From hidden cosy coffee shops in aging buildings and an emerging contemporary art scene to luxury cars slinking through the city’s intricate little streets, Hanoi truly knows how to welcome modernity while keeping true to its roots. Stylish, nostalgic, romantic and tested by the extremes of its seasonal weather, this is a city bursting with character.
Getting lost is compulsory when visiting Hanoi. Walk the 36 Streets in Old Quarter and allow yourself a day of wandering without purpose, a day of walking just for the sake of walking. Every street will lead you to a new discovery and every corner has its charm, if you suspend time for a while.
Nostalgia aside, the Old Quarter struggles with an influx of around 2 million tourists a year and has the challenge of balancing the need to protect its historically important structures with allowing economic development that may demand taller buildings. Pedestrianisation is one solution mooted but while that may improve the lot of the tourist, it will undoubtedly be resisted by residents who still have to conduct their day-to-day commercial activity.
The city is hot and sticky in the summer and wet and chilly in the winter. More greenery than is found in Ho Chi Minh City adds some cool relief in the summer while the mist rising from the city’s enchanting lakes adds a dreamy touch to the winter landscape.
From historical monuments to ancient pagodas and temples, a treasure trove of French architecture and creative new development all around, you are sure to be engaged as you explore Vietnam’s capital. From colourful street markets to trendy boutiques and upmarket modern shopping malls, the city also boasts a plethora of art galleries and shopping outlets.
Hanoi is a melting pot of delicious and affordable street food and fancier local and international fare. After lunch or dinner, it is customary to relax on little plastic stools in one of the cafes surrounding St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Check out the street scene or chat to some of the city’s residents. Warm up with some tra nong (hot tea) served in little glasses during the winter or with the customary tra chanh (lemon iced tea) in the summer months. Nibble some sunflower seeds and taste a true Hanoian local experience.
For a real treat, take an afternoon ride around West Lake (Ho Tay). Travel to Phu Tay Ho on the peninsula overlooking the lake to experience Hanoi’s more spiritual side. Savour banh tom Tay Ho, a delicious cake made from fresh shrimp and flour (and sometimes potato) with an ice-cold beer followed by freshwater fish and crab while waiting for the sun to set.
My friends and I had a few days off work, so we decided to get out of the city to relax. We found a quiet island in Central Vietnam, called Lý Sơn.
Lý Sơn is an island belonging to the Quãng Ngãi coastal province, bordering on Quãng Nam and Bình Định provinces in the North and South respectively. This island is commonly known as “The Kingdom of Garlic” because it is the only place in Vietnam where wild garlic and onions are grown in the sand. The garlic has a special flavour unique to this region, and is widely exported to the mainland.
Video source: eightyninePictures
Lý Sơn is also known for being the homeland of the Hoàng Sa Flotilla, a revered group of soldiers who protected the territorial waters around Vietnam during the Nguyen dynasty. On the island you will be able to see a myriad of relics and historical sites dedicated to these brave sailors.
Let me show you the best places to go on the island.
How to get to Lý Sơn?
The only way to get to the island from the mainland is to take a high-speed boat from the Sa Kì fishing port. The first ferry is at 8 a.m, then 10:30 a.m, 1:30 p.m, and 3:30 p.m.
In order to book your boat, make a list including: the number of people in your party, requested date, your phone number, your ID/ passport numbers, and your address, then send the list by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You should send the email at least 10 days before your trip to be sure there are available seats on the boat.
The price is about VND140,000 each way.
Important tip: Don’t forget to bring your ID or passport; authorities will check it before you head to the island.
The best time to go to the central coast of Vietnam is from May to September. During the summer, you will have good sunshine, clean blue water and white sandy beaches.
Image source: vietnamtourism.me
Where to stay in Lý Sơn and how to get around?
Central Lý Sơn or Mường Thanh Lý Sơn hotels, are both conveniently located near the port.
If you want to explore the island you have the option of taking a Tiên Sa taxi or renting a motorbike at your hotel to drive around the island.
What to see in Lý Sơn?
Don’t forget your camera because there will be plenty of photo ops.
Here we go!!!
The island is divided into two parts: Lý Sơn, the main island, and An Bình, Lý Sơn’s little brother. Lý Sơn island is only about 10 kilometers from end to end; the top destinations are not far from one another, so it is easy to move around.
Hang Câu Cave
To get to Câu cave, you can start from the center of the island and head North-East towards Thới Lới mountain, around 15 minutes. Right at the base of Thới Lới mountain, Câu Cave will appear in front of your eyes like a beautiful painting, blurring the boundaries between ocean and mountain.
Image source: 3.bp.blogspot.com
Over the centuries the lapping of waves and the coastal winds effaced the rock and burrowed Câu Cave into the body of the mountain.
Image source: images.ndh.vn
It is a perfect location for wedding photography, picnics, and swimming. The sea water is crystal-clear, making it easy to see the blanket of seaweed and colorful coral within.
Đỉnh Thới Lới (the Top Thới Lới) - An Extinct Volcano
Head to the top of the street from Câu Cave, and you’ll find yourself on the peak of Thới Lới. Here you can pause for a moment and enjoy the view of the lush green plants on the island.
Image source: wetrek.vn
The concave top of Thới Lới mountain is unique because it was a crater millions of years ago. Now, it has become a large lake. Covering the lake is a carpet of grasses and algae, which make it look like a savanna on the top of the mountain.
From the summit, when you look towards the east of the island, you’ll see fields of garlic and onion. Look towards the sea, and you’ll discover two small islands, Mù Cu and Đông ward, which are the most beautiful places to watch the sunrise.
Chùa Hang (Cave Pagoda) - A Pagoda in a Cave
Bricks were not needed to built the pagoda because the cave was eroded naturally, over the course of millions of years, by the ocean waves. A Guanyin statue was erected outside the entrance, and locals come here to pray for peace for their families and good luck for the fishermen, as they head out for their catch. Thanks to the pagoda’s unique structure, it attracts many tourists. If you come to Lý Sơn, don’t forget to come say a prayer for your family and friends.
Image source: khamphalyson.vn
Tip: Don’t wear shorts or tank-tops. In Vietnamese culture, wearing conservative clothes when coming to a pagoda is a sign of respect for the Buddha.
Cổng Tò Vò (Tò vò gateway)
Tò Vò Gateway is the second most important tourist destination after Câu Cave. You CAN’T MISS this place when you come here.
Tò Vò Gateway is a stone archway with a height of 2.5 meters. The unusual shape was organically created from the lava of the volcano millions of years ago.
Image source: travel.edu.vn
Come here in the evening to watch the sunset. The contrast of the sea with the gateway and the dark lava rocks lurking in the waves make this a great location for photos in silhouette.
What to see in An Bình island?
An Bình Island is the perfect quiet location for tourists with its palm-lined beaches, white sand and clear blue water.
It is around US$5/ person for a round trip boat ticket to the island.
Image source: 1.bp.blogspot.com
An Bình island isn’t as crowded as the other islands. However, it has a breathtaking landscape. Take a dip in the fresh sea water and enjoy the sounds of the ocean and nature.
An Bình, meaning peace, lives up to its name; this island definitely gives a sense of complacency and comfort. All feelings of sadness, stress and frustration ease away.
So what are you waiting for? Go!
What to eat in Lý Sơn?
This island is famous for its healthy garlic and seaweed but you can also enjoy the seafood. There are many kinds of fish, snails, sea urchins (a rich source of nutrition for men) and the delicious Red Frog Crab.
Image source: img.delicious.com.au
There are numerous restaurants selling seafood near the fishing port, but here are a couple of restaurants that we tried and loved:
• Get out of Vietnam’s big cities and head to one of Vietnam’s national parks instead
• Phu Quoc National Park is great for marine life
• Cat Tien is the place to go if you want to stay close to Ho Chi Minh City
• Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park is best for exploring caves
• Ba Be National Park is a waterfall wonderland
• Vietnam’s Con Đao National Park is a protected wildlife sanctuary
• Cuc Phuong National Park is close to Hanoi and was Vietnam’s first national park!
Image source: blogspot.com
When people speak about destinations in Vietnam, many people will recommend big cities such as Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Da Nang, or beautiful islands such as Co To, Phu Quoc, Cat Ba etc. However, Vietnam is also famous for its many national parks. We introduce to you some well-known ones.
1. Phu Quoc National Park (Vườn Quốc Gia Phú Quốc)
Phu Quoc is now one of the most overdeveloped islands in Vietnam, but more than half of Phu Quoc island is a national park, which is home to a diverse ecosystem with more than 200 kinds of animal and 1000 pieces of plant. Here, you can see some rare old-growth forests and Dipterocarp trees more than 100 feet high. From Ganh Dau village (làng chài Gành Dầu), you can reach Phu Quoc national park very easily for hiking, camping, scuba diving and so on. Dive deep into the clear water to see the abundant marine life, or explore this national park by riding a motorbike along its paths.
2. Cat Tien National Park (Vườn Quốc Gia Cát Tiên)
Cat Tien national park is in Dong Nai province (tỉnh Đồng Nai), not too far from Ho Chi Minh City. It is said to be one of the most worthwhile parks in the south of Vietnam. This area is home to many primates and a great trekking destination. Going into this park in the early morning, you will hear the birdsong and cries of gibbons amongst the trees. Do not pack too much because this park nowadays offers tourism facilities for camping or paddling along the waterways. And, do not forget to get to Cat Tien Bear Rescue Centre, where you will see many amazing animals such as Asian black bears and sun bears.
You can travel from Ho Chi Minh City to Cat Tien national park by motorbike or coach, but the most suitable way for tourists is by coach. Buy a ticket at Mien Dong coach station (Bến Xe Miền Đông) and get to Cat Tien national park for only 150,000 VND.
Image source: i-to-i.com
3. Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park (Vườn Quốc Gia Phong Nha - Kẻ Bàng)
Phong Nha - Ke Bang national park in Quang Binh province (tỉnh Quảng Bình) is famous for the largest cave in the world with whole ecosystems and forests within, called Son Doong cave (Hang Sơn Đoòng). With more than 300 caves, many waterways, mountains and forests, Phong Nha - Ke Bang national park is now a famous destination for tourists from all over the world. It is one of the must-see places in Vietnam and will provide long-lasting memories.
From Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, take a flight to Dong Hoi airport and then catch a motor taxi to Phong Nha - Ke Bang national park.
Video source: National Geographic
4. Ba Be National Park (Vườn Quốc Gia Ba Bể)
Ba Be national park is home to mountains, waterfalls, caves and rivers. It is a tourist attraction thanks to the diversity of ecosystems with protruding peaks, plateaus and vast lakes. Making a boat trip to explore the waterways is an excellent thing to do, and you can hike through the plethora of forests with stunning views down to the lakes. You can also visit local villages to gain an insight into daily life.
Ba Be national park is 240 km north of Hanoi in Bac Kan province (Tỉnh Bắc Kạn). In Hanoi, Mr. Linh's Adventures at No. 83 Ma May Street organises a range of tours and homestays in the region—see MrLinhAdventure.com.
Video source: Mr Linh's Adventures
5. Con Dao National Park (Vườn Quốc Gia Côn Đảo)
Con Dao national park combines marine environments with tropical forests, pristine beaches, lush mangroves and coral reefs. The area is strictly protected and retains a wild and majestic beauty.
From Tan Son Nhat international airport in Ho Chi Minh City you can fly to Co Ong airport (Sân Bay Cỏ Ống) on Con Dao island.
Image source: vietnamcoracle.com
6. Cuc Phuong National Park (Vườn Quốc Gia Cúc Phương)
This national park in Ninh Binh province (Tỉnh Ninh Bình) south-west of Hanoi is a famous destination with pristine trails and beautiful landscapes. It was Vietnam’s first national park and is the country's largest nature reserve, with a wide range of flora and fauna. It an attractive area for adventurous visitors.
From Hanoi, hire a motorbike or catch a coach at Giap Bat station (Bến xe Giáp Bát) to get to the park.
Image source: tripspoint.com
Have you been to any of these places? If so, share your experiences at xxxx.
Emily Pham shares her love of the country, including essential information on where to go and what to do, through her blog site vina.com.
It’s quite possible that Quy Nhon is the most underrated place to travel in Vietnam, but that may not be a fact for long. The central coastal city in Binh Dinh province is becoming the target of a huge wave of development, as prospectors seek out a new beach city to turn into Vietnam’s next big tourist destination.
Image source: Shutter Stock
If you find yourself nestled on a quiet beach in this quaint town you might ask yourself, “Why haven’t more people heard about this place?” Well, it may be at least in part due to the fact that Westerners have a hard time pronouncing it (kwee nyawn). In fact, you may have heard of the beach town but had trouble finding it on a map because for those not well-versed in Vietnamese pronunciation, it’s spelled way differently from the way it’s actually said. It’s also in a particular area of Vietnam that has stayed off of the radar of most tourists. Travellers so far have been more likely to visit neighbouring cities such as Da Nang and Nha Trang, places that are known to be developed, have attractive beaches, and are also home to international airports.
Quy Nhon Gets a Buzz
That said, as a tourist destination, Quy Nhon has got quite a lot going for it, and developers are setting up for what they think might be a veritable tourism goldrush. Its remote location, beautiful beaches, clear ocean waters and ancient ruins put it on British newspaper The Guardian’s top 10 list of sun destinations for winter 2018. The combination of quiet, tranquil beaches and scenic scrolling countryside also earned it a spot on the Dozen Dream Destinations for 2019 list for popular travel website Remote Lands, who called the central Vietnamese town “a bit of a dark horse” as a destination, but also that “it is on the rise”.
Image source: quynhonland.com.vn
Quy Nhon is quite a distance from Vietnam’s major cities, 650km from Saigon, 300km from Da Nang City and over 1,000km from Hanoi. This makes it a perfect getaway for locals and adventurous travellers seeking a quiet escape in an unfrequented area that’s off the beaten path.
One of the reasons Quy Nhon is attracting attention as an up-and-coming destination is the relatively recent opening of international airports nearby, and the overcrowding of other nearby beach towns oversaturated with heavy tourism. City Pass Guide spoke with TJ from Epikurean Hotels and Lifestyle, a prominent resort developer in Asia: “Do expect to see more international flights in the near future, most likely in the next 36 to 48 months. On that coast, from Song Cau to Quang Nam, you’re going to see a lot of development in the near future. There are a couple of factors. You have the typical north-central and south powerplay. Quy Nhon is considered central. [Places like Nha Trang and Da Nang] are highly saturated and it’s getting extreme sensitive. Where can you go? You can’t go up north any further, because you don’t have more than six months of season, where in Quy Nhon you have 10 months of season. Look at this [shows us a photo of a clean, sunny beach with calm, clear waters]. This is the bad season. If you were to lose a ring in the water, you could probably come back and get it the next day because the water is so clear!” Unlike many beaches in more developed cities in Vietnam, the waters in Quy Nhon remain quite pristine.
Image source: flightnetwork.com
Development in neighboring central Vietnam cities like nearby Nha Trang seems to be hitting a ceiling of sorts. TJ shared with us, “Land prices are soaring in places like the northern part of Nha Trang. There’s a fair amount of speculation given. It becomes highly complicated and expensive to get an investment licence due to the speculation and the land-grabs. Also, the biggest and most important point is that the airports are saturated. Cam Ranh is the new international airport and it’s just a mess. It’s not a mess because of poor management, there are just way too many people!” As a result, resort developers are moving further north and south of Cam Ranh in order to create popular new tourist destinations.
According to the Saigon Times, Tuy Hoa Airport in the south-central province of Phu Yen was expected to begin welcoming international flights in November 2018. Dinh Viet Thang, head of the Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam, said that the authority has been completing procedures to begin hosting international flights, with the first arriving from Russia.
Image source: quynhonland.com.vn
TJ explained, “If I was an airline operator, especially a charter operator, I would rather land in Tuy Hoa and move my customers north and south, rather than to land in Cam Ranh. To travel from Cam Ranh to Nha Trang is 60km, but from Tuy Hoa, it’s only 100km. The difference being that there’s zero traffic, it’s way cheaper and there’s way more negotiation power with the hotels in those areas. Then do the math”. If you calculate all of these factors, it becomes clear that the recent developments in Quy Nhon are not unwarranted.
More than Just a Beach Town
Quy Nhon offers more than just calm, picturesque beaches. History buffs will want to visit the Thap Doi Twin Towers outside of the city limits. These pyramidical towers are remnants from the Cham civilisation in Vietnam’s central region. Unlike much of the Cham architecture, the Thap Doi Towers are quite accessible, meaning you won’t have to climb hills in the blazing midday heat to reach them.
For anyone seeking a quiet getaway at a lovely Southeast Asian beachtown that isn’t overrun by tourism and development, the time is now to visit Quy Nhon. It’s on the brink of some major development, and you might want to get in while the getting is good.
Video source: Sỹ Ben Flycam
Banner Image source: Shutter Stock
Should Vietnam Rethink Tourism? Interview with Patrick Gaveau
The typical travel route for tourism in Vietnam is from the north to the south, and sometimes the other way around. How is this style of tourism killing Vietnam’s potential as a tourist destination?
I wouldn’t say it’s killing it, but certainly it’s restricting the potential for growth. For many travellers, in particular from Australia and other English-speaking markets, Vietnam is still very much seen as a “bucket list” destination, a once-in-a-lifetime trip not to be repeated. For some it is their first trip to Southeast Asia, though more often than not they’ve already travelled multiple times to what we call “fly and flop” beach destinations like Thailand and Bali.
Image source: baohaiquan.vn
Though Vietnam has some very attractive beaches, it is seen more as a cultural travel experience and it struggles to compete with its more established, experienced neighbours. When the potential of new sites or areas is recognised, these are too often monopolised and destroyed by local interests.
What does the current tourist industry look like in Vietnam?
If you look at these source markets, you will see they are filled with competing general sales agents all offering what on the surface seem to be similar types of travel itineraries, and they are all fighting for a piece of the same pie. There are plenty of unique and specialist offerings out there, but these are primarily suited to niche interests and usually don’t receive the same sort of marketing attention. There are real costs associated with all forms of distribution, so products need to pay their way, so to speak, in terms of return on investment.
So, you think it’s primarily a marketing issue?
The issue around effectively marketing and promoting non-generic itineraries is there, but it’s further challenged by the limited knowledge of traditional travel agents. Many of them haven’t travelled to this part of the world, so they stick with what they know and trust, through a tried and tested product.
Image source: baomoi.com
Familiarisation or educational trips invariably focus on the main highlights of the country through a north to south trip (or vice versa), so they just don’t have the confidence or knowledge to go beyond this.
Few tourists return to Vietnam for a second trip. Why do you think this is?
There are a host of reasons: the lack of an effective national tourism body to market the destination; the relatively high cost of travel; the cumbersome and expensive visa process; the over-development and pollution of natural attractions; the constant tourist rip-offs; substandard services and a flawed hotel rating system.
What other travel patterns or tours should be created to change this and to encourage more return trips to Vietnam, as it is in Thailand, for example?
There are probably only two main reason travellers would return: to visit an area not previously seen, or for a traditional beach-style long stay. Of the latter, we are seeing the emergence of Danang/Hoi An as a destination for repeat travellers (more so than Phu Quoc, though this is also increasing), though the percentages are still relatively small. This should continue to grow as infrastructure slowly improves.
Image source: baotuyenquang.com.vn
As the number of hotels and resorts increases, so will the competitiveness of rates, along with an increase in international carriers adding direct routes to Vietnam.
How can travel agents help tourism in Vietnam grow sustainably?
They can market and develop a range of innovative packages specifically aimed at these returning travellers. These could include (but aren’t limited to): special city stays with unique inclusions, like going to the less-visited central highlands region. This could be easily combined with a Danang or Hoi An beach stay or a stay in the country’s far northwest, like Sapa, Mai Chau which are both easily accessible from Hanoi. Or you could have Mekong Delta overnight cruises as opposed to the commoditised day tours. This could also include the longer Mekong cruises, which have become so popular in recent years. All of this can be combined with the proper promotion of Vietnam’s best beach locations and advice on the best time to visit the various regions. These more often should be included in planned familiarisation or educational trips, ensuring that travel agents broaden their knowledge for use in the sales process.