Top 6 Destinations Where You Can Experience Northern Vietnam Off The Beaten Track

Nga Do
Searching for the ‘authentic’ Vietnam? Curious to escape the path well Instagrammed and see a different side of the country? Or perhaps you want to spread your tourism dollars by supporting emerging destinations and small communities. Whatever your motivation, Northern Vietnam off the beaten track isn’t a chimera.

Famed for its karst towers, sunken mountains, viridian hills and flowing rice terraces, Northern Vietnam is a place like no other.

While iconic Ninh Binh, Sapa and Ha Long Bay are all worth a visit for first-timers, sometimes it pays to shrug off the crowds and look beyond the major tourist hubs.

From underrated cities to rising eco-tourism stars, here are 6 of my favourite under-the-radar destinations in Northern Vietnam.

1. Dong Van Loop, Ha Giang

6 Destinations Where You Can Experience Northern Vietnam Off The Beaten Track
Photo by Giàng A Phớn
All but isolated from the rest of the country until the 1970s, you often hear Ha Giang described as Vietnam’s ‘final frontier’. The northern part of the province forms a natural land border with China and is characterised by soaring mountains, steep ravines, and the incredible Dong Van Karst Plateau. Ha Giang is typically navigated by tracing the Dong Van Loop - a circuitous route that leads motorbike riders through some of Vietnam’s most majestic landscapes. It’s well worth stopping off in villages to indulge in some of the best trekking Vietnam (or anywhere else in Southeast Asia, for that matter) has to offer.

Overall, Ha Giang is yet to be touched by the heavy hand of tourism - but things are changing fast, and Dong Van is poised to become the next Sapa. Now might be your last opportunity to experience Ha Giang’s ethnic minority markets and family-run homestays. If you do decide to visit, make sure you choose a responsible tourism provider.

2. Mu Cang Chai

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Photo by Ves Pa
If you’ve seen gob-smacking photos of rice terraces in Vietnam, there’s a good chance they were snapped in or around Mu Cang Chai. You’d be hard pressed to find fields on this scale anywhere else in the country. Rendered in shades of bottle green or wattle yellow depending on the time of year, the towering terraces are a weather beacon for the changing seasons and different stages of the rice harvest. What happens out here dictates the fortunes of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese farmers.

Because of its remote location, Mu Cang Chai District receives relatively few tourists. But if it’s sublime hiking in complete solitude that you’re after, it’s worth the trek.

3. Y Ty

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Photo by ThuyHaBich
Located in remote Bat Xat District - Lao Cai province, I predict that Y Ty will emerge as another alternative to busy Sapa at some point in the future. The area boasts picturesque landscapes, idyllic hamlets, and because of the high altitude, opportunities to ‘chase the clouds’ - a popular activity in Vietnam which involves snapping photos on misty mornings.

4. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

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Photo by tefl Search
When a local logger discovered Son Doong Cave, the world’s biggest cave, less than a decade ago, he sealed Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s fate. Tourism in the park and the few tiny riverside hamlets nearby is rising year on year.

Located in the narrowest part of Vietnam, very close to the DMZ, this area was heavily bombed during the Vietnam-America war. The landscape still bears scars from that period. But it’s an utterly beautiful and magical place, where you can cycle all the way to the Laos border via the largest karst park in the world. Caving, kayaking, hiking, zipline and all matter of adventure and outdoor-oriented activities are available.

5. Pu Luong Nature Reserve

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Photo by tuananhngo
Pu Luong is probably the most pristine patch of land I saw during my time in Vietnam. Protected under law since 1999, the 17-odd hectare reserve is valued for its flora and fauna. A number of ethnic Thai and Muong communities dwell inside the park’s boundaries, following a largely traditional lifestyle. Among their pursuits is building the incredible bamboo waterwheels that Pu Luong is known for. These magnificent structures harvest water from low-lying streams, filtering it into the rice fields via a series of bamboo pipes. It really has to be seen to be appreciated. Ancient technology set against virgin forest, verdant fields and thatched-roof hamlets: Pu Luong is exactly the sort of landscape Vietnam dreams are made of.

Access to Pu Luong is fairly limited, which of course is a bit part of its appeal. When we visited in 2018, we only saw a few other tourists. It’s possible to trek through the park on a multi-day hike. There are also homestays where you can base your stay and embark on shorter walks.

6. Moc Chau

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Photo by Ngoc Vu
Poor old Moc Chau District is almost completely overshadowed by neighbouring Mai Chau. Located less than 100km up the road in Son La Province (but admittedly a little harder to reach by public transport), Moc Chau is a great alternative to the tourist-heavy Mai Chau Valley. The best time to visit Moc Chau is in the spring, when the landscape is engulfed in blooming cherry blossoms. Other varietals paint the hills different shades at other times of year.

Bonus: Getting off the beaten track in Hanoi

Even if you’re trying to avoid Northern Vietnam’s hotspots, a few days in Hanoi is an absolute must. Hanoi is absolutely huge. There are plenty of residential areas and historic suburbs where you can escape the chaos of the Old Quarter. Equally, there are a limitless number of ‘secret’ spots hidden right in plain sight - such as Long Bien Bridge and ‘banana island’ - which evade most tourists’ radars.

Wake up when the city rises to see Hanoi from a totally different perspective. Take a day trip to Duong Lam Ancient Village on a weekday to experience a slice of village life. Spend the night in a beautiful Airbnb to experience Hanoi’s heritage architecture and winding alleyways hands-on. There are plenty of opportunities to get off the beaten track in Northern Vietnam’s biggest metropolis.

Where is your favourite place to experience Vietnam off the beaten track? Which of these alternative destinations would make it onto your Vietnam itinerary? Check out now TOP NORTHER VIETNAM TOURS at:

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