Photo credit: William@VietnamDaily.ca
Places change very quickly in Vietnam. What was fun and adventurous last year may be paved-over and overcrowded this year. In other words, most tourists places in Vietnam quickly become over-rated.
Fortunately, Vietnam has many hidden gems that are both underrated and have good travel amenities. Here is a list based on our personal experiences, in which we identity some of the most underrated destinations in Vietnam
Tuy Hòa -Phú Yên province
Preferable to: Nha Trang, Đà Nẵng
Best for: beaches, spicy food, exploring traditional fishing villages
Phu Yen’s rugged coastline. Photo Credit: William@VietnamDaily.ca
Tuy Hòa is a small city in Phú Yên province. In 2019, it was still mostly undiscovered by foreign tourists, and didn’t even have a single Circle-K franchise! The city itself is pleasant, with little traffic, light crowds, and amazing spicy street food.
The local culture has a wonderful ritual of gathering for beach parties and group exercises at dawn. Come the late-morning, they hide away from the hot tropical sun, leaving the long beaches almost barren. As dust arrives, everyone re-emerges to party.
But the main reason to visit Tuy Hòa is that it serves as a gate-way to explore an idyllic coastal landscape: gentle mountains, empty beaches, hidden rocky head-lands, massive sand-dunes, and much more. The best approach is to rent a motorbike and head north to into the hinterlands, stopping first at Gành Đá Đĩa (Giant’s Causeway) and then on to Sông Cầu, especially rugged peninsula of Từ Nham, Xuân Thịnh.
The peninsula offers a good balance of beautiful nature, hammock-cafes, and a few English-competent amenities. Best of all are the peninsula’s maze-like old towns and fishing villages that hint what life was once like in Vietnam’s recent past.
Accomodations: one highlight was Timothe’s Beach Bungalow. Timothe’s Bungalow is located on the beautiful shore of Xuân Thịnh beach, with gorgeous views of the Indian ocean, nestled between two rocky headlands and a nearby fishing village.
Another hightlight was an (unmarked) hike to the top of a dune called “Đồi cát trắng Từ Nham”. At its massive crest, one can gaze 360 degrees at two seas: the glorious Indian Ocean to the east, and the shockingly industrialized Xuân Đài Bay to the west.
Tourist infrastructure is light: this area is only for resourceful people willing to explore and do without a clear tourist map.
Recommended accomodations in Phú Yên
Preferable to: Sapa
Best for: mountains, hiking, cultural-diversity, water-falls, cave exploring
Maize fields en route from Đồng Văn to Mã Pì Lèng: Photo Credit: William@VietnamDaily.ca
Most travelers come to Hà Giang with one activity in mind: a multi-day motorcycle tour from Hà Giang town to the Đồng Văn Plateau, close to the Chinese border. It is an incredible 150km journey, despite the seeming formulaic route.
There is so much diversity in both landscape and culture, that it is tremendously delightful to simply cross a mountain pass and experience the change in landforms, architectures, and food and language. There are dozens of ethnic groups in the area (so called “minority peoples”) such as the H’mong, Chinese-refugees, and many others. If your timing is right, you should visit the Sà Phìn Sunday Market or Du Già Saturday market, to get a sense of the cultural diversity. On such market days, many ethnic groups come together to mingle, trade, and flirt in a raucous market setting.
Hà Giang isn’t the place to over-think what to do. Just rent a motorbike in Hà Giang town, then drive along the singular highway to Đồng Văn town, and end at the Mã Pì Lèng pass. Everyone does this and justifiably so.
The mountains around Mã Pì Lèng are home to some of the most thrilling and treacherous landscapes in Vietnam. In neighboring regions, like Dinh Vua Mèo (Meo King Palace), there are plenty of hidden gems to discover. Intrepid explorers will be rewarded for keeping an eye open for local hiking trials, where, if you are lucky, you can find little waterfalls, caves, and other natural delights. Try to give yourself a lazy one-week to experience the area. Stay in as many small towns along the way to Mã Pì Lèng.
Importantly, be sure to get your fill of the local Phở that comes with hand-made noodles, made right in front of you in a traditional manner (quite the spectacle!).
Đồng Văn town, like any other town, is modern, crowded, and increasingly annoying, with 11:00pm pop music blaring on the weekends. Fortunately, there are plenty of idyllic home-stays outside of the Đồng Văn town. They will be hard to find on Google-maps, so planning ahead can be difficult. But, if you are brave enough to travel without firm hotel plans, you will have a better and more authentic trip.
Preferable to: Hội An
Best for: culture and history, country-side bike-rides
Unmarked Tomb in the country-side of Huế. Photo Credit: William@VietnamDaily.ca
Once the seat of the Nguyễn imperial dynasty, Huế is now famous for its Kinh thành Huế (Huế citadel) and the hundreds of imperial tombs that dot the surrounding forests and fields.
And by tomb, we mean everything from multi-hectare royal pastures with temples, moats, and gift-shops, to hidden ruins with little or no signage. This is the kind of destination that can provide many little hidden surprises, if you are willing to explore the country-side and eschew the tourist buses and highways.
I had an amazing time simply renting a bicycle and following Google-Map’s “by foot” travel recommendation to go from one tomb to another. The walkable/bikable circuit that meanders among four of the most popular tombs (e.g., Minh Mạng, Tự Đức, and Khải Định) contains a lot of wonderful rural scenes along the way. Consider the tombs to be the skeleton of a trip: the real fun is to bike along old muddy pathways, rice-fields, small villages, and old forgotten hidden tombs along the way.
The city is quieter than other party-destinations. The local people are known for their refined culture and elegant manners, rather than for bustling innovation or industry. The beaches are also fairly decent, but require a motor-bike and about an hour’s ride (e.g., go to Hải Tiến, Thuận An).
RELATED: Our recommended 1-Week Travel Itinerary for Da Nang, Hue and Hoi An
Phong Nha – Kẻ Bàng
Preferable to: Ninh Bình
Best for: caves, hiking, rural exploration
Some of the world’s largest caves in Phong Nha. Photo Credit: William@VietnamDaily.ca
When I try to describe the near-spiritual feeling of exploring the immense alien-like caves at Phong Nha – Kẻ Bàng, the best I can inspire is a noncommittal “meh” response from people who haven’t been there. I have concluded that the average person just isn’t enticed by the sound of a dark, deep, damp cavern. This is a shame and a mistake. There are simply no words that can convey the incredible sense of awe from experiencing the caves at Phong Nha – Kẻ Bàng.
The region has the world’s largest cave (Son Doong), and a vast network of caverns spread across an iconic karst landscape. The park and town are nestled between lush and craggy hills, reminiscent of medieval Chinese tapestries.
The local tourism officers have done a great job (so far) of both protecting and providing public access to a few of the larger caves. As of today, pedestrian stairs, board-walks and lighting have been very tastefully done and are respectful to the nature (pray it stays this way). This is a relief, because so much of Vietnam’s natural beauty has become carnival-esque due to increasing tourism pressure; Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng still retains a sense of wild wonder.
The town itself is small and has a distinctly backpacker-ish feeling, like a transient boozy outpost in the Wild-West. It has plenty of small budget hotels and western-catering restaurants, but is otherwise unremarkable. People come for the caves and rural scenery.
In addition to the caves, one must definitely rent a motor-bike and traverse the short 20-km day-trip around the park’s figure-8 circuit. The road snakes throughout the rugged karst landscape, along river valleys and lush mountain forests, and through tiny isolated villages. The trip boasts of some of the most picturesque scenery in Vietnam, with iconic karst hills that rivals Ninh Binh and Halong Bay. There are a few cafes, houses, and a decent zoo; otherwise the park feels sparse and wild.
If you have more time, consider spending a laxy two-nights at a farm-stay in the rural rice-paddy outskirts of the town. There are few better ways to relax than walking among the rice-paddies nestled with towering karst outcroppings of Phong Nha – Kẻ Bàng.
Preferable to: Nha Trang, Phú Quốc
Best for: beaches, fishing villages, unusual history, amazing food
Amazing food in Quy Nhon’s Street-food market. Photo Credit: William@VietnamDaily.ca
When one sees the giant letters of “G H E N H R A N G T I E N S A” (name of one of the beach in Quy Nhơn) crumbling on a local hill-side, like a broken homage to the famous Hollywood sign, you may get a sense that Quy Nhơn has suffered a tourism bust and become a forgettable place.
But this is far from true. Quy Nhơn has a lot of surprises to offer. The huge crescent beach is fine and has a very dedicated clean-up crew. The local street-food is undeniably some of the tastiest in Vietnam (especially the Bánh hỏi, pictured above). The city night-market is better than those of Hanoi or Danang. The tiny scatter fishing villages are truely a mind-trip. And the coastal scenery, with mountains, sea and rocky headlands, is more picturesque than similar vistas in Danang or other cities.
The area hasn’t (yet) been spoiled by excessive resort development (although there is a lot of resort construction). Beyond its beaches and food tourism, Quy Nhơn is doubly interesting for all the small fishing towns in the area, such as Bãi Xép, Eo Gió, and Nhơn Hạ, each within approximately 15km from the city centre.
Nhơn Hạ is a secluded coastal town with stunning maze-like narrow streets. A seemingly simple excursion to find the main-market at the old-town’s labyrinthine centre feels like a step back in time. The local fishermen are very friendly and chances are you will get roped into a bawdy round of drinks. There are lovely opportunities to kayak around tide-pools and near-shore islands. Nearby, there is the Eo Gió eco-park that could be mistaken for Hawai’i.
At certain times of the year around August-September, the ocean is violent and dangerous except for a few secluded beaches. Plan your trip accordingly. This also corresponds to a lull in tourism because the swimming is so dangerous. This, however, corresponds to great discounts at resorts. For those who like a little thrill with their beach-lounging, or who just savour the ambiance and sounds of a roaring coastline, this can be a bonus.
What do you think?
We’d love to hear what you think, and whether the above destinations deserve more than their humble reputations!