The far north is where the rubber meets the road for hard-core adventure junkies. If you were born to be wild, take your own Minsk motorbike; if you weren't, go with a jeep and driver.
This chapter is broken into two sections: the Northwest Highlands, which include Lao Cai, Sapa, and the Dien Bien Phu Loop; and the North-Central Highlands, a shorter route including Ba Be Park and the small towns of Cao Bang and Lang Son.
In addition to breathtaking landscapes of the Tonkinese Alps and off-the-map destinations like Dien Bien Phu, one of the main attractions in the region is the villages of the ethnic minority hilltribes. The weather is much cooler here than in Vietnam's often sultry lowlands and coastal plains, so bring some layers, and be ready for some good adventures.
The region's most accessible and popular choice for luxury travelers, backpackers, and tour groups, Sapa can be reached by overnight train from Hanoi. With a range of good accommodations and dining, Sapa is a good base for trekking to hilltribe villages or as the first or last destination on a rugged highland adventure.
Below I've outlined the long loop starting in Hanoi and including the towns of Hoa Binh, Mai Chau, Son La, Dien Bien Phu (where the French forces in Indochina fell), and Lai Chau before crossing the high pass to Sapa. The trip is a real hoot and takes from 4 days to 1 week of adventurous road travel along some treacherous tracks through beautiful mountain scenery in the heart of the Tonkinese Alps. A trip around the loop is a great chance to experience Vietnam "off the track" and have contact with ethnic hilltribe culture.
Another route leaves Hanoi and heads directly north via the town of Thai Nguyen to the Ba Be Lake National Park, then to the riverside town of Cao Bang, where rural day trips take you to a stunning waterfall and to hilltribe markets, and finally to Lang Son, a provincial outpost, before returning to Hanoi. Different hilltribe groups call this region home, and weekend markets abound.
When Traveling in the Northern Highlands . . . -- Bring cash. You can find local banks in each of these little towns to exchange U.S. greenbacks, but usually at a much less favorable rate. Apart from in Sapa and Lao Cai, there are no ATMs in the region. Just bring enough Vietnam dong to cover expenses (on your own, plan to bring about 375,000 VND). Even the smallest hamlet in Vietnam has good postal service, you can make calls via an international phone, and the Internet is accessible in the smallest town (you might even catch sight of the proverbial "thatched-roof Internet cafe"), but service is very slow, even in Sapa. Medical services are not up to par, even for Vietnam. You can fly yourself out of Dien Bien Phu if you're in real trouble, but you're more or less on your own out on the roads. Bring a good first-aid kit for incidental cuts and scrapes, and be sure to carry stomach medicine, bug spray, and sunscreen.