When I started my own trip around Vietnam 2 years ago, I totally followed anything I found on the internet and took advice from my friends. Well, I was told to go trekking through Sapa, explore Hanoi old streets, enjoy a cruise around Halong Bay, experience marvelous food in Da Nang, and ride a motorbike in Saigon. All those places, I must say, are interesting and easy to go for anyone who just starts his or her interest in this beautiful country. However, after “strolling” around Vietnam from North to South, I realized that none of the destinations above are as appealing to me as the following ones. Here are my top 5 off-beaten-track heavens in the middle of Vietnam.
The middle of Vietnam is the longest and narrowest area in this S-shaped country and characterized by the long coastal in the east and the mountainous terrain in the west. Though it suffers from lots of tropical storms and flood all year round, this area still blows anyone’s mind with its dreamy sand beaches, turquoise sea and a variety of mouth-watering dishes. I list out here the top 5 lesser-known yet fantastic destinations from the north to the south of this area.
Thanh Hoa is the first province in the middle of Vietnam and has a lot of things in common with the north of Vietnam in terms of scenery and traditions. It is best known for Sam Son beaches long time before, however, recently a new place called Pu Luong has emerged as a new shelter for retreats and relaxing in Thanh Hoa. The tranquil atmosphere people no longer feel in Sapa, Hanoi or any other places in Vietnam is still easily found here.
(Photo by Hoa Nguyen)
I always remembered the first time when I came across this “oasis”. It was in June, 2 years ago- in the middle of summer when the heat drives me crazy even at night. Back to Hanoi, I had felt like being thrown back into the hell of humidity and the heat of the 40-degree atmosphere. At that time, I just need to find some cooler place to live for a few days and hunger for a heavy rain, thus, I decided to go with my colleagues at Exotic Voyages to Mai Chau on our own. Unfortunately, without the expert guide, we- 4 people and a dog lost our way for an hour before finding ourselves going down to.... somewhere else in Thanh Hoa. Thank god that we got lost as by this way, we discovered a heaven here. It is Pu Luong.
Pu Luong is a sleeping beauty who awaits us to explore. It’s incredibly gorgeous with rice terraces built by the local tribe thousands of years ago. Ladders by ladders of green fields seemed to lead us to the sky. Though smaller in size than mighty rice terraces in Sapa or Ha Giang, they are more impressive, with the fresh color- green at first then yellow when harvest time comes. If you are not afraid of the storm season, come in September to witness yourself the yellow terraces - a proof of fullness, or else, June to July is worth a visit as no heavy rain or storms that time. However, rice terraces are not everything attractive here. The beauty, instead, lies in the sea of clouds and mist embracing Pu Luong valley every morning. If lucky, you can catch the perfect sunrise when the sun shines through the sea of clouds to the rice terraces under.
(Photo by Staffan Scherz)
Now Pu Luong is turning into a new place for spa and retreat near Hanoi as new homestays, hostels and a resort were built here. If you love infinity pools reflecting the sky and green fields surrounds, come to Pu Luong retreat to experience all. I am a little bit afraid that someday Pu Luong will become the second Sapa as it’s only 4 hours to escape from Hanoi with the awesome atmosphere. So my friend, come here right away before its uniqueness is gone.
On the way to Pu Luong
(Photo by Hoa Nguyen)
Before Hai Van Tunnel was built and used, people had to ride through Hai Van Passfrom Hue to Danang, however, everything had changed since 2005. From then on, 95% of vehicles moving from the north to the south and vice versa moved to Hai Van Tunnel to save time and energy cost, which turned Hai Van Pass to a “forgotten” road lying beside National Route 1A.
Fortunately, that change makes this uncrowded road with stunning surroundings more appealing to visitors. There are two ways to experience the beauty of this mountain pass. The first one is North-South Express Railway connecting Hanoi and Saigon with the total length of 1,570 km. This train runs on the unique way lying between the coastal line and the mountain pass, therefore, visitors are able to view both the mountain pass and the turquoise sea 500 meters under. The second way is the old National Route 1A going around Hai Van Pass without crossing the tunnel. My recommendation for you guys is riding from Da Nang to Hue on the old National Route 1A and then back on the North-South Express Railway. I tried both two ways last May and couldn’t help jaw-dropping all the time. Everything seemed like a dream in my memory, the whole mountain passes were covered with white flowers while the sea was sparkling under the pink sunrise. If you are lucky like me, you could even see the cloud embracing the mountain pass, like this.
Going further, you may come across an incredible bay that called Lang Co with a lesser known Chan May beach highlighted by creamy sand and azure sea water. If you are not a fan of coastal activities, just go for trekking to Bach Ma National Park. Haivan Pass skirts the eastern edge of Bach Ma National Park. The park’s mountain forests, a hill station in colonial times, are home to numerous bird species, including the crested argus. Fishing villages in Lap An lagoon are also an interesting place to explore once you have been to Hai Van.
(Photo by Andrea Schaffer)
This pass, for me, is one of the most extraordinary scenery in Vietnam but you’d better arrange a private tour here as not many travel agencies offer a package to Hai Van pass.
Actually, I found Ly Son when I… google Quy Nhon which was suggested by most of my friends for seafood and tranquility. Well, then Google Map and curiosity led me to Quang Ngai and Ly Son- quite a large island that is close to my beloved Hoi An. Ly Son, at that time, was an unknown island for foreigners like me and some few years ago was not accessible. The reason why, for me, is the difficulty in getting here as every day only two boat trips packed with local people link this lovely island and the mainland. However, what Li Son lacks in transportation makes up for in the jaw-dropping atmosphere and stunning scenery that I have never experienced in my entire life until then. Unlike any other islands where I just went on for a short holiday with my family, this charming island encourages me to explore the life of local people, the power of the sea and the distinctive cuisine here. Staying in Ly Son means that you may not expect to lie on a white sand beach or an infinity pool all the day. Instead, you will find it more exciting to stay in the same house with local people and join their daily activities like plating, fishing, and cooking. Every day there was a small adventure for me. I was taught to sail a small boat made by bamboo, scuba dive to catch fish, sea snails and sometimes scallop then cook my own BBQ using this fresh ingredient right on the white sand beach.
There are various things to view and admire in this island. I remembered the first time my local guide rode me to To Vo gate - a lava-formed cliff in the west of Ly Son Island to catch the last sunlight of the day. “Amazing!” is the only word that came from my mouth when I saw it. An interesting fact about Li Son is the island was created by 5 different volcanos that you still can see the relics at every part of the island. To Vo gate is an attractive one besides Thoi Loi mount in the east, Cau cave, Hang Temples and Gieng Tien mount.
Even though I came to Ly Son, not in the perfect time when garlic fields reach their greenest level, I was still satisfied with sand-covered fields, volcano coastal cliffs, fishing on a bamboo boat as well as growing onions. All of them are the top-notch experiences that I would never have in other islands and in any trips after.
People may be interested in Da Lat, Nha Trang or Buon Ma Thuot, however, I myself am always lured by un-noted small town like Pleiku. Though it is the capital of Gia Lai province, Pleiku is not as popular as the brother Buon Ma Thuot which is known for the top-notch cafe, mighty Drey-Nur, Dray-Sap waterfalls and colorful spring festivals. Pleiku is more like a quiet and humble princess in the central highlands of Vietnam.
I got lucky as the tour guide in my trip to Central Highlands is an Ede man and his hometown is Pleiku, thus, he guided me to explore this charming city in a way that nobody had experienced before. The journey I expected to fulfill in a day extended to 2 days as I gained more and more interest in this town. We started with Chu Dang Ya mount then headed to T'nưng lake (or Sea Lake) and Sea of Tea, after that, riding the long way to Phu Cuong Waterfall, Ia-ring lake, and Pará rubber forest.
As from my tour guide, the best time to visit Pleiku is from December to April, when the rainy season ends, the sky is clear blue with sunshine all the day and lots of flowers bloom. When the spring comes, you may join exciting festivals held in ethnic tribes in Gia Lai. I was quite disappointed with elephant experience in Ban Don, Buon Ma Thuot as I only got 10 minutes on the back of an elephant to cross a small spring and go around the village, however, I shouted like a kid when my tour guide took me to his village and helped me to ride a baby elephant through the jungle. The bonfire night under the roof of Rong house (the community house of Ede people) there was another highlight that I always recommend to my friend. Come and feel it yourself, buddies, I’m sure that you will soon be lured by foliage color of the rubber plantation, the gatherings around the bonfire with Ede traditional dances following the sound of Gong, and the smile of elephant trainers here!
Though I don’t really like Nha Trang as it’s now packed with tourists coming from all over the world, I still like a part of it- Ninh Van Bay. It’s 30km away from Nha Trang and still keeps the beauty of an isolated bay as you can only access this stunning place by 20-minute boat. However, don’t ever think that it is an abandoned place. In contrary, this fairy-tale peninsula may lure you with private eco- friendly villas looking over the sea, outstanding cuisine, butler service as well as the chance to scuba-dive and spa.
Coming here in 2016, I just found myself in a mere tranquility with no interference. All I see here is a calm turquoise water and fantastic food experience that blew my mind in one second. 7 days there was such a heaven for me that I didn’t want to come back to work soon. All days are full of a wide range of activities from riding water motorcycle to trekking through the jungle. The exclusive moment was when I lay down on the deck of the private cruise, taking a sip of champagne to admire the marvelous sunset on the bay.
For me, the most unforgettable thing here in Ninh Van Bay was food experience. Food experience in Ninh Van Bay is not merely the matter of eating but the art of cuisine and pleasure. Either pool party with marvelous food served by 5-star restaurants' chefs or private romantic BBQ on the beach may blow your mind with the mixture of regional traditional seafood and western fine-dining dishes. The top dishes here are Nem nuong Ninh Hoa, rice noodle with fish or jellyfish, lobsters and squid crepe.
My advice for you guys is taking a day tour to get around Ninh Van bay as you may find yourself eating in a small food stall in Ninh Hoa Market, feeding baby monkeys in Hon Lao island or just trying to hold a huge lobster in a local farm in Nha Phu swamp. Want to know more about Ninh Van Bay, get our ultimate guide here. Your trip to Vietnam will turn into lifetime experience if you see, feel and join activities that nobody experienced before. Add these above destinations to your bucket list and get going!