Does Vietnam tickle your travel taste buds? If so, you’ve got great taste. This country is mesmerizing and addictive (trust me, I’m on my fifth visit).
And you’re not alone – there were 13 million international visitors in 2017, and the numbers are rising. But don’t let the crowds put you off – this country has so much to offer that there’s plenty to go around. You needn’t be overwhelmed by queues or have to jostle for photo ops in competition with other tourists, instead you can delight in undisturbed villages, hidden (I mean seriously difficult to find) coffee shops and stunning landscapes as if you were the first person there.
Here are my top recommendations for lesser-known Vietnam…
Cruise through Lan Ha Bay
Ha Long Bay is a, if not the, Vietnamese icon. It’s really quite a phenomenal experience to cruise among the 1600 limestone islands and islets of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. But I insist on trying an alternative – Lan Ha Bay. This is actually the less crowded, southern section of Ha Long Bay.
Just as stunning, it is easier to appreciate nature’s beauty here thanks to the reduced number of boats cruising around. Oh, and there’s the added bonus of white sand beaches among the limestone towers, as well as many floating fishing villages (and spot the adorable dogs that live on these tiny floating homes).
When we cruised through Lan Ha, it felt notably calmer than Ha Long, and cleaner. With warnings spiking this year about the environmental impact of Ha Long Bay’s crowds, you’ll not only be seeing somewhere more beautiful, but also supporting sustainable tourism by sidelining to Lan Ha Bay.
Venture to Ha Giang province in the mountainous north
I can’t believe I still haven’t been to Ha Giang (see, I’ve been here five times and still not seen everything there is to see!). It’s top of my to-do list.
Lonely Planet calls it Vietnam’s final frontier, the last area of wild Vietnam. The scenery is breathtaking, with the dramatic mountain peaks of Dong Van Geo Park and the Mai Pi Leng Pass attracting motorbike enthusiasts from all over the world. The deep valleys of Hoang Su Phi – a district in Ha Giang province – have rice terraces stacked dramatically up steep hillsides and the area has been identified as a National Heritage site.
Since Ha Giang is that bit farther from Hanoi than its popular cousin Sapa, the province sees less visitors and tourism here is not developing as quickly. Get there soon, this place is sure to see a peak in visitors over the next few years.
Experience country life with Vietnam’s ethnic minorities
Did you know that Vietnam has a staggering 54 ethnic groups? With distinct languages, cultures and traditions, they make Vietnam the most diverse of South-East Asia’s populations. Though the Viet people make up the majority of the population, the other 53 ethnic groups number 8 million people and cover two-thirds of the country’s land, contributing significantly to Vietnamese life, especially outside the big cities.
Some of these groups have a mere hundred or so members, so the opportunity to understand and experience their way of life is very special. In Hanoi the Museum of Ethnology gives insight into the country’s cultural heritage, with full-size replicas of stilted houses set in tranquil gardens, and thousands of artifacts to browse.
If you have time, going beyond the museum and actually visiting ethnic minority communities is a great way to experience lesser-known areas of Vietnam. It’s super important to do this respectfully and in cooperation with the communities themselves, so do some research before you book.
Did you know? Intrepid offers 1-night homestays on their Scenic Vietnam and Vietnam Cambodia Adventure trips, so you can immerse yourself in the culture of the Dzao ‘Tien’ people in Sung Village. Visit a hundred-year-old tea plantation, embark on a short hike, enjoy a delicious home-cooked dinner and get to know the local villagers.
Explore Phong Nha National Park and the world’s largest caves
Another dark horse in Vietnam’s catalog is Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park. Buses didn’t come to Phong Nha until 2015, since there was just no demand for it. Until 2009, this small town in the Central Highlands was basically unknown to anyone outside of its dusty roads and rice paddies. But then a local man named Ho Khanh led the British Caving Association to discover the largest cave in the world, among many others, hidden in the jungle.
Since then, a lot has changed in a short time. Illegal timber-cutting previously dominated local industry, but the cave discoveries have had a beautiful effect on employment. Jobs have been created with the construction of new hotels and tourism’s emergence. Rent a bicycle and ride down to Ho Khanh’s riverside homestay where you can watch the sun set behind limestone peaks while sampling his signature chocolate coffee.
And I’ve not even mentioned the caves – there are many you can visit, Paradise and Jungle are the most popular – the former feels as if you’ve been transported to the moon and leaves you speechless, and Jungle can be reached via zip line.
Caves, like sunsets, can’t be done justice by photos. You’ve simply just got to see them in person.
Seek out secret coffee shops galore
Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee producer – they do coffee very well. Locals sit on tiny plastic stools and sip on their favorite beverage at all hours, day or night. Coffee here is strong, be warned, and tastes unique – like caramel to me, though I’m no expert. To offset this strength, the Vietnamese add condensed milk. It tastes like coffee ice cream – honestly so delicious.
Café culture is not a lesser-known activity in Vietnam, but with literally thousands of cafes, both independent and chains, it is still possible to find quiet, under-the-radar spots to get a caffeine hit. In a country where it’s a sin to go to Starbucks, here are my favorite alternatives…
In Ho Chi Minh City, track down The Maker and Mockingbird (super fun to find); in Hoi An – Rosie’s (be sure to read the story on the menu) and The Espresso Station; and in Hanoi Café Nola and Pho Co (good luck finding the entrance). To go really local in the capital city, have an egg coffee at Café Dinh by Hoan Kiem Lake (another disguised entrance, and stir well before drinking).
I won’t go into any more detail about you why the above are so special, your challenge is to go and find out for yourself.
There’s so much to discover in dazzling Vietnam. Venture there on one of Intrepid’s small group tours.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel, Jen Welch x2, Intrepid Travel, Jen Welch, Intrepid Travel, Jen Welch.)