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Driving the legendary Northwest Vietnam Loop

Traveling close to the Chinese border, we encounter various hill tribes who still retain their traditional lifestyle and unique customs. We visit the hill town of Sapa and the famous battle site of Dien Bien Phu, whilst all around us are some of Vietnam’s highest mountains. Expect to find the conditions quite basic on your travels, as this area is yet to see the influx of mass tourism

Trip Description & Day-by-day Itinerary

Driving the legendary Northwest Loop is the best way to get a glimpse of the rural side of a country in the throes of relentless, voracious development. Traveling close to the Chinese border, we encounter various hill tribes who still retain their traditional lifestyle and unique customs. We visit the hill town of Sapa and the famous battle site of Dien Bien Phu, whilst all around us are some of Vietnam’s highest mountains. Expect to find the conditions quite basic on your travels, as this area is yet to see the influx of mass tourism; however, you will be rewarded by the opportunities to witness the colourful and varied customs of Vietnam’s ethnic minority people. On market day, Bac Ha comes to life in a blaze of color – the amazing costume of the Flowered Hmong people makes this one of the most colourful markets in the world!

Day 1: Hanoi to Mai Chau.

Our journey then takes us west, towards Hoa Binh province. This scenic area is home to many ethnic minority groups including Dzao, Muong and Black Thai. We visit some villages en route to the beautiful valley of Mai Chau, where we are welcomed by a local family and spend the night in a long house. Time permitting, we may also do some walking today. A mattress, blanket and mosquito nets are provided. The accommodation is simple and dormitory-style, and the washing and toilet facilities are basic.

Day 2: Mai Chau to Son La.

Upon leaving Mai Chau we see many villages dotting the hillsides and the undulating terrain, which makes for an interesting journey. Along the way we stop for a short trek near Xa Linh, visiting the Hmong and the Muong people. Traveling across the Moc Chau Plateau we pass many tea plantations en route to Son La, which is our overnight stop. There we have the opportunity to visit the old Son La Prison, which the French used to imprison Vietnamese revolutionaries in the latter years of the colonial era. We also visit a small museum that has interesting displays on hill tribe lifestyles.

Day 3: Son La to Dien Bien Phu.

Leaving Son La, we stop at a market in Thuan Chau, which is frequented by many hill tribes. Crossing over the Pha Din Pass we travel to Dien Bien Phu, the site of the decisive battle in Vietnam’s struggle for independence from the French in 1954. Today the town houses a recently renovated museum, which details the events that took place. On display are relics from the battle including old French tanks and artillery pieces. Of special interest is the reconstruction of the bunker where the French commander, Colonel de Castries, surrendered to Viet Minh forces. We spend the night in Dien Bien Phu, which has developed into a fast-growing frontier town. The Lao border is not very far away from here.

Day 4: Dien Bien Phu to Lai Chau.

A long day’s drive though scenic, winding roads as our journey continues to Lai Chau, which encompasses an area formerly known as Tam Duong. This mountainous region is populated by many hill tribe villages and interesting markets where the local villagers come to trade their goods. We stay overnight in a very simple hotel, but it must be noted that all accommodation options here are very basic, as we are staying in an area that sees very few visitors.

Day 5: Lai Chau to Sapa.

Sapa was founded in the early years of the last century as a hilltop retreat for the French administrators when the heat of the plains became unbearable. At an altitude of over 1000 meters, there are warm days and cool evenings. The local minority groups such as Hmong and Dao come to Sapa to trade. The imposing Fan Si Pan range of hills encourages an alpine feel to this colonial-influenced town.

Day 6: Trekking Sapa.

Our trek into this mountainous region begins as we depart Sapa and pass through many different hill tribe villages. On our journey we will have the opportunity to meet some of the local people. The Black Hmong, Tay, Red Dzao and Sa Pho are some of the minority groups who have settled in this remote region. We trek through this forested region to a Red Dzao village called Giang Ta Chay, where we have lunch and then return to Sapa in the late afternoon.

Day 7: Sapa to Bac Ha. Visit Bac Ha Market. Overnight Train Lao Cai – Hanoi.

An early start departing Sapa as we again pass the frontier town of Lao Cai and head for hills towards the east. We visit the lively and colourful Sunday market in Bac Ha, arguably one of the most colourful markets in the world! Here we see many ethnic minority groups, but the dominant are the aptly named Flower Hmong. All these ethnic minority tribes wear their distinct costumes and come into town to trade on this one day of the week. It is a colourful experience to wander around the congregation. In the afternoon we transfer to Lao Cai, where we board the overnight train back to Hanoi.

Day 8: Arrive Hanoi.

Arrive back in Hanoi early this morning. End.

Map

Trip Summary Information

Depart from

Hanoi

End at

Hanoi

Departure

Upon request

Difficulty

Easy

Places to visit

Bac Ha, Dien Bien, Lai Chau, Mai Chau, Sapa, Son La

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Itinerary disclaimer

Occasionally our tour itineraries are updated during the year to incorporate improvements stemming from past travelers’ comments and our own research. The information given in this itinerary may be slightly different to that in the service proposal. It’s very important that you print and review a final copy of your itinerary a couple of days prior to travel, in case there have been changes that affect your plans. If you have any queries, please contact us. We are here to help you!

Please note that while we operate successful trips in Vietnam throughout the year, some changes may occur in our itineraries due to inclement weather and common seasonal changes to timetables and transport routes. This can happen with little notice so please be prepared for modifications to the route. The order and timing of included activities in each location may also vary from time to time.

Difficulty levels

Our trekking tours can be classified into three levels

Easy

There are about 8 – 10K to walk on flat roads. No previous experience is necessary. Anyone in good health and fit enough to perform an occasional hike can take an easy level trek. Vietnam easy walks are provided in Hanoi, Bac Giang, Mai Chau, Ngoc Son Ngo Luong…

Moderate

There are about 10 – 15K to hike on flat and hilly roads. At this point too, no special background is required. Hikers accustomed to trekking in hilly areas of Mai Chau, Pu Luong or Lai Chau, Yen Bai successfully accomplish our treks “moderate”, provided they are in good health and to have a correct fit. These treks are moderate or easy hikes with an average duration or shorter but more difficult steps.

Difficult

There are about 16 – 23K to trek on uphill/downhill dirty, rocky trails. Physical fitness is very important for these treks and you may have to lead you home before the trek. Most treks in this level are comparable with long rides in the Fansipan mountain or the the mountainous region of Ha Giang, Cao Bang, sometimes higher altitudes. The climate and isolation can also participate in difficulty. Prior trek experience is preferable but not vital if you have confidence in your fitness.

Inclusions

Our trip cost usually includes the following services. Please bear in mind Lotussia Travel is specialized in tailor-made trips. Trip cost vary depending on group size and other details.

  • Car transfers
  • Local tour guide. The English-Speaking guide is provided by default. Other language may be available upon request (with extra charge).
  • Local porter(s)
  • Accommodation
  • Meals
  • Sightseeing entrance fees.
  • Bottled water.

Exclusions

Unless required most of the following services are usually not included in our tour price.

  • Visa (required)
  • Flight/Train tickets.
  • Accommodation pre/post trip.
  • Travel insurance
  • Tips
  • Personal expenses

Tour Guide

Our tour guides speak English or French. They hold a university degree in tourism and national license as a guide. If you wish to send a tour leader along with any group, he or she can fully rely on the knowledge and experience of our local guides.

Remote treks are always accompanied by a local representative to deal with permits and authorities and manage the porter team. They speak the local dialects, know the cultural traditions and give tips on suggested behavior in fragile ecological areas and tribal communities. For some itineraries, the role of tour leader and representative is combined.

When to hike

The north Vietnam experiences two distinct seasons; winter and summer. Winter is cool, dry and lasts from November to April. Temperatures range between 15 to 25°C during the day and 0 to 10°C during the night. With little rain, the winter season offers the most pleasant weather conditions for trekking in Vietnam. Read more about Vietnam weather.

Porter

During all trekking tours we may use local porters to carry your luggage as well as our trekking equipment, where required. To generate local income we employ local villagers for this task. Participants will have their own porter, carrying trekking equipment and luggage to a maximum of 15 kg per client. Travelers only have to carry their day packs. Read more how to pack

Vehicle

Depending on the nature of the tour, journeys will be accompanied by an air-conditioned car/minibus cover the larger overland sections.

Accommodation

Campsites and lodges are not common in Vietnam, instead we make use of homestays; staying the night in tribal villages along the way. Facilities are clean, but very basic. Travelers share a bamboo-slat floor, separated by curtains. Animals usually sleep under the house and restrooms and showers are often absent. Water sources are available outside. Mattresses, blankets and mosquito nets are taken care of.

Over the years Lotussia Travel has established a number of projects to upgrade home stay accommodation into a bit more comfort. Basic facilities aside, spending the night in a tribal village and enjoying a meal with the locals brings travellers unforgettable cross-cultural experiences. In the past 15 years of organizing trekking by this way, we never received a complaint.

Food

During all treks meals will be arranged on the spot, in local restaurants and at home in local villages along the way. The meals are prepared by our cooks, the local guide or by the local host. Our cooks are well trained to prepare and serve food hygienically and they cook a variety of local delicacies. Sometimes this may include the slaughter of a chicken, duck or pig. We sometimes have the chance to bring western food, and snacks from Hanoi for breakfast and picnics along the way, and coffee and tea are available in abundance. Our cooks make a special effort to provide as much variety as possible. The porters give necessary assistance on the spot.

Drinking water

There are many shops and villages that have bottled water for sale. On remote trekking tours, we buy a sufficient supply of water for the next couple of days. We recommend bringing some water purifying tablets.

Packing

Comfortable lightweight clothing in natural fabrics such as cotton is most suitable for travelling in Vietnam. The dress code is fairly casual as in most parts of the tropics but it is advisable to cover arms and legs in the evenings against biting insects. A lightweight raincoat is a good idea in the rainy season. During the winter months warm clothing is needed for visiting the north of Vietnam. Visitors should not wear shorts, short skirts or other skimpy clothing when visiting religious buildings such as pagoda, temple, communal house and shoes should be removed before entering a private home.

What you take will naturally depend upon where you are travelling and the style of journey you are undertaking, and it can often be difficult to decide what to pack. Nevertheless, the following should act as a useful checklist of essential items worth thinking about taking.

  • 1 medium-sized backpack.
  • Comfortable walking shoes with good grip
  • 1 long (easy to dry) pants and 1 long sleeved shirt to wear during the trek (easy to dry).
  • 1 pair of flip flop (sandals).
  • 1 pair of shorts and T-shirt to wear at camp site (2 if you do 4-day trek).
  • 1 medium-sized towel.
  • 1 medium-sized dry bag.
  • Hiking poles/walking sticks
  • GPS

Responsible Tourism

We strongly believe that Responsible Tourism can support to local communities: proving incomes,positive cultural exchanges and an incentive to protect natural environment. We recognize that there is always space for improvement. We continually strive to narrow the gap between principle and practice.

Environment

We have been turning environmentally responsible tourism into practices to minimize tourist impact upon the local habitat. From biodegradable soaps to re – usable water containers, we provide clients with the best information and mean to help them identify and implement effective ways to positive protect local nature and communities. It is a vital criteria that can be passed on and abided by all, long after the trip ended.

Community

Prior to our tours, we contact and work with local community leaders to make sure we are welcome and in a manner that minimizes negative social and cultural impacts. We visit local development and community projects specific to the region, encouraging customers to donate and assist such a projects in appropriate and sustainable manner.

Where make sure that where and whenever possible our tours positively benefit the local community. We stayed at locally owned accommodation and visit cottage industries for local handicraft souvenir, generating income for local business. We often employ, hire support team such as local guide, motor-taxi drivers, cook assistants on all trips to ensure that the local community benefit not only short term but with increased employment opportunities for the future.

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