As the oldest geographical region out of the three within Vietnam, Northern Vietnam dates back over two thousand years ago in the Red River Delta. With diverse geographical and cultural features, the northern part of Vietnam is acknowledged as a trekking heaven for cultural buffs. It is perfect for those seeking exposure to the centuries-old culture of the Kinh and the diverse cultures of other ethnic minority groups.
The following are the two most distinctive types of valleys in Vietnam, which walk you through the different lights of Northern Vietnam and are ideal for maximizing your cultural exposure. Read this article from helloVietnam tour operator to find out.
1. Bac Son Valley – The most candid and placid rural experience
Although trekking has only been introduced to Vietnam recently, it has been fervently accepted by both domestic and international travelers, especially the younger groups. While popular trekking spots are getting more and more touristy, Bac Son Valley remains untouched by mass tourism.
With a total absence of touristy frills, Bac Son Valley is all about exploring authentic cultural and historical identities as well as discovering untouched places. It is your typical Northern Highland valley with gleaming rice terraces, a kaleidoscope of ethnic cultures, traditional stilt houses, and unparalleled peacefulness.
Bac Son Valley in harvest season
Located 160km northeast of Hanoi in Lang Son Province, the mountainous terrain of Bac Son is less jagged and remote compared to other popular trekking spots like Sapa, Mu Cang Chai, Ha Giang, etc., making it accessible at almost any time of the year.
Perhaps Bac Son Valley does not possess the most imposing and striking scenery at first sight, but it is in no way ordinary. Its unique charm lies in the way the lovely stilt houses seamlessly blend with their surrounding natural settings in harmony, and how colorful patchwork quilts of rice paddy fields look like intricate brocade patterns elaborately sewn together from above.
Homestay accommodation in Bac Son
For those looking for well-equipped accommodation, guesthouses run a wide range around Bac Son Town at a very reasonable price, which is about 200,000 VND/room. However, the best way to thoroughly experience the indigenous culture of Tay people is to do a homestay at a local’s house. You can find a comfortable homestay at Quynh Son Village – a village mostly inhabited by the Tay, located at the bottom of the mountain range. It only costs around 70,000 VND/person; and an extra 80,000 VND surcharge will be applied if dinner is included. There are about 70 certified households in the village that meet the standards which allow them to provide homestay accommodations for visitors.
To make the most out of your Bac Son Valley exploration, you should plan out your itinerary for two days and one night.
Quynh Son Village
Residing in the northeast of Bac Son District, this ancient village of the Tay possesses a long and rich history of heritage. With a unique style of architecture where hundreds of stilt houses are neatly distributed, all facing south, the on-stilt architecture featured on each house may look identical from afar. However, when looking closely you will see the difference in details of each house.
Quynh Son Village in harvest season
Besides the main focus on agriculture, Quynh Son Village is also home to many ancestral crafts that date back over a hundred years ago. It is most famous for the trademark ‘Am Duong’ roof titles - an indispensable material used in the traditional stilt houses of the Tay and Nung ethnic groups. Despite being a traditional craft, it is only a laborious side hustle that doesn’t generate much income. Thus, there are only about 30 out of 400 households in the village that are still nourishing the craft.
Quynh Son Village leans against undulating karst mountain ranges and looks out to the lush Bac Son fields graced with a meandering river. Further into the exceptionally quaint and rustic ambiance, you will be met with friendly inhabitants showcasing their rich cultural heritage. The locals are friendly, hospitable, and are very resourceful when it comes to culinary arts.
Cam sticky rice eaten with crushed roasted peanuts
- Try out the wide range of festive dishes: Black Chung cakes, Cam glutinous rice, sausages, mountain chicken simmered with ginger, grilled stream fish, etc.
- Enjoy the soothing ‘Then’ tunes of the Tay performed by the village’s reclusive performance team for a closer insight into the colorful culture of the Tay.
Long Tong Festival at Quynh Son Village
- If your visit falls on the 12th and 13th of Lunar January – when Long Tong Festival takes place, you’ll have the chance to experience every interesting cultural aspect of Tay people.
Along with the ritual of going to the field and praying for a bumper crop, an array of traditional activities will follow, such as singing ‘Vi’ tunes, singing ‘Then’ tunes, ‘Tan Dan’ dancing, ‘Chau’ dancing, etc. You will also get to witness exhilarating games such as plowing competitions, rice pounding competitions, swinging, throwing cotton balls, etc.
Na Lay Mountain
Standing at an elevation of 600m above sea level, Na Lay Mountain looks down from the adjacent mountain peaks to rolling rice terraces and rice paddies of different colors. Conquer the 500+ stone steps and you will be rewarded with an extraordinary vista of Bac Son shrouded in clouds. It’s best to trek up Na Lay Peak before sunrise and sunset if you want to witness one of the finest moments of Bac Son.
Bac Son Valley from Na Lay Peak
There is an antenna station equipped with water and electricity, where you can talk with the staff while waiting for the perfect moment to get ‘the’ shot; it only lasts 2-3 minutes, so seize the moment. The staff member here is very amiable and outgoing; you can visit his beautiful stilt house in Quynh Son Village later.
- During off-peak season, you can spend the night at the station; remember to bring the staff a small gift to show courtesy.
- During peak season, which is harvest season from July to November, there may not be enough room for everyone, so bring your camping gear along. A fun-filled overnight camp on top of Na Lay Mountain gazing at the shimmering stars is a refreshing way to experience a different Bac Son. Ask the staff for his number just in case you need help with anything.
Bac Son Museum and Nong Luc Temple
Bac Son Valley is associated with the illustrious success of the Bac Son Insurrection in 1940.
A replica of the traditional stilt house in Bac Son Museum
Built in the style of Tay architecture, Bac Son Museum houses, preserves, and exhibits the historical relics of the Bac Son Insurrection in 1940. In addition, there is also a miniature accommodation of prehistoric humans and a presentation of archaeological relics excavated in Bac Son Valley. Free admissions are offered to visitors.
Nong Luc Temple
Nong Luc Temple belongs to Hung Vu Commune and is one of the 20 architectural and religious relics remaining in Bac Son Valley. It was recognized as a national level relic in 1993. The temple’s architecture features both the on-stilt style of the Tay, and the style of Northern Vietnam’s traditional temples. The interior represents the signature meticulous architectural space of the Nguyen Dynasty. Nong Luc Temple was also where Vietnamese communists set up the plan to launch the Bac Son Insurrection.
Dang Mo Waterfall
Dang Mo Waterfall
Situated in Binh Gia District, 20km from Bac Son Town, Dang Mo Waterfall also goes under another the name of Mui Bo (cow’s nose). The lesser-known waterfall remains in all its pristine beauty with a continuous flowing flow, collecting water from an underground system of canals.
Dang Mo Waterfall is estimated to have a total vertical drop of 100m, cascading over three rock ledges. Along with the stacked moss-covered stone boulders of different shapes and sizes, the giant ancient trees spread out their branches which shade over the water. This makes the place even more mystical and secluded.
2. Am Tien Cave – A sketch of time
Am Tien is unlike most of the highland valleys in Northern Vietnam, it is a world of sublimity, solitude, and mystery. As a part of the cultural-historical relic complex of Hoa Lu Ancient Capital recognized by UNESCO in 2014, Am Tien is situated 10km west of Ninh Binh City center, and is associated with many renowned historical figures in the early 10th century.
Am Tien Cave
In addition to the natural setting that looks like it could be straight out of an ancient Chinese movie, historically, this cave also holds an enormous importance of the bygone era:
- Excruciating methods of execution took place under the Dinh Dynasty.
- Emperor Le Dai Hanh housed prisoners of war captured during the invasion of the Song Dynasty from 981 to 986 before returning them to their messenger.
- Empress Dowager Duong Van Nga spent her old age practicing Buddhism in Am Tien Pagoda.
The cave's entrance resembles a dragon's mouth
Am Tien Cave lies wholly in a small valley with its entrance facing west, embraced by the Ngu Phong Son Mountain Range consisting of deep swamps and steep cliffs, and mostly covered by a lake named Giai at the bottom of Dia Mountain. Because Am Tien Cave resembles the shape of a dragon’s mouth from afar, it is also called Rong Cave (Dragon Cave). Aside from the main cave, there are also Tien Grotto and Muoi Grotto, where food and treasury were reserved under the Dinh and Early Le Dynasties.
Ngu Phong Son comprises five peaks pointing towards the tombs of Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang (924-979) and Emperor Le Danh Hanh (941 – 1005) located on Ma Yen Mountain. This fine spectacle brings you back in time through its bewitching spiritual and historical significance. It used to be a desolate cave until over a thousand years ago when Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang discovered it. He was the first Vietnamese emperor in history who united the country by defeating the rebellion of the 12 warlords.
The stone flight of stairs to Am Tien Cave
In the past, the only way to visit Am Tien Cave was by enduring the 205 stone steps carved into the mountainside. Nowadays, it can be accessed easily thanks to the new tunnel cutting through the mountain, allowing better access for visitors.
Legend has it that Dinh Tien Hoang was a good king who loved and protected his people from the rule of the Chinese Song Dynasty, but he was also extremely strict when it came to punishment. This resolute cave was originally utilized as a location to raise and keep wild beasts like tigers and jaguars that were used for executing criminals. It was later turned into execution grounds.
Those who refused to obey his decree would be thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil, to the beasts, or into Giai Pond filled with Giai (Yangtze giant soft-shell turtles that feed on human flesh) at the bottom of the cave. In exchange, those who managed to survive and escape would be absolved.
Regarding the story behind Giai Pond, there appears to be conflicting opinions: according to some sources, it was used to raise giant turtles while some history experts believe that it was used to raise crocodiles. Over the ages, the once execution ground, where perpetrators were thrown in to feed giant turtles, leaves almost no trace of its agonizing past. What welcomes visitors now is the exceptionally clear water where you can see the aquatic plants and animals at the bottom, contributing to the mysterious and unearthly charm of the ambiance.
Am Tien Pagoda
This solemn pagoda was constructed in the main grotto and is almost isolated from the outside world. Surreptitiously tucked up in the middle of the mountains, Am Tien Pagoda looks out to the emerald water of Giai Pond and the seemingly endless mountain ranges in the west.
From the balcony of the pagoda, a perfect panoramic view of the sacred grandeur will unfold in front of your eyes, alluring yet solitary.
Am Tien Pagoda
Like many other cave pagodas across the former feudal capital, this pagoda is dedicated to Buddhism and historical figures, including Empress Dowager Duong Van Nga and Monk Nguyen Minh Khong.
- Empress Dowager Duong Van Nga (? – 1000) was the first woman in Vietnam’s history to be married to two emperors (Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang and Emperor Le Dai Hanh – the first and second Kings of Vietnam). After assisting the two kings in defeating invasions from the Song Dynasty, she devoted her life to Buddhism to seek inner peace.
- Under the Ly Dynasty, a highly respected Monk – Nguyen Minh Khong, better known as Ly Quoc Su (1065-1141), visited this cave and realized that the ‘Yin’ energy (阴气 - miasmas) was too dominant. He decided to rename the cave to ‘Am Tien’, and would chant day and night. His chants had ‘ripened the minds’ of the wild animals and relieved the suffering of the criminals, turning this cave into a much more restful place.
Avoid visiting Am Tien Cave after 4 PM, especially in winter, as it can be quite risky when your vision is hindered at dusk. Furthermore, the scenic view can get hazy and fuzzy for photos.
Am Tien Cave is open to visitors for free.
Trekking in Northern Vietnam - Same Same but Different
It is an undeniable fact that Northern Vietnam is a mecca for trekkers and cultural buffs. Experienced trekkers are familiar with the ‘typical Northern Vietnam package’, from aesthetically cascading rice terraces to patchwork quilts of rice paddies dotted with wooden houses on stilts, from gentle rivers crossing the plain to calm lakes and sublime waterfalls, all leaning against a backdrop of heavily timbered mountains. And it doesn’t stop there; its cultural kaleidoscope is just as diverse.
While it’s true that almost every part of this mountainous region shares the same characteristics, each destination is a charm in its own right. Featuring a wide range of trekking spots and tours, the Northern Highlands cater to almost every adventurer’s tastes and skills. Each of them is characterized by geographical, territorial, and cultural factors:
- If you crave a real adventure, head to Bac Son Valley, a remote town located in the southwest of Lang Son Province, 160km north of Hanoi. The lack of international exposure and tourism facilities makes it an ideal off the beaten track trekking spot.
- Residing 160km southwest of Hanoi at 200-1,000m above sea level, Mai Chau Plateau, Hoa Binh Province is perfect for a relaxing getaway for city dwellers, with a harmonious blend of scenery, culture, and especially cuisine.
- Situated about 200km northwest of Hanoi at an altitude of 1,050m above sea level, the culturally rich Moc Chau (Son La Province) is the largest and most beautiful plateau in North Vietnam.
The picturesque Dong Van Plateau in spring
- Dong Van Plateau in Ha Giang Province – A plateau of rock and the final frontier of North Vietnam, situated 291km from Hanoi at 1,000–1,600m above sea level. Ha Giang’s appeal lies in its geographical value, grandeur of mountainous vistas, and the immense carpets of pinkish white buckwheat flowers.
- Located roughly 300km northwest of Hanoi at an altitude of 1,000m above sea level, there is the National Landscape Heritage Site – the rustic Mu Cang Chai (Yen Bai Province). With some of the most scenic landscapes of rice terraces on earth, Mu Cang Chai is redolent of the sweet, delightful aroma of the renowned Tu Le sticky rice during harvest season.
- Head further north to the dreamy, mysterious Sapa (Lao Cai Province), sitting at an elevation of 1,500-1,650m above sea level, 376km from Hanoi.
Yen Stream in Autumn
- Huong Pagoda or Huong Son Complex (70km south of Hanoi) is not a plateau or anything of the sort, but it is definitely worth mentioning when it comes to trekking and sightseeing in Northern Vietnam. This unearthly complex is loaded with esteemed historical, religious value, as well as incredible panoramas.
So, why limit yourself to a single option when you have so many at your fingertips?