam is like returning to a bygone age before the encroachment of modern life. The region is comprised of highland mountains, terraced rice fields, serene lakes, cascading waterfalls, and tranquil rivers. These scenic landscapes are the perfect backdrop for an extended road trip and cultural exchange with the hill tribespeople in local villages, which is just what you'll do over 10 unforgettable days.

Highlights

  • Visit Ba Bể National Park, home to Vietnam's largest freshwater lake
  • Tour Nguom Ngao, a massive, miles-long underground cave
  • Marvel at the romantic Ban Gioc Waterfall
  • Hike amid terraced rice fields near Sapa
  • Go shopping in Bắc Hà, the largest ethnic-minority market in Vietnam

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Hanoi & Drive to Ba Bể National Park Ba Be district
Day 2 Explore Ba Bể National Park Ba Be district
Day 3 Drive from Ba Bể to Cao Bằng Province Cao Bang
Day 4 Morning Tour of Ban Gioc Falls, Drive to Bảo Lạc Bao Lac
Day 5 Drive from Bảo Lạc to Đồng Văn Đồng Văn, Hà Giang
Day 6 Drive from Đồng Văn to Quản Bạ District Quản Bạ, Hà Giang
Day 7 Drive from Quản Bạ to Hoàng Su Phì District Hoang Su Phi, Ha Giang
Day 8 Hike from Hoàng Su Phì to Heaven Gate Hoang Su Phi, Ha Giang
Day 9 Drive from Hoàng Su Phì to Bắc Hà Bac Ha, Lao Cai
Day 10 Visit the Bắc Hà Market, Transfer to Hanoi & Depart Hanoi

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Hanoi & Drive to Ba Bể National Park

Ba Bể National Park
Ba Bể National Park

Welcome to Vietnam! Upon arrival in the nation's capital of Hanoi, you'll hop in a vehicle for the drive to the far northwest of the country. Your destination is Ba Bể National Park, a large protected area that covers 56,834 acres (23,000 hectares). The park is centered around Ba Bể Lake, which is the largest freshwater lake in Vietnam. 

Along the way, you'll stop at a rural tea plantation for a leisurely tour and delicious local lunch. You'll then hop back in the car and continue to Ba Bể, arriving about 2 pm. This region is full of country villages populated by Vietnamese ethnic minorities and you'll overnight in one such commune, which is home to the Tay people.

Upon arrival, you'll check into a traditional guesthouse and stretch your legs with a short walk around the park and maybe some swimming. Then you'll cap the day with a bicycle or motorbike ride about nine miles (15 km) outside the village to see one of the region's many caves. Afterward, you'll return to the village for dinner and a chat with locals before bedtime.

Day 2: Explore Ba Bể National Park

Ba Bể National Park
Ba Bể National Park

Wake up to birds chirping amiid the incredible landscapes of Ba Bể National Park. This area 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 area by taking a tour of Ba Bể Lake and surrounding rivers. The excursion includes a visit to a large cave occupied by different species of bats plus a stop at a romantic waterfall. Enjoy a picnic lunch near the falls before hopping on the boat and traveling back to Ba Bể Lake. Here you can take a refreshing swim before hitting the trails and hiking through fertile green valleys between villages until you reach your homestay.

Day 3: Drive from Ba Bể to Cao Bằng Province

Cao Bằng Province
Cao Bằng Province

Bid farewell to your host this morning and hop in a car for the drive from the Ba Bể District to Cao Bằng Province, which is located in northeast Vietnam towards the border with China. 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 some traditional crafting techniques, such as how to make incense by hand. 

You'll then enjoy a freshly prepared lunch and continue driving to the Trung Khanh area of Cao Bằng Province. Here you'll visit Nguom Ngao, a massive cave system created by an underground river that stretches for miles. In the late afternoon, after touring the cave, you'll check in to a local homestay and enjoy dinner while getting to know your host.

Day 4: Morning Tour of Ban Gioc Falls & Drive to Bảo Lạc

Ban Gioc Falls
Ban Gioc Falls

Wake up early and head to Ban Gioc Waterfall, one of the highlights of the Cao Bằng region as well as the country. This massive cascade is actually comprised of two waterfall systems fed by the Quây Sơn River and which are located at the border between China and Vietnam. Getting there early allows you to enjoy the beauty of the falls without the crowds. 

After touring the waterfall you'll hop in the car and drive to the town of Cao Bằng, where you'll have lunch. Then it's another couple of hours on the road to Bảo Lạc, a rural district in the western part of the Cao Bằng region. You'll arrive at Bao Lac in the late afternoon and check in to a local guesthouse where you can relax until dinner.

Day 5: Drive from Bảo Lạc to Đồng Văn

The stunning Ma Pi Leng mountain pass
The stunning Ma Pi Leng mountain pass

After breakfast at a local restaurant in Bảo Lạc, you'll hit the road for the 3-4-hour drive east to Đồng Văn Province. It's a long trip, but you'll break up the drive with stops in rural villages to stretch your legs and meet members of various hill tribes. You'll also stop for lunch in Meo Vac, a town on the scenic road to Đồng Văn and which is hugged by towering karst mountains. The town is home to many different ethnic minorities, and the large 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, which happens to be the most scenic. The route crosses the Ma Pi Leng mountain pass on the Đồng Văn Plateau. During the drive, you'll be treated to views of the Pi Leng peak above you and the jade waters of the Nho Quế River below. You can stop at various points and your guide will show you the best vantage points to take the most epic photos. Eventually, you'll arrive in Đồng Văn and will transfer to your accommodation. You can then head out and explore the town on your own.

Day 6: Drive from Đồng Văn to Quản Bạ District

Stop in the Tam Sơn area and visit Vuong Palace
Stop in the Tam Sơn area and visit Vuong Palace

Start your day with a cup of coffee in the town of Đồng Văn. At the appropriate time, you'll hop in the car and drive to the Quản Bạ District. The trip takes around three hours and you'll stop in the Tam Sơn area to visit Vuong Palace. This two-story mansion was built by the French colonialists in the 1920s to honor the local king of the Hmong ethnic people. After the palace, the scenic ride continues amid more stunning limestone mountains, green valleys, and bucolic villages.

For lunch, stop off at a local village and enjoy some street food. Should you choose, afterward you can browse a local hemp shop. Hemp textiles are popular in this region, as members of the various hill tribes make their clothing out of them. You can see this firsthand by visiting the nearby commune of the Lung people, where you'll meet some residents. Then it will be time to continue the drive to Quản Bạ. Upon arrival, you'll check in to a local guesthouse, enjoy dinner, and, rest up for the next day.

Day 7: Drive from Quản Bạ to Hoàng Su Phì District

The terraced rice paddies of Hoàng Su Phì
The terraced rice paddies of Hoàng Su Phì

After breakfast at a local restaurant, you'll continue the road trip to Hoàng Su Phì District, an area known for its rice fields. These terraced rice paddies are carved into mountains and shine golden or bright green depending on the season. The views of such landscapes are nothing short of breathtaking and 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 Hà Giang town. Enjoy the scenery, as this postcard village is nestled in a green valley surrounded by towering karst mountains. After lunch, you'll hit the road again for the last leg of the trip to Hoàng Su Phì. Upon arrival in the village, your guide will take you to some great vantage points to snap photos of the surrounding rice paddies. Enjoy dinner at your local homestay.

Day 8: Hike from Hoàng Su Phì to Heaven Gate

Heaven Gate
Heaven Gate

Today, you'll embark on a 5- to 6-hour hike through the Hoàng Su Phì countryside 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. Moreover, the village is located adjacent to the largest and most impressive terraced rice field in the Hoàng Su Phì District, which you'll see on the hike. 

After a break in Suoi Thau, the trek continues. On the route, you'll pass streams, waterfalls, bamboo forests, and more rice paddies before reaching Heaven Gate. This epic viewpoint overlooks Tram Ton Pass, which runs around the north side of Mt. Fansipan. At 6,233 feet (1,900 m) above sea level, this is the highest mountain pass in Vietnam. At Heaven Gate, you'll stop to snap photos and enjoy the views of the surrounding Hoàng Liên Sơn mountain range, which is part of the eastern Himalaya Mountains.

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, which is run by a Dao family. Here you'll have dinner and overnight.

Day 9: Drive from Hoàng Su Phì to Bắc Hà

Sunday market in Bắc Hà

In the morning, you'll enjoy a freshly-prepared breakfast in your homestay. After a brisk walk around the village to chat with locals and tour the surrounding rice paddies, you'll hop in the car and depart Hoàng Su Phì on a three-hour drive west to Bắc Hà. Located in Lào Cai Province, this otherwise tranquil village comes alive once a week during its Sunday market, which is the largest ethnic-minority market in the region. 

When you arrive in Bắc Hà, you'll stretch your legs on another short hike. It's a good opportunity to meet the locals and take some wide shots of the expansive rice terraces. After that, you'll continue the drive to Bắc Hà and check in to your homestay.

But the day isn't over yet. With your tour 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. They create outfits embroidered with intricate patterns and dye them indigo blue. This hand-sewn clothing is so detailed that a single outfit can take months to complete. Afterward, you'll return to Bắc Hà and can explore the town before dinner.

Day 10: Visit the Bắc Hà Market, Transfer to Hanoi & Depart

Clothing vendor at Bắc Hà Market
Clothing vendor at Bắc Hà Market

Today you'll get to visit the highlight of Bắc Hà: its massive Sunday market. More than a marketplace, it's also a social gathering for the various ethnic minorities living in these remote highland villages. Here they meet up, swap stories, and enjoy a few drinks while trading their goods. All in all, it's a lively and colorful atmosphere.

Of course, there's the chance your travel itinerary won't put you in Bắc Hà on a Sunday, in which case there are other nearby markets. Regardless, after experiencing some convivial local culture, you'll hop in a car for the six-hour drive to Hanoi. Upon arrival, you'll transfer to the airport and catch your flight home.

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