On the water in Halong Bay. Photo by Jason Zullo
It’s easy to think the highlands surrounding Sapa in Lao Cai were created for eye-popping hiking trips. This is one of Southeast Asia’s highest mountain ranges, where ancient footpaths zigzag through thick jungles and along gushing rivers. One of the best ways to explore the northern mountains is on a hike spanning several days, giving you the time to absorb the diversity of the destination. The cultural kaleidoscope is a match for the topography. As you hike from village to village, you’ll sit down to dinner with a range of different ethnic groups, each with their own language, architecture, and traditional dress.
There are several excellent hiking tour providers in northern Vietnam, such as Topas Travel. Topas can arrange seven-day, six-night hiking journeys that blend stunning landscapes and cultural encounters. You’ll stay with different ethnicities in charming homestays, but also enjoy the luxury of Topas Ecolodge and Topas Riverside Lodge.
Move over overnight cruising; hello open water swimming! Lan Ha Bay, Halong Bay’s shy little sister, provides all the visual drama of its more famous neighbour, with far fewer cruise ships. Experienced swimmers have new options for exploring this surreal setting, diving and gliding from island to island, stopping at secret beaches on the way. At the end of the day, tuck into a barbecue of fresh seafood or knock back a sundowner looking out to a deep orange sky. There are cultural experiences, too, with centuries-old floating villages nestled within the bay.
Look no further than Britain-based SwimTrek for open water swimming tours in the quietest pockets of Lan Ha Bay. SwimTrek’s seven-day trip is based on Cat Ba Island, and boasts a tremendous variety of swimming opportunities, including island crossings and circumnavigation.
At the south of the buffer zone of the Nature Reserve of Hữu Liên, well-known as a haven of biodiversity, you’ll find the commune of Yên Thịnh in the district of Hữu Lũng. Originally bolted to provide a quality outdoor crag for the growing Hanoi climbing community, the quality of the 110 climbing routes in Hữu Lũng and its wild landscapes have earned it a second-place spot on Lonely Planet’s list of the “best rock climbing destinations in Southeast Asia.”
To climb in Hữu Lũng, autonomous and experienced climbers can contact VietClimb, a local climbing club that develops and manages the crag. A traditional homestay and bungalows have been set up with local families on a community-based concept to offer the first accommodations for visitors in this remote area. All the equipped cliffs are within an easy radius of one to five kilometers from the homestay. For beginner climbers, or intermediate or advanced climbers without gear or partners, VietClimb offers two trips each month hosted by its founder, who is certified in Wilderness First Aid. Climbers visiting the north of Vietnam can also reach out to VietClimb for private trips, lead climbing clinics and multi-pitch guiding.
In the market for an exceptional adventure? Then head to Phong Nha and embark on an expedition to Son Doong and Hang En, the largest and third-largest caves in the world, respectively. In Hang En you’ll be greeted by a cacophony of chirps from thousands of swifts that nest in the 100 metre-high ceiling. There’s also a sandy beach for camping and a semi-circular natural pool for swimming. Son Doong is nine times longer than Hang En. The cave is punctuated by two enormous ceiling collapses that create unique underground jungles. Despite Son Doong’s superlative status, you’re never in complete darkness because the collapses allow enormous shafts of light to pierce the ceiling.
Seek out Oxalis Adventure Tours for five-night expeditions into Hang En and Son Doong. The package includes three nights of camping (one in Hang En, two in Son Doong) as well as a night on both sides in Phong Nha. Oxalis provides a host of adventure experts -- tour guides, international cave experts, safety assistants, porters, and exceptional chefs -- to ensure the trip is enjoyable, informative, and safe.
Vietnam’s jagged coastline lends itself to some heart-pounding road bike adventures. You can cover a lot of ground quickly on two wheels. Take in the country’s diverse geography, skirting around serene bays and climbing lush highlands all in one day. The route from Hue to Ho Chi Minh City covers intense mountain passes, crumbling ancient towns and cities of skyscrapers. Best of all, you can stay in hand-picked accommodations and sample changing regional flavours as you head from the spicy centre to the sweet south.
Oriental Sky Travel arranges ten-day trips that span Central and Southern Vietnam. The route begins in the ancient imperial capital of Hue and finishes in the bright lights of Ho Chi Minh City. En route you’ll pass through charming Hoi An, cycle around the bays north of Nha Trang, and climb to the Central Highlands city of Dalat.