Vietnam is touted for its art, cultural and historic sites, but travelers are often surprised by how adventurous and active a trip to the country can be. With over 2,000 miles of coastline, towering mountains in the north (Fansipan rises 10,000 feet,) and bicycle-ready, flat land in the south, Vietnam is an active traveler’s dream. It offers a delightful mix of cultural excursions, adventure and physical activity. Regardless of your age and fitness level, you’ll find endless opportunities for exploring Vietnam’s natural wonders and meeting the local people.
Fortunately, modernization and improved infrastructure have made many remote regions in Vietnam accessible. True, that means more tourists are discovering these off-the-beaten-track places, but many are far from being overrun.
Here are 5 active things to do in Vietnam and where to find them:
Kayaking the “Bay of the Descending Dragon” in the Gulf of Tonkin is a must on an active traveler’s list of things to do in Vietnam. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong is about a three-hour drive from Hanoi.
The bay is Vietnam’s most popular destination for several reasons: You can kayak through hidden caves to find tidal lagoons where monkeys leap in the trees, fish swim in clear waters and mangroves provide shelter for tiny water creatures. Touring this spectacular seascape by kayak is a unique and memorable experience.
These days strict government controls are in place to protect this scenic, natural wonderland as well as assure tourists’ safety. No longer can you simply drop a kayak in the water and explore on your own. You must rent your kayak at a designated spot, stay within a range that you can paddle on that day and return to the same spot.
Kayaking in Halong Bay isn’t the solitary adventure it once was, but seeing the limestone karst rock sculptures, grottos and limestone islets that interrupt the 1,500 square miles of water is still thrilling.
A less-traveled route is to kayak on Lan Ha Bay, the twin sister of Halong Bay. You can go at your own pace along a more flexible route. Tides permitting, paddle through a dark tunnel opening onto a lagoon hidden in the middle of an enormous limestone rock.
2. Swimming, Snorkeling and Diving in Vietnam
Memorable is a cruise east of Halong to Bai Tu Long Bay. The scenery changes as the limestone cliffs become denser. And just when you think there can be nothing to top this, you stop to enjoy a swim in the middle of nowhere.
In the south, if you yearn for untouched coral reefs and the fish that live there, Con Dao will tickle your fancy. Con Son and the Bay Canh islands have several easily accessible snorkeling spots, where you can swim, snorkel to spot parrot fish or simply beach comb and watch the green turtles come on shore to lay their eggs. An offshore diving tour can take you for an excursion to what are said to be the healthiest coral reefs in Vietnam.
The caves, rivers and jungle of Phong Nha Ke Ban National Park, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, in north-central Vietnam offer several opportunities for swimming in caves or wading across rivers. This is not for the faint-hearted, however, as the routes are spectacular but tough.
For a nice beach experience when visiting Hoi An, drive about 20 minutes to the white sandy shoreline of An Bang beach and enjoy time with local sunbathers and tourists.
The towering limestone rocks and lush rice fields—not to mention forested valleys and national park jungles—make Vietnam’s landscapes as scenic as its waterscapes, so touring on foot should be part of your journey. You can always hike up north in the hill tribe areas around Sa pa and Bac Ha or the western parts of the country near Dien Bien Phu.
But there are also several national parks that offer well-maintained hiking trails and trekking routes for more experienced hikers.
Each park has its own highlights. For instance, hike through the dense jungle of Cat Ba National Park to spot endangered golden-headed langurs and other animals and birds that thrive in each of the park’s different ecosystems.
There’s plenty of urban hiking in Vietnamese cities, too. A favorite is walking some of the 36 streets in Hanoi’s Old Quarter or across the beautiful Long Bien Bridge, the symbol of the city. There are also steps to climb for a more vigorous workout like the 500 steps to Hang Mua, the highest viewpoint in Ninh Binh. It’s a lovely memory to conjure up when you’re working on the elliptical machine back home!
The slower you go, the more you will see, so cycling is one of the most popular ways to tour different regions of Vietnam. There are easy rides such as those south of Hanoi along the coast. As you go north, approaching the mountains of the Lao-Cambodian border or the hilly border with China, biking is more challenging.
A bicycling excursion on Cat Ba Island takes you on a small road deep into the jungle with stops to meet the locals and see village life. Another possibility is exploring one of the Con Dao islands on roads that line many of the breathtakingly beautiful beaches.
In Ninh Binh, or “Dry Halong Bay,” you can take a leisurely bike ride to the Bich Dong pagoda. Then, peddle along the lesser-known waterways of Thung Nham to the village of Tam Coc and stop for a lunch of traditional dishes. For a full day of cycling—and burning off those lunch calories–keep rolling on the flat back roads of Ninh Binh between rice fields and limestone mountains. Now that’s “active” site-seeing.
Another option is to bike the narrow paths of rural Hue. You will ride through a landscape of rice fields and vegetable gardens to the crisscrossing canals and old houses of charming Thanh Toan Village.
Hang Son Doong may be the world’s largest cave, but it’s just one of the many large caves in this country of limestone mountains. Tourism is limited in Hang Son Dong, so you’ll do most exploring and spelunking in some other remote sites, such as Tien Ong cave, an archeological paradise with stunning stalactites and stalagmites.
You can also tour other large caves, such as the 20-mile-long Paradise Cave and the Dark Cave in lush, mountainous Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
When caving, be sure to have a knowledgeable guide and travel with a reputable company. Caves tend to have lots of passageways, are slippery, can flood if it rains or opens out onto other caves and lagoons. Caving in Vietnam is not for the amateur.