Vietnam is my favourite place on earth, and that’s official! I have only travelled there once but spent two of the best weeks of my life discovering its history, its culture, its food and its people.
Being a first-timer to Vietnam, I planned an extensive 2-week Vietnam travel itinerary travelling from the north of the country to the south. I chose the well-trodden tourist trail for my first trip to Vietnam, heading from Hanoi to Halong Bay then on to Hue and Hoi An and finally finishing off at a beach resort in Da Nang.
My trip was marvellous, but it got me thinking that if I was so enamoured by the tourist route, I had taken, what could I find if I stepped off the beaten track in Vietnam and headed into more remote and unknown territories. Would I discover the “forgotten” Vietnam that I had read about in guide books or stumble upon villages where I would be the one observed?
I wanted to hear stories from travellers who had experienced these hidden gems in Vietnam to find out where these places were. Those that had weathered the long, arduous bus journeys to sleep in a traditional bamboo hut, or those that had encountered animals on the brink of extinction.
With this all in mind, I asked some fellow travel bloggers to contribute to this blog, and I think you will agree that some of Vietnam’s hidden gems need to go on your next Vietnam trip itinerary – I know a few of them will make it on to mine!
Mai Chau #1
Mai Chau is one of Vietnam’s hidden gems in the north about 4 hours from Hanoi. It’s one of the places in Vietnam where true, off-the-beaten-path adventure is found. Mai Chau’s journey begins with a long and twisty bus ride along a steep cliff that eventually leads down into a valley of rice paddies surrounded by green mountains. The trip is not for the faint of heart.
In Mai Chau, the main attraction is the Chieu Cave, 1000 steps above the city. A local may or may not be there to charge an entrance fee at the start of the hike which shows in itself a bit of the town’s character. One thousand steps may seem daunting, especially with the humidity of Vietnam, but the hike is well worth it for the incredible views of the surrounding valley. The cave is secondary to the sights but worth a peek!
Instead of a checklist of tourist activities, Mai Chau is more of a place to relax and observe Vietnam’s nature while enjoying local food and hospitality. Scooters are available for rent and can be used to explore the surrounding rice paddies and mountains. It is also a perfect half-way point to visit the incredible Pu Luong Nature Reserve, which is only a few hours ride away by scooter. This journey is recommended only for experienced travellers and drivers.
There is so much to do and see in Vietnam that a short trip might not be enough! Moving to Vietnam might be the perfect way to see it all!
Pu Luong #2
Perfect for trekking, mountain biking and homestays, Pu Luong Nature Reserve is a great off-the-beaten-track alternative to popular 2 day stays in Sapa or Mai Chau. The reserve is in Northern Vietnam’s Thanh Hoa Province, four hours southwest of Hanoi or three hours west of Ninh Binh by road.
The reserve encompasses two mountain ridges. The central valley features incredible rice terraces and small villages belonging to families from the Thai and H’Mong ethnic minority communities.
Because Pu Luong is more remote and harder to reach, tourism has developed here at a slower pace making it one of Vietnam’s hidden gems. Walking between villages or doing a multi-day trek taking you deeper into the forest, it’s not at all uncommon to have the trail all to yourself. There are several mountain streams and cascades inside the reserve, including the impressive Thac Hieu waterfall. Trekking to the top of Mount Pu Luong for a view of the valley is a highlight. When walking around the valley, you can admire Pu Luong’s iconic waterwheels – beautiful pieces of bamboo machinery built to carry water from low-lying streams into the rice paddies.
There are plenty of accommodation options in the valley ranging from humble homestays to boutique bungalows. Pu Luong Retreat is the most popular, while Ban Hieu Garden Lodge offers a nice compromise between family hospitality and comfort.
The easiest way to reach Pu Luong is by hiring a car and driver through your guesthouse. Alternatively, there is a daily bus from Hanoi to Pu Luong that takes just over six hours.
Cat Ba National Park #3
Located off the beaten track in Vietnam, Cat Ba National Park is recognised by Unesco as a World Biosphere Reserve and is a national gem known for its wildlife and incredible natural beauty. The national park on Cat Ba Island has the most extensive system of mangroves in the country, lush jungles, beautiful beaches and is the home of the most endangered species in the world – the Vooc (white-faced monkey).
You can also find deer, squirrels, and monkey species in the jungle forests of Cat Ba National Park. In the surrounding waters, marine life is abundant.
One of the most popular things to do at Cat Ba National Park is hike up to the Ngu Lam Peak lookout. This viewpoint offers panoramic views of the park and its uniquely shaped mountains.
If you would prefer to be by the water, you can lounge on Khu du lịch đảo Nam Cát public beach or get out kayaking. Kayaking can be done on the open water or through the infamous mangroves.
There is a smattering of accommodation options all over the island, but the most popular place to stay is in Cat Ba Town. The main port is in Cat Ba Town, and there are plenty of hotels, tour operators and restaurants nearby. A journey by bus from Hanoi will take around 4-5 hours.
Tam Coc – Ninh Binh #4
Located just 2.5 hours south of Hanoi is the stunning region of Ninh Binh. Referred to as the “Halong Bay on land”, here you’ll find massive limestone cliffs towering over bright green rice paddies. While some tourists visit Ninh Binh as a day trip from Hanoi, very few, spend enough time to appreciate the area truly.
The most popular place to stay in Ninh Binh is the little town of Tam Coc. Life moves a bit more slowly, and the locals are some of the friendliest in all of Vietnam. Most people lead simple lives that involve harvesting rice or running quaint, inexpensive guesthouses.
One of the best things to do in Ninh Binh is to take a rowboat ride on the river in Tam Coc. You’ll pass amongst the towering limestone cliffs and follow the river underground through caves to secret lagoons. And you’ll find that many of the locals who operate the tour boats row with their feet – which looks incredibly challenging to master.
Other things to do around Tam Coc are to climb the 500 steps to the massive dragon statue at the top of Mua Caves and visit the serene Bich Dong Pagoda. Or rent a motorbike and cruise the winding dirt roads of Ninh Binh – getting lost among the vibrant rice paddies. You’ll only have to share the route with a few other bikes and some friendly water buffaloes.
The region of Ninh Binh is easy to get to from Hanoi without booking a tour. Just take the daily 2.5-hour shuttle bus that will drop you in the heart of Tam Coc. If you’re looking for a home away from home, the Tam Coc Sunshine Homestay is run by the sweetest family and set right at the base of a massive cliff.
You’ll find plenty to do in Ninh Binh to keep you busy for at least three days. You may find yourself staying quite a bit longer once you have settled into the slow, relaxed pace of Vietnamese life in the countryside.
Ha Giang #5
The northernmost Vietnamese province – Ha Giang – offers visitors an incomparable insight into rural Vietnam off the tourist trail, making exploration the ultimate bucket list experience. The most prominent location in the province is Ha Giang, lying 280km north of Hanoi. Buses regularly run to Ha Giang from Hanoi. The journey takes around 6 hours.
The most popular attraction is undoubtedly the four days, 420km Ha Giang Motorbike Loop. Head to Jasmine Hostel in Ha Giang to hire bikes and leave with a group in the morning. Your stay here will cost you 150VND (£5), including breakfast. Bike hire with insurance is 300VND / day (£10)- 2020 prices.
The first day sees your ride from Ha Giang to Yen Minh, stopping at a viewpoint and the Lung Khuy Cave in Quan Ba on the route. Day two travel to Dong Van, tackling the windy Tham Ma Pass to head to the Chinese border where you find the Lung Cu Flagpole – Vietnam’s northernmost point.
Day three takes you down to Meo Vac, a route which encompasses Vietnam’s most beautiful road – the Ma Pi Leng Pass. Along here is the ‘Skywalk’ considered the country’s most dangerous road. Either ride or walk along here before climbing to the incredible viewpoint! From Meo Vac you take the M Pass to Du Gia, to spend your final night, before riding back to Ha Giang the following day.
The journey is a must for any Vietnam backpacker wanting to experience one of Vietnam’s hidden gems. The scenery and the remote villages are like nothing elsewhere in the country make it a unique and unforgettable experience.
Phong Nha – Ke Bang #6
Located right in the middle of Vietnam, Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park is a treasure trove with no shortage of sights to see. Reaching this destination is a bit tricky, allowing Phong Nha-Ke Bang to remain one of Vietnam’s hidden gems away from the tourist trail. There are, however, quite a few ways to get to the park by trains and sleeper buses. The latter is the perfect option for everyone staying on a budget in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh city and figuring out the affordable way to move around the country.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang is more than 800 square km of what seems like a paradise in the middle of the country, with its rivers, caves, jungles, small villages, and mind-blowing natural wonders. The world’s biggest cave, Hang Son Doong, is definitely among them. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, it was opened to the public recently.
But while getting into Hang Son Dong might be a real challenge, exploring the Botanical Garden and the Thac Gio Waterfall is a task that even a non-experienced hiker can manage. The route starts in the Phong Nha village, which has quite a few affordable hotels. From here, it is a short bike ride to the beginning of the trail through the tropical forest.
The trail is marked, free, and easy to navigate. The list of noteworthy stops on this two-hour hike includes an animal rehabilitation enclosure, century-old trees, and a scenic waterfall Thac Gio. The waterfall is 30-meters high and gorgeous.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang is well worth a two or even a three-day stay. The time scale will also allow you to explore the Paradise and Dark Caves and have a scenic bike ride around the park.
Bai Tu Long Bay #7
Halong Bay was once the magical setting where visitors flocked to cruise pristine waters and navigate limestone monoliths. That was then, and this is now, and travellers have now discovered that the more remote area of Bai Tu Long Bay offers the visitor a more authentic experience away from the tourist trail.
Explore Bai Tu Long Bay by booking onto one of the many two or three-night cruises that depart from Halong Bay. As you wave goodbye to the overcrowded waters of this once premier destination you gradually realise that there are no other boats near to you – and this is the lure of Bai Tu Long Bay, complete isolation.
Only a handful of cruise companies have permits to sail the waters of Bai Tu Long Bay so be assured that you will have it to yourself. Enjoy your 3 Day Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise on the South China Sea with activities such as kayaking, visiting caves, fishing and beach BBQs.
A highlight of cruising Bai Tu Long Bay’s waters is that you can visit the floating fishing villages where 99% of the residents have never stepped foot on land; an incredible feat in the 21st century. Tours from the boat include visiting a floating pearl farm where you can witness local life and local business first-hand. Bai Tu Long Bay is one of Vietnam’s hidden gems, but it is gaining popularity, so make sure you visit before its too late!
Quy Nhon #8
Quy Nhon (also sometimes spelt Qui Nhon) is a small coastal city in Central/South Vietnam typically overlooked by travellers following the usual Vietnam trail. However, Quy Nhon’s area has numerous ancient Cham temples and quiet, unspoiled beaches that make it one of Vietnam’s hidden gems where it is highly worth staying for a couple of nights.
The city is situated roughly midway between the charming heritage town of Hoi An and the brash commercial seaside resort of Nha Trang. It’s connected to Vietnam’s north-south railway line at the nearby town of Diêu Trì, so it’s straightforward to make a stop there along the way. While it’s off the beaten track, the city of Quy Nhon and several nearby beaches have a good range of accommodation, including small-scale guesthouses/hotels and several backpacker hostels.
If you want to stay on a beach that’s near a local fishing village and has no large-scale tourism development, consider a stay at the lovely Nhon Hai beach (about 30 minutes from the centre of Quy Nhon). Nhon Hai Beach Hostel is easily the best spot to stay, offering private rooms and a friendly traveller atmosphere. A short taxi ride from Quy Nhon is also Bai Xep beach, which is entirely uncrowded compared to the beaches you’ll find at Hoi An making it one of Vietnam’s hidden gems. The city beach of Quy Nhon itself is also worth visiting, as it’s spotlessly clean and shielded from currents by a nearby peninsula.
Besides the beaches, Quy Nhon offers a chance to see the ancient Champa civilisation ruins, including temple ruins and remains of the ancient citadel of its one-time capital. Meanwhile, the city is blissfully not touristy, giving the curious traveller a chance to visit some authentic local markets and restaurants.
Da Lat #9
Dalat is a hidden gem located in the south of Vietnam. Due to its location in the Central Highlands, it has a cooler temperature so is a popular choice for travellers those looking to escape the heat and discover a less-visited destination.
To get there, you can take a long-distance bus from Ho Chi Minh city. The journey will take about 7 hours, and so it’s recommended that you book a sleeper bus to get a bed. Dalat has an airport for those who would prefer to fly, with an airport shuttle transporting you to the city centre.
Dalat is a popular destination among thrill-seekers, offering the opportunity to go abseiling down waterfalls.
For those interested in architecture, the “Crazy House” cannot be missed. This bizarre building is a hotel, and if you book far enough in advance, you can stay in one of the rooms. There are also three colonial palaces you can visit.
You’re spoilt for choice as far as nature goes, with multiple lakes nearby, including one in the centre of town, which is a great spot to watch the sunset.
One of the local groups of people is known as K’Ho. Their Gong show must not be missed! It’s a fun experience with traditional dances, and the audience is even encouraged to join in some of the dances!
Dalat is an accessible location for the Vietnamese, and so there is a range of accommodation options no matter what your budget.
Dong Hoi #10
Dong Hoi is still off the tourist radar and is a great ‘off the beaten track’ city to visit in Northern Vietnam. It is the capital city of the Quang Binh Province. Exploring by motorbike is a great way to get to all the city sites, taking an organised tour or a taxi are other transport options. The main attractions are the nearby beaches and caves, and the tunnel network created in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a popular full-day excursion.
Dong Hoi is a riverside town and is also close to the beach. The beautiful white, sandy Nhat Le Beach is a 12km long beach located only about 20 minutes walk from the city centre, care should be taken with currents when swimming.
The massive Paradise Cave (Dong Thien Duong), 70 km northwest of town is an unreal site decorated with thousands of stalactites and stalagmites. The Phong Nha Cave located 45 km northwest of Dong Hoi, is seen as one of the most beautiful locations in Vietnam, the cave is about 55 km long, but visitors can only access the first kilometre or so.
Vinh Moc is a tunnel complex in Quảng Tri and is a spectacular historical site to visit. The United States Military dropped more than 9000 bombs in the area. The villagers built a complete underground village by digging a system of caves 30m underground; it is incredible to see. The tunnel complex is about a one, and a half-hour drive by motorbike from Dong Hoi and many travellers and tours continue to Dong Ha or Hue from the Vinh Moc tunnels.
Vietnam’s hidden gems are sensational and will appeal to every individual. Whether it is an adventure you are searching for or exploring Vietnam at a slower pace, there is something to suit all tastes. I hope this post has inspired you to discover what else is available away from Vietnam’s well-beaten track!