Vietnam, which has grown in popularity over the last 20 years, rewards the traveler prepared to dig a little deeper. By Ben Lerwill
Vietnam’s modern-day popularity among U.S. travelers is perhaps best illustrated by highlighting a couple of visitor statistics. Two decades ago, in 1997, the country drew a total of 40,400 American visitors across the calendar year. The corresponding figure for 2017 — for the first six months alone — was 320,204.
Today’s Vietnam is a tourist destination that’s proven itself in the long term. Putting to one side the now distant echoes of war — the cultural and historical remnants of which still resonate with U.S. travelers — it has many obvious selling points.
They’re summed up by Vo Thi Bich Ha, of Haivenu Tours. “Although it’s still a ‘new’ destination, it’s a place of natural beauty, friendly people, delicious food, exotic ethnic cultures, spectacular beaches and off-the-beaten-track experiences,” she says. “It’s also a vacation spot for all budgets.”
She explains that U.S. visitors are typically middle-aged, something backed up by Brian Mei of Eastern Travel. “The visitor demographics to Vietnam haven’t changed too much over the years,” he says. “And for U.S travelers, it’s almost always visited as part of a combination program.”
Indeed, Vietnam’s proximity to countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Thailand continues to be a major factor in its popularity. Vacations that take in one or more of these neighboring nations hold real appeal, with Mekong River cruising between Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Cambodia a common option.
“In recent years, Vietnam has seen a big increase in those looking for river cruises,” says James Mundy of InsideVietnam Tours. “The number of luxury vessels on the Mekong has grown steadily, but passengers can now enjoy a longer cruise on the Red River in Northern Vietnam.”
On which note, it’s important to stress that the country serves up far more than just its headline attractions. So, stepping away from the established set-piece sights, here’s a rundown of what else Vietnam has to offer.
Beaches & islands
Vietnamese tour operators often talk about the five ‘H’s, namely Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City. Between them, they cover all the bases that most first-time visitors would expect to encounter — frenetic street life, imposing history, colorful traditions and giddying scenic beauty.
Comparatively lesser-known are Vietnam’s beaches. This is a country, let’s not forget, with more than 2,000 miles of coastline. The southern city of Nha Trang has long been the most celebrated of its beach resorts, thanks to its long golden sands and the various vacation trappings to be found, from watersports and scuba diving to beach massages and fresh pineapple vendors. Hotel chains such as Sheraton, InterContinental and Six Senses all have properties in or around the city.
Elsewhere in the country, the southern island of Phu Quoc is another focal point for beach bums. Accessible by both air and sea, it has a tourism infrastructure which has developed at pace over the last 15 years, resulting in plenty of good beachside accommodation. The newly opened Fusion Resort Phu Quoc, an all-villa spa hotel, is a case in point. The island is also renowned for its diving and snorkeling, at its best between November and May.
For clients looking for a quieter experience, meanwhile, top picks include the gorgeous Ho Coc Beach, located around 80 miles south of Ho Chi Minh City, and the similarly lovely Hon Khoi Peninsula, which has the added benefit of being within easy reach of Nha Trang.
The exotic north
Many visitors restrict their explorations of Northern Vietnam to the tourist honeypots of Hanoi and Halong Bay. There’s no doubting the appeal of either place
— the capital city is a thrilling melee of scooters and street food, while the karst peaks of Halong Bay make for one of Indochina’s most beautiful spots — but by venturing further afield, there are considerable rewards to be had.
This is partly because Vietnam is the most ethnically diverse country in Southeast Asia, and it’s here in the far north that its cultural minority groups are most in evidence. It’s also a very green, mountainous region with spectacular scenery. The most visited hub in the region is the one-time hill station of Sapa, a high-altitude town surrounded by slopes layered with hundreds of rice terraces. It makes a natural base for multi-day trekking tours to nearby villages.
The region is also much easier to get to than in years gone by. “The north of the country has become more accessible in recent years,” says Mundy. “The road to Sapa now negates the need for overnight train journeys.”
Sapa forms part of the so-called Northwest Loop, a road-trip circuit that heads off the beaten track to incorporate remote valleys and tiny hamlets. It can be done comfortably in around a week, with motorbike hire a popular way of making the circuit. The loop also gives visitors a chance to see Dien Bien Phu, the Vietnamese border town notorious for being the scene of a major battle with the French in the 1950s.
A corresponding circular road trip can also be done in the northeast, which again plays home to a variety of different ethnic groups and some impressive topography. And, across the whole of the north, distinctive ethnic costumes — such as the purple smocks of the Hmong or the red headdresses or the Dao — are commonplace.
Adventure & experience
“Experiential travel has become a trend all over the world, and Vietnam is the same,” says Haivenu Tours’ Vo Thi Bich Ha. “There are more and more travelers looking for local interactions and unique experiences, instead of just the standard big-name highlights.”
In Vietnam, the possibilities for adventure are numerous, from biking trails to overnight caving expeditions. Where caves are concerned, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is the main focus, and in particular Son Doong, the largest cave in the world. More than five miles long, 650ft high and 490ft wide, it’s said to be big enough for a Boeing 747 to land in. Be aware, however, that only a limited number of visitor tickets are released each year — and they sell quickly.
The park — which is located in north-central Vietnam and protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site — has other highlights, including the remarkable Thien Duong (Paradise) Cave, where a long staircase takes you to the cavern floor, and Phong Nha Cave, visited by dragon boat.
Other notable adventure activities in the country include paddleboarding, scuba-diving, kayaking and hiking. For clients serious about the latter, attention often falls on Mount Fansipan, the tallest peak in Indochina at 10,310ft. It’s located in Lao Cai Province, close to the Chinese border, and the summit is reachable after a tough two-day trek — or a 20-minute cable-car ride.
Culture & cuisine
The emergence of the Red River (or Song Hong) as an alternative cruising destination to the often-overcrowded Mekong is more than just a means of avoiding the tourist throng. The river is also a vibrant cultural destination in its own right, being rich in ancient legends and rural traditions. Its green expanse of paddy fields and conical-hatted workers is an archetypal vision of Vietnam.
Visitors with a specific interest in the country’s long history, meanwhile, will find plenty to enjoy. Hue is the most obvious option with regards to pre-20th century Vietnam — it was the seat of the Nguyen dynasty for almost 150 years — but a fine alternative is the red-brick Cham architecture around Phan Rang in the south.
Elsewhere in the country, the legacy of the Vietnam War is also much in evidence. The Cu Chi Tunnel complex, close to Ho Chi Minh City, is the most visited site from the period, but many others exist. They include Khe Sanh, which saw a fierce battle in 1968 and now has a dedicated museum, and China Beach, a long stretch of sand near Danang that was regularly used by U.S. servicemen during the war.
On a much lighter note, meanwhile, Vietnamese food now enjoys an excellent global reputation. Street food tours and cookery courses are offered in an increasing number of places across the country; the experiences tend to be both informative and delicious. And, no visit to Vietnam is complete without at least one breakfast of a steaming bowl of pho (noodle soup) in a roadside cafe.