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Escape Trails: Hidden Vietnam

Courtney Carr

Vietnam is one of the most eclectic areas you can visit in South East Asia, with its Chinese upbringing, French influence and history deeply rooted in war.

From its wandering water buffalos in ride paddies, its cheap massages and dramatic cityscapes to the delicious food available around every corner, you’ll be sure to find something to love in this beautiful country. As a bit of a wanderer when it comes to travel, I thought I would highlight to you some of this country’s more hidden jewels, rather than the visits to the obvious war relics and the mannequin body of Ho Chi Minh in its strict temple complex.

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Ancient Town, Hoi An

Credit: Byron Carr

One of the most beautiful places in all of Vietnam has to be the bustling corners of Ancient Town in Hoi An, nicknamed (for good reason) as “Lantern Town”. At night, this tourist quarter comes alive with rows upon rows of brightly lit lanterns hanging above the lines of shops. Fairy lights adorn every available space, and on the river flowing past this heritage quarter you can take a lantern-lit boat ride or adorn the lake with blessings in the form of candles in paper lanterns.

With restaurants, shops, pop up markets, ancient bridges, and even lantern making workshops, the old quarter of Hoi An needs to be placed on your “must see” list of Vietnam. Pick up some lanterns of your own, and make sure you bring your most photogenic outfits– people snapping their next Instagram shots and their next profile pics are aplenty here!

Halong Bay

One of the new seven wonders of the natural world (having been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994) Halong Bay in the well-known for its emerald waters and limestone towers and islands. Visitors to the area are treated with an overnight stay on a Chinese “junker” boat – which is more smooth sailing than junk – and allows you to coast along the bay and watch the world pass you by.

Despite by the idea of being rooted on a boat there are heaps of things for you to do in Halong Bay including sea kayaking and tours around some of the limestone inlets, visiting the massive caverns and caves within the islands, and climbing the infamous Ti Top Island for the best view of the sunset over the bay. Unfortunately, you won’t be fully alone in your adventures around this famous area, as boats and tourists are everywhere, but you can be sure that you will find your own little slice of heaven while you’re there.

The Mekong Delta

There’s a lot going on in Vietnam that’s similar to other parts of South East Asia. But if you’re keen to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city and see a different side to Vietnam there is nothing better than taking a visit to the Mekong Delta. The Mekong River stretches all through South East Asia and the Delta is one of the southernmost part of the river itself, made up as a maze of rivers, swamps and islands.

Home to floating markets and villages, there are some beautiful homestays open to tourists situated on the Delta itself, allowing guests a glimpse into the private lives of the Vietnamese. You can go bike riding around the villages, get rowed through the beautiful mangrove swamps, and interact with the locals on a more personal level. Most travellers mark the Mekong Delta as a highlight of their trip, so you definitely need to check out if you find yourself in southern Vietnam.

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Suoi Tien Theme Park, Ho Chi Minh City 

When I go travelling I tend to find myself in some very weird and wacky places, but there has never been anything more confusingly amazing than the Suoi Tien Theme Park – the world’s first and only Buddhist theme park located just outside the bustling centre of Ho Chi Minh City. Everything is in Vietnamese, so if you don’t speak some of the language you will get a bit confused with the crossovers taking place around the theme park, but it doesn’t mean you won’t have a great time.

There are statues of Buddha and ancient animal temples all over the area, nestled in with roller coasters, a wave pool and water park, a fruit and nut street parade, and tons of haunted house style rides (including a questionably dark Harry Potter haunted house). The amalgamated style of the park is an eclectic mix of Buddhist stories, fun kid rides, and Vietnamese legends, but be warned – as HerCanberra’s “resident horror expert”, the Unicorn Palace was the most terrifying place I have ever been and the scariest thing I have ever seen.

If that hasn’t piqued your interest in the Suoi Tien Theme Park, then I don’t know what will!

i-Rezort and Spa, Nha Trang

In Vietnam’s premier luxury beach town lies one of the best-hidden mountain spas and one of the best way to spend a Christmas day ever! The i-Rezort and Spa is a hot mineral springs and pool with full relaxation amenities available, including massages, mud baths, mineral tea baths, meditation areas and close to local villages. If you are looking for the ultimate (and extremely cheap!) spa day – or even a day away from the hustle of vacation touring – then look no further than i-Rezort.

If you after something a little special, score yourself a VIP bungalow with one of i-Rezort’s special packages. For just $50AUD, you can get yourself a private cabana and infinity pool, special access via golf-buggy, hours and hours of massages and spa treatments, private mud bath and mineral pools and delicacies in the form of fruit, food, and wine. I can tell you that it’s well worth it to spend the extra money – and hey, it’s Vietnam! The prices are cheaper here anyway!

Eat and Drink

Minh Hien Vegetarian Restaurant, Hoi An

Situated outside of Hoi An’s old town is one of the most delicious vegetarian restaurants in all of Vietnam – so delicious it’s easy to get so lost in the vegan Pho that conversation comes to a standstill. The Minh Hien Vegetarian Restaurant is filled with backpackers who are encouraged to leave their mark in this small corner of the world and adds extra personalised elements to your dining experience.

There are heaps of cooking schools you can attend while in Vietnam, but Minh Hien hosts its own vegetarian-friendly cooking school that allows you to replicate anything on the menu. I can’t tell you how excited we all were to learn to cook our favourite tofu skin salad or hot and sour soup! The cooking school also gives you a chance to meet with the owner and learn his own cooking history, and if you’re lucky you might just get to meet his beautiful dog Carrot while you’re there!

Chay Banh Mi, Nha Trang

Vietnamese food is absolutely tremendous – honestly, I have never had better food on a trip before and it was one of the first places where you feel safe buying items from the little side carts that roam the city streets. These little side carts usually sell Vietnamese delicacies in the form of Banh Mi – a Vietnamese roll filled with pickled cabbages, meats, and herbs.

As a vegan, finding a Banh Mi to suit my preferences was difficult but I managed to find the BEST Banh Mi sandwich ever from a little side cart on the streets of Nha Trang. Complete with fake meats and a solid recommendation on Happy Cow and Trip Advisor, even non-vegans loved it! If you’re in the area scout it out because it is so good I may have bought six…

Chill Skybar, Ho Chi Minh City

Rooftop bars are aplenty in Ho Chi Minh City – especially as you wander through the infamous Backpacker Street district – but if you are looking for a little luxury that is more similar to some of Western culture’s premium bars and clubs then you need to get yourself to Chill Skybar in Ho Chi Minh City.

Voted as one of the world’s finest clubs, Chill is a decadent atmosphere that goes off when the night gets late and the DJ starts spinning. With an eye-popping view of the city lights of Ho Chi Minh and first class service, I was lucky enough to enjoy the fireworks and champagne showers that rang in 2018 here and while the prices for food and drink are more like what you would pay here in clubs and restaurants in Australia, you’re really paying for the drop-dead gorgeous view and the swanky club. It’s well worth the visit!

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Courtney Carr

Courtney Carr is the author of the science fiction horror novel Cosmic Decay: Contamination, and the eBook Secrets of a Party Planner. As HerCanberra's "resident horror expert" she is the creator behind the horror pop culture blog This Side of Sanguine (www.thissideofsanguine.com), as well as the party planning blog The Party Connection (www.thepartyconnectionaustralia.com). She loves rock music, red wine, coffee, Brazilian Ju Jitsu, living plant-based, and is obsessed with Instagram. See more at courtneyrachellecarr.com. More about the Author