Northwest of Hanoi toward the Chinese border lies the Hoang Lien Son Range, with Mount Fansipan, the highest peak of Vietnam (3,143m). This range was christened the Tonkinese Alps by the French, who took a liking to the cool climate. Limestone largely comprises this Northwest frontier where dramatic hills rise from the plains. From Hanoi to the Northwest several routes will get you there, the most spectacular via Dien Bien Phu to Sapa. At Lao Cai, close by, you can cross into China and continue by rail to Kunming.
The Northwest offers captivating mountain scenery; you can hike or trek into valleys around key towns. The hill tribes inhabiting the valleys here include Thai, H’mong, Zao and Muong groups. Some live in raised long houses. May still dress in traditional garb; intricate hand-embroidered clothing and silver jewelry are worn by the women. The best time to see minority people is on market day in the towns, when the mountain people hike in for days from surrounding areas. The big day is usually Sunday. Key destinations in the Northwest include Dien Bien Phu and Sapa. Dien Bien Phu, toward the Lao border, is a small town that was the site of the Vietnamese communists’ victory over the French in 1954, ending the Indochinese War I. The village of Sapa remains the jewel of the northwest, a former French hill resort with splendid mountain scenery, a market thronged with people, and excellent hiking opportunities. For a more limited time Hoa Binh and Mai Chau offer good one-day or two-day trips with light trekking.