Though Vietnam was slow to develop its huge potential as an outdoor adventure destination, things have really changed in the last few years. Apart from trekking in the mountainous north, visitors can now also go rock–climbing, canyoning, sea kayaking or kitesurfing, among other activities. Da Lat has emerged as Vietnam’s adventure sports capital and Mui Ne its surf city, though some sports like mountain biking can be done throughout the country.
The easiest and most popular area for trekking is in the northwest mountains around Sa Pa and, to a lesser extent, Mai Chau. Sa Pa is also the starting point for ascents of the country’s highest peak, Fan Si Pan, a challenge to be undertaken only by experienced hikers. Other options include hiking around Kon Tum or Da Lat in the central highlands or in one of Vietnam’s many national parks, including Cat Ba, Cuc Phuong, Bach Ma, Cat Tien and Yok Don. In Yok Don you can even go elephant trekking, though prices are rather steep.
There’s no problem about striking out on your own for a day’s hiking. However, for anything more adventurous, particularly if you want to overnight in the villages, you’ll need to make arrangements in advance. This is easily done either before you arrive in Vietnam or through local tour agents, most of which offer organized tours and tailor-made packages. In most cases you can also make arrangements through guesthouses and guides on the spot. Note that it’s essential to take a guide if you are keen to get off the beaten track: many areas are still sensitive about the presence of foreigners.
Mountain biking is becoming increasingly popular in Vietnam. The classic ride is from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, a journey of between two and three weeks. Previously, this would have taken you along Highway 1, battling with trucks and buses, but now the more switched-on tour companies are offering excursions down the Ho Chi Minh Highway which runs along the western Truong Son mountain chain, and is so far thankfully free of heavy traffic.
The area around Sa Pa is a focus for biking activity, with tour operators offering excursions to suit all levels of experience and fitness. You can choose from half-day excursions to multi-day outings including overnighting in minority villages. Other good areas for exploring by bike include Mai Chau, Bac Ha, Da Lat and the Mekong Delta.
North Vietnam is also popular among the motorbiking fraternity. Specialist outfits in Hanoi organize tailor-made itineraries taking you way off the beaten track.
With its three-thousand-kilometre coastline, Vietnam should be a paradise for watersports, but the options remain fairly limited at present, for a variety of reasons. One is simply a matter of access: the infrastructure is not yet in place. More crucial is the presence of potentially dangerous undercurrents along much of the coast, accompanied by strong winds at certain times of year. Many of the big beach resorts have guards or put out flags in season indicating where it’s safe to swim. Elsewhere, check carefully before taking the plunge.
Whilst many of the beaches along the coast are great for swimming, the best are those around Mui Ne and Nha Trang, with Hoi An and Da Nang close behind. Mui Ne is also the country’s top venue for windsurfing and kitesurfing, both of which are now hugely popular. Phu Quoc Island, off Vietnam’s southern coast, is also famed not only for its fabulous beaches but also as the country’s top spot for snorkelling and scuba-diving. The Con Dao Islands and Nha Trang are other popular places to don a snorkel or wet suit, but wherever you dive, it’s worth noting that standards of maintenance aren’t always great, so check equipment carefully and only go out with a properly qualified and registered operator that you trust.
Heading inland, the rivers and waterfalls around Da Lat provide good possibilities for canyoning and rock-climbing, though Cat Ba Island is a good alternative if you’d like to combine rock-climbing with sightseeing in Ha Long Bay.
In north Vietnam Ha Long Bay is the watersports centre, while rock-climbing is becoming big as well, organized from Cat Ba. Most boat tours of the bay allow time for swimming – weather permitting – while there are decent beaches on Cat Ba and better still on remote Quan Lan Island. For those in search of more strenuous exercise, a number of tour agents offer sea-kayaking trips on the bay – not recommended in the heat of summer.
Vietnam has over 850 species of birds, including several that have only been identified in the past few years. The best places for birdwatching are the national parks, including Cuc Phuong (famous also for its springtime butterfly displays), Bach Ma and Cat Tien. The rare Sarus crane, amongst many other species, spends the dry season in and around the Tram Chim National Park in the Mekong Delta. For more information check out Vietnam Birding or Birdwatching Vietnam.
Finally, there are now dozens of excellent golf courses in Vietnam – around Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Phan Thiet and Da Lat amongst others – all with much cheaper green fees than in the West.