The Alternative Guide to Northern Vietnam

Going on holiday to a popular country always poses the same problem: wanting to see the very best sights the country has to offer whilst not feeling too much like a tourist on the same tourist trail as everyone else. Balancing these two desires can be somewhat of a nightmare and at times is unavoidable. This is certainly true of Vietnam, an incredibly popular country to visit with some striking attractions including Ha Long Bay, the rice terraces of Sapa and the enchanting historic town of Hoi An. However this is a also a country well versed in tourism which unfortunately can result in a lot of scams, overcrowded attractions and pushy agents. This should absolutely not deter you, this is one of my favourite countries with so much to offer, you just need to know how to handle it! That’s where I come in.

Visit Bai Tu Long Bay instead of Ha Long Bay

Bai Tu Long Bay by Adam Straney on Flikr
Bai Tu Long Bay by Adam Straney on Flikr

Whilst Ha Long Bay is beautiful, many agents will fail to mention that it’s often overcrowded with boats and has a real rubbish problem. You can still find unspoilt corners of this adventure playground if you go with the right agency, but I preferred Bai Tu Long Bay just next door. It’s much quieter, cleaner and very impressive despite the limestone karsts being slightly smaller.

Avoid Sapa and head to Pu Luong National Park

Pu Luong by Nguyen Vinh Quang on Flikr
Pu Luong by Nguyen Vinh Quang on Flikr

Sapa is a truly unique destination for the impressive rice terraces that cling to the mountainsides. However to visit in peace is unheard of. The local Hmong People are infamous for their pushiness and guilt trips and you must be prepared to be firm. Personally I decided against visiting here because of this well oiled tourism racket and the fact that in May it wasn’t the best time to see the rice terraces anyway. For a more peaceful experience of the rice terraces my first recommendation is actually India, on the roads leading the Himalayas from Rishikesh, a dazzling experience that surpasses that of Vietnam by miles. But as this is a post about Vietnam, I suggest heading for Pu Luong National Park, lower in altitude and less mountain clinging, but impressive all the same.

Stay in Tam Coc instead of Ninh Binh

Tam Coc by Tuan Mai on Flikr
Tam Coc by Tuan Mai on Flikr

Another popular place to visit in Northern Vietnam is Ninh Binh, known for it’s limestone karsts that lie amongst the rivers ad rice paddies nearby. Traditionally people stay in the closest town of Ninh Binh which certainly has a rustic charm to it if you take the time to cycle through the back streets. But if the real reason you’re here is to experience the natural wonders, stay in Tam Coc instead which boasts much more beautiful natural views and direct access to the network of caves and rivers you came here to explore. With no ATMs nearby we cycled to Ninh Binh one hot afternoon (you must know where to go to make this a gorgeous ride instead of a life threatening one down a motorway!) which we thoroughly enjoyed but without a doubt, the experience was far more magical because we woke up each morning surrounded by lush green jungles and bird songs.

Stay on the outskirts of Hoi An

The ancient town of Hoi An by Chris Hoare on Flikr
The ancient town of Hoi An by Chris Hoare on Flikr

This UNESCO World Heritage ancient town is stunning, but completely crowded most of the time. This should absolutely not deter you, although I usually despise tourist traps this place is an exception. It’s like a fairy tale it’s so beautiful! To get some respite from the madness though, I suggest staying on the outskirts of town half way between the old town and the beach. This of course makes it easier to get to the beach if you desire, but also gives you wonderful views of the surrounding rice terraces (if you pick the right hotel and room), and a lovely bike ride into town each day which takes you through some of the more authentic parts of town.

Hanoi

Hanoi by Adam Straney on Flikr
Hanoi by Adam Straney on Flikr

This will most likely be the start or finishing point of your journey, and is abundant in delicious food. If you want to create your own food tour here instead of doing an organised tour (which I highly recommend!),┬ásimply take some of my recommendations from this previous blog post and download a maps.me vietnam offline map to mark all the places you want to go. It’s an easy town to get around, if not a bit chaotic, just keep your wits about you and savour the wonderful tastes!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *