From the leafy streets of Hanoi to the mystical sparkle of Halong Bay, Northern Vietnam is home to a veritable range of treasures enough to seduce visitors from all over the world. Cultural differences in the North remain strong; northern cities exude a lingering hint of its authoritarian past than their Southern counterparts, but this does not detract from their traditional charm. The cooler climes of the region also offer a pleasant reprieve from the sticky humidity of the South, particularly during the cool season from November to March.
Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, is often the jumping-off point for tourists exploring the Northern end of the country. The rich aroma of roasting coffee from French cafés intermingles with the delectable aroma of street food, and a whiff of motorbike exhaust fumes tells of the modernity that is taking the city by storm. Smaller than Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi offers up a more intimate feel for the visitors feasting their eyes on the pastel-hued colonial architecture that still lines the city’s streets.
Many visitors use Hanoi as a base for excursions to the mountainous Sapa, home to the country's highest peak and renowned for its picturesque rice paddy terraces. Also within striking distance from the capital, dagger-like limestone peaks rise sharply, giving Halong Bay its world renowned reputation of ethereal, otherworldly beauty.
The countryside fanning out from Hanoi also offers explorers the chance to sample the slow-paced agrarian lifestyle that dominates the region. The shimmering threads of the Red River Delta give way to lofty rice valleys that are dotted with the hamlets of many ethnic minority communities, the untamed mountain scenery becoming ever-more popular with trekkers.
Despite the chic restaurants and designer boutiques that are now popping up across Hanoi, the capital city remains the Northern hub of authentic Vietnamese culture. Home to shaded French streets, ancient walled gardens and pagodas, Hanoi radiates a distinct old-world charm that has not been buried by modernization.
Founded in 1070, the revered Temple of Literature was established as Vietnam’s first university, and is a honeypot for tourists in the city. Ngoc Son Temple, a pagoda which extends onto a peaceful lake, is also a popular site for visitors seeking to learn a little more about Vietnamese history and sneak a peak at the temple’s collection of mummified giant turtles. Hani Temple is also well worth a visit for visitors seeking a window into the role faith plays in modern Vietnam.
Tet (Vietnamese New Year) is a great time to visit Hanoi, although it is well worth booking your accommodation in advance as a number of visitors descend on the capital for the festival when Lenin Park becomes a nucleus for the colorful festivities.
Aside from Hanoi, Halong Bay is possibly Northern Vietnam’s most popular tourist destination. According to legend, the many thousands of jagged limestone islets rising from the ocean were created by an enormous dragon as he plunged into the placid water. Named a World Heritage Site in 1994, the craggy emerald rocks rising out of the water are just as stunning as photographs suggest. Halong Bay is often compared to Thailand’s Krabi, and Cat Ba Island provides a useful base for visitors to explore the mystical landscape. The Bay is home to few beaches, so it is best to enjoy the views as you cruise through the rocky nooks and crannies that swallow up the high volume of tourists that gravitate towards the area. Sailing aboard a traditional Chinese Junk is often an attractive option for visitors that want to infuse a touch of Vietnamese romance into their trip. Similar scenery can also be found around the small city of Ninh Binh in the Red River Delta.
The mountain town of Bac Ha is the perfect getaway for travellers that want to follow their wanderlust off the beaten tourist track of Northern Vietnam. The earthy aroma of wood smoke drifts along the quiet early morning breeze in Bac Ha, until Sunday, when ethnic minority groups from the town’s local indigenous communities flood the streets with a riot of color and life. Bac Ha is gradually becoming more accessible to tourists, and offers an ideal base for those who want to explore the northern highlands.
From the hum of capital to the ethereal beauty of the northern mountains, travelers are spoilt for choice when it comes to activities and attractions in Northern Vietnam.
The former capital of French Indochina is the nation's cultural heart with over a millennia's worth of history immortalized in its many museums. The leafy boulevards of Ba Dinh (Old French Quarters) is home to several colonial architectural wonders, including the Grand Opera House and the heritage Sofitel Metropole Hotel. The Old Quarter, with a streets bustling with artisanal shops, markets, and bars, is also well loved for its cultural attractions including the Temple of Literature.
Visitors that penetrate the mountains intertwined around the Vietnam’s northern Red River Delta should make time to check out the misty pagodas and handicraft villages outside of Hanoi. One of the best ways to check out the local countryside surrounding the bustling capital is on the back of a bicycle, and the cooler temperatures of Northern Vietnam offer an ideal climate for exploration. Hanoi is home to plenty of tour operators for visitors to arrange their excursion, some of which take in the Thay and Tay Phunog pagodas.
Like many other Southeast Asian nations, music, dance and performance is an integral element to Vietnam’s rich culture, and where could be better to see this culture at play than in the country’s capital? Hanoi’s Ca trù Hanoi Club can trace its roots back to the third century, and haunting performances are set within the club’s temple courtyard. Alternatively, a trip to the city’s Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is another entertaining way to learn the folk legends that make up Vietnam’s long history, all told by the lively performances of colorful wooden puppets.
For visitors that want to soak up the shimmering emerald peaks of Vietnam’s northern mountains, the only way is Sapa. This former French hill station lies beneath the shadow of Fan Si Pan, the country’s highest peak. Many trekking excursions offer homestay options at remote mountainside hamlets. Temperatures can get quite chilly in the north, so all trekkers should ensure that they pack the appropriate hiking gear.
Vietnam’s transportation system has come a long way in the past 20 years, and the majority of its 128,000 square miles are covered by a fairly efficient network of options. Most travelers use privately-operated buses to get around the North, and booking tickets from a local tourist agency in Hanoi is usually a swift and affordable process.
This “open-tour” system provides a grid for visitors to hop on and off at the country’s tourist hotspots, but is not the best way to get off the beaten track.
National bus services serve the region's minor towns, although to explore the remote emerald northern wilderness of the country, it is often necessary for visitors to book onto a privately organized tour which will ferry you to your destination by minibus. The ountry’s limited rail network does branch out from the capital Hanoi, with one notable prong heading to the popular hilltop destination of Sapa.
To cover short distances across cities, there are a number of reasonable bus services and even metered taxis are on the rise. However, to negotiate the bustling streets of any Southeast Asian city it is often best to do soon a two-wheeled vehicle. Motorbike taxis known as xe-om abound, although it is essential to negotiate your price with the driver beforehand. Cyclos, the postcard Vietnamese form of transport, are three-wheeled rickshaws and provide a classic photo opportunity for visitors. When you are haggling for transportation costs, make your bargain on the basis of the number of passengers traveling and if possible, jot the figures down to pre-empt possible misunderstandings.
The majority of nationalities require a month-long tourist visa to enter Vietnam. Visas should be obtained prior to your arrival in the country, although they can be extended once you arrive.
Unsurprisingly, Hanoi is the main hub for passengers entering Northern Vietnam by air. If you are traveling long haul, it is often more cost effective to enter Southeast Asia via Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore and connect to Vietnam via a regional carrier. Air Asia offers direct flights from Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.
Both of the country’s rail entry points are located along Northern Vietnam’s border with China. Visitors entering via train tend to come in across the Dong Dang crossing, which is situated 160km from Hanoi. There are connections onward to Hanoi, and the Beijing Hanoi train runs three times a week. There is another train crossing at Lao Cai, near Sapa, although there are no rail connections on the Chinese side of the border so alternative onwards transportation is necessary.
If you are entering Northern Vietnam by bus, the Dong Dang and Lao Cai crossings (which also have rail connections) offer onwards road routes into China. There are buses that go between Hanoi and cities in Laos, but travelers should note that these are epic journeys of up to 20 or 40 hours to Vietiane and Luang Prabang respectively in cramped conditions.