Northwest Vietnam Mountain Tour Adventure

During our stay in Hanoi we had visited some NW Vietnam tour companies because we wanted to book a private Northwest Vietnam mountain tour. Our desire to visit the NW mountains of Vietnam was only partly due to our love of nature.

Instead, we intended to visit some of Vietnam’s remaining ethnic minority groups such as the Black Hmong and the Red Dao. Combined, the minority groups comprise about 15% of the population in Vietnam.

The majority ethnic group is the Viet or Kinh and they make up the remaining 85%. Many of the most interesting ethnic minority groups live in the Northwest Mountains of Vietnam.     

Our plan was to visit several NW mountain villages and conclude the tour with a trek in Sapa. Our instructions to the guide were simple. We wanted to stay off the beaten path and avoid tourist traps. Additionally, we wanted to do some improvisation for a unique experience. Fortunately, our guide was happy to comply and we departed from Hanoi straight away.

Northwest Mountain Tour Vietnam – Day one

Our first stop on the northwest mountain tour was a reservoir on the Da River named Ho Hoa Binh. The Da River originates in China and flows through NW Vietnam where it becomes a major tributary of the Red River and then empties into the Gulf of Tonkin. Construction of the Hoa Binh Dam was completed in 1994 and the reservoir was subsequently formed.

Northwest Mountain Tour Vietnam
In this photo, our driver is on the far left, the boat captain in the middle and our tour guide is on the far right.

Our plan was to take a boat to one of the islands on the Ho Hoa Binh reservoir which was a popular picnic spot. After we set sail, it took about 1-2 hours to travel to the island. The karst limestone formations make for a very scenic landscape.

Photo Ho Hoa Binh Reservoir Northwest Mountain Tour Vietnam
The karst formations are a very scenic element of the first leg of our northwest mountain tour in Vietnam. The limestone formations are visible on the landscape from the Ho Hoa Binh reservoir

Upon arrival we moored the boat next to a group of Vietnamese university students who were majoring in economics. They were very friendly and prone to erupt in outbreaks of prolonged laughter.

Photo Northwest Mountain Tour Vietnam - Ho Hoa Binh Reservoir
While visiting the island on the Ho Hoa Binh reservoir we moored next to a group of boisterous university students.

Island Picnic NW Vietnam Mountain Tour

Picnic lunch on Ho Hoa Binh Reservoir in Northwest Vietnam Mountains
They roasted some fish for the guests to have an island picnic on the Ho Hoa Binh reservoir.

For lunch we would be having roasted fish, rice and an assortment of veggies. Unfortunately, this involved sitting cross legged on the ground. Thankfully, for me the pain turns to numbness after a few minutes.

Photo Picnic Lunch Northwest Vietnam Mountain Tour
Photo of island picnic lunch on day one of our northwest Vietnam mountain tour.

Chopstick Factory – NW Vietnam Mountain Tour

Our next destination on the Northwest Vietnam mountain tour would be the Ma River and we would take a boat ride downstream to visit an ethnic minority village.

However, on the way to our port of embarkation we happened to drive by a chopstick factory and I insisted on stopping to investigate. 

Photo Chopstick Factory Northwest Vietnam Mountain Tour
The chopsticks are made by splitting pieces of bamboo into the proper size and then the chopsticks are further refined and bundled up.
Chopstick Factory Ma River Northwest Mountain Tour Viestnam
The process of making chopsticks was actually quite fascinating.
Chopstick Factory Tour Ma River NW Mountains Vietnam
We grabbed a few for the road! I used these authentic chopsticks throughout our stay in Vietnam.

River Transport to Ethnic Minority Village

We would now be traveling by a classic variety of wooden boat a few kilometers down the river to visit our first ethnic minority village. However, the Vietnamese government has been pretty active in promoting economic development in rural minority areas. Therefore, the village had benefited from some recent economic development.

Photo River Boat Transport NW Mountains Vietnam
This is a photo or our riverboat transport in the NW mountains of Vietnam.
River Tour Photo Northwest Mountains Vietnam
Bon Voyage!

Ethnic Minority Village in NW Vietnam Mountains

About 30 minutes later we disembarked on the river bank a few hundred meters downhill from the ethnic minority village. We then went on a short mountain hike through the forest to reach the village.

Photo River Boat NW Mountains Vietnam
Arriving at the shore of the river to hike to the ethnic minority village in the NW mountains of Vietnam.

Ethnic Minority Wedding Ceremony

There was a wedding celebration in progress when we arrived in the ethnic minority village. Unfortunately, the economic initiatives of the government meant that the locals no longer dress traditionally.

Fortunately, as we traveled further into the mountains we would encounter lots of traditional dress in some of the other villages.

Photo Chewing Betel Nut Ethnic Minority Villave Vietnam
Just because these villagers in the NW mountains don’t dress traditionally any longer doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy some traditional betel nut on occasion.

Son La – NW Vietnam Mountains

Our next stop on the mountain circuit would be Son La. This would be very interesting because our driver had arranged for us to have dinner with a local family who were relatives of his.

It turns out that the host was the local police chief and also a member of the local communist party. At my girlfriend’s special request they would be serving a traditional dish just for her.

Photo of my girlfriend eating dog in Son La on NW Mountain tour.
In this photo, moving clockwise is my girlfriend, our guide, driver, our dinner host, his wife and their two children.
After dinner we took in a some traditional dance at the hotel then turned in for an early start the next morning.

Than Uyen – NW Vietnam Local Market

On day two of our Northwest Vietnam mountain tour we visited another ethnic minority village called Than Uyen. This village was further into the mountains and more distant from Hanoi. Therefore, traditional dress was more commonly seen. We encountered this woman in the photo below while we were exploring the local market.

Fortunately, my girlfriend was very good at getting people to voluntarily pose in photographs with her.
Local Butcher at Market in Than Uyen Vietnam
Local butcher seen at the market in Than Uyen, Vietnam
Local Butcher at Market in Than Uyen Vietnam

Scenic Northwest Vietnam Mountains

As we went further into the Northwest Vietnam Mountains we significantly gained in elevation. As a result, there were some fantastic mountain vistas along the way. This was especially true on the last leg of the journey as we approached the Sapa township.

Northwest Vietnam Mountains Reservoir Photo
This is a photo of a giant reservoir that we encountered on our afternoon drive to the Sapa township in the NW Vietnam Mountains.
Photo of our guide and driver as we stop for lunch on the final approach to Sapa Vietnam.
Mountain Vista Views from Outside Sapa Vietnam
The NW mountain vistas from outside the Sapa city limits were extraordinary
Photo Waterfall seen in Northwest Mountains Sapa Vietnam

Red Dao and Black Hmong Near Sapa Vietnam

In the NW mountains of Vietnam there are a lot of ethnic minority villages around the Sapa township. We procured a motorbike and embarked on a tour of Sapa and the surrounding area. Fortunately, were were able to get some nice ethnic minority photos. Once again the coercion skills of my girlfriend came in handy.

Photo Red Dao NW Vietnam Mountain Tour
We did not encounter any Red Dao inside Sapa but we did find a lot of them outside the city in the countryside.
Photo Red Dao in NW Vtetnam Mountains


In contrast to Cambodia and Laos, Vietnam is relatively wealthy due to their more effective recovery from the Vietnam War. This results in the government being able to allocate a much larger portion of national resources to rural development initiatives. This improves the lives of locals but unfortunately the traditional lifestyles of the ethnic minority groups is slowly fading away.

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