We all know about the majestic beauty of Ha Long Bay, and we've all pined for the flowing hillsides of Sa Pa. The frenetic energy of Ho Chi Minh City and the buzzing bazaars of Hanoi are well-trodden by travellers of all shapes and sizes, and Nha Trang's got popular beaches and waterparks aplenty. But where are the more unusual places to visit in Vietnam; the spots you might not have heard of or seen on the Travel Channel?
Cue this list of Nam's off-the-beaten-track destinations, which runs from the unknown beaches of the south to gorgeous coastal inlets to rival even mighty Ha Long. Enjoy…
Buon Ma Thuot
Sat perched up high on the rising plateaus in the heart of Vietnam, the largely unknown town of Buon Ma Thuot is slowly but surely outgrowing its once rustic beginnings, thanks mainly to a burgeoning coffee growing industry (yep, you're in for some of the top beans and brews in the nation here!). However, most travellers come to see what's on the edges of the town: Yok Don National Park. This vast land of forests and the winding Srepok River buts right up to the Cambodian border, offering a slew of rafting excursions and elephant safaris. You can also visit traditional Mnong longhouse villages on the way into town!
If you're heading for that compulsory stay in the gorgeous colonial city of Hoi An (just as folk on LBW's Vietnam Explorer itinerary do!), then why not slot in a day or two in Da Nang along the way. This sprawling city on the edge of the South China Sea offers a fine balance between history, beach-going and culture. You can while away whole days searching for empty coves and bays along the Son Tra Peninsula; you can trace the rise and fall of old civilizations at the city museums; you can don the snorkels and kick-back on Cham Island just out at sea. And when it's time to party, be sure to hit the beer bars of An Thuong in the evening (expat alert!).
Bai Tu Long
If Ha Long Bay is Vietnam's greatest touristic draw, then Bai Tu Long is the country's greatest touristic draw that no one knows about. Sat just north of UNESCO-attested Ha Long, this vast area exudes all the same natural wonders as its famed brother to the south – think soaring karst cliffs dressed in jungle; turquoise bays of lapping water; submerged gardens of corals. Kayaking and boating between the huge limestone islets is unquestionably the best way to see the area of Bai Tu Long.
Cham Island sits languishing in the South China Sea just off the coast from the popular colonial city of Hoi An. A patchwork of aquamarine inlets and sparkling brackish lagoons, rising cliffs with jungles tumbling down to the sea, and shimmering beaches of pearly-white sand, it's something of a tropical paradise. It's also surrounded by a fringing of pristine coral reefs, making it one of the top snorkeling destinations in the country. You can expect far fewer crowds than on the popular beachfront of An Bang back in the city too.
Mu Chang Chai
If you're pining for a view of Vietnam's iconic rice terraces but don't want to join the usual crowds flocking from Hanoi to the northern hill station of Sa Pa, then why not consider more off-the-beaten-track Mu Chang Chai. This rustic little enclave can be found nestled deep in the karst mountains of the country's north-western sector, enfolded by sweeping vistas of agricultural land that seems to cascade down the summits in a patchwork of greens and browns. Trekking is one of the top draws, while others come to complete motorbike circuits around rustic towns like Nghia Lo and Tu Le.
Hue is a massive city and a place that bursts with history – it really should draw more tourists than it does! But hey, no one's complaining, especially not as they start an odyssey through the old court rooms of the Nguyen Dynasty, seeking out lichen-spotted tombs and the forbidden interiors of the Thai Hoa Palace all on their own. Hue also bustles with modern energy, and markets pop up here and there along the banks of the Perfume River.
Despite a prime location on the Vietnamese coast, between the two major hubs of Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, the so-called City of Roses draws a much smaller crowd of travellers than you might expect. Perhaps that's because it was completely levelled during the tumultuous conflicts of the last century, or maybe it's because folk prefer to make a beeline for out-and-out beach resorts further down the shore. However, the fact remains that Dong Hoi's proximity to the colossal Paradise Cave (a new UNESCO Heritage Site no less) makes it a great place to come before the crowds discover it. Oh, and LBW come here on our Vietnam Explorer trip, just in case you were wondering!
Da Lat was established by the French colonists in Vietnam, who were desperate to escape the scorching tropical heat of the coastal cities. They came and built gorgeous Parisian-style villas here in the hills, and adorned the streets with cobblestone. Fast forward more than a century and the European feeling is still alive, albeit tempered by a little Vietnamese chaos: street stalls; bazaars. However, Da Lat's real charm lies in the mountains nearby, where canyons and caves await intrepid explorers.
It can be a little tricky to locate the far-flung Con Dao archipelago, which makes its home a long way off the southern coast of Vietnam at the end of the Spratly Islands chain. However, once you do discover these gems, you'll instantly feel that the search was not in vain! Here, beaches void of footprints hide in the bays and beneath the salt-washed cliffs. There, blooms of green jungles give way to groves of coconut palms and luxury resorts. Okay, Can Dao can be a tad expensive, but it rarely disappoints!
If Hoi An is packed with visitors and Nha Trang is just too much for the senses (booze cruises can get a tad overwhelming after a while, we know), then consider making a beeline for less-visited Quy Nhon. This little bay on the South China Sea is home to a couple of really fine beaches, each backed with good hotels, the occasional beer bar, and clusters of swaying palm trees. The town itself also has some elegant Cham architecture, not to mention a bustling fishing port where the people watching is top-notch.
Can you think of any more awesome off-the-beaten-track places to visit in Vietnam? If so, we'd love to hear about them in the comments below! Or, if you've decided to come and explore this corner of Indochina in the coming year, then it's worth checking out LBW's line-up of tours…
You can find more information on our tours HERE!
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