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Northern Trekking in Vietnam: Spectacular Views, Colorful Cultures and Adventurous Trails

Ba Be National Park, Bac Kan

The mountains of Northern Vietnam easily make adventurers fall in love with its scenery, people, and way of life. And the best way to fully explore this rugged land is apparently to embark on some epic treks.

Today, I’ll share all the necessary information for the best northern Vietnam trekking! This list features my top picks for you to experience spectacular views, colorful ethnic cultures, and the most adventurous trails.

Raring to go? Let’s jump right into it!

With endless dense forests and a rich biodiversity, Ba Be National Park is the green lung of the northeastern region of Vietnam. This national park is known for its waterfalls, rivers, lakes, and caves, most of which you can trek to. It’s a must for northern Vietnam trekking!

At the heart of the park peacefully sits Ba Be Lake, the largest natural lake in Vietnam. It will serve as a good starting point for your journey. The immense water surface gently flows, reflecting the majesty of the surrounding mountains. 

The first trek stop can be An Ma Island, a small island amidst the lake with a Buddhist temple. You can access the island via a floating bridge since it’s pretty close to the mainland, and you’ll have beautiful expansive views of the park. 

Next is the Dau Dang Waterfall, formed as the Nang River descends a long slope packed with large rocks. Its cascades are powerful, and the backdrop adds appeal to it.

If you’re down for some decent challenges, Lo Mo Cave will be worth your while. The cave is about 3000 meters (3000 yards) and still untouched so there’s no paved pathway or lighting system. As you won’t know what to expect in the next minute behind the darkness, exploring Lo Mo Cave is truly a thrill. 

Pac Ngoi Village, home to the Tay ethnic people, comes straight out of a dream. Nestled between the Ba Be Lake and the mountains, its dozens of traditional stilt houses are safeguarded from the hustle and bustle of the outside world.

Other attractions include the Fairy Pond, the Silver Waterfalls, and the Na Phoong and Tham Phay Caves, so you’ll have plenty of places to add to your list.

As you experience all the park offers, feast your eyes with the towering karst mountains covered in lush vegetation, all with a range of flora and fauna. 

For the best experience, I recommend visiting Ba Be National Park during the drier months. Anywhere from late September until around mid-May will ensure that the area is not flooded and that hiking conditions are optimal. 

You can take a day-long hike, which is perfect for beginner hikers, but for the dedicated and experienced ones, committing to longer hikes is a more attractive option.

Some treks at Ba Be National Park last around 2–3 days and are more to the side of moderate to high difficulty.

Ta Van & Lao Chai Village, Sapa, Lao Cai

One of the best experiences of northern Vietnam trekking awaits you in Sapa, specifically, the trail that runs through Ta Van and Lao Chai Village via Lao Chai Bridge.

The highlight of this trek is undoubtedly the endless terraced rice fields! Just imagine the effort and ingenuity it takes to create them with only basic tools! You’ll then be taken to meet the artists of these masterpieces: the Hmong, Dao, and Giay people. They possess some of the most distinctive and fascinating cultures! Some other ethnic groups can also be found in Sapa.

This trail welcomes hikers of all levels as it only takes about 2 hours to complete. Expect it to be quite busy but the views are definitely worth it! 

Along the way, you may find yourself daydreaming about life in a peaceful village amidst the surreal landscape of Sapa. 

While the area can often be a bit foggy if you set out during the early morning, this often dissipates quickly to reveal stunning views. It’s like opening a gift!

If you want to visit Sapa at its most beautiful time of the year, it has to be the ‘golden rice season’, which lasts from early August to late September. This is when the rice is ripe and ready to be harvested. Coming to Sapa during this time allows you to witness not only the sparkling golden hues but also the vibrant scene of farmers harvesting.

Fansipan Peak, Lao Cai

While the cable cars might take you to the roof of Vietnam in no time, nothing beats the experience of a hard-earned trek to the peaks! For those passionate about northern Vietnam trekking, this journey is unparalleled!

For starters, you should know that this is one of the more challenging hiking trails in the country. Fansipan, at 3,147.3 meters (10,326 ft), is the highest mountain in the former French Indochina; consisting of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. 

The trek itself can take several days, so ensure you’re well-prepared and have enough time to complete the trip. I highly recommend that only those in good shape and with significant hiking experience attempt this trail!

You’ll need to bring a range of gear during this trek, especially since this requires an overnight stay at base camp. To conserve your strength for the challenge ahead, consider hiring a porter.

The length of this hike varies depending on your hiking speed and level of experience. While fit experienced speed hikers can complete it in one or two days, those who hike at a more leisurely pace may spend five to six days on this trail.

Before you scale the mountain, make sure you have a hiking permit. It’s one of the requirements you need to start the journey!

If you book through a Vietnam trekking tour company, this will often be taken care of for you. Otherwise, you’ll need to apply for a permit at the Center for Ecotourism and Environmental Education in Sapa.

Mu Cang Chai, Yen Bai

Speaking of terraced rice fields, Mu Cang Chai rivals Sapa, and many who have hiked this trail even consider it the best of its kind. Being carved out of a particularly dramatic landscape makes the rice fields here simply beyond words. 

About 8 km (5 miles) from Mu Cang Chai’s center, in Han Chong village, La Pan Tan commune, Mam Xoi Hill is the queen of Northwest rice terraces. With such a vast scale and unique round shape, its beauty is hard to comprehend. From Mam Xoi Hill, you’ll also have views of the entire valley. 

Just as much as the agricultural masterpieces, we appreciate the hiking trails themselves, as most of them were made by local villagers who walk almost everywhere on foot. 

That also means there’s a range of trails you can choose from. It’s a great way to customize a journey that best suits your preferences and experience.

One of the best parts of Mu Cang Chai is that each season brings new stunning scenery along, meaning there is no “bad” time to visit. 

Summer is when the rice turns into a lush greenery of growth. Autumn brings a range of vibrant colors as the leaves change. 

In winter, the pools on the terraces transform into a sleepy, shimmering sight. And when spring arrives, you’ll get to see life bloom as the farmers start planting new crops.

No matter the season, you’ll have unforgettable northern Vietnam trekking out here in Mu Cang Chai.

Cat Ba National Park, Cat Ba Island

Cat Ba Island is the largest island in Halong Bay and has all the geographical beauty of this natural wonder. Nearly half of the island is dedicated to Cat Ba National Park, where treks from easy to advanced difficulty take place. It is another forest experience for northern Vietnam trekking.

For the quintessential trail, follow the sign to Ngu Lam Peak, the roof of Cat Ba Island. From high up, you can revel in all the gorgeous scenery of limestone mountains as far as the eye can see. Though the trail is only 1.5km (0.93 mile) and takes about 30 minutes each way, it can be quite challenging due to the steep and rocky terrain. 

Other attractions in Cat Ba National Park include Trung Trang Cave; Flog Pond, a flooded willow forest; and Viet Hai Village, a lovely village hidden deep in the valley. However, you’ll need to trek to each separately. The longest trail is through the Flog Pond to Viet Hai Village, about 12.2km (7.5 miles). 

One thing to consider, though — Cat Ba National Park closes at 5 PM. You should account for the park’s closing time when planning your hikes and adventures, especially those that take longer to complete.

Hang Kia, Mai Chau, Hoa Binh

Deep into the mountains from the highway, Hang Kia is popular as the gateway to cloud hunting but the village itself is equally captivating. Home to the Hmong, this is one of the closest places to Hanoi to meet these highland dwellers. 

Cloud hunting in Hang Kia is one of the best things about northern Vietnam trekking so you’ll not want to miss it! From the village, you’ll continue another 8km (5 miles) on the winding road to reach the ‘Heaven’s Gate’. As the sun rises, thick layers of clouds will wrap the whole valley below like a giant fluffy blanket. 

The ideal hours to admire this breathtaking scene are between 5 and 7 am, so be sure to start early. Also, cloud hunting is more possible during the colder times of the year, from November to April.

If rice terraces are synonymous with Sapa and Mu Cang Chai, then it is tea hills and plum gardens that characterize Hang Kia. What’s great is that you can combine cloud hunting with seeing plum blossoms as the season falls between the end of January and the middle of January. Amidst the delicate white flowers resembling snowflakes, the vibrant colors of the Hmong clothing pop with vivid contrast.

1. When is the best time to trek in northern Vietnam?

This is a generalization of what I’ve mentioned above as the specific time to trek also depends on the seasonal attractions of each area such as the golden rice season or the plum blossoms. 

But as a rule of thumb, you can time your northern Vietnam trekking anywhere between October and May during the dry season. This is when there’s little rain and the weather is more pleasant. Avoid the summertime as it often rains heavily and thus can be dangerous.

2. Tips for northern Vietnam trekking: what you’ll need to prepare

Trekking these remote areas requires careful preparation, so here are my tips to ensure you’ll be all set to go: 

Adventurers, northern Vietnam trekking is calling to explore the country’s unspoiled natural beauty and unique ethnic cultures! Enjoy! 

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