An unhurried and friendly town, Bac Ha makes a relaxed base to explore the northern highlands and hill-tribe villages. The atmosphere is very different to Sapa, and you can walk the streets freely without being accosted by hawkers. To experience a small untouristy mountain town, Bac Ha is an excellent destination.
Ha Giang Province
Ha Giang is the final frontier in northern Vietnam, an amazing landscape of limestone pinnacles and granite outcrops. The far north of the province has some of the most spectacular scenery in the country, and the trip between Dong Van and Meo Vac across the Mai Pi Leng Pass is quite mind-blowing.
Lang Co Beach
Lang Co is an attractive island-like stretch of palm-shaded white sand, with a crystal-clear, turquoise lagoon on one side and 10km of beachfront on the other. As a beach resort it's more geared to Vietnamese day trippers than Western travellers, but if the weather's nice the ocean is certainly inviting (if you stay away from the central section, which could be cleaner).
The fertile alluvial soils of the Red River Delta nurture a rich rice crop, and many of the communities surrounding Hanoi are still engaged in agriculture. The contrast between modern Hanoi and the rural villages is stark. Many tour operators in Hanoi offer cycling tours to villages near Hanoi – a great way to discover a different world.
Halong City (Bai Chay) is the main gateway to Halong Bay. Though the city enjoys a stunning position on the cusp of Halong Bay, developers have not been kind to it, and high-rise hotels dot the shoreline. However, the majority of food, accommodation and other Halong Bay services are found here.
Around Hoi An
Living high in the mountains inland from Hoi An, the Co Tu people are one of the smallest, and most traditional minority groups in Vietnam. Most men and women wear elaborate tribal clothing of intricately woven textiles, elaborate beads and the odd tusk or horn for good measure. Until quite recently, facial tattoos were common.
Mountainous Cao Bang province is one of the most beautiful regions in Vietnam. Cao Bang itself is more prosaic, but it is a useful base to explore the surrounding countryside. The climate is mild here, and winter days can get chilly when a thick fog clings to the banks of the Bang Giang River.
In an idyllic valley, the Mai Chau area is a world away from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. The small town of Mai Chau is unappealing, but nearby are Thai villages surrounded by lush paddy fields. There’s minimal traffic, and the rural soundtrack is defined by gurgling irrigation streams and birdsong.
Son La has prospered as a logical transit point between Hanoi and Dien Bien Phu. It’s not a must-see destination, but the surrounding scenery is impressive, and there are a few interesting diversions. The region is one of Vietnam’s most ethnically diverse and home to more than 30 different minorities including Black Thai, Meo, Muong and White Thai.
Currently being transformed by town planners into a vast, sprawling new city, Tuy Hoa is a somewhat soulless place characterised by the requisite vast plaza and multilaned boulevards. It’s a possible overnight stop to break up a longer journey, especially for cyclists brave enough to tackle Hwy 1, but most visitors are just passing through.