From the sparsely populated mountains where Vietnam fans out along the Chinese border down to the Red River Delta, the cradle of Vietnamese civilization, Northern Vietnam is known for its cooler temperatures with four distinct seasons, complex and meat-heavy cuisine, and a conservative refinement embodied by its gentle people.
The capital of Vietnam for the better part of the last thousand years, Hanoi has been called the “Paris of the East”, a nod to its many pale yellow French colonial buildings, tree-lined boulevards and charming city lakes, making many of its historic areas excellent for exploring by foot or by pedal-powered cyclo. A true Hanoian experience is sitting down to a steaming bowl of “pho”, Vietnam’s national dish, and a velvety drip coffee along its colorful Old Quarter streets named after 36 wares once sold there ranging from silk to china to silver.
Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, Halong Bay is a collection of over 1,600 mostly uninhabited islands and islets located 165km (102mi) east of Hanoi. Literally “Where the dragon descends into the sea” in Vietnamese, Halong Bay’s regal limestone pillars rise from its emerald waters in breathtaking formations. Some of the islands are hollow and house mystical cave systems and sea lakes, just begging to be explored by kayak or swimming. Scenic cruises are the best way to explore this spectacular seascape complemented by rich biodiversity.
Close to the border with China and tucked into the shadow of majestic Mount Fansipan lies the charming town of Sapa. Visiting the small town with its colorful ethnic market and French colonial-era stone church is like stepping back into the Indochina of yesteryear. More impressive however, are the terraced rice fields and stunning scenery of the nearby Muong Hoa Valley and surrounds, ideal for hiking and trekking. Sapa is also home to several ethnic minorities including the friendly Hmong, Dzao and Tay hill tribes who still practice ancient customs such as terrace farming, batik and weaving.
Located less than 100km (60mi) south of Hanoi in the Red River Delta lies beautiful Ninh Binh Province. History buffs will appreciate a visit to the citadels of Hoa Lu, Vietnam’s ancient capital in the 10th and 11th centuries, whereas nature lovers will relish a trip to Cuc Phuong National Park along with its Endangered Primate Rescue Center and scenic Tam Coc (“Three Caves”). Nicknamed “Halong Bay on Land”, Tam Coc is a segment of the Ngo Dong River where karst towers rise from the water bordered by impossibly green fields of rice, ideally explored by rowboat or bicycle.