CAO BANG Cao Bang province is one of the most beautiful places in all of Vietnam. The same cannot be said for the town of Cao Bang, but nobody cares as it is a useful base to explore the surrounding countryside. Cao Bang town is high above sea level and has a gentle climate.

While in Cao Bang town, hit the hill leading up to the War Memorial. Head up the second lane off Pac Bo, go under the entrance to a primary school, and you'll see the steps. There are great 360-degree views from the summit, and it's very peaceful, not to mention good exercise.

Cao Bang is 272km north of Hanoi, along Hwy 3. This is a sealed road, but due to the mountainous terrain, it's a full day drive. There are several direct buses daily from Hanoi (80, 000d, nine hours) and Thai Nguyen. There is also a daily bus to/from Lang Son (62, 000d, five hours), departing from the bus station

Ha Giang is somewhere to recharge the batteries on the long road north. The scenery is a good taste of things to come, with limestone outcrops soaring skywards over the town. Those heading further north to explore the districts of Yen Minh, Dong Van, Meo Van and Bac Me need to arrange a permit (per person US$10) here.

Ha Giang is 290km north of Hanoi (76, 000d, seven hours by bus) on Hwy 2. It is also possible to get here from Bac Ha, but the tough road is only for the strongest 4WD or very experienced bikers. The route passes through the lively towns of Xin Man and Huong Su Phi and is very beautiful. There are daily buses north to scenic towns like Meo Vac, but it's much better to explore the beauty of Ha Giang with your own wheels.

Mai Chau is the heart of a beautiful valley that is a world away from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. The modern village is an unappealing sprawl, but as you emerge on the rice fields and rural living it is transformed into a real paradise. It's a stunning area, and most people here are ethnic White Thai, distantly related to tribes in Thailand, Laos and China.

Although most locals no longer wear traditional dress, the Thai women are masterful weavers who ensure that there is plenty of traditional-style clothing to buy in the village centre. You will see women weaving on looms under or inside their houses in the village. Much of the silk looks similar to that seen in Laos. The Thai of Mai Chau are less likely to employ strong-arm sales tactics than their H'mong counterparts in Sapa: polite bargaining is the norm rather than endless haggling.

Mai Chau is 135km from Hanoi and just 5km south of Tong Dau junction on Hwy 6. There's no direct public transport to Mai Chau from Hanoi; however, buses to nearby Hoa Binh (25, 000d, two hours) are plentiful. From Hoa Binh there are several scheduled buses to Mai Chau (20, 000d, two hours) daily. Usually these stop at Tong Dau junction; a xe om (motorbike taxi) from there to Mai Chau proper will cost about 15, 000d.

Theoretically, foreigners must pay a 5000d entry fee to Mai Chau; there's a toll booth at the state-run guesthouse on the main road. More often than not, there is nobody there to collect the fee.

Hoa Lu was the capital of Vietnam during the Dinh (968 - 980) and early Le (980-1009) dynasties. The site was a smart choice for a capital city because of the natural protection afforded by the region bizarre landscape, with rocky outcrops as spectacular as Tam Coc.

The ancient citadel of Hoa Lu (admission 10, 000d), most of which has been destroyed, covered an area of about 3 sq km. The outer ramparts encompassed temples, shrines and the king palace. The royal family lived in the inner citadel.

Hoa Lu is 12km northwest of Ninh Binh; turn left 6km north of town on Hwy 1A. There is no public transport, so most travellers get there by bicycle, motorbike or car. Ask your hotel about the blissful back roads linking Hoa Lu to Tam Coc.

Sapa is located in the Lao Cai province in the mountainous region in the far northwest of the Vietnam, almost near the border of China. Sapa was originally a hill station built by the French in 1922 for summer retreats from Hanoi.
Sapa is the home to diverse mountain tribe communities including the H'mong, Tay, Dao and Thai ethnic groups, and visits to the markets and nearby villages of the ethnic tribes are one of the highlights of most trips.

What to Do?
Surrounded by beautiful scenery, Sapa is the perfect place to relax and enjoy the views. The town of Sapa itself is small and compact and easy to explore by foot, with a visit to the market in the town center a frequent stop.
Sapa is also a good base for trekking, cycling and motorbike trips to explore the mountainous region and visit the villages and markets of the ethnic minorities.
From Sapa, it is also possible to reach the Fansipan peak, the highest mountain in Vietnam at 3,143 meter. Treks to the peak generally take at least 3 days and should only be done with a guide.

When to Go?
For the most pleasant weather, the best times to visit Sapa is March and May or mid-September to early December. While trips can be enjoyed year-round, the winters in Sapa get cold, with some fog and drizzle, and the summers have the hottest weather and higher chances of rain, with the rainy season starting in May through September.
If possible, it is recommended to go to Sapa during the week, since the weekend markets can be more crowded with tourists.

How to get there?
The most popular way to reach Sapa is by overnight train from Hanoi. The train takes 10 hours, departing Hanoi in the evening and arriving in Lao Cai early in the morning. From Lao Cai, the drive by minibus or car to Sapa is around 1 hour and can be arranged in advance by your hotel. It is recommended to book train seats in advance, especially for the more comfortable soft-sleepers. For those travelers who will stay at the Victoria Resort in Sapa, there is also the option of the more luxurious Victoria train carriages.

Travel tips
The ethnic tribe women and girls in Sapa are getting increasingly aggressive in their selling, in some cases following people and even yelling at those that don’t buy. It is fine to buy, but if you are not interested in buying, you might want to take care to show lack of interest.
Also please note that many of the handmade articles, while beautiful, are made using natural dyes that are not set. They should be kept separately within your bag and washed separately in cold salt water, and if you are using or wearing them, expect some color bleading from sweat and rain.
The mountainous roads around Sapa have beautiful views, and going by motorbikes in this region is a popular option. However, with rocks and cliffs, the roads are dangerous and should be driven only with experienced riders or a tour guide.
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