For a publication that celebrates the diversity of Vietnam, it has always been a frustration that people constantly visit the same places.
Yes, we genuinely love destination such as Hoi An, Phu Quoc, Halong Bay and Sapa. When it comes to tourist-friendly delights, in the main they do a great job, but there is far more to travelling through this country than hitting Hanoi, Ho chi minh City and the country’s tour group hotspots.
If you want to feel like you’ve done Vietnam, here are 9 places to visit in Vietnam 2016. Just don’t always expect it to be artsy. Five star hotel? In some places, not a blooming’ chance.
1, Ha Giang
Ha Giang is categorically the most beautiful province in Vietnam. It’s also the most northerly, too. Every valley you pass through is different, the next more exhilarating than the last.
Zonitrip has been there 4 times to guide travelers, take photos and write articles. We were mesmerized both times. Why? If they say seeing is belie wing, in the case of Ha Giang, seeing is also about hlding your breath.
Home to about six or seven ethnic minorities, most of whom still live in the mountains and wear traditional dress, the jewel in a large crown is the pass that outside of the former French hill station, Dong Van. With a 1 km drop to the river below, and mountains towering above, pinch yourself and you might think you’re in the Andes.
Getting there-o-meter: Hard. Think overnight sleeper bus. Getting around? Even harder, unless you don’t mind hiring a motorcycle or a four-wheel-drive jeep.
Accommodation Watch: well. They’ve got guesthouses in the towns. Just don’t expect creature comforts.
The former Imperial capital of Vietnam should be on every Ron, Mick and Mary’s bucket list, but thanks to the nearby charm and more tourist – friendly meccas of Hoi an and Danang, this tranquil yet endearing city is often overlooked. The problem? Yes, it’s got a citadel and tombs and museums, and beautiful countryside and bridges and boat cruises, but it’s just not by the sea, there are no tailor and there’s nothing to buy, unless you like food,’ as Hue is good at that.
It’s a city of artisans and culture, and travel in land and the jungle-clad mountains are the stuff of war movies.
So should you go there? Hell, yes! This is culture, baby, culture, with great scenery thrown in, too
Getting there-o-meter: Yes, Hue’s got an airport, a new airport even. Let’s jump for joy. It’s also on the Open Tour bus route and the north-south train line.
Accommodation Watch: If you like 1920s elegance, the La Residence is there’s a lot of budget around, too, especially close to the Pham Ngu Lao street.
You may not be able to visit the largest cave in the world- for preservation and safety purposes; entrance is both restricted and expensive. But the other caves are well worth the journey.
Take the water caves of Tu Lan. There’s something Harrison Ford about this place as you swim through the grottos in the pitch black and end up in the hidden outdoor lake. And then there’s Hang En, home to 100,000 swallows with its indoor beach and subterranean mystique.
Part of a national park, the limestone karts and jungle give Phong Nha an extra aura, and with a town developing faster than the speed of a construction truck flying down Highway 1, this is becoming a place to chill out as well. Ever heard of the Pub with Cold Beer? Go to Phong Nha and you might just. Ever wanted to cycle down the roads through the rolling countryside? Go to Phong Nha and it’s at your fingertips.
Getting there-o-meter: Flights from Hanoi go to Dong Hoi, the area’s only city. You can also hit the train or even take a bus from Hue. This one’s easy. Just, if you fly, make sure you know the taxi fare first. VND500.000 from airport to Phong Nha can be hard to swallow.
Accommodation watch: No five-stars here yet, but a lot of excellent homestay style option with idyllic scenery. Phong Nha Farmstay is a keeper, as is the dorm accommodation at Easy Tiger. Want to stay at the home of Ho Khanh, the person who discovered the world’s largest cave? Well even he’s got a riveside homestay these days.
Set in a valley surround by mountains, over the past decade this destination 4 hours from Hanoi has become commercializes. Yet fortunately it still boasts the charm of the past that make it a destination of choice. The key? This is back water ethnic minority.
Inhabited by the still house living Black Thai, the majority of the accommodation is shared, with guest sleeping in a long houses attached to people ‘homes. Add to this the paddy fields, the isolated valley location, the countryside walks and the time has forgotten villages, you get why people like to come here.
Mai chau is not only a place you have to visit, but it’s also a great stopping off point for anyone want to head to the wild northwest. And just 4 hours from Hanoi, it welcome break from the big city.
Getting there-o-meter: This is one you can drive, The road to Hoa binh is one of the safer highway out there. Buses also do the trip from Hanoi.
Accommodation watch: Did we say something about stilt house?
Nam Cat Tien
When it comes to jungle, Vietnam really doesn’t quite get it right, especially when you compare what’s on offer elsewhere in Southeast Asia. However, Nam Cat Tien remain the one stand-out. With a main base around the park HQ- a number of chilled homestay have sprung up next to the river in the last couple of the years – this is a place where you can trek and genuinely see animals in the wild, On our last trip we spotted, peacock, lizards, gaurs and deer. It’s also good place to cycling – Ta Lai longhouse has bike for rent for the 12km track to the main park area. And if you’re lucky, you might even spot some elephant dung.
Don’t forget gibbon island, an NGO-sponsored conservation project that saved primates and other mammals, wherever possible releasing them back into the wild. The dedication of the staff here is remarkable.
Getting there-o-meter: You’ve gonna need a bus for this one, from Mien Dong bus station in Saigon. It’s three hour ride. Motorbike, we would recommend against it. These roads are dangerous.
Accommodation Watch: We love Ta Lai Long house. Communal sleeping accommodation, communal eating, a great lake for swimming and kayaking. But the homestays near the park HQ are also worth checking out.
Image a coastal city like Danang, but much smaller. Combine it with the atmosphere of the early 2000s, and then add in probably the beaches in Vietnam and almost definitely the finest seafood (sorry Phu Quoc). This is Quy Nhon.
Often passed over for Danang to the north and Nha trang to the south, Quy Nhon without the razzmatazz, rooftop bar and bling. Instead, this is deckchairs on the promenade by the beach, late-night outdoor drinking on plastic tools, with the occasional five star or four star hotel through in for good measure.
Add in the Cham temple- they litter the area surrounding Quy Nhon- deserted beaches and Bai Xeo to the south, a travellers’s haven’t that no one knows about, and this is an area worth exploring. We’ve done it twice and still in love.
Getting there-o-meter: The local airport, Phu Cat, serves flights from both Hanoi and Ho Chi minh city. Then there’s the north –south train. Many of Open tours buses stop here in the middle of night.
Accommodation Watch: There is the full gamut, although don’t expect Hyatt and Intercon five stars, Not a chance, but for dormitory accommodation and beach style four star resorts, head to Bai Xep- you won’t regret it.
The quite phenomenal Tan Huong Church, built entirely of wood and adobe, the dragon houses, the ethnic minority Bahnar, who live bang in the middle of town.
We had one of those unforgettable experiences – this is a side to Vietnam you will rarely see. It’s also the only city in the Central Highlands – including Buon Me Thuot, Gia Lai and Pleiku- that has any cultural color.
Getting there-o-meter: Did anyone say overnight bus?
Accommodation Watch: Didn’t stay there, you can hitch up with the ethnic Bahnar. Now, that would be interesting.
Wild, wild, wild. This is the best way to describe this southeast mainland of Vietnam. Formerly called Poulo Condore when it was use by the French as the Indochinese version of Devil’s island- yes the old prisons are all still here – these day it’s the Vietnamese army presence that is noticeable.
Not that this is the bad thing, With the army and navy controlling huge swathes of the land, it means the islands are protected, protected from the encroachment of man, and protected from over-development.
We love the scenery and fishing ports, the weather – here you can get 4 seasons within a day – and the sense that this is the place where nature rules, not man. The National Park, night-time turtle hatching on Bay Canh, great diving, stunning beaches, good seafood, and of course one of the best five stars in Vietnam, Six Senses Con Dao.
Getting there-o-meter: A ferry from Vung Tau to Con Dao, but you’d be mad to go that way as there are now around six daily flights from Hochiminh city. But to around, make sure you hire a motorbike. Worth every dong of the ride
Accommodation Watch: Six Senses Con Dao and other guest houses in the main town.
The Mekong Delta has many destinations worth checking out – Sa Dec, Ben Tre, Tra VInh, Ha Tien, My Tho – but for cultural and geographic contrasts, the border town of Chau Doc has to be the most interesting. Sat at the confluence of three rivers, on one side you have the mosques and kampong-style villages of the Muslim Cham. On the other is the main city, with its pagodas, market and obsession with fish. Overlooking it all is Sam Mountain., home to one of the great religious pilgrimages of Vietnam. And surrounding the city is the paddy fields, canals, small lanes, perfect for a bit of cycling.
Head south and you pass through Khmer villages with their Theravada pagodas and sugar palms. And a few kilometers further on you come to Tra Su bird sanctuary, a twitcher’s paradise, especially when the water is high. Image taking a canoe, in Apicalyse Noro-style silence through the swamps, while all about you birds flap and search for food. Surrounding you are vines, strange mosses, mangrove trees with gnarled roots, and off flowers peeking out of the gloom. That’s Tra Su.