For a publication that celebrates the diversity of Vietnam, it has always been a frustration that people constantly visit the same places.
Yes, we genuinely love destinations such as Hoi An, Phu Quoc, Halong Bay, and Sapa. When it comes to tourist-friendly delights, in the main they do a great job. But there is far more to travel through this country than hitting Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and the country’s tour group hotspots.
If you want to feel like you’ve ‘done’ Vietnam, here are 10 places we say you absolutely must visit in 2022. Just don’t always expect it to be easy. Five-star hotels? In some places, not a bloomin’ chance.
Top 10 Destinations in Vietnam to Visit in 2022
Ha Giang is categorically the most beautiful province in Vietnam. It’s also the most northerly, too. Every valley you pass through is different, the next more exhilarating than the last.
Word has been there twice to take photos and write articles. We were mesmerized both times. Why? The scenery. If they say seeing is believing, in the case of Ha Giang, seeing is also about holding your breath. Yes, we’ll use the throwaway words — it’s breathtaking.
Home to about six or seven ethnic minorities, most of whom still live in the mountains and wear traditional dress, the jewel in a very large crown is the pass just outside of the former French hill station, Dong Van. With a 1km drop to the river below, and mountains towering above, pinch yourself and you might think you’re in the Andes.
Getting There-o-meter: Hard. Think overnight sleeper bus. Getting around? Even harder, unless you don’t mind hiring a motorcycle or a four-wheel-drive jeep.
Accommodation Watch: Erm… Well… They’ve got guesthouses in the towns. Just don’t expect creature comforts.
The former Imperial capital of Vietnam should be on every Ron, Mick, and Mary’s bucket list, but thanks to the nearby charms and more tourist-friendly meccas of Hoi An and Danang, this tranquil yet endearing city is often overlooked. The problem? Yes, it’s got a citadel and tombs and museums and beautiful countryside and bridges and boat cruises, but it’s just not by the sea, there are no tailors and there’s nothing to buy — unless you like food, ‘cos Hue is good at that.
Now we at Word love Hue. It’s a city of artisans and culture, and travel inland and the jungle-clad mountains are the stuff of war movies.
So should you go there? Hell, yes! This is culture, baby, culture, with great scenery thrown in, too.
Getting There-o-meter: Yes, Hue’s got an airport, a new airport even. Let’s jump for joy. It’s also on the Open Tour bus route and the north-south train line. Woohoo!
Accommodation Watch: If you like 1920s elegance, then La Residence is oh-so ooh-la-la. There’s a lot of budget around, too, especially close to the Pham Ngu Lao area.
You may not be able to visit the largest cave in the world — for preservation and safety purposes, entrance is both restricted and expensive. But the other caves are well worth the journey.
Take the water caves of Tu Lan. There’s something Harrison Ford about this place as you swim through the grottos in the pitch black and end up in a hidden outdoor lake. And then there’s Hang En, home to 100,000 swallows with its indoor beach and subterranean mystique.
Part of a national park, the limestone karsts, and jungle give Phong Nha an extra aura, and with a town developing faster than the speed of a construction truck flying down Highway 1, this is becoming a place to chill out as well. Ever heard of the Pub With Cold Beer? Go to Phong Nha and you might just. Ever wanted to cycle down back roads through the rolling countryside? Go to Phong Nha and it’s at your fingertips.
Getting There-o-meter: Flights from Hanoi go to Dong Hoi, the area’s only city. You can also hit the train or even take a bus from Hue. This one’s easy. Just, if you fly, make sure you know your taxi fare first. VND500,000 from the airport to Phong Nha can be hard to swallow.
Accommodation Watch: No five-stars here yet, but a lot of excellent homestay-style options with idyllic scenery. Phong Nha Farmstay is a keeper, as is the dorm accommodation at Easy Tiger. Want to stay at the home of Ho Khanh, the person who discovered the world’s largest cave? Well, even he’s got a riverside homestay these days.
Set in a valley surrounded by mountains, over the past decade this destination four hours from Hanoi has become commercialized. Yet fortunately, it still boasts the charm of the past that makes it a destination of choice. The key? This is a backwater ethnic minority idyll. Perfect for those who still glorify the, ummm, noble savage. Yes, had to get a bit of Rousseau into this one.
Inhabited by the stilt-house living Black Thai, the majority of the accommodation is shared, with guests sleeping in longhouses attached to people’s homes. Add to this the paddy fields, the isolated valley location, the countryside walks, and the time-has-forgotten villages, you get why people like to come here.
Mai Chau is not only a place you have to visit, but it’s also a great stopping off point for anyone wanting to head to the wild northwest. And just four hours from Hanoi, it’s a welcome break from the big city.
Getting There-o-meter: This is one you can drive. The road to Hoa Binh is one of the safer highways out there. Buses also do the trip from Hanoi.
Accommodation Watch: Did we say something about stilt houses?
Nam Cat Tien
When it comes to jungle, Vietnam really doesn’t quite get it right, especially when you compare what’s on offer elsewhere in Southeast Asia. However, Nam Cat Tien remains the one stand-out. With a main base around the park HQ — a number of chilled homestays have sprung up next to the river in the last couple of years — this is a place where you can trek and genuinely see animals in the wild. On our last trip, we spotted douc langurs, peacocks, lizards, gaurs, and deer. It’s also a good place to go cycling — Ta Lai Longhouse has bikes for rent for the 12km track to the main park area. And if you’re lucky, you might even spot some elephant dung. We did, which meant staying vigilant.
Oh, and don’t forget gibbon island, an NGO-sponsored conservation project that saves primates and other mammals, wherever possible releasing them back into the wild. The dedication of the staff here is remarkable.
Getting There-o-meter: You’re gonna need a bus for this one, from Mien Dong Bus Station in Saigon. It’s a three-hour ride. Motorbike — we would recommend against it. These roads are dangerous.
Accommodation Watch: We love Ta Lai Longhouse. Communal sleeping accommodation, communal eating, and a great lake for swimming and kayaking. But the homestays near the park HQ are also worth checking out.
Imagine a coastal city like Danang, but much smaller. Combine it with a city like Ho Chi Minh City, but with the atmosphere of the early 2000s, and then add in probably the best beaches in Vietnam and almost definitely the finest seafood (sorry Phu Quoc). This is Quy Nhon.
Often passed over for Danang to the north and Nha Trang to the south, Quy Nhon is Vietnam as it once was, without the razzmatazz, rooftop bars, and bling. Instead, this is deckchairs on the promenade by the beach, late-night outdoor drinking on plastic stools, with the occasional five-star or four-star hotel thrown in for good measure.
Add in the Cham temples — they litter the area surrounding Quy Nhon — deserted beaches and Bai Xep to the south, a travellers’ haven that no one knows about, and this is an area definitely worth exploring. We’ve done it twice and we’re still in love.
Getting There-o-meter: The local airport, Phu Cat, serves flights from both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Then there’s the north-south train. The only problem? Many of the Open-Tour buses stop here in the middle of the night.
Accommodation Watch: Here there’s the full gamut, although don’t expect Hyatt and InterCon-style five-stars. Not a chance. But for dormitory accommodation and beach-style four-star resorts, head to Bai Xep — you won’t regret it.
Word has been to Kontum once. We spent one day there and had a blast. The quite phenomenal Tan Huong church built entirely of wood and adobe, the dragon houses, the ethnic minority Bahnar who live bang in the middle of town, the wedding we ended up at, the karaoke we sang, the drunken overnight journey back to Saigon and all that rice wine drunk out of a shared barrel with straws.
Yes, we had one of those unforgettable experiences — this is a side to Vietnam you will rarely see. It’s also the only city in the Central Highlands — including Buon Me Thuot, Gia Lai, and Pleiku — that has any cultural color. Just 130km from Attapeu, the closest town in Laos, it’s also the gateway to the rest of Southeast Asia.
Getting There-o-meter: Did anyone say overnight bus?
Accommodation Watch: Er, not a clue. Didn’t stay there. But apparently, you can hitch up with the ethnic Bahnar. Now, that would be interesting.
Wild, wild, wild! That is the best way to describe this archipelago to the southeast of mainland Vietnam. Formerly called Poulo Condore when it was used by the French as the Indochinese version of Devil’s Island — yes the old prisons are all still here — these days it’s the Vietnamese army presence that is noticeable.
Not that this is a bad thing. With the army and navy controlling huge swathes of the land, it means the islands are protected, protected from the encroachment of man, and protected from over-development.
Word has been here twice and we love the scenery — so much of it is untouched. We also love the fishing ports, the weather — here you can get four seasons within a day — and the sense that this is a place where nature rules, not man. The National Park, night-time turtle hatching on Bay Canh, great diving, stunning beaches, good seafood, and of course one of the best five stars in Vietnam, Six Senses Con Dao. Need we say more?
Getting There-o-meter: A ferry goes from Vung Tau to Con Dao, but you’d be mad to go that way as there are now around six daily flights from Ho Chi Minh City. But to get around, make sure you hire a motorbike. Worth every dong of the ride.
Accommodation Watch: Six Senses Con Dao. Six Senses Con Dao. Six Senses Con Dao. (there are also some well-appointed guesthouses in the main town, Con Son).
The Mekong Delta has many destinations worth checking out — Sa Dec, Ben Tre, Tra Vinh, Ha Tien, My Tho — but for cultural and geographic contrasts, the border town of Chau Doc has to be the most interesting. Sat at the confluence of three rivers, on one side you have the mosques and kampong-style villages of the Muslim Cham. On the other is the main city, with its pagodas, markets, and obsession with fish (the canh chua ca, or sweet and sour broth with fish is exceptional). Overlooking it all is Sam Mountain, home to one of the great religious pilgrimages of Vietnam. And surrounding the city are paddy fields, canals, small lanes, and rickety bridges, perfect for a bit of cycling.
Head south and you pass through Khmer villages with their Theravada pagodas and sugar palms. And a few kilometers further on you come to Tra Su bird sanctuary, a twitcher’s paradise, especially when the water is high. Imagine taking a canoe, in Apocalypse Now-style silence through the swamps, while all about you birds flap and search for food. Surrounding you are vines, strange mosses, mangrove trees with gnarled roots, and odd flowers peeking out of the gloom. That’s Tra Su.
Getting There-o-meter: A five-hour bus ride from Saigon, the other more comfortable option is by boat from My Tho. You may have to take the Victoria Hotels boat service, but it’s worth every penny as you get to see the Mekong. Chau Doc is also the gateway to Cambodia.
Accommodation Watch: Victoria Hotels has two properties here. One in town on the river, and another on Sam Mountain. There are also a number of guesthouses right in town.
Often described as the gateway to China, this northwesterly city just four hours from Hanoi has a long, battle-ridden history. Today its glorious past is crowned by its ancient, 16th-century citadel. Built during the Mac Dynasty, only two walls remain and while the North Gate was renovated in 2010, the South Gate has been reclaimed by nature. Surrounded by limestone karsts, and sat next to Phai Loan Lake, for pure beauty and an aura of ‘what once was’, this is a wonderful place to visit for a couple of days.
Two caves — Tam Thanh and Nhi Thanh — are part of the checking-it-out experience, as is heading to the night market and trying the roasted pork and the pho chua (sweet and sour noodles). But more importantly, this is a place that mixes Chinese culture with Vietnamese, past with the present, and the Vietnam of today with that of the past. Despite being a border town, there’s much to commend Lang Son, and only four hours from Hanoi, it’s perfect for a weekend break.
Getting There-o-meter: The bus takes four to five hours and there’s also a train route — taking the train is part of the Lang Son experience. To get around, try getting hold of a motorbike. You’ll need it.
Accommodation Watch: There’s a Muong Thanh hotel in town if you’re after a Vietnamese four-star, beyond that you’re looking at small guesthouses.