Halong Bay, Vietnam
By Andrea Schaffer, on flickr
Rich and diverse culture and history, welcoming people, incredible food… There’s not much to dislike about Vietnam.
But to see the best bits of this beautiful country, joining a tour group or even riding around on a motorbike just won’t cut it. The best way to fully experience the place and its people is by getting outdoors and away from the tourist centres.
Doing some research into adventuring without a guide in Vietnam, I quickly concluded that it’s probably not worthwhile. Information on maps and locations is pretty hard to come by online, which leaves me thinking there’s a high risk of missing some of the most beautiful places if you’re finding your own way. Aside from that, having a guide offers opportunities to learn all about the history of the place and in some cases, they’ll even be able to introduce you to hill tribes. Guided tours aren’t exactly expensive, either, and you’ll be giving something back to the local economy.
Trekking Sapa’s Mount Fansipan
Image courtesy of Champa Travel
Sapa is one of Vietnam’s most popular trekking destinations, offering everything from day and half-day hikes through to multi-day adventures. Mount Fansipan, just outside Sapa, is the highest peak in Indochina at 3,143 metres above sea level. It’s also quite a popular trek for anyone visiting Sapa and cannot be taken on without a guide.
Although Mount Fansipan has a cable car that can get you to the summit in about 20 minutes, the trek is typically a two-day affair. Why not just take the cable car, then? Because the views are always better when you’ve earned them, and it’s so much cooler to experience the terrain and vegetation up close.
The hike to the summit of Mount Fansipan takes in dense jungle thick with ferns, palms and vines, as well as pine forest and bamboo thickets. Narrow ridges provide incredible views across the mountains and rice terrace strewn countryside when they’re not shrouded in cloud. The terrain alone is enough to keep you excited, scrambling over rocks and even climbing ladders.
Need to know
Time: 1 – 3 days
Tours can be booked through your Sapa accommodation or the tour sellers in Sapa’s streets. There are a few online options too, like this three-day tour (departing Hanoi) from Champa Travel.
The best time to take on Mount Fansipan is from October through to May. Definitely avoid June to September as it’s the wet season and this can make for a pretty miserable experience.
Beds for the tour are very basic, just a sleeping bag on a wooden hut floor. Don’t expect too much from the food either. It’s wise to bring a good amount of snacks and to check how much water (if any) will be provided by the tour guide.
Some tours will offer the chance to hike one way (either up or down) and catch the cable car the other way. It will be an extra cost (about USD$30 in 2018).
Longer or shorter tours are available – you can even hike up and down in a day if you’re super keen. Ask around in town for whatever your preference is.
Explore Son Doog Cave (Hang Son Doog) near Phong Nha
Image courtesy of Oxalis Adventure Tours
First discovered in 1990 by a local farmer, Son Doog is now known worldwide as the biggest cave in the world. At five kilometres long and 200 metres high at its largest point, Son Doog’s main cavern could house an entire New York City block. It’s so big that it even has its own localised weather system.
The cave is home to unique vegetation and even more unique geology, a prime example being the largest stalagmite ever found – a giant at 80 metres long. It’s also one of the only places in the world to find limestone cave pearls. Collapsed ceilings have created open areas known as dolines where forests now grow inside the caverns.
Hang Son Doog has only been opened to the public since 2013 and Oxalis Adventure Tours is the only way to visit. Their tour lasts four days and a good part of it is spent trekking to and from the cave. On the way there and back you’ll camp inside another cave called Hang En, which is the third largest cave in the world. Your second night will be spent camping in Hang Son Doog. Along the way you’ll meet the people of the remote Ban Doong village.
Need to know
Tour bookings can be made online via the Oxalis Adventure Tours website. Unfortunately, due to the manpower and preparation that goes into making these tours happen (29 staff will accompany your group of 10), this is not a cheap tour. Check the tour operator’s website (linked above) for current pricing. Tours start from Phong Nha.
Canyoning around Dalat
Image courtesy of Adventure Dalat
Dalat is a tourist town in the southern central highlands region of Vietnam. It’s famous for its nature experiences but particularly for the canyoning tours that thousands flock to each year.
If you’ve canyoned in Australia or New Zealand, the canyoning tours here might not be what you’re expecting as there are no narrow slot canyons. However, the gorges around Dalat provide all the same experiences. On what looks to be one of the best tours, the Extreme Dalat Canyoning tour with Adventure Dalat, you’ll cliff jump, swim, slide and walk through a local gorge, even abseiling beside waterfalls and rappelling through the flowing water. It’s an adventurous day out that’s only for the fit and agile.
Need to know
The Extreme Dalat Canyoning tour can be booked online via Adventure Dalat’s website. It’s suitable for fit and agile people between the ages of 9 and 70. Bring shoes that are suitable for hiking but that you also don’t mind getting wet. Tours leave in the middle of the day to avoid the morning crowds.
Trekking Bach Moc Luong Tu Mountain
Image courtesy of QuangAnh Nguyen, on Flickr
If you’re afraid of heights, Bach Moc Luong Tu Mountain might not be for you. While it starts off with a gentle stroll along a mountainside through bamboo forest and jungle, it’s not long before you’ll start the most epic climb up a rough rocky trail. There’s a lot of exposed scrambling to start with, then at some points, you’ll be hiking narrow ridges with sheer drops either side.
Your first night will be spent at around 2,100 metres before you complete the climb to the 3,046-metre summit the next morning. It’s a challenging trek with a magnificent panorama as your reward.
Need to know
Time: 3 days
The tour can be booked through Vietnam Nomad Trails. You’ll be provided information on what’s included upon booking. The tour begins at Lao Cai train station. Click here for details on getting to and from Lao Cai.
Kayak the sea caves of the famous Halong Bay
Image courtesy of Viator Travel
Your social media feed is probably filled with photos of Halong Bay, but a lot of them won’t show what (to me) is the most interesting part of a trip there. Within many of the famous limestone karsts that dominate the skyline of Halong Bay are hundreds of the most amazing caves. A cruise on the bay might be the most common experience, but only kayaking will give you the chance to really get up close and personal with the landscape.
On a kayak, you’ll duck and weave your way through the innards of the islands, avoiding stalagtites and bats, and stumbling upon secret bamboo forest-lined lagoons, enclosed all around by sheer cliffs.
Your cruise will generally include meals and will include a visit to one or more of Halong Bay’s other tourist attractions. Regardless of which tour you choose, you’re in for a relaxing and adventurous day (or few days) outdoors.
Need to know
As you can imagine, there are lots of ways to visit Halong Bay. I found a couple of tours through Viator Travel that both look amazing – a one day tour and a three-day cruise, both departing from Hanoi. I’d naturally recommend the three-day trip but let your timeframe and budget make that decision for you.
If booking a different tour, make sure it actually includes kayaking through the sea caves. Not all Halong Bay tours include kayaking at all but even if they do, they may not include the caves.
Getting to Vietnam
Australians are fortunate enough to have access to relatively easy travel to Vietnam, with regular flights from most major cities via various airlines. It’s worth checking out Kayak for the cheapest flights to suit your needs. I’ve just found return flights from Melbourne to Ho Chi Minh for $462 per person, so I’m now saving for a family holiday.
Have you been to Vietnam? Had any experiences you think should’ve made this list? Or got any questions, comments, updates or corrections? Let us know by commenting below.
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