Vietnam is now established as one of southeast Asia's most popular countries for travellers, but beyond the must-see sights for first-time visitors what are the tops spots to visit in Vietnam? There are a number of emerging locations that are equally interesting and spectacular and chances are your holiday budget will stretch even further in these new travel frontiers, and you'll also experience a more local and authentic welcome.
Located on Vietnam's northeastern border with China, the province of Ha Giang is a rugged area of jaw-dropping beauty. Spidery roads weave through improbable karst limestone landscapes, while narrow river valleys and ravines conceal ethnic minority villages. Public transport can be sparse and infrequent so hire a 4WD and driver in Hanoi.
Tay Ho Lake, Hanoi
Hanoi's Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake are deservedly top attractions in Vietnam's capital, but a more contemporary future of the city is emerging north around Tay Ho. Narrow laneways and lakefront esplanades feature boutique hotels and the city's best new cafes and restaurants. A must try restaurant is Maison de Tet Decor, which combines a French colonial ambience with organic and farm-to-table ingredients.
Bai Tu Long
A less-crowded alternative to very popular Ha Long Bay, Bai Tu Long features the same stellar marine landscape of indigo, forest-clad islands rising from cobalt waters, but with a fraction of Ha Long's boat traffic. Most trips to Bai Tu Long include kayaking in deserted coves and a trip to the national park on Cat Ba Island.
Two hours south of Hanoi, the provincial city of Ninh Binh is the gateway to more astounding karst limestone scenery, this time framed by emerald-green rice paddies and Buddhist temples, and bisected by meandering inland waterways. For the best accommodation and restaurants, base yourself near the riverside village of Tam Coc. Hire bicycles and get exploring.
Ba Be National Park
Ba Be National Park is another emerging destination easily visited from Hanoi. Make sure you plan a boat trip on the region's lakes, plus go hiking through the rainforest and explore hidden caves.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
Guided trips exploring Son Doong, the world's biggest cave, are booked out months in advance, so make sure you book in advance but otherwise there is still plenty to see and do around the Phong Nha region. Active travellers can explore other caves or undertake guided day hikes through the forests of the national park, while a more leisurely approach to travel includes river kayaking or tubing followed by sunset drinks at the rustic East Hill cafe.
For many years, Danang was just another provincial Vietnamese centre, but across recent years it has evolved into one of the most exciting cities in the country. A sophisticated eating and drinking scene hugs the Han River, with many restaurants enjoying front row views when Danang's famous Dragon Bridge spouts flames every Saturday and Sunday night. Good value resorts and arcing sandy beaches make it an excellent base for visiting Hoi An, just 40 minutes south.
Phu Quoc Island
Earmarked by the Vietnamese government as the country's high-end resort island, now is the right time to visit Phu Quoc near southern Vietnam's Mekong Delta region. As new hotels become established and competition increases, accommodation is well-priced, but there is still a very laid back ambience. Opportunities to fill a few days on Phu Quoc include regular feasts of fresh seafood, diving and snorkelling, and mountain biking around the national park covering 70% of the island.
Con Dao Islands
The colonial French administration and South Vietnam's wartime government both used Con Dao to house political prisoners, but now the remote archipelago of 16 islands is one of Vietnam's best diving and snorkelling destinations. Change is definitely coming – Six Senses Con Dao is one the country's best luxury resorts – but for most visitors accommodation is in family guesthouses. Getting there involves daily flights from Ho Chi Minh City or a fast ferry service from the Mekong Delta.
Cat Tien National Park
Around four hours northeast of Ho Chi Minh City, Cat Tien National Park gets very busy on weekends, so a weekday visit is the opportune time to explore the park's 72,000 hectares of biodiversity. It's especially important for birdwatching – more than 350 species have been recorded – and there's also the opportunity to experience recently reintroduced troops of golden-cheeked gibbons.