Cheaper and Quieter Alternatives to Halong Bay, Sapa, Hoi An & Nha Trang

As Vietnam’s tourism numbers continue to rise year on year, the usual hotspots for foreign visitors are becoming more and more crowded and forcing prices skywards. Many visitors are now looking for a cheaper, less touristy alternative that still promises not to sacrifice any of the culture or natural beauty.

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Part of the tourist area in Hoi An

Last year, the country’s count for foreign tourists exceeded 10 million for the first time in history, a record that has already been broken in the first 10 months of 2017. Experts anticipate that by the time the year is out, Vietnam will have welcomed near 13 million tourists through its borders this year, and as the country continues to move away from its primarily manufacturing past, tourism is a trend that they intend to keep moving in an upward trajectory.

Judging by these numbers, it’s no wonder that so many of the country’s usual tourist haunts are now becoming overcrowded. Halong Bay has long held the attention of foreign visitors, often being touted as the number one place to visit in this neck of the woods; however, even the grandeur of the ancient bay has not been immune to the trappings of today’s fast paced tourism industry – and the likes of Sapa, Hoi An, and Nha Trang are not far behind.

While these destinations are all indeed still worth visiting for their stunning natural scenery and deep-rooted culture, it must be said that tourists who choose to come here should expect to be among the masses. If you’re the sort of traveler who prefers to keep things somewhat “off-the-beaten-track” and away from the crowds, it’s time you learned about a couple of cheaper and quieter alternatives.

Halong Bay alternative: Bai Tu Long Bay, Lan Ha Bay

Halong Bay has a long standing reputation as one of the most beautiful places in Vietnam and even Southeast Asia – and indeed it is. However, upon arrival at the main tourist wharf in Halong, visitors are often surprised to see that there are near hundreds of boats docked and more still heading out to explore the surrounding waters.

Fewer know that Halong is actually the name of the region (as well as this particular bay), and that within this region there are two other bays that are far less touristy and yet lack nothing in terms of their scenic beauty when compared with Halong Bay.

Bai Tu Long Bay’s sinking plateau – Halong Bay alternative

Bai Tu Long Bay sits to the northeast of Halong, and because of its relative distance from the main harbour, it remains vastly under visited when compared with its famous neighbour. A large portion of Bai Tu Long falls under the protection of its National Park, so the wildlife here is rich and flourishing – as it should be. Here you’ll find a number of secluded beaches, opportunities for trekking and rock climbing, and plenty of chances to enjoy the impressive scenery – minus the crowds.

It is best to explore this Halong Bay alternative on an overnight cruise, such as Signature Cruise Halong or Royal Wings Cruise Halong.

Fisheye view of Lan Ha Bay – Halong Bay alternative

Lan Ha Bay is located south of Halong, boasting its own notable collection of nearly 400 limestone karsts. Lan Ha is home to the Cat Ba archipelago, a stretch of islands that play host to thousands of species of animals and marine life. The largest island, Cat Ba, is where the entire world’s population of golden-headed langurs reside – the most endangered species of primate on earth.

Lan Ha Bay is a paradise for nature appreciators and adventure lovers, and offers ample opportunity for kayaking, sailing, hiking, sampling local foods, and just generally enjoying the peaceful surroundings.

Orchid Cruise Halong or Alzalea Cruise Halong offers amazing cruise tours to this stunning Halong Bay alternative.

Sapa alternative: Ha Giang, Mu Cang Chai

Sapa’s mountain paths are well-trodden by tourists who come to admire the cascading rice terraces and soak up the colourful culture of the local hill tribes, but because of its growing popularity, it’s now completely flushed with tourists.

Terraces in Mu Cang Chai

Tucked away in the heart of the mountainous Yen Bai province, far away from the mayhem of the tourist hotspots, is the quiet, peaceful district of Mu Cang Chai. The scenery is comparable to that of Sapa; the rippling hills, misty mountains, and lush terraces of rice paddies- yet as of now, the entire district remains more or less unchanged by modern tourism.

Although quite some number of visitors come to the area to celebrate its annual Harvest Festival, most of the time Mu Cang Chai is a serene place where culture, colour, and calmness are all in abundance.

Ha Giang mountains

Closer still to the Chinese border, north of the capital city, is Ha Giang province. Known for its densely forested granite and limestone mountains, Ha Giang offers a tranquil alternative to the increasingly popular mountains in Sapa. The district’s capital city nestles against the Lo River, and while there’s plenty to see and do at this level, exploring the mountains and terraces that sit just to the north will offer visitors unparalleled views of the pass below.

Hoi An alternative: Hue

Hoi An has long been famed for its rich cultural displays, colourful lantern festivals, and diverse local ethnicities; nowadays those things translate to a city undergoing substantial economic inflation, and full of tourists who come to ogle at their intriguing surroundings.

Riverside houses in Hue. Credit: Jimmy Tran

For travelers looking for something a little more laid back, Hue is a much quieter, cheaper alternative. Located a couple of hours to the north of Hoi An, sitting calmly on the banks of the Perfume River, is Hue; revered for its impressive shrines, imperial palaces, and well preserved Citadel surrounded by a moat and thick city walls. Rich in culture and laden with ancient history, Hue is a must-see for travelers looking for a deeper insight into Vietnamese tradition.

Nha Trang, Quy Nhon

Quy Nhon

Quy Nhon perfectly fills the gap for beach-loving, budget-conscious travelers who prefer to shy away from the bedlam of raucous Nha Trang. Situated on the coast, smack bang in between Nha Trang and Hoi An, Quy Nhon is all about logging in beach hours and enjoying low-key local experiences.

Accommodation here is surprisingly cheap considering how idyllic the surroundings are; most beach towns this gorgeous have already been developed and experienced price hikes, but Quy Nhon remains one of the best places to check-out from the busy outside world and just enjoy the sun, sea, and delicious local flavours.

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