The tourist trail through Vietnam is well marked as thousands of wanderers make their vertical trek between Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Hanoi. While the trail is certainly dotted with some of the country's unequivocal highlights - Sapa, Halong Bay, Hoi An, Mekong Delta - here's a list of some of Vietnam's lesser-known gems that will have you away from the tourists, and immersed in a sea of conical hats.
While all of the Western tourists flock to Sapa, the Vietnamese go to Mai Chau. Just four hours from Hanoi, this foggy valley of rice paddies is the closest place from the city to find ethnic tribes. Don't expect elaborate costumes - most are wearing tracksuits these days. However, several nights a week, members of the White Thai tribe perform elaborate cultural dances that end in communal drinking and a hopscotch-like game. Go to Mai Chau to act like a Vietnamese tourist in Vietnam.
Hue makes a great midpoint on the North to South route through Vietnam. The city was the imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty in the 17th century and the capital of Vietnam from 1802 to 1945. While the old citadel's historical buildings suffered considerable damage in the American War, UNESCO protection led to a rapid restoration. On the edge of town, spend time exploring the grand tombs of Vietnam's famous emperors.
The "city of eternal spring," Dalat is a much needed escape from the muggy south. Located 1,500 meters up in the Central Highlands, Dalat was a former playground of the French, who built lavish villas here to escape from the heat of Saigon. This little Paris high in the hills is the backdrop for many Vietnamese weddings. It's also where many Western tourists commence an Easy Rider tour of central Vietnam.
The only thing worse than a long bus ride is a sketchy border town. In comes Chau Doc to save the day. This romantic, exotic, riverside village on the border with Cambodia recently opened a riverboat service across country lines. To make the crossing from Vietnam to Phnom Penh as painlessly scenic as possible, Chau Doc's riverboat cruises straight up the Mekong in a matter of a few short hours. Quick Tip: Spend at least one day in Chau Doc to unwind before you float into the chaos of Phnom Penh!
Phu Quoc Island
Phu Quoc might not be the secret it used to be, but there is still enough deserted white sand to spare on Vietnam's largest island. The exterior is awash with untouched reefs, while the interior boasts protected forests and dirt roads that beg to be explored on motorbike. Phu Quoc is one of the pricier places in Vietnam, but affordable beachfront accommodation can be found. Get there soon because Phu Quoc is gearing up to become Vietnam's next big tourist destination.
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