Northwest Explorer

10 days / 9 nights

The Tonkinese Alps are the foothills of the Himalayas and the rooftop of Vietnam. These beautiful mountains provide a dramatic backdrop for the remote communities of minority people who inhabit this region. Starting out in the charming Vietnamese capital, this journey swings northwest into the mountain valleys around Mai Chau. Home to friendly White Thai people, this is a great place to trek amid beautiful scenery. The route continues through Son La to Dien Bien Phu, the location for a historic battle that changed the course of modern history in the region and brought the curtain down on French rule in old Indochine. From here, we travel across the far north of Vietnam and scale the mighty Tram Ton Pass, the highest in Vietnam and a stunning gateway to Sapa. Around Sapa we can trek or walk through the surrounding valleys, ribboned with rice fields and overshadowed by mountains. The journey ends with a smart sleeper train ride back to Hanoi.

In brief

  1. Day 1: Arrive Hanoi. Cyclo tour of the city.
  2. Day 2: HCM Mausoleum, Temple of Literature. KOTO lunch.
  3. Day 3: Hanoi to Mai Chau. Explore the valley.
  4. Day 4: Mai Chau to Son La.
  5. Day 5: Son La to Dien Bien Phu.
  6. Day 6: Dien Bien Phu to Lai Chau.
  7. Day 7: Lai Chau to Sapa.
  8. Day 8: Exploring Sapa villages on foot or by bicycle.
  9. Day 9: Sapa to Bac Ha via backroads.
  10. Day 10: Arrival in Hanoi.

In detail

Day 1: Arrive Hanoi. Cyclo tour of the city.

Upon arrival, we transfer to our hotel. In the afternoon, we enjoy a cyclo ride around the Old Quarter to discover the city’s architectural mixture of French colonial style, socialist realism, pagodas and communal houses with many Chinese features, merchants’ residences, ‘tube’ dwellings, modern buildings and vernacular houses. We have time to freshen for our first night’s dinner. Stay overnight in Hanoi.

Day 2: HCM Mausoleum, Temple of Literature. KOTO lunch.

This morning, we’ll visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Presidential Palace, HCM's traditional stilt house, and the One Pillar Pagoda. The next destination is the Temple of Literature, the first university in Vietnam dating back to the 11th century. We will have lunch at KOTO, a restaurant well known as a school for disadvantaged students to be trained to work in the hospitality industry. In the afternoon, we will proceed to the striking Ethnology Museum. This showpiece venue provides a fascinating insight into the history and lifestyle of the 54 ethnic groups of Vietnam. Overnight in Hanoi.

Day 3: Hanoi to Mai Chau. Explore the valley.

An early start sees us bid farewell to Hanoi and hit the road by 4WD. We leave the urban scenery behind as we head South West and into the mountains as head towards the valley of Mai Chau. The scenery continues to become more dramatic and we’ll break our journey with a stop at a tea station. Upon arrival we’ll be introduced to our host and taken on a short orientation walk of the village. Our lunch will be taken at a local house as we enjoy the local hospitality. In the afternoon, enjoy a bike ride through the local villages of Tai ethnic people and stop by Mai Chau market. Later, we walk to Lac and Nhot village before dinner. Overnight in Mai Chau.

Day 4: Mai Chau to Son La.

Leave Mai Chau, we will continue on to Son la with some photo stops along the way. The ride includes a stop at Moc Chau, one of the most famous tea plantation regions in Vietnam. Son La is a natural break in the journey and includes a well-known hot springs if you need to unwind. Overnight in Son La.

Day 5: Son La to Dien Bien Phu.

This morning, we visit Son La Museum and the former French prison. During 1930 to 1945, this was to keep in prison the communists. We hit the road by bike and enjoy the picturesque scenery as we pass the villages of Black Thai, White Thai, Meo and Muong peoples and stop by Thuan Chau market. After a short visit, we will ride over 37km Pha Din pass “where the earth meet the sky”. The scenery along the way is very peaceful with rice terraces fields and local hill tribes villages on the way. In the afternoon, we drive to Dien Bien Phu. The town rocketed to international prominence when Viet Minh troops under General Giap overcame the beleaguered French forces in 1954, the decisive battle that ended nearly a century of French occupation of Vietnam. Recently, Dien Bien Phu has begun to expand rapidly and the Vietnam government’s policy is to encourage ethnic Vietnamese families to move to the area. Nevertheless, despite a boost from tourism stimulated by the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the town is still rarely visited by international guests. Overnight in a hotel.

Day 6: Dien Bien Phu to Lai Chau.

In the morning, we will visit to the historical sites including Dien Bien Phu museum and many other historical places around this area. You can understand the hardships of the war era and how determined the Vietnamese were to prevail using simple bike to transport heavy weapons over the formidable mountains. We visit A1 hill, the most important site during the war, where the Vietnamese fought for 36 days to take over the hill from the French. We also visit the commander shelter of General De Castries and the cemeteries of French and Vietnamese soldiers. We will then leave Dien Bien Phu for Lai Chau. The drive is stunning with tiered tea plantations and verdant rice terraces carved into the landscape. Overnight in Lai Chau.

Day 7: Lai Chau to Sapa.

If we are here on a Sunday, it’s a good chance to join the unique Sunday market. Leaving early, you have the chance to see the sun rise as you head through indescribable mountain scenery and watch the villages waking up. The market gathering place is in the wilderness. Many local hilltribes people leave their isolated and amazingly precipitous, mountaintop cornfields, and trek many kilometres to attend this weekly social and commercial event. There are few souvenirs for sale here but you may find a bargain buffalo. From Lai Chau to Sapa you pass through Tam Duong, and over the top of the 1900m Tram Ton Pass, Vietnam's highest mountain pass and considered the most beautiful stretch of road in the country. We arrive at Sapa about noon time, you'll be free for refreshment and wandering around the active town. You'll spend the night in a hotel in Sapa.

Day 8: Exploring Sapa villages on foot or by bicycle.

We meet our guide and and drive to take a short ride to the Golden Stream Valley, stopping at Lao Chai village. Walk down through the village from the main road and start trekking along the rice field to Lao Chai (Black H’mong) and Ta Van (Dzay) village. This trek is quite easy but can be quite slippery if it rains. You will visit some families and learn about their daily life and fascinating culture. We will stop by one of the local Dzay family for a picnic lunch. This afternoon, we will trek to Giang Ta Chai (Red Dzao) village. The trekking route offers some challenge as you balance on the rice terraces and a small trail on the steep mountainside. The vegetation is dense as the trail leads up to a peaceful village perched on the Hoang Lien mountainside. After visit one of the family in the village, we will walk to the main road to meet with our driver and drive back to Sapa town.

Day 9: Sapa to Bac Ha via backroads.

We visit the friendly Flower Hmong people of Bac Ha today. The first section of the drive from Sapa to Lao Cai the ride passes stunning views of Sapa's rice terraces. The second part of the journey from Lao Cai to Bac Ha is hilly but offers beautiful views. Arrive in Bac Ha, check in your hotel and relax. Afternoon, visiting to a palace of Hmong Lord. Then we trek around to Ban Pho village for a visiting to the colourful Flower Hmong people. We return to the provincial capital of Lao Cai to board a comfortable air-conditioned night sleeper for Hanoi.

Day 10: Arrival in Hanoi.

We arrive in Hanoi in the morning where the trip ends