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Hoi An’s utterly charming Ancient Town is one of Vietnam’s top attractions, but despite the crowds, still hasn’t lost its beguiling charm. Centrally located in Hoi An town, alongside picturesque Thu Bon River, this compact enclave was once a thriving Silk Road trading port, from the 16th to 19th centuries. Today, this beautifully preserved Ancient Town is one of Southeast Asia’s oldest towns and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, its atmospheric narrow streets lined with centuries-old cultural treasures, historic sites, and quaint buildings, a hybrid of the port’s multi-national architectural legacies.
Once a week, the quiet town of Bac Ha becomes a hub of culture and trade in Northwest Vietnam. Residents from the surrounding villages and valleys flock to Bac Ha, and the roads are filled with buses packed with tourists. Visiting on a Sunday means watching locals in their traditional ethnic dress, sipping the juice from fresh coconuts and browsing countless stalls. Shoppers can find everything for sale in Bac Ha, including water buffalo, delicious Hmong and Thay cuisine, brightly colored fabrics and fragrant spices.
The verdant rice field countryside surrounding Sapa, bordered by the jagged peaks of the Hoang Lien Mountains (often still known by their French colonial era name of the Tonkinese Alps), are home to Vietnam’s most beautiful rural vistas. The deep valleys here are home to a diverse mix of the country’s ethnic minorities including the Hmong, Giay, and Red Dzao people while the rippling hills are terraced with rice fields and overlooked by the country’s tallest peak, Fansipan Mountain. This is the top trekking destination in Vietnam, with oodles of options to trek or day hike between tiny villages and experience the staggering mountain views. Sapa itself is the main base here – an old French hill station and now a bustling and forever growing tourist center that is a stark contrast to the sumptuous tranquil countryside right on its doorstep.
Ha Long Bay, in northern Vietnam, is dotted with 1,600 limestone islands and islets and covers an area of over 1,500sqkm. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, for many visitors, this surrealistic place is like something right out of a movie. Approximately a four-hour drive from downtown Hanoi, the area is also home to different kinds of limestone caves such as phreatic caves, karstic foot caves and marine notch caves. Activities include exploring the many cave formations, kayaking around rocky outcrops and watching the wildlife.
In northern Ninh Binh Province, Tràng An Scenic Landscape Complex is uniquely a World Heritage Site for both its nature and culture, spellbinding visitors with its spectacular landscapes of timeless waterways and jungle-covered limestone karsts and towering cliffs dramatically rising from jade-green valleys, along with ancient sites of great national significance. The big drawcard is taking a paddleboat through two main tourist attractions, in this watery wonderland, dubbed a ‘land-locked Halong Bay and ‘outdoor geological museum.’ At Tam Coc, enjoy a slow, languorous sampan ride along the tranquil Ngo Dong River, which merges with lush rice paddies surrounded by surreal limestone formations and gliding underneath three low-hanging grottoes. At Trang An, an equally impressive boat ride transports you along emerald-green waterways brimming with rich biodiversity overshadowed by stunning islets and a series of karst caves and caverns which the boat passes through. Off the boats, be sure to visit magnificent Bái Đính Pagoda, Vietnam’s largest Buddhist pagoda complex and the ancient capital of Hoa Lu, where two dynastic temples stand at the site of 10th and 11th-century citadel. See more info at danangtourscity.com.
The Hai Van Pass is one of the top attractions in this part of Vietnam and rests at around 500 meters above sea level. This makes it the highest pass of its kind in Vietnam and if you want to get panoramic views of Da Nang then this is the place to come. There are a number of historical markers along the way as you navigate the pass including a fort that would have been built during the French colonial period which was also used as a bunker during the Vietnam War by American and South Vietnamese troops. Son Tra Mountain translates as Monkey Mountain in English and this is part of a spectacular national park in Da Nang that is located at around 700 meters above sea level. This area is also called the Son Tra Peninsula and you will find winding roads here which lend themselves to hiking as well as cycling. The mountain is so named as it is the home of a rare species of monkey called the red face monkey.