The Hidden Treasures of Vietnam’s Roads Less Travelled
I don’t think Robert Frost ever visited Vietnam, but if he had, I suspect he would have found a lot to his liking.
In this country, more than any other on earth, the road less travelled has led me – and those travellers daring enough to follow me! – to some of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever encountered.
Below, are just a few of my most memorable favourites.
Seldom Visited Villages
My favourite seldom visited small town (that still happens to have a luxury hotel) is Dalat.
It’s up in the southern highlands, so the temperature is great. It’s basically the Niagara Falls of Vietnam—that is to say, everyone wants to spend their honeymoon here.
If approached with a good sense of humour you can have tons of fun on the romantic carriage ride through the Valley of Love, and Dalat is also the number one producer of flowers in Vietnam, so you can be sure that your loved one will receive roses every day.
Cat Ba is the name of a large island and town in Ha Long Bay. Most tourists just head to the bay and spend the night on a boat visiting alleged pearl farms and floating villages – not bad, but pretty standard.
However, I think it’s amazing to get off the boat and onto the island. Not only does the interior offer one of the most scenic and least trafficked bike rides in Vietnam, but the little fishing village of Cat Ba is cute, and fresh seafood for lunch is the icing on the cake.
Now, if we really want to talk about “off the beaten track,” there is Phan Rang.
Partway through the long drive between Dalat and Nha Trang lies a random little place. It’s one of my favourites because I’m totally fascinated by visiting Cham sites in Vietnam and comparing them to Siem Reap in Cambodia.
Almost no one gets to the site in Phan Rang called Po Klong Garai. It’s a Cham temple with a fabulous setting on a hill, with sweeping views of the surrounding area.
Surprisingly, this town is also known for growing grapes for the small amount of wine produced in Vietnam. While the wine is pretty horrible (no point sugarcoating it…), it’s nice to walk through the vineyards for something a bit different.
Maybe I’m a hopeless romantic, but I love flower markets. (Or maybe I’d just rather look at flowers than raw chickens.)
The all-day and often visited flower market in Ho Chi Minh City remains wonderful, but my favourite is the 4 a.m. market in Hanoi. It’s at the terminus of the bike bridge over the Red River and is a wholesale market with local villagers coming in and selling to vendors that will re-sell around the city. It’s fantastic.
I also like the votive offering markets. These are the paper displays of money, clothes and other items that are burned as an offering to ancestors that they can use in the afterlife.
In the weeks leading up to Tet (more on that below), these markets triple in size, and it’s fascinating and fun to walk through them and appreciate the scale of this, taking in paper versions of cars, mopes, cigarettes and more.
A Random River Float
One of my favourite spontaneous stops was on a bike ride in Ninh Binh, in northern Vietnam.
I was biking with six travellers and we were having a good time riding along a river.
We stopped to drink water and there were some bamboo rafts parked in front of us on the river bank. One of the travellers jokingly said, “Wouldn’t it be fun to ride those rafts?”
After some quick negotiating, we were each on board a raft and floating down the river with our bikes floating on a separate raft beside us. We floated to the next bridge, where we continued our ride, and this became the running joke for the rest of the week.
A Quick Dip
I am also a big fan of swimming if the water looks good. I always have a good supply of towels in the van and if it’s hot, the biking clothes dry fast.
Biking along a great coastal road on the far side of Hai Van Pass was a place I often swam when I was on my research trips.
On this one trip, the waves were good and I convinced 18 fully clothed travellers to body surf in the waves of Lang Co Beach (pictured above). The body surfing was followed by a great lunch, and lots of wet clothes that dried during our bike ride.
A New Year I’ll Never Forget
Travelling in Vietnam during Tet (the Vietnamese New Year, which takes place in late January) is a total blast.
The whole country is like one big street party. On one of my favourite trips we were hiking in a remote village on the Ninh Van Penninsula.
We stumbled across a travelling troop of performers doing flips and pranks. I think they just roam villages during Tet and collect money from tips.
They were dressed up as the the Hanuman and his friend, the mischievous monkey who goes on adventures through Nepal, India and China. We watched the random show in this tiny fishing village, hugged the monkey and had a great day. (To read more about the experience, check out this article I wrote for Dolce magazine.)