Bai Tu Long Bay
There’s way more to northeast Vietnam than Halong Bay. The sinking limestone plateau, which gave birth to the bay’s spectacular islands, continues for some 100km to the Chinese border. The area immediately northeast of Halong Bay is part of Bai Tu Long National Park. Bai Tu Long Bay is every bit as beautiful as its famous neighbour.
Quan Lan Island
If you want to slide right off the typical traveller trail, Quan Lan Island (Dao Canh Cuoc) ticks the boxes. The island's only real hub is the sleepy three-street settlement of Quan Lan Town, separated from the sea by a hem of mangroves. A handful of simple guesthouses, restaurants and places to rent bicycles (US$4 per day) and motorbikes (US$6 per day) line the main street.
Ba Be National Park
Often referred to as the Ba Be Lakes, Ba Be National Park was established in 1992 as Vietnam’s eighth national park. The scenery here swoops from towering limestone mountains peaking at 1554m down into plunging valleys wrapped in dense evergreen forests, speckled with waterfalls and caves, with the lakes themselves dominating the very heart of the park.
A bustling border city, Mong Cai thrives on trade with China. For the Vietnamese, the big draw is the chance to purchase low-priced (and low-quality) Chinese-made consumer goods. For the Chinese, the attraction is two huge casinos and new golf courses. But other than as a border crossing, Mong Cai holds no interest for tourists.
Con Son & Den Kiep Bac
Although most appealing to domestic travellers, Con Son and Den Kiep Bac are potential diversions en route to Haiphong or Halong City. Con Son was home to Nguyen Trai (1380–1442), the famed Vietnamese poet, writer and general who assisted Emperor Le Loi in his successful battle against the Chinese Ming dynasty in the 15th century.
After passing through one of Vietnam’s remotest regions, the new eight-lane boulevards and monumental government buildings of Lai Chau appear like some kind of bizarre mirage. Formerly known as Tam Duong, this isolated town was renamed Lai Chau when the decision was made to flood ‘old’ Lai Chau (now Muong Lay).
From Tam Son to Dong Van
From Tam Son, Ha Giang province's main mountain pass road connects to Dong Van, first trundling onto the sleepy town of Yen Minh. The Thao Nguyen Hotel, on the main street through town, opposite the Agribank ATM, has well-kept, colourful rooms, but it's worth pushing on to overnight in Dong Van.
The small town of Tam Son lies in a valley at the end of the Quan Ba Pass. On Sundays there's a good market with ethnic minorities, including White Hmong, Red Dzao, Tay and Giay. There's also good accommodation at the guesthouse Nha Nghi Nui Doi with seven light-filled, simple rooms.
Quan Ba Pass
Leaving Ha Giang, the road climbs over the Quan Ba Pass (Heaven’s Gate) around 40km from the city. Poetic licence is a national pastime in Vietnam, but this time the romantics have it right. The road winds over a saddle and opens up on to an awesome vista of knobbly topped limestone mountains.
Tra Ban & Ngoc Vung Islands
One of Bai Tu Long’s largest islands, Tra Ban offers some of the bay’s most dramatic karsts. The southern part is blanketed in thick jungle and provides a habitat for many colourful butterflies. Boats leave from Van Don’s Cai Rong Pier at 7am and 2pm (40,000d, one hour). There’s no accommodation, so check on times for return boats.