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I’ve been living in Vietnam on and off for 15 years, and I’ve spent most of that time writing travel stories, authoring guidebooks and working as a fixer for other visitors.

So vast are the outdoors here that it seems I’m always writing about adventure travel in some form or another. Vietnam’s dramatic landscapes make hiking a worthwhile activity on its own, but unlike mainstream trekking destinations, it’s rarely the sole focus. For me, motorbike touring, caving, abseiling and swimming have all played a big part in my trekking experiences – as have human encounters, village life, and incredible food.

In the northern mountains, multi-day organised treks connect culturally disparate villages surrounded by epic rice terraces. In central Vietnam, a steamy jungle hike is the only way to delve into the biggest caves on the planet. And in the south – a part of Vietnam that’s not known for its hiking – you’ll find festooned shrines nestled in forested hills.

Interest piqued? Read on for my guide to trekking and hiking in Vietnam.

Where to go hiking in Vietnam

Popular spots and some hidden gems

Joshua Zukas
By Joshua Zukas

Before I get into my favourite Vietnam hiking destinations, a word of warning: this is a populous country, which (among other things) puts pressure on its environment. Despite what the glossy, but misleading, Instagram posts suggest, you’re unlikely to encounter immaculate natural landscapes while trekking in Vietnam. Some may lament the lack of untouched wilderness. But for most, rubbing shoulders with the warm-hearted, playful, curious and at times hedonistic Vietnamese embellishes the hiking experience.

Sapa

How to avoid the worst of Sapa

Joshua Zukas
By Joshua Zukas

Vietnam’s dramatic north offers the most diverse landscapes in the country. Sapa and around has long been northern Vietnam’s premier trekking destination, and with good reason. The area is home to the country’s highest mountains, iconic rice terraces, and an unusually diverse patchwork of cultures and ethnolinguistic groups.

Sadly, Sapa has fallen foul of modern tourism’s biggest failing: promoting already popular places and pushing them to breaking point. Badly-planned tourism in Sapa town and the immediate surroundings has led to gross overdevelopment – a reality you won’t see in most tourism marketing. To get the most from this region it’s essential you employ the services of a guide and find an itinerary that gets you well into the countryside.

North Vietnam in miniature
Pu Luong

North Vietnam in miniature

Joshua Zukas
By Joshua Zukas

I sometimes think of Pu Luong, another of my favourites in the north, as a microcosm of the northern mountains, with the rice terraces of Mu Cang Chai, jagged peaks of Sapa and stilt house villages of Mai Chau. This is also one of the few destinations where self-guided solo hikes are recommended. There are easy-going day hikes from Ban Don into the surrounding mountains.

The north’s hidden gem
Ha Giang

The north’s hidden gem

Joshua Zukas
By Joshua Zukas

Ha Giang is Vietnam’s northernmost province and the landscapes are like something from a science fiction flick. I predict that it will become one of the country’s premier destinations this decade. Most come for motorbike road trips, but trekking trails are also beginning to emerge.

I recently discovered a short half-day hike on the Skypath, a lofty path that clings to the cliffs high above the Nho Que River and Ma Pi Leng Mountain Pass, which is one of Ha Giang’s (and Asia’s) most extraordinary roads.

Explore the caves of central Vietnam
Son Doong & Phong Nha Caves

Explore the caves of central Vietnam

Joshua Zukas
By Joshua Zukas

I think Central Vietnam’s best trekking spots are in its rugged interior away from the coastline. Local explorer Ho Khanh chanced upon Son Doong Cave in Phong Nha-Ke Bang, a little-known national park in Quang Binh Province, deep in the jungle in 1990. In 2008 he returned with the British Cave Research Association, who surveyed the chambers and declared it the biggest cave on the planet. Since then the national park has transformed into one of the world’s top caving and trekking destinations.

An underrated hill station
Bach Ma National Park

An underrated hill station

Joshua Zukas
By Joshua Zukas

While some natural areas in central Vietnam suffer from overtourism, Bach Ma National Park has slipped under the developers’ radar. A century ago this was a hill station for overheating French colonists from the nearby city of Hue. The national park still holds a cluster of French holiday villas, some of which have been converted into places to stay.

Get your thrills in Dalat
Dalat

Get your thrills in Dalat

Joshua Zukas
By Joshua Zukas

Further south from Bach Ma, nearby Dalat has become central Vietnam’s busy adventure travel hub. Most people come here for the canyoning (abseiling down waterfalls), but there are some decent hikes in the national parks and other protected areas nearby. The area’s elevation means that temperatures are refreshing and cool for much of the year, especially when compared with the lowlands.

Lesser-known hikes in the far-south
An Giang

Lesser-known hikes in the far-south

Joshua Zukas
By Joshua Zukas

The far south of Vietnam is not known for its treks: this is a delta region where the horizon usually stops at the closest tree. However, An Giang Province close to Cambodia is different. Here the Bay Nui (Seven Mountain) chain offers elevation and some interesting hikes.

Joshua Zukas
By Joshua Zukas

I’d recommend any of the following hikes while in Vietnam. If pushed for a favourite, I’d probably suggest Son Doong or actually any caving trek in Phong Nha. I think these hiking & caving tours are Vietnam's best tourism product and I’d recommend them to almost everyone.

  • Sapa multi-day hikes

    Sapa multi-day hikes

  • Ban Don to Ban Hieu hike

    Ban Don to Ban Hieu hike

  • Ha Giang Skypath

    Ha Giang Skypath

  • Son Doong cave expedition

    Son Doong cave expedition

  • Rhododendron Falls trail

    Rhododendron Falls trail

  • Ta Nang Phan Dung trek

    Ta Nang Phan Dung trek

  • Nui Cam trail

    Nui Cam trail

Hiker Ha Giang vietnam

Stunning views over Ha Giang, one of north Vietnam's lesser-known hiking locations.

Hiking in Vietnam: Need to know

Everything you wish you'd known before you booked

When to go hiking in Vietnam

Vietnam’s climate is complicated, with each major region (north, central and south) experiencing their own climates.

In my experience the best time to hike in the north is October, November and December. The weather is relatively cool and dry, meaning trails aren’t too muddy, and visibility is generally good.

I like hiking in central Vietnam in the spring: March, April and May. It’s usually sunny but not too hot and rainstorms tend to be brief.

The south is hot all year, though there is some respite in their winter (December and January), making this the best time to trek there.

How much do Vietnam trekking tours cost?

Prices for organised trekking tours in Vietnam vary widely. The one- and half-day self-guided treks mentioned in this guide are essentially free, bar entrance fees to national parks.

When engaging a tour company or guide, prices tend to be around USD $S50-100 per person per day, including guide fees, transport, food and accommodation. The exception is the caving experiences in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, which are double that or more.

My top Vietnam hiking tip

Joshua Zukas
By Joshua Zukas

My biggest tip about hiking in Vietnam is this: don’t resist hiring a guide. When I first came to Vietnam I was, like many young travellers, keen to travel as independently as possible, and I often tried solo hiking without a guide.

Sometimes the hike was successful, sometimes not. But these guide-less trips were never as good as they could have been because I didn’t have a local person there to spot wildlife, explain local customs, identify edible fruit, show me the hidden swimming spots, solicit house invitations, recommend good food spots, enjoy a glass of rice wine with at the end of the day…. I could go on.

And probably more important in the big picture: hiring guides is a great way to get money straight into the pockets of local people.

How hiking in Vietnam works

In Vietnam’s bigger hiking locations, such as Sapa and Dalat, you’ll find plenty of independent guides and trekking operators when you arrive. Or you can book an organised trek in advance with the country’s small but growing community of trekking, hiking and adventure travel specialists. I don’t really recommend booking anything in the street, do your homework first and check for independent reviews. Trust me: you really don’t want to find yourself on the generic walking tours around Sapa.

Alternatively, international walking holiday companies increasingly offer small-group Vietnam hiking tours in which an entire weeks-long itinerary is arranged for you, including transport, accommodation and guided hikes. This is naturally the most expensive – but easiest – way of exploring Vietnam by foot along with a group of like-minded travellers.

About the author

Hiking in Vietnam

Joshua Zukas

Joshua is a Vietnam-based journalist covering travel, culture, architecture, food and innovation in Asia. He holds a BA in Southeast Asian Studies and an MSc in Sustainable Tourism.

He writes on Vietnam for Lonely Planet, Michelin Guide, Bradt Guides, Ink Global, CNN Create and Asia's top inflight magazines, and contributes to The Economist, Insider, Wallpaper and Interior Design Magazine, among many others.

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