Enter the Land of Opportunity
Vietnam's erstwhile French colonial interlopers may have taken over a century to realize the error of their ways, but they did at least get one thing right (or two, if you count the country's superlative French-press coffee and baguettes): the highlands are the place to escape the oppressively hot and humid conditions in the Mekong Delta basin. Dalat, 185 miles northeast of Ho Chi Minh, is perhaps the best preserve of this colonial hill-station prerogative. Centered around Xuan Huong Lake at an elevation of about 5,000 feet, the town is popular today amongst Vietnamese honeymooners and backpackers alike. And although it's a somewhat tawdry relic of the country's colonial past, it's certainly worth a detour just for the highland scenery and a taste of Vietnamese café culture while sipping java by the lake.
However, for a true taste of high-country living that still offers a respite from inclement tropical weather patterns, head for the mountainous heights of northern Vietnam, bordering the similarly rugged terrain of Laos and southern China. Here you'll trade the low country's ubiquitous hawkers for the accompaniment of birdsong and a landscape of terraced rice fields and steep, forested hillsides rising to as high as 10,000 feet. Plus you'll enjoy interactions with the region's welcoming indigenous hill tribes.
The hill-station township of Sapa, about 200 miles northwest of Hanoi, is the most popular gateway for trekking jaunts into northern Vietnam's dramatic interior. Accessible via overnight train or jarring bus ride from Lao Cai, the town itself is well set up with guesthouses and outfitters, as well as access to numerous day- and multi-day trails. Given the relative remoteness of this area, it's recommended you hire a guide if you plan on delving too deep into the backcountry. Also be sure to pack along the necessary equipment, including tents and warm-weather gear as temps can dip precipitously in these 5,000-plus-feet climes. Finally, be warned that heavy rains can cause trails to be a washout, so plan accordingly depending on the weather.
Another less-trafficked mountainous option is the Ba Be Lakes region, established as the country's eighth national park in 1992. This relatively small 17,000-acre park in the mountain region bordering China is home to Vietnam's largest freshwater alpine lake and endangered species such as the Troides helena butterfly, white-eared night heron, Tonkin snub-nosed monkey, and Asiatic black bear. The steep limestone hills are laced with dramatic waterfalls and scenic overlooks, as well as some 15 villages that are home to indigenous Hmong, Dao, and Tay fishing and farming communities. About 140 miles north of Hanoi along winding roads, Ba Be is best reached by hiring a car and driver or joining an organized tour out of Hanoi. Check with the traveler cafés for independent and group-tour options, including posts from other travelers headed in the same direction on the on-site bulletin boards.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication