Leaving Hanoi and breaking out of the delta plains, we pass through endless limestone karst scenery as we travel south throughPerfume Pagoda countryand extensive farming lands comprising a sea of paddy fields split by tree-lined roads. After a picnic lunch nearChi Ne, we visit the hot springs atKim Boi, before heading Northwest and over two passes, finally dropping down to the mountain valley settlement ofMai Chau. Here we stay overnight with friends of theWhite Thaiminority in a traditional stilt house. In the evening, after feasting, we can enjoy a cultural show ofThaidancing and a range of special local liquors.
Overnight at stilt house in Mai Chau (L, D)
After an early walk as the village comes to life we head off on the main road and then take signs for a dead end which leads us up an abandoned old French road rising high into the mountains. This road was a main artery of the northwest until 1994 and the construction of a new highway, and this area became the land that time forgot. We enjoy swimming in rivers, dining withThaiminorities whilst enjoying stunning views over 6 ranges of mountains, then meetingH’MongandDaopeoples in the higher regions. Back to the main road we take a side-route on rocky track to visit someH’Mongvillages along a road which finally ends in a sea of corn. Jumping back on to Highway 6 we travel on good winding sealed road toMoc Chau- famous for dairy products, tea, a massive cave, and a waterfall.
Overnight in the Trade Union Hotel (B, L, D)
Continuing on Highway 6 we drop down the side of a huge valley before striking off on track into the mountains which form the border with Laos. Finally, we rejoin the main highway for a few kilometres before breaching a massive pass on sealed winding road and down the other side to the Black River Reservoir, which we cross by ferry. From the north side of theSong Dawe again climb to the lofty township of Bac Yen. Depending on our arrival time we have further options to trek up to the top of the mountain range for a sunset which may offer us views far out over the Black River and even over to Laos.
Overnight at homestay in Bac Yen (B, L, D)
In the morning we drop down the other side of the huge incline upon which Bac Yen rests, then cruise on good sealed winding road until we meet our first river crossings, then climb up a rugged track with hairpin turns through prime rainforest. After dropping down the other side of our first taste of theHoang Lien Sonmountain range we continue on smooth road to Nghia Lo. If time allows then we will enjoy a late afternoon cruise on the glory road up to Tram Tao.
Overnight in Nghia Lo (B, L, D)
Morning visit to the bustling market with a host of treasures and ethnic minority handicrafts. Then on rough road we head deep onto the spine of the Hoang Lien Son Mountain Range into isolated areas inhabited by Dao, Thai and H’Mong groups. Incredible rice terracing, deep mountain roads and steep gorges. After Tu Le we breach the main range when we pass over the 30km long Khau Pha pass. Then on the approach to Mu Cang Chai we witness the most impressive section of rice terracing anywhere in Vietnam
Overnight with a family (B, L, D)
We follow the edge of the river on rocky dirt road all the way to Than Uyen.Then, on improved road we skirt the base of the impressive Fansipan Mountain Range and pass on to the market town of Tam Duong. Surrounded by serrated karst, Tam Duong offers great scope for a relaxing afternoon exploring the market or some of the side tracks into the hills around the town. The whole area is rich in minority cultures and limestone karst puncturing the landscape like shark’s teeth
Overnight in a guesthouse (B, L, D)
If the days are right then we can visit one of three busy hill tribe markets as we head straight towards the main Fansipan Mountain range. There is also the option for a very challenging back route which takes us through several river crossings. The massive mountain range dominates the road until finally we must make a splendid climb up from Binh Lu and up to the top of the highest road pass in Vietnam (Tram Ton Pass). Crossing into Lao Cai Province at over 2000m the views looks out over the main range for miles and miles, before we descend to the mountainous Sapa valley
Overnight at the Cat Cat Hotel (B, L, D)
With the morning free to explore Sapa, its extensive market and fascinating people, we make a late departure and return back up the Tram Ton Pass before forking off on an unmarked track. This is a rarely travelled route that takes us through some windswept impoverished areas deep in the Hoang Lien Son range. On an overgrown surface we continue all the way to the village settlement of Mung Hum. Further descent will lead us all the way to the provincial capital of Lao Cai, an international border crossing. From here we catch the overnight train back to Hanoi on an air-con soft-sleeper carriage
Overnight on train (B, L, D)