The old French hill station of Sapa has been delighting visitors for more than a century. The town is surrounded by the craggy “Vietnamese Alps,” including 10,312-foot Mount Fansipan, the highest mountain in the country. The slopes of the mountains around Sapa are famous for their terraced rice paddies, tended to by colorfully dressed ethnic minority people who look as though they are straight out of a National Geographic magazine. Guides offer trekking to some of the remote minority villages, but you’ll see plenty of Hmong and Dao people at the markets in town, too. A recently opened gondola runs from Sapa to Mount Fansipan, stopping just a few hundred feet shy of the summit. The mountain that used to be conquered only by the few fit and hardy climbers who could manage the long, arduous trek is now accessible to people of all fitness levels.

Ninh Binh

Several tranquil rivers meander near the city of Ninh Binh, just 58 miles south of Hanoi. Take a ride on an aluminum rowboat paddled by local village women and marvel at the rugged karst terrain, mountain goats, and lush foliage as you glide along peaceful river waterways through a series of dark grottoes. You can easily visit Ninh Binh as a day trip from Hanoi, though if you want to stay longer, check out Cuc Phuong National Park—Vietnam’s oldest national park—and visit one of the Southeast Asia’s largest virgin rainforests, complete with easily-accessed primitive caves, thousands of butterflies, and internationally respected primate and pangolin rescue centers.

Ha Long bay

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay is the most visited destination in all of Vietnam. Hundreds of tiny islands—many of them inhabited only by monkeys—feature dozens of caves and innumerable deserted beaches. Magnificent limestone towers rise above the waters of the bay like brooding primeval sentinels. Halong Bay stretches out along the Tonkin Gulf, just a three-and-a-half-hour drive north of Hanoi. For an unforgettable experience, I recommend taking a one- or two-night cruise. Bring extra batteries for your camera; the scenery is stunning.