Off the Beaten Path: Discover Hidden Gems Where Locals Love to Travel in Vietnam
Off the Beaten Path: Discover Hidden Gems Where Locals Love to Travel in Vietnam - Explore Halong Bay's Secluded Coves and Caves
With its towering limestone karsts jutting dramatically from emerald waters, Halong Bay in northeast Vietnam has become one of the country's top tourist draws. This UNESCO World Heritage site attracts hordes of visitors, with cruise boats crowding the bay's central waters. However, those willing to venture off the beaten path can discover Halong Bay's hidden gems - secluded coves and mysterious caves far from the tourist throngs.
One of the best ways to explore Halong Bay's secret spots is by kayak. Paddling into narrow channels between soaring cliffs, you'll feel like a true explorer. My favorite kayak excursion starts from Luon Cave on Bo Hon Island. It winds through a maze of jagged limestone pinnacles to Hang Hanh Cave, a secluded grotto with shimmering turquoise waters. As you drift silently through the cave's dark interior, illuminated only by beams of sunlight streaming through openings in the roof, it's an otherworldly experience.
For stunning sea views, hike to the top of Ti Top Island's 400 steps. This challenging climb is richly rewarded with panoramic vistas. Look for the island's unique geology - it resembles an upside-down table topped with green foliage. Nearby, you can also visit Hang Trong Cave, its interior filled with fascinating stalactite and stalagmite formations.
Kayaking into the mouth of Hang Luon Cave is unforgettable, as you paddle under a naturally formed stone archway into an enclosed lagoon surrounded by sheer rock. The lagoon's serene waters reflect the cave's stalactites, creating a surreal scene. For a touch of history, visit Dark and Bright Cave on Lan Ha Bay's Cat Ba Island. Used by Viet Cong soldiers during the Vietnam War, Dark Cave has an ominous vibe while Bright Cave shines with stalactite chandeliers.
What else is in this post?
- Off the Beaten Path: Discover Hidden Gems Where Locals Love to Travel in Vietnam - Explore Halong Bay's Secluded Coves and Caves
- Off the Beaten Path: Discover Hidden Gems Where Locals Love to Travel in Vietnam - Wander Through Ancient Temples in Hoi An's Old Town
- Off the Beaten Path: Discover Hidden Gems Where Locals Love to Travel in Vietnam - See Stunning Mountain Views in Sapa
- Off the Beaten Path: Discover Hidden Gems Where Locals Love to Travel in Vietnam - Unwind on Phu Quoc's Quiet Beaches
- Off the Beaten Path: Discover Hidden Gems Where Locals Love to Travel in Vietnam - Sample Street Food in Hanoi's Hidden Alleys
- Off the Beaten Path: Discover Hidden Gems Where Locals Love to Travel in Vietnam - Trek Through Hill Tribe Villages Near Mai Chau
- Off the Beaten Path: Discover Hidden Gems Where Locals Love to Travel in Vietnam - Marvel at Sand Dunes in Mui Ne
- Off the Beaten Path: Discover Hidden Gems Where Locals Love to Travel in Vietnam - Cruise Through Cat Ba Island's Dramatic Limestone Karsts
Off the Beaten Path: Discover Hidden Gems Where Locals Love to Travel in Vietnam - Wander Through Ancient Temples in Hoi An's Old Town
Amidst the bustling lantern-lit streets and colorful shophouses of Hoi An's atmospheric Old Town lies a treasure trove of ancient temples just waiting to be discovered. Wandering these historic sanctuaries offers a glimpse into Vietnam's diverse heritage of religions and beliefs.
One of the most iconic is the 14th century Japanese Covered Bridge, with a small temple nestled inside. This unique wooden structure exemplifies the merging of Japanese and Vietnamese architectural styles, with a roof that resembles a Japanese pagoda. According to legend, the bridge was built to pin down a monster that was shaking the earth and scaring the town’s children. Inside the temple you'll find carvings of two monkeys representing the years of the monkey, along with scattered coins thrown in by visitors making wishes.
The mesmerizing Cantonese Assembly Hall, dating back to 1885, is a Taoist temple adorned with extravagant dragon carvings and paintings. Flanked by fierce dragon statues, the main altar honors Thien Hau, Goddess of the Sea and protector of sailors. Intricate lanterns and coils of incense hang from the ceiling. Make a wish by throwing coins into the pond filled with turtles.
Hoi An's temples to the goddess of mercy Quan Am spotlight Vietnamese Buddhism. Tran Phu Temple, founded in 1258, has 21 rooms with statues of Quan Am in each one. In the temple courtyard, see a bodhi tree said to be over 800 years old. Just down the street is the smaller Quan Am Temple, smoke billowing from its incense altar. Observe locals making offerings of fresh flowers and fruit to the compassionate goddess.
Dating back to 1653, the bright canary yellow Phuc Kien Assembly Hall was created by fishermen from Fujian, China. Its fused Vietnamese and Chinese architectural influences are striking. Inside you'll discover altars adorned with gilded carvings, statues of protective deities, and hanging spiral incense coils over two meters long. Make a donation and have your fortune told by the resident clairvoyant octogenarian.
Off the Beaten Path: Discover Hidden Gems Where Locals Love to Travel in Vietnam - See Stunning Mountain Views in Sapa
Tucked high in Vietnam's remote northwest mountains, the former French hill station of Sapa offers some of the country's most breathtaking highland scenery. With its terraced rice paddies cascading down deep valleys, traditional villages, and soaring peaks, Sapa is a trekker's paradise. The best way to take in the spectacular views is getting out on foot into the rolling mountains surrounding town. Numerous hiking trails weave through small villages, across rice terraces, and up into the clouds. Just be sure to bring your camera, as the vistas will leave you snap-happy.
One of my favorite treks is to the H'mong village of Cat Cat, just 3 km from Sapa. The scenic path follows a valley floor, crossing a river on a skinny suspension bridge straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. Traditional wood and stone houses dot the hillsides, surrounded by brilliant green rice paddies. Gazing up at the mountains towering above, I was awestruck by the sheer scale. The valley gradually narrows as you approach Cat Cat village, dominated by a tiered waterfall. There I visited artisan shops tucked away in local homes to watch textiles being woven on creaky looms. It gave me a glimpse into the daily lives of the mountain villagers who have preserved their traditional way of living for centuries.
For panoramic vistas, the 8 km trek to Mount Fansipan is hard to beat. As you climb above town, the views just get better and better. Stop to admire Sapa's red-tiled roofs peeking out from the mist below, surrounded by row after row of rippling green rice terraces. Higher up, gaze across to the craggy peak of Mount Fansipan, nicknamed the "Roof of Indochina" at over 3,000 meters. While the hike gets steep in spots, you'll be so distracted by the scenery you'll barely notice. Reaching the top feels like you can see all the way to China!
Trekking 15 km through hill tribe villages to Silver Waterfall offers spectacular mountain scenery combined with insights into local cultures. Along the trail you'll encounter H'mong, Red Dao and Giay minorities in traditional dress. Marvel at women and girls embroidering sophisticated geometric designs on vividly colored garments. Glimpse water buffalo plowing the fields and farmers in cone hats tending lush green rice terraces. The stunning waterfall's powerful cascade drops over 100 meters into a deep pool perfect for a refreshing swim.
Off the Beaten Path: Discover Hidden Gems Where Locals Love to Travel in Vietnam - Unwind on Phu Quoc's Quiet Beaches
Nestled down in Vietnam's Gulf of Thailand, the island of Phu Quoc boasts some of the country's most beautiful and secluded beaches. As Vietnam's largest island, Phu Quoc remains relatively undeveloped compared to other beach destinations in Southeast Asia. You won't find high-rise resorts or jet skis buzzing across the turquoise waters. Instead, relaxing stretches of sand lined with swaying coconut palms await those looking to unwind in a tropical island paradise.
Phu Quoc's eastern coastline shelters numerous small coves and bays, perfect for escaping the crowds. Bai Khem is one of my favorite hideaway beaches thanks to its soft white sand, calm waters, and utterly peaceful ambiance. Dramatic black rocks jut out of the sea, creating little nooks to spread your beach towel. Order some fresh grilled seafood and cold beers at the rustic restaurant set back from the shore under the shade of palm trees. Then snorkel around the nearby coral reef, keeping an eye out for tropical fish and sea turtles gliding by.
Up in Phu Quoc's far north, Bai Thom stretches languidly for over two kilometers with not a resort in sight. Its relatively shallow waters take on an intense emerald hue that almost doesn't look real. Walk far down the beach during low tide to find delightfully isolated spots. Set up camp with an umbrella and a good book, soaking up the sunshine and listening to the gentle waves. Stop at the seafood shacks lined up along the main road for buckets of shellfish and crab coated in fiery salt and chili. The only other visitors you're likely to see are a few local fishermen.
While not totally deserted, Ong Lang Beach offers a nice balance of seclusion and amenities. Small family-run resorts are scattered discreetly along the long sandy shore. Bordered by casuarina pine trees swaying in the sea breeze, the beach has a castaway island vibe. Various water sports outfitters make it easy to try kayaking, paddleboarding, and snorkeling. There are also beachfront restaurants serving cocktails and Vietnamese specialties like seafood hot pot. But you can always take a long stroll down the beach away from it all if solitude calls. With rustic charm and natural beauty, Ong Lang makes unwinding on Phu Quoc easy.
Off the Beaten Path: Discover Hidden Gems Where Locals Love to Travel in Vietnam - Sample Street Food in Hanoi's Hidden Alleys
As Vietnam's bustling capital, Hanoi tempts visitors with its frenetic energy, historic monuments, and charming French colonial architecture. But foodies know that the real key to unlocking this city is venturing down its hidden back alleys to sample Hanoi's incredible street food scene. In a city that eats with gusto, hidden food stalls serve up regional specialties passed down through generations. Dive into Hanoi's maze of narrow lanes and you'll discover exotic dishes you won't find in any tourist guidebook. This is the Hanoi locals know and love.
Arriving in the Old Quarter, I was instantly overwhelmed with sensory overload - crowds of motorbikes buzzing by, storefronts spilling onto the sidewalk, and enticing aromas emanating from secreted food stalls. Venturing down an unmarked alley, I discovered bánh cuốn being prepared right on the sidewalk. The chef deftly poured rice batter onto a steaming cloth, filled the delicate rolls with minced pork and mushrooms, sprinkled them with crispy shallots, and handed them to eager patrons perched on child-size stools. These melt-in-your-mouth rolls turned out to be one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes.
Further down the alley, I arrived at a nameless stall marked only by a tiny plastic stool and handwritten menu. Here I sampled nem cua bể - crunchy deep fried spring rolls crammed with crab and ultra-sweet vermicelli noodles. Served with lettuce and herbs, the contrasting flavors and textures were sublime. Around the corner, a street shop famous for its bún chả (charcoal grilled pork with vermicelli noodles) was packed with locals savoring this Hanoi signature dish.
Near Hoan Kiem Lake, I tracked down bánh gối, pillowy steamed dumplings bursting with minced pork, mushrooms and rich gravy. Finding good bánh gối takes insider knowledge, as the uninitiated would likely pass by this hidden gem. Of course one can't visit Hanoi without trying its famous phở noodle soup, and I made my way to a renowned local phở stall down an unmarked side street. Their phở tái with silky slices of tender beef was the ultimate comfort food and the perfect end to a day of culinary treasure hunting.
Off the Beaten Path: Discover Hidden Gems Where Locals Love to Travel in Vietnam - Trek Through Hill Tribe Villages Near Mai Chau
Nestled in the lush green mountains of northern Vietnam, Mai Chau entices visitors with its scenic landscape of rice paddies and traditional stilt house villages. The White Thai ethnic minority populates Mai Chau, and trekking from village to village offers an authentic window into their culture that has changed little over the centuries. Visitors rave about how trekking around Mai Chau provides a peaceful emersion into traditional rural life in Vietnam.
A typical Mai Chau trek starts in Lac village, located about 5 km from Mai Chau town. After wandering through Lac village to take in the stilt houses and mingle with traditionally dressed locals, you'll head out on foot through orchards and rice fields. The surrounding Mai Chau valley is enveloped in a sea of vibrant green rice stalks, and the scenic vistas will have your camera working overtime. The flat valley trail is suitable for most fitness levels.
The first village you'll arrive at is Van village, home to the White Thai ethnic group. Admire the intricate brocade embroidery on the women's traditional costumes, in elaborate geometric patterns woven in shades of red, white, and black. Stop at a rustic open-air restaurant perched on stilts overlooking the rice paddies to try local specialties like roasted pork, bamboo rice, and rice wine fermented in bamboo tubes. Savoring authentic Vietnamese cuisine on a thatched terrace is a quintessential Mai Chau experience.
Continuing on through gently rolling hills covered in rice terraces, you'll pass through Xa Linh village. Duck inside a wooden stilt home to see where families cook meals over open fires and sleep communally on bamboo mats. Walking the dirt paths, you gain insights into the lives of these rural villagers that feels worlds away from bustling Vietnamese cities.
Your final destination is Na Phon village, located near lush green mountains. Spend some time wandering Na Phon's narrow dirt alleys that weave between the stilt houses. Visit the village weaving workshop to watch women demonstrate the intricate process of creating brocade textiles from scratch. The supplementary income from textile production and tourism has provided these isolated villages with economic stability.
Off the Beaten Path: Discover Hidden Gems Where Locals Love to Travel in Vietnam - Marvel at Sand Dunes in Mui Ne
Rising from the coastal wilderness like massive waves frozen in time, the Mui Ne sand dunes beckon travelers looking to experience Vietnam’s surreal natural landscapes. Spanning over 10 kilometers of ochre and golden sand, these iconic dunes tower up to 30 meters high. The Sahara-esque scenery has made Mui Ne one of Vietnam’s top destinations for adventure seekers. Visitors flock here to ride the sand through the undulating desert on quad bikes and sand sleds.
To immerse yourself in these imposing dunes, head out on foot to the sensational White Dunes located north of Mui Ne. As you trudge up the soft sandy slopes, it feels like climbing endless stairs that keep sinking under your feet. Reaching the crest of a dune reveals views of rippled golden hills stretching as far as the eye can see. Watching the sunlight create ever-shifting shadows across the rippling sands is mesmerizing.
Early morning or late afternoon is the best time to visit the White Dunes to avoid the intense midday heat. Rent a plastic sled at the dune's base and whoosh down the steep slopes, picking up exhilarating speed. Sandboarding is also popular on dunes like the rosy hued Ngu Phung Dunes, using boards similar to snowboards. For a scenic sunset viewpoint, hike atop the towering Star Dune, Mui Ne's tallest at 50 meters.
While playing in the sand is fun, the Red Dunes are better appreciated by sitting still and admiring their beauty. These dunes glow deep crimson in the warm light near dusk and dawn. To fully immerse yourself in the scene, join an overnight desert safari campout. Campfire barbecue dinners are followed by stargazing in the isolated dunes. Live traditional music and dance performances recount the tales of nomadic tribes who once crossed these sands. Waking up snuggled in a sleeping bag as the dunes slowly illuminate with the sunrise is magical.
No Mui Ne visit is complete without surfing down the dunes in a jeep. Bounce through valleys and careen over steep sandy slopes as your driver takes you on an Indiana Jones style adventure. Stop atop a towering dune to sip coconut juice straight from the shell while gazing out over the rippling sands as far as Vietnam's southern coastline. Off-roading through the dreamlike dunes of Mui Ne thrills kids and kids-at-heart.
Off the Beaten Path: Discover Hidden Gems Where Locals Love to Travel in Vietnam - Cruise Through Cat Ba Island's Dramatic Limestone Karsts
Rising from the emerald waters of Lan Ha Bay, Cat Ba Island's jagged limestone karsts create an unforgettable seascape. This island paradise located in northern Vietnam's Ha Long Bay tempts travelers with its dramatic scenery and tropical ambiance. Taking a cruise through Cat Ba's maze of limestone pinnacles lets you experience the island's natural beauty up close. Gliding through narrow channels flanked by sheer cliffs, it's easy to see why this island is often called the "Halong Bay of the sea."
Cat Ba Island has historically served as a vital fishing ground, thanks to the plankton-rich waters that attracted schools of fish. This also lured pirates in ancient times who would hide among the labyrinth of limestone to ambush merchant ships sailing in the bay. Today, the island's karst scenery and marine life draw visitors from around the world.
Cruising through Lan Ha Bay, you'll be awestruck by the karsts' unique geology. These ancient limestone formations have been gradually shaped over millions of years by wind and water erosion. Sailing into cavernous lagoons surrounded by towering cliffs, you'll feel like an explorer charting new territory. One of my favorite spots is Three Peaches Beach tucked away in a hidden cove, its powdery white sand flanked by jagged pinnacles jutting from emerald waters. Kayaking into the dark mouth of Hang Luon Cave is unforgettable, as you paddle under a naturally formed stone archway into an enclosed inner lagoon.