The north is a mountainous region punctuated by limestone peaks and luscious valleys of terraced paddy fields, tea plantations, stilt houses and water hyacinth-quilted rivers. Large cones and towers, some with vertical walls and overhangs, rise dramatically from the flat alluvial plains. This landscape, dotted with bamboo thickets, is one of the most evocative in Vietnam; its hazy images seem to linger deep in the collective Vietnamese psyche and perhaps symbolize a sort of primeval Garden of Eden.
Sapa, in the far northwest, is a former French hill station, home of the Hmong and set in a stunning valley, carpeted with Alpines flowers. It is a popular center for trekking. Scattered around are market towns and villages populated by Vietnam’s ethnic minorities such as the Black Hmong, Red Dao, Flower Hmong, Phu La, Dao Tuyen, La Chi and Tay – the latter being Vietnam’s largest ethnic minority.
Nor is the region without wider significance; the course of world history was altered at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954 when the Vietnamese defeated the French. In 2004 a vast bronze statue commemorating the victory was erected; it towers over the town. Closer to Hanoi is Hoa Binh where villages of the Muong and Dao can be seen and the beautiful Mai Chau Valley, home to the Black and White Thai whose attractive houses nestle amid the verdant paddies of the hills
Welcome to the roof of Vietnam, where the mountains of the Tonkinese Alps (Hoang Lien Mountains) soar skyward, their long shadows concealing some of the country’s best-kept secrets. The landscape is a rich palette that provides some of the most spectacular scenery in Vietnam. Forbidding and unforgiving terrain for lowlanders, the mountains have long been a haven for an eclectic mix of hill tribes. Dressed in elaborate costumes, the Montagnards live as they have for generations and extend the hand of friendship to strangers; an encounter with the Montagnards is both a humbling and heart-warming experience.
For many visitors, Sapa is the northwest, an atmospheric old hill station set amid stunning scenes of near-vertical rice terraces and towering peaks. But beyond Sapa the voluptuous views continue, and there are many other options to come face to face with the bold landscapes and colourful inhabitants of this region – Bac Ha, Dien Bien Phu and Mai Chau. For the ultimate motorbike adventure head to Ha Giang, the final frontier in northern Vietnam.
Although many of the roads in this region are surfaced, many are dangerous cliffhangers that are regularly wiped out by landslides in the wet season. The stretch from Lai Chau into Sapa offers some of the best mountain vistas in Southeast Asia, as the road climbs more than 1000m over the Tram Ton Pass. The northwestern roads are always improving, but if you suffer from vertigo, backache or (God forbid) haemorrhoids, you might want to stick to the shorter trips. The northwest loop from Hanoi, via Dien Bien Phu and Sapa, is a gruelling but definitive road trip to discover the secrets of the region.