When travelling in Vietnam, you could be forgiven for getting caught up in the glimmer of Ho Chi Minh City or the hustle-bustle of Hanoi. While better-known tourist attractions have much to offer, you have to dig a little deeper to find the country’s hidden gems.
Explore Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park
Serious exploration of the system of 300-odd caves and grottoes hidden in Phong Nha-Kè Bàng National Park only began in the 1990s. Before then, few except locals knew of the geological wonder that has evolved over 400 million years. For that reason, the area is relatively untouched by tourists with most attractions still managed by local authorities. You’d be hard-pressed to visit them all on a short visit (or in a lifetime) but there are a few stand-outs that easily fit into the space of a day: Paradise Cave is the longest dry cave in Asia, stretching a mind-boggling 31 kilometres, while secret mud caverns within the Dark Cave are exactly what they sound like – only better. But the Sơn Đoòng Cave is officially the world’s largest and takes considerably more planning: a four-night camping tour will set you back as much as $US3000 per person.
Make yourself at home in Mai Châu
A three-hour drive from the manic atmosphere of Hanoi, the impossibly scenic rural district of Mai Châu, could be one of the region’s best-kept secrets. Surrounded by picturesque rice fields, Mai Châu makes an ideal stopover for photography buffs and those who love to hike and bike. If you’re travelling in a group, arrange a homestay in a traditional stilt house: the hospitality offered by Mai Châu’s residents makes for a truly authentic Vietnamese experience, complete with home-cooked communal meals, modest lodgings on thatched bamboo floors and 30-degree-plus heat – all night.
Take in Huế’s history
History buffs will delight in Huế’s storied past: located on the banks of the Perfume River, the city served as the imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty from 1802 to 1945. Modern Huế retains much of its royal charm, with resplendent emperors’ tombs and ancient pagodas hidden among modern developments, and much of the restored citadel open to visitors.
Soak up the sun on Hon Mun
Popular with Russian tourists, beachside town Nha Trang is known for its laid-back lifestyle and energetic nightlife but it’s on the little-known island of Hon Mun you’ll find a true slice of paradise. The natural beauty of white-sand beaches and marine-protected coral reefs brimming with aquatic life can be reached by boat in around 30 minutes, with ferries and tour groups (led by some of Nha Trang’s most outrageous residents) operating throughout the day. You can – and are encouraged to – snorkel the reefs or, if it’s true escapism you seek, sunbathe and swim until your heart’s content (and your hands are wrinkly).