Leaving Hanoi and breaking out of the delta plain, 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 a stilt house in Mai Chau (B, 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 when a new highway was built, and this area became the land that time forgot. We enjoy swimming in rivers, dining with Thai minorities whilst enjoying stunning views over six ranges of mountains, then meeting H’Mong and Dao peoples in the higher regions. Back at the main road we take a side-route on rocky track to visit some H’Mong villages along a road which finally ends in a sea of corn. Jumping back on to Highway 6 we travel on good winding sealed road to Moc 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 enter mountains heavily populated with Black Thai people, whowork large terraced rive fields, and shortly after Moc Chau there is a beautiful, open valley that the road winds down the edge of. The winding road passes through many Thai villages and fields and provides a great opportunity to watch country life passing by. Picnic lunch is served by a cool riverbank. We continue through rolling hills before rising up to the sugar cane growing areas on the cooler Son La plateau.
Overnight in Son La. (B, L, D)
Heading out northwest from Son La, the road crosses a series of mountain passes and areas of busy Black Thai activity. Children walk to school, kids tend buffaloes, women plant rice seedlings and men pull the buffalo. Then we come to the beginning of the very long and steepPha Dinpass. Picnic at the top with vast views of the surrounding mountains, then down the other side on very steep sealed road
Overnight home stay in Tuan Giao (B, L, D)
Heading out northwest from Tuan Giao the road passes isolated communities ofH’mongandThaipeople, whose small villages sit on thebanks of dark green rivers and on the steep slopes of the mountains. After lunch by a forest stream, the road begins to climb up the high Sa Tong pass. At the top for sunset before dropping sharply into the deep Lai Chau valley
Overnight at home stay in Lai Chau (B, L, D)
Lai Chau town lies on the floor of a very steep valley near the convergence of three river systems. Crossing a large suspension bridge over the Black river, we head north alongthe Eastern banks of theNamNa River.Along this quiet roadH’Mong, Dao, ThaiandTaylive in small villages backed up to the forest. When only a short distance from the Chinese frontier, the road climbs up to theTam Duongplateau, with expansive views overthe border. Tam Duong town has a lively market and is surrounded bysharp outcrops of karst.
Overnight in Tam Duong(B, L, D)
If the visit falls on the right day 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 Cat Cat hotel in Sapa (B, L, D)
With the morning free to explore Sapa, its extensive market and fascinating people, we make a late departure and backtrack 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 theHoang Lien Sonrange. Across overgrown terrain, we continue all the way to the village settlement ofMung Hum. Further descent will lead us all the way to the provincial capital ofLao 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)