DestinationsFour experts in the field unveil their top haunts and hidden gems across Vietnam's diverse regions.

Tour guides spill their best Vietnam secrets

The sparsely populated Cao Bằng is where many of Vietnam's ethnic minorities call home, and local guide Hoang Hiep believes a homestay should be in order to truly experience their unique way of life.
The sparsely populated Cao Bằng is where many of Vietnam's ethnic minorities call home, and local guide Hoang Hiep believes a homestay should be in order to truly experience their unique way of life. Photo Credit: Hoang Hiep

With Vietnam's borders still closed to international travellers, the focus of the tourism industry has turned inward. Whether appealing to expats and locals, or preparing for the eventual reopening of borders, travel companies are honing their product offerings to uncovering more gems within Vietnam.

In a study for the travel industry, Richard Burrage, managing partner of Cimigo Research in Saigon, cited, “Much of the industry will need to better understand Vietnam travel habits and pivot to serve domestic tourism. Trip design, priorities, destinations and the experiences sought vary significantly by segment.”

“What a senior seeks from his or her holiday is very different to what a young adventurer or a 30-something newlywed couple might seek.”

The harder sell will be to those who think they know the country and do not need the service of a travel expert to plan their trip. Burrage's research show that 31% of travellers have used a travel agency’s services, and that percentage will increase amid concerns over security in travel planning for any possible future occurrences.

Night sky in Ta Sau
Night sky in Ta Sau Photo Credit: Hoang Hiep

For a look at the myriad unique experiences across Vietnam's different regions, Travel Weekly Asia spoke to several tour guides for their insider insights into the culture, cuisine and scenic aspects not usually encountered by the average tourist.

Hoang Hiep and Bach Quy are two tour experts who specialise in the Northern regions of Vietnam.

Hoang suggests Cao Bằng Province, whose valleys have been home for centuries to over nine ethnic groups such as the Tày, Nùng, Dao and H’mong. To experience the cultures of the ethnic people and their special way of life, Hoang suggests booking a night in an ethnic homestay for deeper immersion in the local culture and customs.

The province's extraordinary natural diversity, Hoang notes, also makes it a spectacular place to explore, especially for adventure travellers. Most of the province is protected as a UNESCO Global Geopark. With an impressive cave system and over 300 lakes, the area is a geological wonderland highlighted by Bản Giốc, the fourth largest waterfall in the world.

Visiting a cacao plantation in Mekong Delta
Visiting a cacao plantation in Mekong Delta Photo Credit: Lily Cao

For amazing vistas of the rugged terrain that Vietnam's northern provinces are famous for, Quy has her “head in the clouds” and suggests passing through mountains with a four-hour drive west from Hanoi to Mai Chao, the home of the Muong people, the third largest ethnic minority group in Vietnam. A night spent in their unique stilted homes eating, dancing and imbibing their homemade wine is guaranteed to give visitors a new appreciation of Vietnamese parties.

A further three-hour drive northwest moves the journey next to Pa Co-Hang Kia Nature Reserve. Enjoy a homestay with the ethnic H’mong, where guests wake up to steep mountain valleys and breathtaking cloud formations. Home to rare species of orchids, this enchanted area is suited for trekkers, horticulturalists and photographers, according to Quy.

For in-depth knowledge of the central highlands, David Hau said visitors do not have to stray far from Hue to encounter the primordial mangrove forest at Ru Cha. Located just 15km from the city centre, on the banks of Tam Giang – the largest lagoon in Southeast Asia – Ru Cha is like being transported to another world.

Nature spotting opportunities are found in abundance at the century-old forest, where visitors can learn about the ecosystem and photograph a number of aviary species including the white heron. To round up the day, Hau suggests travel advisors to add fishing trips on the lagoon and ethnic village visits to the itinerary.

View from Sam Mountain
View from Sam Mountain Photo Credit: Lily Cao

Down south in the Mekong Delta, Can Tho is the area's biggest city and can be reached with a four-hour drive by car or a short plane hop from Saigon, but Lily Cao advises there’s more than just the major tourist draw of the Phong Dien Floating Market and local homestays.

In this “rice basket of Vietnam”, characterised by its maze of rivers and tributaries, Cao suggests adding an extra two days to venture further afield into neighbouring Chau Doc and the Sam mountain rice fields of An Giang Province.

The highest elevation in the delta, the mountain's name is derived from its crab-like appearance, with terraced rice fields and some 200 temples, pagodas and hermitages dotting the slopes. One can overlook the plains of nearby Cambodia from the apogee of this sacred mountain. From here, Cao will guide on a leisurely float across the 200-year old Vĩnh Tế Canal before journeying back to Can Tho.

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