Thanks to its beaches, historic sites, mountain hikes and irresistible food, Vietnam draws travelers from all over the world.
Yet as you navigate the hordes at the most popular destinations in this stalwart of Southeast Asia, you’ll realize the secret is out. Which is why you might appreciate recommendations from three plugged-in, Vietnam based travel writers for experiencing country’s wonders – without the crowds.
Just promise us you won’t share these picks too widely.
Chasing waterfalls and coffee in the Central Highlands: Buon Ma Thuot
Christine Van is a seasoned magazine lifestyle editor and Viet-Kieu American who, for the past two decades, has made Vietnam her home.
If you love coffee, this is your paradise. Buon Ma Thuot, tucked away in the highlands of Central Vietnam, is famous for its coffee culture. Here, you can enjoy guided tours of lush coffee plantations, taking in the aroma of freshly roasted beans. You can even learn how to make your own cup of joe in the Vietnamese style. As the largest coffee-producing region in the country, Buon Ma Thuot is fiercely proud of its primary export and even hosts an annual coffee festival in mid-March.
Yet the wonders of Buon Ma Thuot extend far beyond its coffee culture. Mystical waterfalls like Dray Nur and Dray Sap evoke fairy tales. While swimming isn’t allowed, the lush greenery and the sound of cascading water create a scenery that’s breathtaking to experience from land.
After visiting the waterfalls I usually head back to my uncle’s home nearby. Those without local family could do worse than the Dakruco Hotel, which has comfortable rooms plus an outdoor pool and spa where you can relax after a day of exploring.
To truly immerse yourself in the local culture, a visit to Lak Lake is a must. This serene oasis is surrounded by charming villages and inhabited by the welcoming M’Nong ethnic group, who reside in vibrant settlements of rattan and wooden stilt houses by the water’s edge. Many companies offer canoe tours of the lake, allowing you to interact with the M’Nong people and partake in their cultural traditions, including folk songs and drumming.
End your day with a fabulous meal at Quan Nem Nuong Thanh Loan, where you can enjoy nem nuong dak lak, one of Buon Ma Thuot’s signature foods. This dish features seasoned ground pork mixed with a medley of herbs and spices, all wrapped in fresh rice paper. The rolls are then grilled over hot coals, resulting in a flavorful and slightly smoky taste.
Holidays in “the kingdom of fish sauce”: Chau Doc
Phan Cac Truc grew up in Vietnam and now dedicates her time to the visual arts, writing and storytelling.
Close to the Cambodian border, Chau Doc is a city in the Mekong Delta that’s home to Chinese, Cham and Khmer communities; the diversity of its residents is apparent across its architecture and cuisine. In addition to Mekong Delta cruises, visitors can stop by sacred sites like the Hang Pagoda or Ba Chuc Tomb, or immerse themselves in nature and wildlife at the Tra Su Bird Sanctuary.
But my primary reason for visiting is the Chau Doc Floating Market, which promises unique culinary adventures thanks to the incredible variety of fish harvested from the river. Don’t miss out on mam (fermented seafood), and the famously diverse range of fish sauces, made from such different types of fish as snakehead, catfish and anchovy. Bun mam, a local soup, is sometimes referred to as “Vietnamese gumbo” and a dish I encourage tourists to try. Or the region’s signature dish, lau mam (fish sauce hot pot), which offers a mouth-tingling combination of shrimp, fish, meat and over 20 different types of vegetables and herbs. During the new-year season, the market buzzes with activity as people prepare for the festivities, creating a vibrant atmosphere.
Another must-visit destination in the region is the floating Tra Su Cajuput Forest, a conservation area and one of Vietnam’s most beautiful sites. The best time to visit this unique ecosystem is during and immediately after the monsoon season, which runs from June until November. This is when the floating forest wakes up and transforms into brilliant shades of green. I also recommend the 4km (2.5-mile) hike up Sam Mountain, where you can take in panoramic views of the vast expanse of rice fields extending towards the border. Before your trek, pick up some hot sponge cakes made from palmyra sugar, a local speciality, that you can easily purchase from houses or stalls in the village.
A treasure trove of natural wonders in southern Central Vietnam: Lang Co
Lifestyle, food and beverage writer Giang Pham is based in Ho Chi Minh City.
Far away from Vietnam’s bustling tourist spots, Lang Co is a hidden gem that takes pride in its rich traditions, warm hospitality and diverse landscapes. Located between the imperial city of Hue and Danang in Central Vietnam, it’s where I go to find pristine fishing villages, national parks, white-sand beaches and turquoise bays.
When visiting, I stay at Laguna Lang Co, a 280-hectare (692-acre) resort that overlooks the sea and is surrounded by lush forests and mountains. The resort’s staff arrange all sorts of local tours, including to the fishing village of Canh Duong. Here, locals continue to observe traditional and sustainable fishing rituals, such as sun-drying fish in natural salt to enhance their flavor and preservation. The hotel actively works with local fishermen in the area, and you can embark on a boat tour with one of them to learn more about how fishing sustains this village.
Another must-visit is Bach Ma National Park, an absolute treasure trove of natural wonders with awe-inspiring views, towering waterfalls measuring nearly 300m (984ft) in height, and a remarkable array of flora and fauna. With its peak elevation reaching 1450m (4750ft), the park offers breathtaking vistas overlooking Lang Co Bay. You’ll find a number of guided trails to explore; most are moderate, and some will even take you to the crumbling remnants of French colonial villas and hotels.
For those seeking standout local cuisine and fresh seafood including oysters that smell of the seashore, I highly recommend Lang Chai Lang Co Seafood Restaurant. Located near the picturesque Lap An Lagoon, this restaurant has stunning views of the bay.
The ideal time to visit Lang Co region is from March to July, when sunny weather predominates with minimal rainfall. Warning: it can get very humid. From August to December, the rainy season arrives, bringing lush green landscapes.