Tired of tourist trails? Here's a great opportunity to get off the track and into rugged terrain that is little affected by tourism or the world economy. In an area along the border of China and Laos, rugged roads traverse high mountain passes, cling to the side of steep mountains prone to landslide, and peer down over deep river gorges. The major thoroughfares are paved and in good condition in the dry season, but do keep an ear to the ground before setting out during or just after the summer rains (check in at Highway 4, a popular bar and meeting spot in Hanoi, for the most updated information).
Travel in this region offers the best opportunity to meet and greet people of ethnic-minority hilltribe groups, from the timid White Thai to the gregarious Hmong. But remember that responsible tourism is crucial; our collective interaction with isolated ethnic minorities lays the groundwork for their future survival (or demise). Hire guides if you are going off into the boonies or out among ethnic groups. Your impact, especially if your travels take you to real rural parts, is important..
Give yourself 5 or 6 days for the loop from Hanoi to Sapa; anything shorter means you'll spend all of your time on the road, with little respite or time to explore.
The best way to do this loop is by motorbike, as two wheels will take you to small villages and off the main road -- places that are off-limits to a jeep. But jeeps are also a good -- and certainly safer -- option. A few good outfitters can arrange tours by motorbike, with or without guides, or jeep. All of the traveler cafes in Hanoi run trips up this way, but it's worth it to go with a midrange or high-quality tour provider (Handspan or Buffalo Tours); you'll get more individual attention, follow more-out-of-the-way routes, and enjoy unique itineraries with professional guides.