01 Ha Giang
It feels like we write the same line every year, and we will write it again: Ha Giang, Vietnam’s most northerly province, is also its most beautiful. The problem with this line is that it doesn’t do the place justice.
Covered in heavily forested limestone and granite mountains, and top off with altitude karst plateaus, Ha Giang is populated by a diverse mix of ethnic minorities. Driving along the winding, hairpin bend roads of this province is like entering a time warp. Little has changed since the French first came here over a hundred years ago and built a hill station at Dong Van. Well, that’s not quite true. The hill station is a little run down these days. The rest of the highlands, however, are stunning.
Because getting around requires either hiring a motorbike or renting a car from Ha Giang City, and because getting to Ha Giang City requires doing a 320km trip by road north out of Hanoi, few of this country’s 13 million annual foreign tourists ever make it here. Which means it really is quite untouched.
Go to Ha Giang. It’s breathtaking and you won’t regret it.
Getting There: 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.
02 Ninh Thuan
Vietnam’s desert province gets passed by so often on that journey from Mui Ne to Nha Trang that it gets forgotten. Which is why visiting this rocky, waterless, arid part of Central Vietnam is a must. Once the heartland of Champa, the remnants of this past empire remain in the form of the Cham temples scattered around the province and in the city of Thap Cham, and the modern-day mosques worshipped at by the mainly Muslim Cham people who still populate the area to this day.
Yet it’s not just the beauty of the plains and the cultural element that should bring you here, but the coastline. A couple of years ago we visited Amanoi, one of a sprinkling of exclusive five-star resorts nestled away on the coast. We were struck not just by the resort itself but the beauty of the location. Rocky shorelines, crystal clear sea, untarnished yellow sand, tropical fauna. The pictures tell it all.
Getting There: Cam Ranh Airport in the next province up provides a good gateway to Ninh Thuan. Alternatively, get a bus.
Accommodation Watch: If you can’t afford the likes of Amanoi, then head to the main city of Phan Rang and the area around Ninh Chu Bay
03 Ninh Binh and Nam Dinh
A couple of hours south of Hanoi, these two neighbouring province are as similar as they are different, but both are worthy of a two to three-day trip.
For Vietnamese history and Halong Bay on land — yes, the area around Tam Coc really does look like that — start in Ninh Binh with a trip to the grottoes of Trang An, the temples of Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam, a trip to Cuc Phuong National Park and a boat ride in the eerie Van Long Nature Reserve.
Then head south to Phat Diem Cathedral for an astonishing mix of Gothic and Vietnamese architecture, before going cross-country to Nam Dinh.
The southern, Delta end of Nam Dinh is flat and at sea level, yet sticking up above the treeline you will see cathedral-sized church after cathedral-sized church, each battling for prominence. This province is obsessed with religion, so obsessed that every hamlet has its own massive monument to God. But for the real deal head to Hai Ly. There you will see the church that’s been washed away by the sea. It’s still standing — just.
Walk along the beach and over the course of a few hundred meters you will find the ruins of two more churches, which have now collapsed. According to locals the sea has come in by well over 100m over the past century. The new versions of the collapsed churches have been built further inland.
Getting There: To do this trip properly you need wheels — two is certainly better than four. But the train from Hanoi to Ninh Binh Station or the Open Tour bus is also an option here.
Accommodation Watch: The full range of accommodation is available, but our favourite due to its idyllic location and traditional Vietnamese village-like bungalows is Emeralda, just next to Van Long Nature Reserve
04 Phong Nha
You may not be able to visit Son Doong, the largest cave in the world — for preservation and safety purposes, entrance is both restricted and expensive. You also need to book with the operator, Oxalis, well in advance. But the other caves are well worth the journey, and as we write this the first tours to two new caves have started, run by Jungle Boss. Apparently the experience is second only to Son Doong.
Among our favourites are 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. Just don’t expect any mummified remains shooting out poisoned arrows at you. 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 hang 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 Vietnamese countryside? Go to Phong Nha and it’s at your fingertips.
Getting There: 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. 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 the recently opened Victory Road Villa adds a boutique edge to what’s available. Chay Lap close to the entrance of the National Park is also a great place to relax. Plus, there are a lot of excellent homestay-style options with idyllic scenery — in this respect, Phong Nha Farmstay is a keeper. 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. We’ve stayed there. It’s nice!
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 gets overlooked. The problem? Yes, it’s got a citadel and tombs and museums and beautiful countryside and bridges and boat cruises and nice restaurants and all that, 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. And antiques.
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. Real war movies, not pretend ones shot in the Philippines.
So should you go there? Hell, yes! This is culture, with great scenery thrown in, too.
Getting There: Yes, Hue’s got an airport. 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.
06 Quy Nhon
Picture a city built by the French that looks like Danang, but much smaller. Combine it with a metropolis like Ho Chi Minh City, but with the atmosphere of Vietnam at the Millennium, and then add in some of the best beaches in this country 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 is Vietnam as it once was, without the razzmatazz, rooftop bars and bling. Instead, this is a deckchairs-on-the-promenade-by-the-beach kind of place, with late-night outdoor drinking on plastic stools and the occasional five-star or four-star hotel thrown in for fun.
Add in the Cham temples — they litter the area surrounding Quy Nhon — deserted beaches and Bai Xep to the south, a travellers’ haven that no-one knows about, and this is an area worth exploring. We’ve done it twice and we’re still in love.
Getting There: The local airport, Phu Cat, serves flights from both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Then there’s the north-south train. The only problem? Many of the Open-Tour buses stop here in the middle of the night.
Accommodation Watch: Here there’s the full gamut, although don’t expect Hyatt and InterCon-style five-stars. But for dormitory accommodation and beach-style four-star resorts, head to Bai Xep — the place is a little slice of heaven.
07 Con Dao
The islands of Con Dao are wild. That is the best way to describe this archipelago to the southeast of mainland Vietnam. Formerly called Poulo Condore when it was used by the French as the Indochinese version of Devil’s Island — the old prisons are all still here — these days it’s the Vietnamese army presence that is noticeable.
Not that this is a 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.
Word has been here twice and we love the scenery — so much of it is untouched. We also love the fishing ports, the weather — here you can get four seasons within a day — and the sense that this is a 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. Need we say more?
Yes, actually, one more thing.
You need to have transport. Whether it’s a motorbike around the main island or boat transport out to the islands. Otherwise your Con Dao experience will be greatly diminished.
Getting There: A ferry goes from Vung Tau to Con Dao, but you’d be mad to go that way as there are numerous daily flights from Ho Chi Minh City.
Accommodation Watch: Six Senses Con Dao. Six Senses Con Dao. Six Senses Con Dao. (there are also some well-appointed guesthouses in the main town, Con Son).
08 Chau Doc
The Mekong Delta has many destinations worth visiting, but for cultural and geographic contrasts, the border town of Chau Doc has to be the most interesting. Located 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, markets and obsession with fish (the canh chua ca or sweet and sour broth with fish is exceptional). Overlooking it all is Sam Mountain, home to one of the great religious pilgrimages of Vietnam. And surrounding the city are paddy fields, canals, small lanes and rickety bridges, perfect for a bit of cycling.
Head south and you pass through Khmer villages with their Theravada pagodas and sugar palms. And a few kilometres further on you come to Tra Su bird sanctuary, a twitcher’s paradise, especially when the water is high. Imagine taking a canoe, in complete silence through fields of lotus, while about you birds flap and search for food. Surrounding you are vines, strange mosses, mangrove trees with gnarled roots, and odd flowers peaking out of the gloom. That’s Tra Su.
Getting There: A five-hour bus ride from Saigon, the other option is by boat from My Tho. You may have to take the Victoria Hotels boat service, but it’s worth every penny as you get to see the Mekong. Chau Doc is also the gateway to Cambodia.
Accommodation Watch: Victoria Hotels has two properties here. One in town on the river, and another, Nui Sam Lodge, on Sam Mountain. There are also a number of guesthouses right in town.
09 Nam Cat Tien
Vietnam really doesn’t quite get it right when it tries to combine jungle with tourism, especially compared to what’s on offer elsewhere in the region. However, Nam Cat Tien remains the one stand-out.
With a main base around the park HQ — a number of pretty cool homestays have sprung up next to the river — this is a place where you can trek and see animals in the wild.
On our last trip we spotted douc langurs, peacocks, lizards, gaurs and deer, most at sunset. 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. If you’re lucky, you might even spot some elephant dung. We did, which meant staying vigilant. Nothing worse than a rampaging elephant when you’re a-wondering through the jungle and all that.
Getting There: 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. The 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.
10 Ganh Da Dia
Jusangjeolli in South Korea, Garni Gorge in Armenia, Ganh Da Dia in Vietnam, the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland and the Devil’s Postpile in the US. What do all these places have in common? All are famous for their strange, column-like basalt formations that look like piles of stacked up coins.
When we first discovered Ganh Da Dia, just under 10 years ago, this nondescript piece of beach surrounded by cacti in Phu Yen Province was unknown. No-one had heard of it. And certainly no-one visited it. When you rode up there on your motorbike the only people in the vicinity were fishermen.
Even finding the place was bizarre. We heard about it by chance — the place was rumoured to exist in Phu Yen Province, north of Nha Trang. But no-one knew its name or quite where it was located. So, we got on a motorbike and went in search of it. A number of wrong turns and lots of driving later, when we pulled up above the cliffs of Ganh Da Dia, we were stunned.
These days, since Ganh Da Dia is the main topic of conversation every time someone mentions Phu Yen; the place is heaving with tourists. Which means getting that money shot, the photo we got all those years ago, is almost impossible. But, it’s still worth a visit as next to the limestone karsts of Halong Bay and Ninh Binh, this is one of the natural wonders of Vietnam.
Getting There: Unless you’re on a coach tour, you’ll need wheels. Or a taxi. Ganh Da Dia is about 15km north of Tuy Hoa.
Accommodation Watch: Despite being in the middle of nowhere, Phu Yen Province does actually have a provincial capital. It’s called Tuy Hoa. It even has places to stay and some of these places have even got stars.