The verdant limestone stacks of Ha Long Bay and the bustling streets of Hanoi are well established (and essential) stops along Vietnam’s tourist trail. But the traveller who ventures beyond the hotspots will be rewarded with secluded bays, picturesque villages and delicious farm-to-fork food. Here are seven ideas for an adventure off the beaten track.
1. Make the journey to Bai Tu Long Bay
Bai Tu Long Bay is just to the northeast of world-famous Ha Long Bay – and its striking expanse is just as beautiful. However, it sees a fraction of the visitors.
More and more tour companies are now offering trips to Bai Tu Long (“Children of the Dragon”). Or, if you want to go it alone, you can take the ferry to remote Quan Lan Island – the slow boat from Cai Rong has the best views.
Quan Lan has only a handful of hotels, and very little English is spoken – but that’s part of the joy. Once you’ve taken in the bay, bask on the untouched beaches (the best stretch along the east coast) and explore the virtually empty roads by bicycle. You’ll get the impression that little has changed here for decades.
2. Enjoy farm-to-table food in Bong Lai Valley
Phong Nha National Park may already be on your itinerary, but your taste buds will thank you for venturing to nearby Bong Lai Valley. Farming is integral to the community here, and more and more locals are now opening their homes to visitors.
Farm-to-fork restaurants will give you a true taste of the local delicacies; Moi Moi’s speciality is pork slow-cooked in bamboo tubes and delicious veggie peanut dumplings. At The Duck Stop you can feed the ducks and buy drinks and packets of fresh pepper. The legendary Pub With Cold Beer does exactly what it says on the tin, plus there are hammocks and a river to swim in. In the true spirit of farm-to-table, they will kill and cook a chicken for a shared lunch.
3. Visit minority villages around Kon Tum
The lush central highlands are a highlight for many adventurers in Vietnam. The sleepy provincial capital, Kon Tum, with its glorious riverside setting, is particularly lovely.
Curiously overlooked by tourists, the 650 minority villages surrounding Kon Tum are wonderful, welcoming places to visit too. And you’re unlikely to see another foreigner on your travels. You can stay overnight in a communal thatched rong in the Bahner villages, within easy walking distance from the centre of town.
4. Take a road trip to remote Ha Giang
Home to several ethnic minority groups, including the Hmong, Dao and Giay, Vietnam’s Far North is the final frontier for intrepid travellers – and nowhere is wilder than Ha Giang. Mountain roads wind through lush green landscape and open out to incredible vistas, particularly in the rugged Dong Vang Karst Plateau Geopark.
Visitors are required to have a permit to visit the province (easily and cheaply acquired in Hanoi).
5. Cycle the Mekong Delta’s An Binh Island
To experience a slice of island life on your Vietnam adventure, head all the way south to the languid Mekong Delta. The watery rural idyll of An Binh Island is criss-crossed by narrow dirt paths perfect for exploring by bicycle. All routes are fringed with palm trees, with a backdrop of lush orchards and traditional thatched houses, many of which are open as homestays. Staying here overnight and exploring at your own pace is far more rewarding than a day tour organised from Ho Chi Minh City.
6. Drink homebrew at Hanoi’s other Bia Hoi Corner
Bia hoi can be found all over Vietnam and, in Hanoi, most visitors head straight to the tourist-laden bia hoi on Luong Ngoc Quyen and Ta Hien in the Old Quarter. Come evening time, the bars, filled with plastic stools at squatting height, are full to the brim with an international crowd sipping bottled beer.
But, to get a flavour of a real bia hoi, try further west on the corner of Bat Dang and Duong Thanh. Here, room temperature 5000VND (20¢) draught beer is served in sticky glasses to a predominantly male clientele.
7. Experience Mai Chau hospitality
Surprisingly overlooked by foreign visitors considering its proximity to Hanoi (135km southwest of the city), rural Mai Chau is a world away from Vietnam’s chaotic capital. The valley is inhabited mainly by the White Thai minority, many of whom have opened their traditional stilt houses as rustic homestays. You only need to wander the villages that fan out from Bac Ha to find somewhere to get your head down.
Once settled, feast on delicious home-cooked meals before a backdrop of jagged karst mountains.