For most travellers to the northeast of Vietnam, a visit to the fascinating seascape of Halong Bay is certain to dominate the itinerary. But, this world heritage site isn’t the only place worth a visit in this part of the country. By delving a little deeper, there are several other intriguing destinations that are well worth a visit that get a lot less tourist traffic than the coastal areas.
A far less visited and off-the-beaten-track destination is the awesome Bai Tu Long Bay which is north of Halong Bay. By exploring further south it is possible to visit the ‘lost world’ landscape of the Cat Ba Island, which is a perfect destination for activities like trekking and biking. Also, a trip on a hydrofoil gives easy access to Haiphong with its elegant architecture, wide boulevards and the north’s major port. Cao Bang province continues with the karst connection with its beautiful and surreal scenery. A visit to this part of the country on the travel to Vietnam makes a practical base for exploring Ba Be National Park or the idyllic waterfalls.
Other reasons to travel to this region are the overland borders between Vietnam and China. One is near Lang Son and the other at Mong Cai, but is rarely used.
Here are a few of the highlights of northeast Vietnam:
Ha Giang province
This northeastern province of Vietnam is the most beautiful mountainous destination for all adventure tours in Vietnam. The Dong Van karst plateau with wild beauty, high rocky moutains and ethnic villages dotted here and there look like a water-colored painting. Ha Giang has many places to conquer such as Quan Ba heaven gate, Lung Cu flag tower, Pho Bang old town, Dong Van old street, Meo Vac market, Ma Phi Leng pass, Hoang Su Phi pass, etc. Ha Giang is perfect place for trekking, homestay, motorbiking and photography tours.
To discover Ha Giang alone, tourists need to spend 3-5 days and motorbiking tour with an experienced guide is great idea for the young. For others, it is best to contact a local tour operator in Hanoi like Vivutravel to organise a round trip with suitable schedule and best places to visit.
Ba Be National Park
Even though a lot of tourists to Vietnam’s northeast are pulled to the coast, there are plenty of opportunities inland for those interested in nature and trekking. Ba Be National Park is a perfect destination for the intrepid trekker and surrounded with jagged peaks and tranquil lake vistas. A major feature of the park is the three interlinked lakes that make it possible to explore Ba Be’s languid beauty by kayak or boat. An off-the-beaten-track trek through the rainforest-covered hills is perfect for travellers that want to get active.
For the travellers that want to spend a night or two within the park, it is relatively easy to organise homestay accommodation at one of the local minority villages. Homestays are organized by booking a private tour or arranged independently on arrival at the park.
Cao Bang province
Cao Bang province is a mountainous region and one that is stunningly beautiful to make a perfect base for exploring the local countryside. This part of the country can get quite chilly in the winter, so it benefits to pack accordingly for the holiday to Vietnam.
Unless the plans are to travel the road that leads to China, there are few reasons to include this destination on the itinerary. However, this region with its karst hills does have one or two worthwhile attractions, including the Ban Gioc Waterfall, which is the most popular place to visit. Elsewhere there is the Nguom Ngao Cave with its epic stalagmites and stalactites, and further west is the Hang Pac Bo (Water-Wheel Cave), which is a great destination for those travellers interested in Vietnam’s history.
Haiphong is an important port city and the third most populous in Vietnam. Starting out as a small port town in the 1870s, Haiphong has continued to grow over the years and this old city still includes plenty of colonial-era buildings, well-maintained strands of greenery, and wide shady streets. The Tam Bac River curves around the city centre and the local area includes the Haiphong Museum, administrative buildings, and a few stunning colonial-era hotels. Other attractions to see on the tours of Vietnam include the Du Hang Pagoda that dates as far back as the 1670s and easily found on the attractive and lively Pho Chua Hang street.
Cat Ba Island
Jungle-clad, craggy and rugged, Cat Ba Island is the largest of the islands that make up the Cat Ba archipelago, and a great destination to explore for the travellers on the holiday in Vietnam interested in seeing the natural seascape of Halong Bay. Most of the island is relatively untouched, although there are a few low-rise hotels along the bay.
Nearly 50% of Cat Ba Island (approx 354 sq km) is preserved and protected as a national park to help maintain the diverse ecosystem. Also, a large area of the adjacent waters (90 sq km) forms a part of the protected grounds. This park is home to the golden-headed langur which is a rare and endangered species. A significant percentage of the coastline is made up of rocky cliffs – although there are a few small fishing villages and some sandy beaches.
Grottoes, waterfalls and lakes are featured throughout the fascinating limestone hills with the largest standing at 331 metres about sea level.
Beyond its stunning beauty, Cat Ba Island is a perfect destination for water-based activities, such as stand-up paddle boarding and guided kayaking trips that explore the local karsts. Plus, there are plenty of overnight cruises and day tours of Lan Ha Bay. Other activities include a trekking tour within Cat Ba National Park or a half or full-day climbing trip.
Bai Tu Long Bay
The seascape of Bai Tu Long Bay is another of the limestone outcrops that is equally striking as Halong Bay, but gets a lot less tourist attention. This is a great place to have a cruise to really appreciate the local islands, islets and peaks. With the low number of cruise trips, the surrounding views of this seascape are less likely to be hidden by other boats.
A visit to Mong Cai makes it possible to access one of the few land border crossings with China that is open to the foreign tourist – although the visa can only be issued in advance from Beijing or Hanoi. A short distance from the crossing is Tra Co Beach which is a striking island that has a narrow channel connecting it to the mainland. This is one of the longest beaches in the north and stretches for nearly 17 km. Even though the sand is quite coarse, it is still a pleasant beach to relax after a period of sightseeing.
Also, Van Don Island is easily reached from the beach via a hydrofoil. This island is the most developed and populated in the Bai Tu Long archipelago and covers a total area of about 30 sq km.