Unique Alternatives to Sapa Vietnam

Cao Bang Vietnam

If you are planning a trip to Vietnam you might have heard of Sapa. A small rural town in Northern Vietnam home to picturesque hills, rice farms and ethnic tribal groups.

It sounds like the ultimate cultural experience, and it most likely was 10 years ago. However, Sapa has become an extremely popular tourist destination in recent years and now tourist numbers in this small region outnumber locals. 

It’s a shame that Sapa has been overrun by tourists, but there are plenty of other incredible places in Vietnam that can provide a truly authentic rural experience.

In total we have spent about 3months exploring Vietnam and we are always trying to get off the beaten path, to find those truly special places, untouched by tourism.

That’s why we have created this article, to share with fellow travellers our discoveries so that you can experience authentic Vietnam. So read on for our full list of top rated alternatives to Sapa Vietnam.

1. Cao Bang

Hidden in the upper most regions of Northern Vietnam, Cao Bang is perhaps one of Vietnam’s most beautiful hidden gems. We were blown away by Coa Bang which borders China and is home to some of the most incredible scenery we have ever seen.

Teal coloured rivers, charming farmlands, quaint villages and epic limestone peaks makes this region a sight for sore eyes. Cao Bang is also home to one of the world’s most beautiful waterfalls, Ban Gioc Falls. 

Not only is the Cao Bang region scenically beautiful, it also provides a glimpse into authentic rural Vietnamese life. You feel as though you have stepped back in time when you reach Cao Bang when you discover its stone villages and the local people living as they would have generations before. You may spot a few other travellers, but for the most part foreigners are few and far between which is why we recommend Cao Bang as a great alternative to Sapa.

How To Reach Cao Bang:

Reaching Cao Bang is fairly easy and most people jump on a sleeper bus or luxury shuttle from Hanoi to Cao Bang City. Once in Cao Bang City we recommend you hire a motorbike to explore the rest of the region. For a detailed article on how to reach Cao Bang from Hanoi,  you can read our step by step guide here.

Things to Do in Cao Bang:

Ban Gioc Falls

Visiting the stunning Ban Gioc Falls is a must when in Cao Bang. To be honest we weren’t expecting the falls to live up to the Pinterest and Instagram images we had seen, but to our surprise they did!

The falls were breathtakingly beautiful and well worth visiting! Ban Gioc Falls are actually located right on the border of China & Vietnam, one side of the river is Vietnam and the other is China, quite an awesome place to be! You will see some tourists here, mostly Vietnamese tourists and honeymooners. 

Explore Cao Bang City 

When we first arrived in Cao Bang city we, we couldn’t wait to leave, but we are so glad we didn’t! After a couple of days exploring this northern city we grew to love the place and its authentic glimpse into Vietnamese life.

We discovered interesting markets, incredible hot pot, bustling street stalls and began to get a feel for the true urban Vietnamese lifestyle. Cao bang city is where you will likely hire your motorbike before heading off to explore the rural Cao Bang.

You will likely need to stay at least one night in Cao Bang, but we recommend to stay a couple more if you have the time and fall in love with this city just like we did!

Visit Nguom Ngao Cave

This large and impressive cave system is located just 5mins from Ban Gioc Falls. The locals have done well to set up paths and lighting through the caves and you will be surprised at how grand and far reaching the cave actually is.

This cave is definitely one of the most impressive cave systems we have seen in South East Asia. Best part is you will be able explore them virtually tourist free, well worth the 45,000₫ entry fee!

Stay in a local Homestay 

Staying in a local Homestay is a must when in rural Cao Bang. Our homestay experience was incredible and we had the privilege of staying in a beautiful tiny stone village just around the corner from Ban Gioc Falls.

Our host family were kind and generous and the traditional food served was absolutely amazing. We had a very comfortable private room in the main house and access to a hot shower. We can’t recommend this homestay enough, it’s called yến nhi bản giốc homestay.

How to Get Around in Cao Bang

There are daily buses leaving Cao Bang City heading towards Ban Gioc Falls. You can also opt to hire a private taxi. However our best advice for true adventure seekers is to hire a motorbike or scooter to explore the rural region of Cao Bang.

Having your own wheels gives you the freedom to discover when and how you want. Having a motorbike meant we could take the backroads, explore remote villages, find hidden swimming spots and stop to enjoy the views along the way.

It really is a great way to see this part of Vietnam and you will be glad to know that he roads in this region are fairly safe and quiet. Just make sure you have pre-downloaded your maps as internet connection is few and far between!

The Best time to Visit Cao Bang

February to May: There will be minimal rain during these months and temperatures will be mild, usually staying in the 20s. February is also the month that rice gets planted making it a great time to see the local people working in the fields. From March onwards the rice fields will be a vibrant green.

June to August: These months see temperatures rise into the 30s and rain fall increasing as the wet season sets in. July is usually the highest month for rainfall in the region. This is also the season where the Ban Gioc Falls will flow in their fall glory.

September to November: The landscape is now a lush green following the rainy season and the temperatures are dropping back down into the 20s. Rainfall also reduces making this almost the perfect time weather wise to visit the region. These months are also the time when wildflowers begin to bloom across Cao Bang.

December to January: We visited in December and although it was cool, temperatures never got bitterly cold and would usually sit between 10-23°C. The days were mainly clear and bright and we experienced minimal rainfall. We found winter to be a wonderful time to visit Cao Bang.

2. Pu Luong

Pu Luong is a stunning nature reserve located 3.5hours south west of Hanoi. As you arrive in Pu Luong you will be welcomed by grand limestone peaks, rolling rice paddy fields and small farming villages. The best thing is Pu Luong has not been over-run by the tourism industry with only one resort and few Homestay’s scattered across the valley.

I would say Pu Luong is what Sapa used to be over 10 years ago. Our time in Pu Luong was memorable, it was a great place to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi and experience authentic rural life. The mix of epic scenery, quiet valleys and beautiful rural villages made our time in Pu Luong so special making Pu Luong one of our highest rated alternatives to Sapa Vietnam!

How To Reach Pu Luong

We reached Pu Loung by booking a shuttle through our hotel in Hanoi, this was an easy and cheap way to reach the region. We usually ride on local transport, however there are no direct buses from Hanoi to Pu Luong.

Travelling by bus would have been very complicated with many stops and transfers, so we are glad we went for the private shuttle option. Just ask your hotel in Hanoi or visit a tourist counter to organise your shuttle in advance.

Things to Do in Pu Luong

To be honest there aren’t too many tourist activities in Pu Luong, it really is a place to disconnect and soak up the vibe of the place, which is what we did. However here are a few things we recommend for you to do in Pu Luong: 

Stay at an Authentic Homestay

We recommend staying at a traditional homestay in Pu Luong. This will give you the opportunity  to make meaningful connections with the local people and get a real insight into their daily lives. 

Getting to eat delicious homemade local dishes daily which was a true highlight for us! We stayed at Puluong RiceRoad Homestay and had an incredibly welcoming and authentic experience. You can watch a short video we made to help promote their humble homestay above ^^^

Explore Surrounding Villages 

One of our top recommended activities in Pu Luong is to simply begin walking and discover neighbouring villages across the valley. We spent a day walking along pathways and through rice paddy fields, stumbling across small villages and interacting with locals.

Head to Pu Luong Retreat for Dinner 

We decided to head to the fancy Pu Luong Retreat for dinner one night which was a nice treat. The atmosphere in the restaurant is stunning and it overlooks the valley, a great place to enjoy dinner on dusk. 

Visit Pho Doan Market

Markets are always a great place to observe local culture. Pho Doan is a bustling morning market where the community comes together to buy, sell and trade goods. The market runs on Thursdays and Sundays and trades in fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, live cattle, clothing and household goods.

Best time to Visit Pu Luong

Pu luong has very similar weather patterns to the rest of Vietnam with a dry cool winter running from December to February and the wet hot monsoon summer running from June to August.

March, April and May are considered the shoulder season and these months are generally dry and warm.  September, Oct and November are also dryer than monsoon but become gradually cooler as you head towards winter.

As Pu Luong is a hill station the temperatures are generally more mild than other places in Vietnam. However, most people like to visit Pu Luong for its famous rice paddy fields, so below is some information on the best time to witness these. 

  • May and June is when the rice fields will be a vibrant green
  • September and October the fields will turn a bright yellow bringing a stunning unique beauty to the valley. 
  • We visited Pu Luong in December, which may not be considered the best time to see the vibrant green rice paddy fields as most of the rice had been harvested. However, the scenery was still incredibly beautiful and the valley was very quiet and peaceful at this time of year.  

Where to stay in Pu Luong

We chose to stay in a traditional homestay and we are glad we did. However there are quite a few options to choose from in Pu Luong, here are our top recommendations:

Puluong RiceRoad Homestay:
$16USD / 37,0000vd 
This is the homestay we choose and it was an amazing experience with a welcoming local family. We had a clean comfortable bed in a traditional wooden house and access to delicious home cooked meals and a hot shower. 
Puluong Retreat:
$15-100USD / 35,0000 – 230,000vd
This retreat features an incredible
view, an outdoor infinity pool, a restaurant and a rock garden. They have also
opened a dormitory style
accommodation as well as more
luxurious private rooms.
Pu Luong Natura:
$20-$100USD / 46,0000 – 230,000vd
This lodge features dorm rooms and
privates with outstanding views over
looking rice fields. It’s stunning infinity
pool and glowing reviews makes this a
great choice in Pu Luong.

3. Mu Cang Chai

Are you looking for a real adventure, a chance to get truly off the beaten path in rural Vietnam? Then look no further than Mu Cang Chai. Located 2000 metres above sea level Mu Cang Chai is said to be one of the most scenically stunning places in Vietnam.

Located about 7 hours drive north of Hanoi, Mu Cang Chai is graced with ribbons of rice paddy fields set on epic hills and valleys. This rural area is also home to some very charming Vietnamese villages.

Located fairly close to the Sapa region, Mu Cang Chai is probably the least known destination on this list and the most untouched by tourism. This is a truly magical place to visit and an excellent alternative to Sapa if you are wanting to avoid the crowds.

How To Reach Mu Cang Chai

Due to its remoteness and it’s under the radar status, this region isn’t the easiest place to reach. There are no direct buses or trains from Hanoi to Mu Cang Chai, the closest city with a direct route from Hanoi is Yen Bai.

If you reach Yen Bai you would then need to figure out your transport to Mu Cang Chai which is an additional four hour journey. This is why we recommend booking a shuttle or private taxi through your hotel in Hanoi or a travel desk.

Things to Do in Mu Cang Chai

Explore the villages

Discover the culture of the local Black Hmong  people by exploring some of the villages in the area. Many of the tribal people living in this region will still be living in traditional style homes and be wearing traditional hand woven textiles. Some of the the villages you can explore are Mo De, Lim Mong, Le Pan Tan, Sang Nhu, Che Cu Nha, and Mang Mu

Explore the area on Motorcycle

Exploring by bike is one of our favourite things to do, especially in a location like Mu Cang Chai! The roads in this region are quite making them fairly safe for riding, not to mention the stunning views you will discover and off beat villages. You will most likely be able to organise a motorbike hire through your hotel or homestay.

Hike Through the Rice Terraces

Exploring this area by foot is a great way to absorb the atmosphere. Locals are use to walking in the region and there are many paths already laid out. You can either take a self guided walk or choose to hire a local guide. If you choose to go with a guide, ask your hotel or homestay if they can take you on a guided walk or if they know any local tours guides. 

Mo & Pu Nhu Waterfall

You can also visit two beautiful waterfalls in the region. Both waterfalls are stunning and worth a visit especially in the rainy season when they are flowing in their full glory. For a more detailed guide on how to reach Mo Waterfull I found this helpful guide and the same for Pu Nhu Waterfall.

Best time to Visit Mu Cang Chai

Mu Cang Chai has fairly pleasant weather all year round. Due to its elevation temperatures rarely rise too high.  Below is a guide to some of the best months to visit the Mu Cang Chai region: 

May & early June – Crop Laying: It is usually in May and June when crops are laid in Mu Cang Chai. During this time you will see the terraces filled with water creating beautiful mirror like terraces. This is a great time to visit to see lots of activity in the fields with many of the hill tribes working the crops wearing their traditional clothes. 

July to August: This is the time when you will see the terraces laden with a bright green carpet of rice. A truly stunning time to visit the region. You will see less people out in the fields as the rice has already been laid, but the views will surely make up for that!

September & October: During these months the rice fields turn a brilliant yellow. The vibrant colour that covers the land makes September and October an incredible time to visit Mu Cang Chai. 

Where to stay in Mu Cang Chai

Mu Cang Chai Eco Lodge
$50SUD / 120,000dong
This is a comfortable and
clean lodge option with a full
restaurant and incredible
views. With glowing reviews
this is a great accomodation
option in Mu Cang Chai.
Indigenous Homestay 
$13usd/ 30,000dong 
Stay with a friendly Hmong 
family for a truly authentic
experience. Although facilities are basic with no hot water available the cultural experience will over shadow that.

4. Ha Giang

Ha Giang is known for its epic motorcycle loop and although it has increased in popularity in recent years, it still sees far less tourists than Sapa. This region located in the far north bordering china is graced with impressive mountain peaks, deep valleys, stunning rice fields and up to 16 ethnic groups.

Similar to Cao Bang, you will feel as though you have stepped back in time when exploring this remote and rugged region of Vietnam. The region of Ha Giang is expansive and the Ha Giang motorbike loop spans over 350km. Ha Giang remains one of the most adventurous places in Vietnam and still maintains its authenticity and charm making it a great alternative to Sapa. 

How To Reach Ha Giang

The journey from Hanoi to Ha Giang will take about 7 hours. Luckily there are regular direct buses from Hanoi to Ha Giang that depart daily. A sleeper bus ticket will likely costs you about 150,000dong.

Things to Do in Ha Giang

Ha Giang Loop:

The most popular activity in Ha Giang is to complete the Ha Giang Motorbike loop. The loop travels through a large part of the region and passes many incredible landscapes. The 350km journey usually takes 3-5 days to complete.

A true adventure, this loop can either be undertaken with or without a tour guide. Along the loop many travellers stop to stay in tiny rural villages giving them the chance to not only see the epic scenery but also interact with the locals and learn about their unique cultures. 

Visit Local Markets:

Markets are always a great place to experience local culture and its actually one of our favourite things to do in any destination we travel too. At Ha Giang’s rural markets, you will see the local minority groups gather in their best traditional dresses.

Visiting these markets will give you a truly unique travel experience and gimps into local life. Some top markets to visit in the region are The Meo Vac Sunday market,  Dong Van market and Sa Phin market.

There is also the famous Khau Vai Love Market which happens once a year in April. More like a festival, this market is centered around love and many come here to find potential husbands and wives. You will experience ethnic food, song, performances, and folk games. If you get the chance to visit this market it would be a truly unique travel experience.

Best time to Visit Ha Giang 

Visiting Ha Giang any time of year will be worthwhile, however many people say the warm dry season is best. Below is an outline of each season for Ha Giang.

December, January, February: These are the winter months in Ha Giang and temperatures are cool averaging about 16°C. You may notice mist during winter and the occasional light snow at higher altitudes. The good thing about winter is rainfall is low and it’s also the time to witness the beautiful pink buckwheat flowers fields. 

March to April – Consider the best time to visit Ha Giang due to the warm and dry weather. The temperature during these months will range between 20-30 °C. You will also notice wild flowers in full bloom in March and April is the month for the unique Khau Vai Love Market. 

May to July: This is considered the rainy season and it may not be the safest time to travel due to wet roads and increased chance of landslides.  July sees the most rainfall and temperatures meet their peak in July reaching the mid 30’s. However the increase in rain means the valleys will be a lush vibrant green, providing epic landscape views. 

August to October: This is a great time to visit ha Giang as the rainfall begins to reduce and temptress are still lovely and warm. But perhaps the best reason to visit at this time is the fact that the rice fields are ripening and turning a bright yellow colour that carpets the valleys.

Where to stay in Ha Giang

Be’s Home
$15usd/ 35,000vd
Located in the main city of the region this is a clean comfortable budget
friendly accommodation
with excellent service.

The Moon Homestay
$6usd/ 14,000vd
Located in the outskirts
main city this is a traditional homestay set in beautiful surroundings. This homestay is hosted by a friendly local
family and has glowing

Lý Đành Homestay
$5usd/ 11,000vd
Located along the Ha Giang
Loop, this is a traditional
homestay run by a kind
local family. Set in a peaceful location with delicious home cooked meals served.

We hope this list of Unique Alternatives to Sapa Vietnam was helpful and has inspired you to get off the beaten path! If you have any further questions, let us know in the comments and we will try our best to answer your.

Cheers, Native Travellers

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