Last year, I was given the amazing opportunity to go and explore Southeast Asia; as in, actually getting paid to travel! The idea was to scout unique places, chat to the locals, and put together new tours that would fulfill every traveller’s dreams. It did mean a fair bit of work though, spending hours researching articles and guide books, getting lost in the middle of nowhere, and sweating more than I imagine was healthy. It was hard to convince my colleagues and friends of all the hard work I was putting in though too!
Everywhere we went was incredible, and there are many stories to tell. Vietnam though, Vietnam blew my mind!
Out of everywhere I went to during my trip, Vietnam gave me the most adventure, had the most diversity and culture, and, it sounds corny but, when we left, I felt like a different person. I felt like I had a whole new perspective on just about everything. The way local people live in Vietnam, the things that you can see and do, the food! Just gonna end that rant by saying #pho4life.
I could go on for hours about all the amazing adventure travel opportunities in Vietnam, and I still wouldn’t cover everything! So if you only have the chance to do five things to truly experience Vietnam, the following would be on top of my list (in no particular order):
1. Stay with a Homestay in Sapa
When you are traveling, regardless of where it is, as hard as you try, you can never be fully immersed in the local culture, because there are some things that you only learn by living like a local. A homestay is as close to becoming a local as you can get, especially when time is short and you aren’t in the area for too long.
When I travel, I like to go off the beaten track, and it was no different in Vietnam. When we did the homestay in Sapa, we got a feel for what it means to live without much of the luxuries we take for granted and work incredibly hard to make a living. We stayed in a remote village about 10 kilometers north of Sapa called Ta Van, and really got a glimpse of how different life in Vietnam can be. It was challenging at times, but it was also good fun! With no cell reception whatsoever, we learned to appreciate what was around us even more.
By picking the right homestay, you will also be contributing your bit to the local communities and villages. Their facilities aren’t as well developed as those you would find in Vietnam’s cities, so the money locals get from opening up their homes to visitors helps them a lot. It felt good to be able to help out, if even in only a small way! You could even lend a hand in the rice fields to understand how much hard work it is while staying with a homestay in Sapa.
A homestay is not the only type of adventure opportunity in Sapa though. Sapa so different than the cities, so if you’re looking to get away from the hustle and bustle that you find in the likes of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi for a bit, Sapa is the complete opposite. The scenery is just stunning!
2. Sleep on a Junk Boat in Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay is probably the most well known destination in Vietnam, and for good reason! Not only is it a UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s also visually amazing. The drive from Hanoi to Halong Pier is a little long-winded, but as soon as you get on the boat, you’ll be able to cruise along limestone casts like you’ve never seen before. Most likely you’ll hear the story of how the area got its name, which translates to “The Descending Dragon”.
If you’re going to visit Ha Long Bay, it goes without saying that you should spend a night on a “Junk Boat.” When I first heard of Junk Boat I didn’t think it’d something I’d want to spend a night on. Though, it’s basically a hotel on a boat. Some of them even have marble tiled bathrooms (pretty fancy!).
You can spend the day cruising around Ha Long Bay and visiting people in floating fisherman villages, some of whom have basically spent their entire life on the water! When the day is done, you’ll be able to chill out and watch the sunset over the water, which was quite literally one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. The Junk Boat is so much fun, especially if you have a great group of people on it with you like I did.
This is also a particularly great place for kayaking in Vietnam, so get yourself a kayak and explore the lime casts from the water and discover all the hidden caves in the area. All tours take you to either Surprise Cave or Heaven Cave. To be completely honest, I’ve seen a few too many caves in my life, yet somehow this turned out to be quite an experience. The rocks formations are lit up with all sorts of colours and there are some really interesting shaped rocks in there. It sounds a bit geeky, but honestly, it’s worth a visit!
If exploring the caves doesn’t appeal to you and you’re looking for more of a thrill, why not jump off the cliffs instead? It is not for the faint of heart at all, but it’s a huge rush! It took me a while to take the leap, but when I finally did, it was one of the most invigorating things I’ve ever done!
3. Take an Overnight Sleeper Bus
Okay, bear with me here. The sleeper bus may not seem like much of an adventure, but it can be! As a backpacker in Vietnam, it is a rite of passage to experience the sleeper bus or sleeper train, so you’ll be missing out if you don’t. If you want to get between places that are far away, but you don’t have the money for a flight, the sleeper bus will be your best friend. The seats even recline, and you’ll have leg rests to stretch out on. Most of the buses even have Wi-Fi too!
The biggest adventure on the overnight sleeper bus is the driving skills of the man behind the wheel. I’m just gonna say this much: don’t sit in the front where you can see through the front window; you’ll be hearing a lot (like a lot!) of honking throughout the night if you do! If you can’t find sleep, there is plenty of time to chat to people around you. Locals and other travelers from all over the world tend to congregate on these buses, so there is always someone with a story to tell. It will definitely make the journey go quicker listening to all their stories and adventures (and you might end up adding a few more places to your bucket list too!).
4. Go Sandboarding in Mui Ne
Mui Ne is an awesome place to do sandboarding. The sand dunes go on for miles and miles, so it’s not likely to be crowded when you get there! You can hire a quad bike (which is advisable, especially on a hot day!) and make your way across the dunes to a good spot, and then hop on your board and down you go. It takes a few attempts to get it going, but once you find your mojo, it will be so much fun! When you watch someone else doing it, it doesn’t look like they’re going that fast, but when I managed to get myself going, it felt like I flew down. The only thing about sandboarding that isn’t so pleasant is that what goes down, must come back up. If anything, it will be a bloody good workout climbing back up those sand dunes. It’s for this reason that you won’t feel like you need too long to enjoy the experience.
When you get too tired for sandboarding, make your way back (thank god for those quad bikes!) and go and see what else Mui Ne has to offer. Go and see the Red Canyons and stop off at the Fairy Springs. There’s also a lovely little fishing village in Mui Ne Bay. Finish off the day by watching the sunset over the sand dunes, a perfect chilled out finish to an action packed day. You’ll definitely sleep well after sandboarding in Mui Ne.
5. Try Out Canyoning & Abseiling Down Waterfalls in Da Lat
If it’s adrenaline you’re after, this is exactly what you want to be doing in Vietnam; canyoning and abseiling are the ultimate thrills, and some of my favorite memories from my trip! After about a 20-minute bus ride, we took a hike through a thick forest where we met our tour leader. One minute, you’re getting a brief introduction to the safety equipment, and the next you’ll be walking over the edge of a cliff.
You’ll get the chance to walk down waterfalls, one of which is 25 meters high! You’ll jump off cliffs and slide down natural water slides. The best bit, though, comes right at the end; they call it the “Washing Machine,” but I won’t tell you why because I don’t want to ruin it for you if, no when, you get the chance to try it out. However, even just by using your imagination you can imagine that it is an epic climax to what was one of the best days I had in Vietnam. You can also try out river rafting and tubing too.
Da Lat itself is just amazing! It is also home to Crazy House, which is one of the top ten weirdest buildings in the world (crazy is exactly right!). There are lots of different rooms to the house, which all follow an animal theme. The house itself is built in the style of a treehouse and has all sorts of different levels and spiral staircases. It’s hard to explain, but it’s really quirky and quite fun to explore. It definitely stands out from everything else you see in Da Lat. Before you leave, go up to the higher “branches” to get a great 360 degree view of the city.
It goes without saying that there is so much more to Vietnam than the five adventures outlined above. It is honestly one of the most amazing places I have ever been and there are many more adventures to be discovered (I will definitely be going back again)!
This article was contributed by Ultimate Travel, a travel tour company based in Sydney, Australia. Ultimate Travel is dedicated to providing adventurous, informative, fun, and affordable travel programs in Thailand, Australia, and Vietnam.