The alternative guide to travelling in Vietnam.
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 destinations 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 10 places we say you absolutely must visit in 2016. Just don’t always expect it to be easy. Five star hotels? In some places, not a bloomin’ chance.
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.
Word has been there twice to take photos and write articles. We were mesmerised both times. Why? The scenery. If they say seeing is believing, in the case of Ha Giang, seeing is also about holding your breath. Yes, we’ll use the throwaway words — it’s breathtaking.
Home to about six or seven ethnic minorities, most of whom still live in the mountains and wear traditional dress, the jewel in a very large crown is the pass just outside of the former French hill station, Dong Van. With a 1km 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: Erm... 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 charms 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 tailors and there’s nothing to buy — unless you like food, ‘cos Hue is good at that.
Now we at Word love Hue. It’s a city of artisans and culture, and travel inland 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. Woohoo!
Accommodation Watch: If you like 1920s elegance, then La Residence is oh-so ooh-la-la. There’s a lot of budget around, too, especially close to the Pham Ngu Lao area.
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 a 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 karsts 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 back 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 your taxi fare first. VND500,000 from the airport to Phong Nha can be hard to swallow.
Accommodation Watch: No five-stars here yet, but a lot of excellent homestay-style options 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 riverside homestay these days.
Set in a valley surrounded by mountains, over the past decade this destination four hours from Hanoi has become commercialised. Yet fortunately it still boasts the charm of the past that makes it a destination of choice. The key? This is backwater ethnic minority idyll. Perfect for those who still glorify the, ummm, noble savage. Yes, had to get a bit of Rousseau into this one.
Inhabited by the stilt-house living Black Thai, the majority of the accommodation is shared, with guests sleeping in longhouses attached to people’s 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 wanting to head to the wild northwest. And just four hours from Hanoi, it’s a 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 highways out there. Buses also do the trip from Hanoi.
Accommodation Watch: Did we say something about stilt houses?
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 remains the one stand-out. With a main base around the park HQ — a number of chilled homestays have sprung up next to the river in the last couple of years — this is a place where you can trek and genuinely see animals in the wild. On our last trip we spotted douc langurs, peacocks, lizards, gaurs and deer. It’s also a good place to go cycling — Ta Lai Longhouse has bikes for rent for the 12km track to the main park area. And if you’re lucky, you might even spot some elephant dung. We did, which meant staying vigilant.
Oh, and don’t forget gibbon island, an NGO-sponsored conservation project that saves 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’re gonna need a bus for this one, from Mien Dong Bus Station in Saigon. It’s a three-hour ride. Motorbike — we would recommend against it. These roads are dangerous.
Accommodation Watch: We love Ta Lai Longhouse. Communal sleeping accommodation, communal eating, a great lake for swimming and kayaking. But the homestays near the park HQ are also worth checking out.