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 – if not the region – and the trip between Yen Minh and Dong Van, and then across the Mai Pi Leng Pass to Meo Vac, is quite mind-blowing.
Lao Cai is squeezed right next to the Vietnam–China border. Razed in the Chinese invasion of 1979, most of the buildings here are modern. The border crossing slammed shut during the 1979 war and only reopened in 1993. Now it’s a bustling spot fuelled by growing cross-border trade.
Sleepy Bac Ha wakes up for the riot of colour and commerce that is its Sunday market, when the lanes fill to choking point and villagers flock in from the hills and valleys. Once the barter, buy and sell is done and the day-tripper tourist buses from Sapa have left, the town rolls over and goes back to bed for the rest of the week.
Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu (DBP) plays a star role in Vietnam's modern history. It was in the surrounding countryside here, on 7 May 1954, that the French colonial forces were defeated by the Viet Minh in a decisive battle, and the days of their Indochina empire became numbered. The town sits in the heart-shaped Muong Thanh Valley, surrounded by heavily forested hills.
Ha Giang is somewhere to recharge the batteries on the long road north. This surprisingly large town, bisected by the broad Lo River, is a provincial capital with clean streets and an understated ambience. The main drag is P Nguyen Trai, which runs north–south paralleling the west bank of the Lo for 3km or so. You’ll find hotels, banks and restaurants on this road.
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.
Dong Van is the Ha Giang region's most popular overnight stop and, not coincidentally, is home to some solid accommodation and food. But the real reason to come is for the Sunday market, one of the region's biggest and most colourful. The town is also a good base for day treks around nearby minority villages and nearby sights such as Lung Cu.
Muong Te & Na Hu
An unassuming district capital, Muong Te gets its charm from its remote location, beautiful setting and Thai inhabitants. There's not much to do in the town itself, but the surrounding area is beautiful and almost entirely neglected by foreign tourists. The town takes the form two distinct sections stretched out along the Boum River.
Sinho is a scenic mountain village, home to a large number of ethnic minorities. Few travellers make it here, but a hotel and decent road access mean it’s an interesting detour if you’re keen to see an authentic local market very different from those at Sapa and Bac Ha, which are now firmly on the tour-bus route.
Meo Vac is a small but charming district capital hemmed in by steep karst mountains and, like many towns in the northwest, it is steadily being settled by Vietnamese from elsewhere. The journey here along the spectacular Mai Pi Leng Pass, which winds for 22km from Dong Van, is the main attraction.