From floating markets to vast rice terraces set against the mountains, Vietnam is a vast country with many experiences to offer. The sprawling country has three distinct regions: Northern, Central and Southern. You’ll find jagged alpine peaks at the northern provinces and flat river deltas that meander through rice paddies in the south. Each region has its own unique style of cuisine, too, considering the country’s longstanding reputation as a foodie’s paradise.
It’s easy to stay in your comfort zone. But if your exposure to Vietnam is limited to major cities like Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, it’s time for a change. These alternative destinations prove that there’s so much more to love.
Once the ancient capital of the Nguyen Dynasty, Hue is now one of Vietnam’s most charming towns. The city has massive historical significance, as it once saw the Battle of Hue and several events during the Buddhist Crisis of 1963. A testament to this is the crumbling architecture, tombs of ancient emperors, and some of Vietnam’s finest pagodas.
EXPLORE: Visit Hue Imperial City, a walled fortress and palace that was once home to Vietnam’s emperors. Marvel at impressive 19th-century monuments such as the Ngo Mon Gate of the ancient city and the tombs of Emperor Minh Mang and Emperor Tu Duc, which were mostly modelled after Beijing’s Forbidden City. The impressive Tu Hieu Pagoda dates back to 1843 and is one of the region’s most famous monuments. Before the sun sets, take a boat tour along the Perfume River that flows through the center of Hue.
EAT: Widely regarded as the focal point of Vietnam’s food culture, Hue was once an important royal city. Here’s where you can find restaurants serving traditional imperial banquets. Y Thao Garden (03 | Thach Han, Hue 54) is not too far from the Imperial Palace and is a great place to enjoy a meal that unfolds over a few courses.
DRINK: Surprisingly, Hue comes to life after dark with its vibrant nightlife scene. Secret Lounge Hue (15/42 Nguyen Cong Tru, Phu Hoi) is an open-air bar in a tropical garden
outfitted with pool tables. Dance the night away at Victory Bar (15/42 Nguyen Cong Tru, Phu Hoi), an underground nightclub located in the middle of Pham Ngu Lao street. It’s popular with both locals and tourists alike.
STAY: Housed in a colonial villa on the banks of the fabled Perfume River. Azerai La Residence Hue (5 Le Loi, Vinh Ninh) is decked out in beautiful Art Deco furniture blended with contemporary touches. Stay at one of the newly-renovated rooms in the West Wing with spacious balconies.
In Vietnam’s An Giang province lies Chau Doc, a quaint city at the intersection of a tributary linking the Bassac and Mekong Rivers. Close to the river border of Vietnam and Cambodia, the city is characterised by charming canals.
EXPLORE: Take a hike up Sam Mountain, located about seven kilometres north of town in the plains of Mekong. Lauded as a local pilgrimage site, it’s home to many shrines and temples, such as the Ba Chua Xu Temple. Once you reach the peak, visit the local villages for a slice of everyday Vietnamese life. Another must-do is the Chau Doc Floating Market, which stretches along a part of Hau River in the northwest of An Giang. Visit the market at the crack of dawn, as it is busiest around 5am to 6am, when locals gather to buy fresh produce.
EAT: Bay Bong (22 Ð Thuong Dang Le) is an unassuming dining establishment with delicious and affordable cuisine. Order their mouthwatering fish-and-vegetable hot pots, stir-fried rice with seafood, canh chua (sweet and sour soup) and ca kho to (stewed fish in clay pot).
STAY: The four-star Victoria Chau Doc Hotel (1 Le Loi St) evokes colonial charm, with sophisticated rooms decorated with darkwood floors and furniture. Its unique location on the banks of the Basic River boasts views of the famous floating markets and fish farming villages.
Flanked by mountains and a picturesque bay, this coastal city in Khanh Hoa Province is known as the Riviera of the South China Sea. The downtown core stretches along kilometres of palm-fringed white sand and the shimmering turquoise waters of Nha Trang Bay, which is the star attraction of the city.
EXPLORE: With Nha Trang’s surreal coast, it goes without saying that you should go beach hopping. Hon Chong Beach is a secluded and serene beach separated by a boulder
promontory. Otherwise, take a motorbike or taxi out to Jungle Beach, an isolated stretch of sand that will take you back to basics.
EAT: Walk around Tham Ba Street for some of Nha Trang’s best roadside food stalls. A highly raved joint is Xuan Anh Snail (9C Thap Ba), where you can slurp wool snails seeped in coconut sauce and steamed snails with gingery fish sauce and red hot chillies.
STAY: Stay close to the city centre at the luxurious and modern Quinter Central (86/4 Tran Phu St).
Don’t be mistaken. Ninh Binh is an entire province in Northern Vietnam, but it is also the name of the capital city, which makes a great base to explore the stunning surrounding countryside. Ninh Binh City is home to various historical and religious sites and surrounded by some of Vietnam’s most impressive natural landscapes, providing access to the rural, authentic side of Vietnam.
EXPLORE: Take a boat ride at Trang An Grottoes, a beautiful complex of valleys and cross water caverns. You’ll chance upon hidden caves and beautiful riverside temples. Another thing you can’t miss is a 15-minute trek up Mua Caves, which treats you to a panoramic view of the mountains and surrounding rice fields.
EAT: Trung Tuyet (14 Hoang Hoa Tham, Trung Son, Thanh Binh) is a family-owned eatery that is popular with travellers. The menu features a variety of traditional Vietnamese food, and highlights include the tomato tofu, sweet and sour chicken, and ginger sugar cookies. Alternatively, head to Minh Toan Restaurant Father Cooking (Tam Coc Bich Dong, Ninh Hải) for fantastic spring rolls.
STAY: Tam Doc Garden is a serene boutique eco-resort nestled amidst the paddy fields of Tam Doc, a few miles away from the unique Bich Dong Pagoda. Accommodation comes in the form of bungalows with a private terrace that overlooks the countryside – the perfect place to get away from it all.
Da Nang is often overlooked as just a stopover for neighbouring Hoi An. However, Vietnam’s third largest city has a charm of its own: with a beautiful coastline, burgeoning cafe culture, and cultural attractions surrounded by stunning landscapes. The rapidly growing city is also just 10 minutes away from Da Nang International Airport, which makes it an accessible destination to get to.
EXPLORE: A hilltop resort perched atop the mountain, Ba Na Hills is a French village featuring buildings that look like medieval castles, and the famed Golden Bridge. The latter is an impressive man-made bridge completed in June 2018, resembling two hands holding up a shiny piece of gold to the gods above.
EAT: If you’re a coffee lover, you can’t miss Da Nang’s thriving cafe culture. Get lost in its maze-like back alleys and you’ll find cafes that are Instagrammable from every angle – with amazing coffee to boot. Doll Coffee is tucked in a quiet alleyway, woven into a garden of magnolia trees, fig trees and koi carp ponds. You can get black coffee at 13,000 VND ($0.77) and a cup of caramel macchiato for 29,000 VND ($1.73). Alternatively, check out The Espresso Station, a Hoi An-based institution in the heart of the city serving authentic Vietnamese coffee with the finest coffee beans.
STAY: Accommodation here ranges from luxury five star resorts such as the InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort Da Nang to trendy hostels – like Rom Casa Da Nang (from $7 a night) and Seahorse Hostel & Bar.