Vietnam is one of the Southeast Asia’s prime destinations for outdoor action. Water sports include superb kayaking and kitesurfing and good diving, snorkelling, sailing and surfing. Inland there’s trekking, cycling, motorbiking and golf. You’ll find some outstanding adventure-sports operators to get you to that trail or out in the ocean.
Best Surfing & Kitesurfing
Best Diving & Snorkelling
Whether you’re commited kitesurfer or a genteel golfer, some careful planning is essential – Vietnam’s climate is extremely variable and monsoon-dependent.
Best Times to Go
Surfers should be aware that the wave action peaks in the winter (November to April). Kitesurfing also excels at this time of year. Divers take note that water visibility is best in the calm months of June, July and August.
Times to Avoid
It would be foolish to attempt an ascent of Fansipan in the height of the rainy season, from May to September. Snorkelling and diving is virtually impossible between November and April when the winter winds blow and visibility drops.
Vietnam offers excellent trekking and less-strenuous walks. The scenery is often remarkable – think plunging highland valleys, tiers of rice paddies and soaring limestone mountains. Anything is possible, from half-day hikes to assaults on Fansipan (3143m), Vietnam’s highest mountain. Even if you’re somewhere like An Bang Beach near Hoi An, you can stroll along the sands for an hour or two and experience a nearpristine coastal environment.
Generally northern Vietnam is your best bet: its dramatic mountain paths and fascinating minority culture are a huge draw. Elsewhere, national parks and nature reserves have established trails (and usually guides available to keep you on them).
The region north of Hanoi is truly spectacular. Sapa is Vietnam’s trekking hub, full of hiking operators and hire stores (renting out sleeping bags, boots and waterproof gear). Maps deatailing trails are available, as are guides. The scenery is remarkable, with majestic mountains, impossibly green rice paddies and some fascinating tribal villages. But prepare yourself – the main trails are incredibly popular and some villagers see hiking groups on an hourly basis. To trek remote paths you’ll have to find an expert local guide.
At a lower elevation is Bac Ha. It’s less rainy and the trails are not heavily trampled. It’s very picturesque, but it lacks Sapa’s jaw-dropping mountain scenery. However, you will find great hikes to waterfalls and to Flower H’mong and Nung villages.
High-altitude Ha Giang province, in the extreme north of Vietnam, is the nation’s Tibet. Hikers can hook up with guides in Ha Giang city, or head out to Dong Van where there are new trekking opportunities.
The Moc Chau plateau is famous for its limestone karsts, plum orchards, tea plantations and dairy products. Thanks to new accommodation options, hiking routes are now opening up here. The nearby Mai Chau region is far more established and popular with tourists, offering great walking in an idyllic valley setting.
Other key destinations include Ba Be, with its network of beautiful trails amid spectacular karst scenery, and Cat Ba, which has a popular 18km hike as well as shorter alternatives such as Butterfly Valley.
Safety guidelines for hikers
The most spectacular hiking in this region is on offer at Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, and numerous new trails between the limestone hills are being developed. Most combine trekking with some caving, including, most famously, the hike to the world’s largest cave, Hang Son Doong.
You’ll find excellent trails inside Cuc Phuong National Park through superb forest and past ancient trees and caves to a minority village.
Close to Danang, Bach Ma National Park has some good trails while the Ba Na Hill Station has short trails and awesome views. Adventure tour operators in Hoi An also offers some intriguing treks in the tribal areas west of town.
With a bit of luck you might glimpse one of the dozens of mammals present in Yok Don National Park near Buon Ma Thuot. You’ll need to hire a guide to see the best of Cat Tien National Park, where crocodiles can be seen and night hikes are possible. The Wild Gibbon Trek here is proving a big hit. Over in Dalat, several adventure tour operators offer hiking trips: one rewarding area is the Bidoup Nui Ba National Park.
Further south there’s little for hikers to get excited about – the climate is perennially hot and humid and landscape largely flat. Con Son is one curious exception, an island with cooling sea breezes and hikes through rainforest and mangroves.
Diving & Snorkelling
Vietnam is not a world-class dive mecca but it does have some fascinating dive sites. If you’ve experienced reefs in Indonesia or Australia, prepare yourself for less sea life and reduced visibility. The most popular scuba-diving and snorkelling is around Nha Trang where there are several reputable dive operators with equipment and training up to international standards. Hoi An’s two dive schools head to the Cham Islands where macro life can be intriguing. Phu Quoc Island is another popular spot. One-off discover diving experiences cost around US$60 to US$80, with two fun dives running around US$70 to US$80. Expect to pay between US$30 and US$42 for a snorkelling day trip.
The Con Dao Islands offer unquestionably the best diving and snorkelling in Vietnam, with bountiful marine life, fine reefs and even a wreck dive. However, expect to pay more than you would elsewhere in Vietnam (around US$160 for two fun dives).
It is also possible to hire snorkelling gear and scuba equipment at several beach resorts along the coast, including Cua Dai Beach, Ca Na and China Beach.
Note that Vietnam is home to several dodgy dive shops, some of which have fake PADI credentials. Nha Trang in particular has an excess of such places. Stick to reputable, recommended dive schools with good safety procedures, qualified instructors and well-maintained equipment. PADI Open Water courses cost around US$350 to US$500.
There’s surf most times of year in Vietnam, though it isn’t an acclaimed destination – the wave scene in Apocalypse Now was shot in the Philippines. Dedicated surf shops are rare, though the odd guesthouse and adventure-sport tour operator have boards for hire.
The original GI Joe break, China Beach is a 30km stretch of sand, which can produce clean peaks of over 2m, though watch out for pollution after heavy rains.
In season, head to Bai Dai beach, 27km south of Nha Trang, where’s there’s a good left-hand break up to 2m during stormy conditions. There’s also powerful body surfing on Nha Trang’s main beach.
Beginners can head to Mui Ne, with multiple breaks around the bay, including short right- and left-handers. Further south, Vung Tau is inconsistent, but offers some of Vietnam’s best waves when conditions are right.
Surf’s up between November and April when the winter monsoon blows from the north. Several typhoons form in the South China Sea each year, and these produce the biggest wind swells, through the action is usually short lived.
Anyone searching for fresh waves in remote locations should be extremely wary of unexploded ordnance, which litters the countryside, particularly near the Demili-tarised Zone (DMZ). Garbage, stormwater run-off and industrial pollution are other hazards, particularly near cities. Rip tides can be powerful, so use a leash on your board.
Kitesurfing & Windsurfing
Windsurfing and kitesurfing are taking off. Mui Ne Beach is fast becoming a wind-chaser’s hot spot in Asia with competitions and a real buzz about the place. Nha Trang and Vung Tau are other possibilities.
If you’ve never kitesurfed, hace a taster lesson (US$80 to US$100) before enrolling in lengthy training – a three-day course costs from US$275 to US$385. It’s tough to get your head around all the basics (and also tough on your body!).
The best conditions in Mui Ne are in the dry season from November to April. Mornings are ideal for beginners, while in the afternoon wind speeds regularly reach 35 knots. Nha Trang and Vung Tau are also best at this time of year.
Kayaking has exploded in popularity around Halong Bay in the past few years. Many standard Halong Bay tours now include an hour or so of kayaking through the karsts, or you can choose a kayaking specialist and paddle around majestic limestone pinnacles, before overnighting on a remote bay.
Other kayaking destinations include Cat Ba Island, the Con Dao Islands, Phong Nha, Dalat and rivers in the Hoi An region. You can also rent sea kayaks on beaches including Nha Trang.
Operators include Blue Swimmer, Asia Outdoors, Cat Ba Ventures and Marco Polo Travel.
Rafting is in its infancy in Vietnam. Several outfits in Dalat offer trips around the town, including Phat Tire Ventures , which runs a day trip down the Langbian River with Class II, III or IV rapids, depending on the season; prices start at US$62. Companies based in Nha Trang aslo offer trips.
Cycling is a popular mode of transport in Vietnam, and it’s an excellent way to experience the country. Basic bicycles can be rented for US$1 to US$3 per day, and good quality mountain bikes for US$7 to US$12.
The flat lands of the Mekong Delta region are ideal for long-distance rides down back roads. The entire coastal route along Hwy 1 has allure, but the insane traffic makes it tough going and dangerous. Consider the inland Ho Chi Minh Highway (Hwy 14, 15 and 8), which offers stunning scenery and little traffic. There’s flat terrain around Hoi An, which is an excellent base for exploring craft villages and country lanes. Hue is also a great place for cycling, with temples, pagodas and the Perfume River.
In the southwest highlands, Dalat has lots of dirt trails and is the base camp for the dramatic two-day descent to Mui Ne.
Motorbiking through Vietnam is an unforgettable way to experience the nation. It’s the mode of transport for most Vietnamese, so you’ll find repair shops everywhere. Two wheels put you closer to the countryside – its smells, people and scenery – compared with getting around by car or bus. For those seeking true adventure there is no better way to go.
If you’re not confident riding a motorbike, it’s comparatively cheap to hire someone to drive one for you. Easy Riders is one such scheme.
Unless you relish getting high on exhaust fumes and barged by trucks, avoid too much time on Hwy 1. The inland Ho Chi Minh Highway running the spine of the country from north to south is one alternative, though of course you miss out on the ocean. The stretch from Duc Tho to Phong Nha offers wonderful karst scenery, forests, little traffic and an excellent paved road. For outstanding ocean views, try coastal Hai Van Pass, which features hairpin after hairpin.
Further north, there’s glorious mountain scenery, river valleys and tribal villages around Sapa and Dien Bien Phu. The route through Ha Giang province through Ha Giang, Dong Van and Bao Lac is the ultimate, with superlative vistas and stupendous mountain roads.
The spectacular new road between Nha Trang and Dalat cuts through forests and takes in a 1700m pass.
There are amazing cave trips at Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, many of which involve some hiking, swimming (there are a lot of river caves) and a short climb or two.
Specialist Oxalis is the only operator licensed to take you to the wonders of Hang Son Doong, the world’s largest cave, but if your budget won’t stretch to this there are other options. You can now trek 7km inside Paradise Cave, do a remarkable two-day hike to Hang En Cave and Ban Doong village and there’s the lovely swimthrough Tu Lan cave system. It may be touristy, but the Phong Nha river cave trip by boat is still a great excursion.
It’s early days, but with the sheer range of limestone karsts found up and down the country, it is only a matter of time before Vietnam becomes a climbing mecca. The pioneers, and acknowledged specialists, are Asia Outdoors, a highly professional outfit based in Cat Ba Town that has instruction for beginners and dedicated trips for rock addicts. In Dalat there are a couple of good adventure tour operators offering climbing and canyoning too. And in Hoi An, Phat Tire Ventures offers climbing and rappelling (from US$48) on a marble cliff.
Most Vietnamese golf clubs will allow you to pay a guest fee. The best golf courses in Vietnam include those around Dalat and Phan Thiet, but there are also plenty of courses in and around Hanoi and HCMC.
Golfing package deals are offered by Luxury Travel (www.luxurytravelvietnam.com) and UK-based Vietnam Golf (www.vietnamgolf.co.uk)
Alt Highway 1
Hwy 1’s heavy traffic and trucks don’t make for great motorbiking or bycycling. It’s possible, with some careful planning, to loop off Hwy 1 at regular intervals and use coastal back roads. East of Hue between Thuan An and Vin Hien; between Chi Thanh and the Hon Gom peninsula; south of Nha Trang to the Cam Ranh airport; and between Phan Thiet and Vung Tau are perfect examples.