Vietnam has great outdoor appeal. Watersports include superb kayaking and kitesurfing and good diving and snorkelling, sailing and surfing. Inland there's trekking, cycling and motorbiking, as well as canyoning and hot-air-ballooning.
There are some outstanding adventure-sports operators spread throughout the country, most focusing on a particular region.
When to Go
Whether you’re a committed kitesurfer or a warm-water diver, some careful planning is essential – Vietnam’s climate is extremely variable and monsoon-dependent.
The action peaks for kitesurfers in winter (November to April). Surfing is also best at this time of year. Divers take note that water visibility is best in the calm months of June, July and August.
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 not that rewarding between November and April when 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, Vietnam’s highest mountain.
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 detailing trails are available, as are guides. The scenery is wonderful, with majestic mountains, impossibly green rice paddies and some fascinating tribal villages. But prepare yourself – the main trails are incredibly popular and some villages 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, 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 Flower Hmong 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 exciting trekking opportunities. Self-guided day hikes are a snap in and around the towns of Dong Van and Meo Vac.
If you're spooked by the prospect of climbing hills, Mai Chau offers great, fairly easy walking in an idyllic valley setting.
Elsewhere, Ba Be National Park has a network of rugged trails through spectacular karst scenery to minority villages, and Cat Ba boasts a popular 18km hike (and shorter alternatives such as Butterfly Valley).
Some outstanding treks and numerous new trails are being developed between the limestone hills of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park by outfits such as Jungle Boss Trekking, which offers hikes to the Abandoned Valley area and Ma Da. Many routes combine trekking with some caving or tubing. Vietnam's most famous trek is to the world’s largest cave, Hang Son Doong, but numbers are strictly limited and it costs around US$4000.
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 hikes while the Ba Na Hill Station has short trails and awesome views. Adventure-tour operators in Hoi An also offer 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 make the most of Cat Tien National Park, where crocodiles can be seen and night hikes are possible; the Wild Gibbon Trek here is highly popular. Over in Dalat, adventure-tour operators including Phat Tire Ventures and Pine Track Adventures offer hikes: 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 the landscape largely flat. Con Son is one curious exception, an island with cooling sea breezes and hikes through rainforest and mangroves.
Feature: Safety for Hikers
- Don’t stray from established paths – Vietnam is full of unexploded ordnance.
- Guides are usually worth hiring; they’re inexpensive, speak the language and understand indigenous culture.
- Boots with ankle support are a great investment.
- Notify your guesthouse or travelling companions of your hiking plans before setting off for the day.
- Carry a (fully charged) mobile phone.
Bikes are a popular mode of transport in Vietnam, so cycling is 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$18.
The flat lands of the Mekong Delta region are ideal for long-distance rides down back roads. Good routes include the country lanes around Chau Doc, and the quiet road that runs along the Cambodian border from Chau Doc to Ha Tien (with a possible detour to Ba Chuc). There's also some nice cycling on the islands off Vinh Long.
Avoid Hwy 1 as insane traffic makes it tough going and dangerous. Consider the inland Ho Chi Minh Highway (Hwys 14, 15 and 8), which offers some stunning scenery and little traffic. Hoi An is an excellent base for exploring craft villages and rural lanes and there are several recommended tour operators running cycling tours. Hue is also a great place for cyclists, 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.
Heading further north, the highly scenic region fringing Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is beginning to open for cycling: contact Phong Nha Adventure Cycling which organises rides here.
And in the far north the highland lanes around Ba Be National Park and Bac Ha offer fine cycling. The Sapa region is so mountainous that only Tour de France candidates are likely to find it fun.
Motorbiking through Vietnam is an unforgettable way to experience the nation. It’s the mode of transport for most Vietnamese, and there are 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.
Two of the most dramatic rides in the southern half of the country are the Hai Van Pass, featuring hairpin after hairpin and oceanic views, and the spectacular road between Nha Trang and Dalat which cuts through forests and takes in a 1700m pass.
There's more fine riding around the dramatic limestone hills that characterise both the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park and Ninh Binh region. Both areas have tour operators offering guided motorbiking excursions.
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.
Feature: Alt Highway 1
Hwy 1's heavy traffic and trucks don't make for great motorbiking or bicycling. 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
- between Phan Thiet and Vung Tau
- linking Phan Thiet, Mui Ne and Tuy Phong
There’s surf most times of the 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.
Surf’s up between November and April when the winter monsoon blows from the north. Several typhoons form in the South China Sea (East Sea) each year, and these produce the biggest wind swells.
The original GI Joe break, Danang Beach is a 30km stretch of sand, which can produce clean peaks greater than 2m, though watch out for pollution after heavy rains.
North of Quy Nhon, the stretch of coastline heading up towards Quang Ngai also has fine potential, though little or nothing in the way of facilities.
In high season, head to Bai Dai beach, 27km south of Nha Trang, where’s there’s a good left-hand break.
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.
Anyone searching for fresh waves in remote locations should be extremely wary of unexploded ordnance. Garbage, stormwater run-off and industrial pollution are other hazards.
Kitesurfing, Windsurfing & Sailing
Windsurfing and kitesurfing are taking off. Mui Ne Beach is a windchasers’ hot spot in Asia with competitions and a real buzz about the place. Ninh Chu beach is an emerging kitesurfing destination and now has its own school. Nha Trang and Vung Tau are other possibilities.
Two-hour beginner lessons start at US$100; it’s hard to get your head around all the basics (and also tough on your body!).
The best conditions in Mui Ne are between November to April. Mornings are ideal for beginners, while in the afternoon wind speeds regularly reach 35 knots.
Also based in Mui Ne, Manta Sail Training Centre is a very professional sailing outfit run by an English woman, which offers training and boat rentals.
Diving & Snorkelling
Vietnam is not a world-class dive destination 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. Hoi An’s dive schools head to the Cham Islands, where macro life can be intriguing. Phu Quoc Island is another popular spot.
Two fun dives typically cost US$65 to US$80; expect to pay US$25 to US$40 for snorkelling day trips. PADI or SSI Open Water courses cost between US$300 and US$475.
The Con Dao Islands offer unquestionably the best diving and snorkelling in Vietnam, with diverse (but not bountiful) marine life, fine reefs and even a wreck dive. However, prices are high (around US$150 for two dives).
Note that Vietnam is home to some dodgy dive shops, some of which have fake PADI credentials. Nha Trang in particular has several such places. Stick to reputable, recommended dive schools with good safety procedures, qualified instructors and well-maintained equipment.
Kayaking & SUP
Kayaking has exploded in popularity around Halong Bay. Many tours now include a spot of kayaking or stand-up paddle-boarding through the karst islands, or you can choose a specialist and paddle around limestone pinnacles before overnighting on a remote bay.
Other key destinations include Cat Ba Island, Ba Be National Park, the Con Dao Islands, Phong Nha, Dalat and rivers in the Hoi An region. You can also rent sea kayaks and SUPs on many beaches including Nha Trang, Mui Ne and Bai Xep.
Rafting is in its infancy in Vietnam. Several outfits in Dalat offer trips, including Phat Tire Ventures, which runs a tour down the Da Don River with Class II and III rapids, depending on the season. Bike-rafting trips from Dalat to Nha Trang (US$119) are also recommended.
There are stupendous 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, other excellent options include Hang Toi (Dark Cave), which you can visit independently; this is a memorable day out that takes in some ziplining, cave swimming and kayaking.
You also can trek 7km inside remarkable Paradise Cave and there's the lovely swim-through Tu Lan cave system. Hang Tien, the largest part of Tu Lan, was only opened to visitors in 2016.
Rock Climbing & Canyoning
The pioneers and acknowledged rock-climbing specialists are the team from Asia Outdoors, a highly professional outfit based in Cat Ba Town that offers instruction for beginners and dedicated trips for rock stars. They've opened up a branch in Mai Chau, and now lead top rope-climbing trips on the karst peaks there. And in Hoi An, Phat Tire Ventures offers climbing and rappelling on a marble cliff.
Canyoning involves descending river valleys using a mixture of rappelling, scrambling, hiking and swimming. It's very popular in Dalat. Don't compromise on safety; only book canyoning trips through reputable, well-established companies. Sadly, three British travellers died in a canyoning accident at Datanla falls, Dalat, in 2016.