Places change very quickly in Vietnam. What was fun and adventurous last year may be paved-over and overcrowded this year; in other words, most tourists places in Vietnam quickly become “over-rated”.
Fortunately, for the adventurous and confident traveler, Vietnam has many hidden gems that are both under-rated and have good travel amenities. Here is a little list based on our personal experiences. We identity some of our favourite under-rated destinations.
1. Tuy Hòa (Phú Yên province).
Hype level: under-rated
Best for: beaches, spicy food, exploring traditional fishing villages, natural splendor, get away from the crowds.
Recommended time: between 5-days to a week
Preferable to: Nha Trang, Quy Nhơn, Đà Nẵng
Phú Yên from above. Photo: Google Image
Tuy Hòa is a small city in Phú Yên province. In 2019, it was yet undiscovered by foreign tourists, and hadn’t even boasted a Circle-K franchise. The city itself is pleasant, with little traffic, light crowds, and amazing spicy street food. It has a wonderful local culture who heads to the beach at dawn to party and exercise, then hides away during the hot late-morning to early-afternoon, and re-emerges at dusk to swim and party again.
But the main reason to visit Tuy Hòa is as a launch-pad to explore the surrounding areas. There are long empty beaches, gentle mountains, hidden rocky head-lands, massive sand-dunes, and plenty else to explore. The best approach is to rent a motorbike and head north to Gành Đá Đĩa (Giant’s Causeway) and beyond to Sông Cầu.
Gành đá đĩa, a must-see destination in Phu Yen. Photo: Google Image.
Stop at small fishing villages and observe a more traditional lifestyle. Our favourite activity was to explore the rugged peninsula Từ Nham, Xuân Thịnh. The peninsula has a good balance of beautiful nature, hammock-cafes and english-competent services, as well as old maze-like towns that will hint at what life was like in Vietnamese’s recent past.
One highlight was Timothy’s Beach Bungalow, which can be booked online at Agoda.
Timothy’s Beach Bungalow is located by the beautiful shore of Xuân Thịnh beach. Photo: Timothy’s Beach Bungalow
Another hightlight was an (unmarked) hike to the top of a dune called “Đồi cát trắng Từ Nham”, and gaze 360 degrees at two seas: the glorious open-ocean to the East, and the shockingly industrialized Xuân Đài Bay to the West.
This is a trip for people willing to explore and do without a clear tourist map.
Hype Level: slightly underrated
Best for: culture and history, country-side bike-rides.
Recommended time: 2-3 days.
Preferable to: Hội An
Unmarked Tomb in the country-side of Hue.
Once the seat of the mighty Nguyễn imperial destiny, Hue’s modern claim to fame are the Kinh thành Huế (Huế citadel) and the hundreds of old imperial tombs that dot the surrounding forests and fields.
And by tomb, we mean everything from multi-hectare royal pastures with temples, moats, and gift-shops, to hidden ruins with little or no signage. This is the kind of destination that can provide many little hidden surprises, if you are willing to explore the country side and eschew the tourist buses and highways.
I had an amazing time simply renting a bicycle and following the Google-Map’s “by foot” travel recommendation, plotting a meandering circuit among the 3-4 most popular tombs (e.g., Minh Mạng, Tự Đức, and Khải Định). Consider these popular tombs to be like the skeleton of a trip, and where the fun is to bike along old muddy pathways, rice-fields and small villages, and perhaps come across hidden tombs along the way.
Outside of Huế city. Photo: Google Image.
The city is quieter than other party-destination, and the local people are more known for their refined culture and elegant manners, rather than bustling innovation. The beaches are also fairly decent, but require a motor-bike and about an hour’s pleasant ride (e.g., go to Hải Tiến, Thuận An).
3. Hà Giang
Hype Level: slightly underrated.
Best for: hiking, mountain vistas, cultural-diversity, geographic diversity, water-fall hunting, cave-hunting.
Recommended time: 7-10 days
Preferable to: Sapa
Most travelers come to Hà Giang with one activity in mind: a multi-day motorcycle tour from Hà Giang proper to the Đồng Văn Plateau, close to the Chinese border. It is an incredible journey, despite the seeming formulaic route.
Village maize fields en route from Đồng Văn to Mã Pì Lèng
There is so much diversity in both landscape and cultures, that there is tremendous delight in simply crossing a mountain pass and experiencing the change in bio-geo landforms and architectures, food and language. There are dozens of ethnic groups in the area (so called “minority peoples”) such as H’mong, Chinese-refugees, and many others. One market (of many) to get a sense of the cultural diversity is the Sà Phìn Sunday Market or Du Già Saturday market.
Weekly market in Ha Giang. Photo: Google Image
Hà Giang isn’t the place to over-think what to do. Just rent a motorbike close to the bus station in Hà Giang town, then drive along the singular highway to Đồng Văn town, and ultimately Mã Pì Lèng pass. Everyone does this and justifiably so.
Mã Pì Lèng pass. Photo: Google Image
Mã Pì Lèng pass has some of the most thrilling landscape in Vietnam. Try go slowly over the course of at least one-week, and stay in as many small towns along the way. Try the local Phở, with noodles hand-made on-site in traditional manner (quite the spectacle!).
Đồng Văn town, like any other town, is modern, crowded, and increasingly annoying. But its neighboring regions, from Dinh Vua Mèo (Meo King Palace) to Mã Pì Lèng, have the most interesting nature and hidden gems. Intrepid explorers will be rewarded for keeping an eye open for hidden hiking trials around the hinterlands of Đồng Văn, where, if you are lucky, you can find little waterfalls, caves, and other natural delights.
Dinh Vua Meo (Meo King Palace). Photo: Google Image
There are plenty of rustic home-stays outside of the Đồng Văn town that are preferable to staying inside the town itself, but they will be hard to find on Google-maps. If you are brave enough to travel without firm hotel plans, you will have a better and more authentic trip.
4. Phong Nha – Kẻ Bàng
Hyper level: under-rated
Best for: nature, hiking, rural exploration
Recommended time: 2-3 days.
Preferable to: Ninh Bình
When I try to describe the near-spiritual feeling of exploring the immense alien-like caves at Phong Nha – Kẻ Bàng, the best I can evoke is a dismal “meh” response from people who haven’t been there. I have concluded that the average person just isn’t enticed by the sound of a dark, deep, damp cavern. This is a shame and a mistake. There are simply no words to convey the incredible sense of awe from experiencing the caves at Phong Nha – Kẻ Bàng.
The boats – Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Photo: Tripadvisor
The region has the world’s second largest cave, and a vast network of caverns in an iconic karst landscape. The park and town are nestled between lush and craggy hills, reminiscent of medieval Chinese tapestries.
The local tourism officers have done an great job of curating a few of the larger caves for public access. As of today, pedestrian stairs, board-walks and lighting have been very tastefully done and are respectful to the nature (pray it stays this way!). This is a relief, as so much of Vietnam’s natural beauty has become carnival-esque with increasing tourism pressure; Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng still retains a sense of wild wonder.
Inside Phong Nha cave. Photo: Google Image
The town itself is small and has a distinctly backpacker-ish feeling, like a transient boozy outpost. It has plenty of small budget hotels and western-catering restaurants, but otherwise unremarkable. People come for the caves and rural scenery.
A farmstay in Phong Nha. Photo: VietnamLive
In addition to the caves, a must is to rent a motor-bike and do the short 20-km day-trip around the park’s figure-8 circuit. The road snakes throughout the rugged karst landscape, up mountains and along river valleys, tiny villages and lush forests; the trip boasts of some of the most picturesque scenery in Vietnam, rivaling the more-popular karst scenery of Ninh Binh and Halong Bay. There are a few cafes, houses, and a decent zoo; otherwise the park feels sparse and wild.
If you have more time, consider a farm-stay in the rural outskirts of the town. Walking among the rice-paddies nestled with towering karst outcroppings is a simple and gorgeous way to relax.
5. Quy Nhơn
Hype level: slightly under-rated.
Best for: beaches and swimming, fishing villages, unusual history, food
Recommended Time: 4-5 days
Preferable to: Nha Trang, Phú Quốc
When one sees the giant letters of “G H E N H R A N G T I E N S A” (name of one of the beach in Quy Nhơn) crumbling on a local hill-side, like a broken homage to the famous Hollywood sign, you may get a sense that Quy Nhơn has suffered tourism boom and busts is a forgettable place.
The letters when they were newly built years ago. Photo: Binh Dinh Tourism.
But this is far from true and Quy Nhon has a lot of surprises to offer. The huge crescent beach is fine and has a very dedicated clean-up crew. The local street-food is undeniably some of the tastiest in Vietnam. The city night-market is better than those of Hanoi or Danang. And the coastal scenery, with mountains, sea and rocky headlands, is more picturesque than similar vistas in Danang or other cities.
The area hasn’t (yet) been spoiled by excessive resort development (although there is a lot of resort construction). Beyond its beaches and food tourism, Quy Nhơn is doubly interesting for all the small fishing towns in the area, such as Bãi Xép, Eo Gió, and Nhơn Hạ, each within approximately 15km from the city centre.
Ky Co Beach in Quy Nhon. Photo: Chudu24
Nhơn Hạ is a secluded coastal town with stunning maze-like narrow streets, and feels like a step back in time. The local fishermen are very friendly and chances are you will get roped into a rowdy round of drinks. Also, there are lovely opportunities to kayak around tide-pools and near-shore islands. Nearby, Eo Gió has a splendid (and private) eco-park that could be mistaken for Hawai’i.
Eo Gio Beach in Quy Nhon. Photo: Chudu24
At certain times of the year around August-September, the ocean is violent and dangerous except for a few secluded beaches. Plan your trip accordingly. This also corresponds to a lull in tourism because the swimming is so dangerous, but which also corresponds great discounts at resorts. For those who like a little thrill with their beach-lounging, or who just savour the ambiance and sounds of a roaring coastline, this can be a bonus.
What do you think?
We’d love to hear what you think, and whether the above destinations punch-above their relatively humble reputations!