The north of Vietnam is stunning, with high mountains, emerald green forests, plunging valleys and the elegant capital city, Hanoi. A blend of French architecture, royal legacies and artisan influences, it’s beautiful to wander around – and a mecca for shopping. To the east lies Ha Long Bay – a UNESCO listed seascape of limestone outcrops that rise majestically from the sea. To the north are the picturesque regions of Sapa, Son La and Bac Ha, which are filled with minority villages and wonderfully lush scenery.
Hanoi is famous for its steaming pho soup, served in street stalls across the city. It’s a fantastically healthy, clear beef stock garnished with rice noodles, herbs or green onions, which you can pep up with lime juice, hot chillies or fried dough sticks. Take the plunge and squeeze onto a bench in whichever stall is busiest with locals. If you’re in the southeast of the centre, make a bee-line for Pho Tin (pictured) at 13 Lo Duc, where the addition of stir-fried garlic gives a smokiness which we loved.
If you’re visiting Hanoi in low season, add an extra day to visit Perfume Pagoda, hidden in a vast cave amid forested mountains. After a rather tedious 2-hour drive, you jump into a waiting punt and are rowed downstream to the lower pagoda complex, brimming with Buddhist pilgrims. From here you hike a 1-hour stepped trail, or take a spectacular cable-car overlooking the jagged limestone peaks, up to the sacred site. After the heat and souvenir stalls, the cave feels magically cool and spiritual. Note, it get insanely busy in high season; also avoid the months around Tet (Lunar New Year).
If you want a far-less touristy version of Halong Bay, book a cruise to nearby Bai Tu Long Bay instead. It looks very similar, with majestic limestone outcrops soaring from of the sea, and you'll still be able to stay on a traditional junk, visit vast caves, and kayak in emerald waters. The difference will be you may be the only group on a beach or in a cave, and your experience will be way more peaceful.
For something totally different, head inland and up, towards the Hoang Lien mountains. Gloriously lush, this region teems with staggered rice terraces and ethnic hill people. The Hmong tribes are the most well-known, and their small communities are dotted throughout the valleys. Spend a couple of days trekking through the region then visit the vibrant Bac Ha market on a Sunday, where you can barter for water buffalo, local firewater or (more practically) lovely handicrafts.
In this province, people live in stilt houses, graze water buffaloes in rice fields, and weave beautiful fabrics on simple looms. Some of the country's earliest inhabitants, they still dress traditionally and perform dance displays for tourists (of which there are few). It's a fascinating area; take tours of the remote hilltribes, visit local markets, and hike through the lush, hilly landscape. Stay at Mai Chau Lodge, a community-led organisation. All staff are local, and profits go towards promoting village literacy.