Hanoi - Pu Luong - Phu Yen - Son La City - Dien Bien Phu - Lai Chau - Sa Pa - Hanoi
930km (+350km by train)
3 nights in homestays, 3 nights in hotels and 1 night on a sleeper train
any skill level
Sa Pa; the valleys of Muong Thanh and Muong Hoa; Dien Bien Phu; Pu Luong National Park; the rural district of Mai Chau; the Moc Chau plateau; the French Prison in Son La; the minority villages of Sin Ho and Ta Phin; the Pu Luong, Hua Tat, Pa Uon, Pha Din and O Quy Ho mountain passes
Day 1: Hanoi - Pu Luong
Pu Luong Nature Reserve; the Pu Luong Pass
You'll travel west from Hanoi towards the province of Hoa Binh. Within a few hours, you'll be riding the Pu Luong Pass which winds through the national park of the same name and offers spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. It's a peaceful area filled with mountains, farms and little dirt roads and the locals there are really friendly.
Day 2: Pu Luong - Phu Yen
the rural district of Mai Chau; the Moc Chau Plateau; the Hua Tat Pass; crossing the Da River by ferry
You'll continue your adventure through Mai Chau, over the Hua Tat Pass and on to the Moc Chau Plateau, an area famed for its plums, flowers and green tea—in fact, you'll see a big mountain there covered only in tea trees. Situated on the banks of the Da River, it's also home to an array of minority tribes. Their stilt houses are a fantastic sight, and you'll likely stop for refreshments and enjoy a bit of their hospitality before arriving at the Da River ferry crossing. Once across it's on to the small town of Phu Yen where you'll spend the night.
Day 3: Phu Yen - Son La City
the French Prison; the Pa Uon Pass
After breakfast you'll head higher into the mountains, northwest past rice terraces and sugar cane plantations and over the Pa Uon mountain pass on the way to Son La City. Although many tourists consider it to be little more than a rest stop on the way to Dien Bien Phu, we love Son La. When you're there you'll get to visit the old French Prison: bombed by the Americans then rebuilt by the Vietnamese, these days it's a tourist attraction that houses plenty of cool artefacts and is really well maintained.
Day 4: Son La City - Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu; the Muong Thanh Valley; the Pha Din Pass
Continuing through the mountains and over the Pha Din Pass, you'll make your way towards Dien Bien Phu. Nestled in the heart shaped Muong Thanh Valley, this site of the decisive battle between the Viet Minh and the French is one of our favourite places in North Vietnam. When you arrive, you'll have the opportunity to check out one or two sites of historical interest, like A1 Hill, the Bunker of Colonel de Castries or the Muong Thang Bridge, all of which are quite close to one another. You'll notice a difference between it and other cities, too, since it's quite small, very few tourists make it out there and the majority of its inhabitants are minority folk.
Day 5: Dien Bien Phu - Lai Chau
the minority village of Sin Ho
From Dien Bien Phu you'll ride into Lai Chau, the most sparsely populated province in Vietnam. Bordered on the south by the Da River and on the north by China, it's covered with farms, forests and mountains. It didn't become part of Vietnam until it was absorbed by the French towards the end of the nineteenth century, and its inhabitants have maintained a variety of unique customs and traditions. The mountain village of Sin Ho is where you'll spend the night: it's reached by a winding mountain road more than a kilometre above sea level.
Day 6: Lai Chau - Sa Pa
Sa Pa; the minority village of Ta Phin; the O Quy Ho mountain pass
From Lai Chau you'll ride the O Quy Ho mountain pass that skirts Hoang Lien Son, the mountain range in which 'The Roof of Indochina', Phan Xi Pang, is situated. Towards the end of the pass, there's a series of small eateries that have viewing platforms that jut out over the cliffs, providing a unique photo opportunity. Then it's on to Sa Pa, where you'll explore the surrounding area on dirt roads before heading into town to check out the Old Quarter, with its stone church and traditional marketplace, and finally heading out to a homestay in the village of Ta Phin to spend the night.
Day 7: Sa Pa - Lao Cai
Sa Pa; the Muong Hoa Valley; Thac Bac Waterfall; 'the Dragon's Jaw', Ham Rong Mountain
You won't have to head to the train station in Lao Cai until early evening, so on your second day in Sa Pa you'll get to do some dirt biking in the Muong Hoa Valley before heading out to Thac Bac Waterfall and 'the Dragon's Jaw', Ham Rong Mountain. That evening, it's just a short ride from Sa Pa to the city of Lao Cai, where you'll have dinner before catching the night train back to Hanoi.
(Overnight) Lao Cai - Hanoi
The night train saves time, allowing you to spend more time doing what you came here to do!