Vietnam's staggering beauty and ethnic diversity are perhaps most evident in the Northwest, where dozens of ethnic-minority groups as well as the Kinh, the ethnic majority, inhabit the imposing highlands. Physically and culturally removed from Hanoi, many communities in the remote region exist today as they have for generations, harvesting terraced rice fields or practicing slash-and-burn agriculture on the rocky hillsides. This region of imposing mountains bore witness to French ignominy at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, a crucial factor in the end of colonial rule in Indochina, which at the same time nurtured Ho Chi Minh's revolution.
The mountain town of Sapa is a star attraction for both domestic and international tourists, and with the new highway cutting journey times from Hanoi by more than a half, the popularity of the former French hill station is set to increase. A large part of Sapa’s appeal lies in its proximity to some of the most compelling sights in the region. It is the jumping-off point for expeditions into the nearby Hoang Lien Mountains, dubbed the Tonkinese Alps by the French. Preeminent among these mist-shrouded peaks is Fansipan, Vietnam’s tallest summit at 3,143 meters (10,308 feet). If the arduous hike up Fansipan doesn’t appeal, numerous less demanding treks can be arranged from Sapa to nearby hill tribe villages and through the bucolic surrounding scenery. Northeast of Sapa, the town of Bac Ha has a pleasant climate and one of the liveliest weekly Sunday markets in the region. From Sapa it is a glorious motorbike, car, or bus journey over the Tram Ton Pass, Vietnam’s highest stretch of tarmac, to Lai Chau. This area has undergone a massive transformation. The former town of Lai Chau was flooded during construction of the Song Da Reservoir and is now known as Muong Lay. The new town of Lai Chau, formerly known as Tam Duong, has little of interest for travelers beyond the beautiful surrounding scenery and a diverting hill-tribe market.
Once considered something of an outpost, Dien Bien Phu has grown significantly since becoming a provincial capital in 2004. There are daily flights from Hanoi, and the presence of the nearby Tay Trang-Sop border crossing ensures a steady flow of tourist traffic. Beyond the historic and military sights, the main draw for visitors is the opportunity for trekking in the area. Surrounding villages make convenient hopping-off points for hikes into the hinterland. With flights from Hanoi making Dien Bien Phu simple to reach, it is perhaps the quickest and most convenient way of immersing yourself in the wondrous scenery. Southeast of Dien Bien Phu lies Son La Province, which is one of Vietnam’s most ethnically diverse regions, home to more than 30 minorities including Black Thai, Meo, Muong, and White Thai. Farther southeast still is the Mai Chau Valley, an area that has boomed in popularity with tourists over the last few years. Homestays with the White Thai minority in the area are a fascinating way of experiencing traditional life, and the flat floor of the valley makes it a perfect place to explore by bicycle.
A booming business of selling handicrafts, clothing, and textiles to tourists has sprung up in many communities of the Northwest, particularly around Sapa. Increased contact between these ethnic minorities and tourists has created a flurry of interest in their cultures and lives, but has also cost them some privacy. One unfortunate casualty, for instance, has been the near disappearance of authentic Saturday-night "love markets," where young Red Dao men and women in search of a spouse or lover would pair off for an evening of socializing and possible romance. In Sapa there is a sanitized version of this every Saturday evening, but the real deal takes place only very rarely in the more remote areas of the north.
Traveling around this region often takes a long time and changing weather can make some roads quite dangerous, or even impassable. In the mountains, heavily traveled routes are paved but are still in poor condition and though the scenery is spellbinding, travel can be physically exhausting. But it's a rewarding challenge to cover the region by car, from Hanoi to Sapa to Lai Chau to Dien Bien Phu to Son La then back to Hanoi. If you can handle five or more days on rutted mountain roads, this route is adventurous and allows for some great exploring.