Enter the Land of Opportunity
|Mui Ne Beach Lures Surfers, Kiteboarders, and Windsurfers (P. Lefebvre)|
If you arrive in Vietnam any time after April and before November, chances are you'll be battling the heat and humidity as Southeast Asia's monsoon season gathers paceespecially if you first land in Ho Chi Minh and the sauna-humid lowlands. Which, of course, presents you with the perfect incentive to move north as soon as you've sampled as much of this lively city as you can handle.
Given its skinny shape, most itineraries follow the same path up or down Vietnam's east coast, also the main north-south transport artery. And if you're looking to escape the humidity of the off-season, it's not long until you strike the country's best sandy real estateabout 1,000 miles of coastline lapped by the balmy waters of the South China Sea.
Vietnam's backpacker-friendly travel infrastructure has happily given rise to countless places where sun, surf, and fun go hand in hand with sun, surf, and adventure. Think well-organized dive centers to ply the offshore reefs, windsurfing hubs for shredding the waves, and places to scale craggy coastal cliffs.
Hit the popular beach mecca at Nha Trang, about halfway up the country, if you want a backpacker's party vibe. However, count on the wind sports at Mui Ne Beach for a purer adventure scene. Considered one of Vietnam's finest beaches, Mui Ne is only 120 miles northeast of Ho Chi Minh and blessed with steady year-round winds cruising in off the South China Sea to keep humidity lowand big waves rolling. Just be warned things can get dicey from July to October when Southeast Asia takes a beating from typhoons that boil up just offshore. Drop your bags at the ultra-plush Mui Ne Sailing Club ($90 for twin with A/C and private balcony; +84.062.847.442, www.sailingclubvietnam.com), a welcoming garden oasis right on the Mui Ne beachfront, then hit up one of the adjacent outfitters for windsurfing, kiteboarding, or surfing gear, as well as lessons. Cheaper guesthouses and hostels are also readily available at Mui Ne or in nearby Phan Thiet.
Given that most of its landmass is fringed by watera combination of the Gulf of Thailand, Gulf of Tonkin, and South China Seait's little surprise that diving is another popular option. However, don't expect glassy viewing conditions, especially in shoulder season when increased rains can mean silty runoff that affects visibility.
Many of the mainland beach resorts, including Nha Trang and Mui Ne, have dive operations, although the flatter, sandy shores cherished by beach bums don't lend themselves to the best underwater-viewing conditions. If you plan on being in Vietnam for more than two weeks, consider cruising out to offshore islands like Phu Quoc and Con Dao, remote archipelagos off the Cambodian border in the Gulf of Thailand or 13 hours by boat from Vung Tao (a port city near Ho Chi Minh), respectively.
The 16-island Phu Quoc archipelago, a four-hour boat ride from the port city of Ha Tien, is still a relatively untouched dive spot, with a good local infrastructure and plenty to ogle in the shape of soft corals and colorful reef fish. The island's dive sites are especially good for beginner divers. Sign on for two-day PADI certification courses for $200 with National Geographic-endorsed Rainbow Divers (+84.9.1340.0964; www.divevietnam.com). Besides stellar diving, Phu Quoc is still getting on the tourist radar so is well worth a visit before the hordes arrive and disturb its offshore tranquility.
"It still retains a slow, mellow, beachy pace," enthuses Wendy Yanagihara. "Probably my favorite place in Vietnam to laze on a beach, because no one will harass you."
Try Phu Quoc's Tropicana Resort for peaceful thatched beach bungalows for the bargain price of $28 per night (+84.77.847.127; www.northvalleyroads.com/tropicana). The resort offers a restaurant, bar, massage services, well-priced vacation packages, as well as nearby access to the Rainbow Divers HQ.
Back on the mainland and still centered around the plethora of aquatic distractions of the Vietnam coast, the iconic karst-limestone towers of Ha Long Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin are one not-to-be-missed attraction. Here, over 1,600 islands and islets provide a quintessential Asian photo-op as full-sailed Chinese junks languidly ply the channels of this 1994-listed UNESCO World Heritage treasure.
Fast-forward to the 21st century by signing up for a multi-day Ha Long Bay cruise that couples organized sightseeing with a chance to explore by sea kayak. The reputable Sinh Café's Hanoi office runs a three-night, four-day expedition that sees you paddling calm Gulf of Tonkin waters to discover dramatic limestone caves and pristine lagoons; by night, you camp on deserted beaches amidst Southeast Asia's most magical landscapes. San Francisco-based VeloAsia also offers similar, smaller group tours, mostly for the high season although off-season kayaking tours are available depending on numbers (415.731.4311, or +84.04.562.2733 for the Hanoi office; www.veloasia.com).
For the independently inclined traveler, charter a vessel from Campha, southeast from the main gateways of Bai Chai and Hong Gai, to explore less-trafficked, yet equally stunning corners of the UNESCO-listed seascape. "Even in high-traffic areas, it is not difficult to lose the crowds," advises Michael Buckley. "At Ha Long Bay, for instance, all you have to do is shift to the next big bay to the east, called Bai Tu Long Bay. The scenery can be just as dramatic here as at Ha Long Bay, but hardly anybody goes there."
While shoulder-season weather will usually bestow wet, overcast conditions, the Gulf of Tonkin is essentially a catcher's mitt for precipitation so conditions don't fluctuate all that dramatically. The tradeoff for less-than-perfect visibility and weather, of course, is cheaper prices and fewer people. Besides, Ha Long Bay water temps rarely get much below bathtub tepid, so cruising up close in a kayak or your own private charter is paddles-down the best way to go whatever the time of year.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication