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The Northwest of Vietnam
Welcome to the roof of Vietnam, where the mountains of the Tonkinese Alps (Hoang Lien Mountains) soar skyward, their long shadows concealing some of the country’s best-kept secrets. The landscape is a rich palette that provides some of the most spectacular scenery in Vietnam. Forbidding and unforgiving terrain for lowlanders, the mountains have long been a haven for an eclectic mix of hill tribes. Dressed in elaborate costumes, the Montagnards live as they have for generations and extend the hand of friendship to strangers; an encounter with the Montagnards is both a humbling and heart-warming experience.
 
For many visitors, Sapa is the northwest, an atmospheric old hill station set amid stunning scenes of near-vertical rice terraces and towering peaks. But beyond Sapa the voluptuous views continue, and there are many other options to come face to face with the bold landscapes and colourful inhabitants of this region – Bac Ha, Dien Bien Phu and Mai Chau. For the ultimate motorbike adventure head to Ha Giang, the final frontier in northern Vietnam.
Although many of the roads in this region are surfaced, many are dangerous cliffhangers that are regularly wiped out by landslides in the wet season. The stretch from Lai Chau into Sapa offers some of the best mountain vistas in Southeast Asia, as the road climbs more than 1000m over the Tram Ton Pass. The northwestern roads are always improving, but if you suffer from vertigo, backache or (God forbid) haemorrhoids, you might want to stick to the shorter trips. The northwest loop from Hanoi, via Dien Bien Phu and Sapa, is a gruelling but definitive road trip to discover the secrets of the region.
 
Getting there & away
Remote and mountainous, the northwest is the one region of Vietnam where it pays to consider the ‘ins and outs’ carefully. The main airport in the region is at Dien Bien Phu with daily connections to Hanoi. The most popular way to reach the region is to take the train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, gateway to Sapa and the Tonkinese Alps (Hoang Lien Mountains). Whether you take the day train for some scenery or the night train for convenience, this is the easy entry. It’s that or the mountain roads, which can be very unforgiving on a public bus, not to mention more than a little dangerous in the wet season. Try 14 hours on a bus to Dien Bien Phu if you don’t believe us. Better is the option of a private 4WD vehicle if you have the funds or can muster a group. Lastly, for the adventurous, there is the Russian Minsk motorbike, the mule of the mountains that can get pretty much anywhere. For experienced bikers only, this is the way to get up close and personal with the northwest.
 
The most rewarding journey in this region is the ‘northwest loop’. Head for Mai Chau, then Son La and Dien Bien Phu, then north to Lai Chau, Sapa and back to Hanoi. The loop is best with a 4WD or motorbike, in case the highways are cut and a bit of off-roading is required. Allow at least a week for this journey, and considerably more time if braving the local buses. And three cheers for the hardy cyclists who pump up and down these roads.