Up close and personal

Hiking gives visitors an unhurried experience amid Vietnam’s stunning natural surroundings.

By Le Diem on November 07,2017 10:41 AM

Up close and personal

Photos: Hello Vietnam Travel

Not only terraced rice paddies, towering mountaintops, and majestically green plains but also tiny wooden houses, working local people, smiling village kids, and piglets, chicks and puppies playing in the dirt count among the different experiences Barry and Laura, a couple from the US, enjoyed while hiking near Vietnam’s renowned hill town of Sapa. It was enough for them decide to come back to Sapa a few years later and do it all again.

As the number of foreign visitors to Vietnam has increased remarkably over recent years, more and more hiking tours have been created to meet demand for exploring the beauty of Vietnam by another means.

GREAT POTENTIAL

Vietnam holds its own on the world’s tourism map, thanks to its diverse geology from the north to the south and its rich culture, making it ideal for all types of travelling, be it relaxing on the beach, discovering cultures and religions, or seeking adventure, according to Le Quang Hung, Product Manager at Sens Asia Travel. Adventure exploration is perhaps the most outstanding, given the country’s magnificent natural setting of immense mountains, forests, rivers, caves, and fields, which are suitable for different levels of hiking and trekking.

Brian Vu, Marketing Manager at Hello Vietnam Travel, added that many places are still largely unknown, with untouched pristine beauty. Many are home to dozens of ethnic groups with unique cultures that visitors, especially foreigners, can discover on hikes.

With beautiful nature and diverse cultures, greater interest in hiking among young Vietnamese in recent years has also helped promote the development of this type of travel, according to Nguyen Giang Nam, Director of Asia Pacific Travel. Hiking remains new, though, and is yet to fully catch on. With rising demand for travel, however, it is gaining a good reputation and increasing in popularity.

New hiking trails have appeared and added to Vietnam’s tourism options. The north, with its mountain ranges, hills and forests, is leading the way.

Up close and personal

NEW OPTIONS

Sapa is familiar to most tourists and has classic hiking trails to the villages of Cat Cat - Y Linh Ho or Lao Chai - Ta Van. There are still some unexplored gems to be found, however, that are still authentically Sapa. Aimed at providing new adventures and discoveries of four-star quality, Sens Asia Travel has begun cooperating with Topas Ecolodge, a hotel situated on a beautiful hilltop deep in the mountains of Hoang Lien National Park, some 45 minutes from Sapa. Topas Ecolodge has 25 mountain bungalows built in a rustic chalet style, overlooking mountains and terraced rice fields, and was voted in June as No 1 in National Geographic’s list of 21 places to stay if you care about the planet.

On the Sapa - Topas Ecolodge hiking tour, guests can stay in high-class accommodation at the lodge and then head deeper into Hoang Lien National Park to begin a trek near Sin Chai village, taking in beautiful views of tall mountains, deep valleys, waterfalls, and rice terraces. The trail soon leads them to Red Dao villages and further, to Nam Nhiu and Nam Cang - the most remote area of Sapa - where they can catch Red Dao women wearing some of the most colourful and diverse costumes among all Vietnam’s ethnic minority groups, enjoy a cup of green tea in their house, and learn about how local villagers make rice writing paper, jewellery, and embroidery. Herbal baths, local medicine and embroidery are just some of the things the Red Dao are skilled at.

On their hike in Sapa, Barry and Laura were excited to see some local woman dying clothes using natural flowers and the techniques used by local families and many local people of chopping bamboo to build homes and market stalls, making handicrafts such as incense sticks, and sometimes negotiating the sale of a water buffalo to another village family. ‘It was fascinating to see their daily life and how they work,’ Laura said. They later found that many local people have to trek this tough terrain on a daily basis to make their way home from work or school, as there are not many paths, let alone roads, and many can’t afford a motorbike. ‘With a two-hour trek needed to get to school, it’s no wonder that many children don’t go at all and would rather spend the day helping their family on the farm or selling handicrafts to passing tourists,’ she said.

Another new hiking tour is being offered by Sens Asia Travel, wandering around the Ngoc Son Ngo Luong Nature Reserve in Hoa Binh province, about 130 km from Hanoi. In addition to admiring karst peaks among green fields and stilt houses, hiking in the nature reserve also helps hikers learn about Muong ethnic minority culture, in particular the way their cuisine boasts only local natural ingredients. Nearly all people in the area are from the Muong minority, one of six in Hoa Binh.

Mai Chau mountainous district, also in Hoa Binh, is a popular place for hiking thanks to its picturesque limestone mountains, rice paddies, bamboo groves, waterfalls, and terraced tea plantations. Close to the Da River and resembling ‘Halong Bay on land’, with hiking to Ba Khan Forest nearby, visitors can take a boat trip to Ngoi Hoa village and explore beautiful caves and the fish farming of the local ethnic minority people. The trip also takes them further along the Tien River, to a wild spot with hiking, swimming, fishing, and shrimping. The final destination is Lao Waterfall and an ethnic minority village in Mai Chau, where they can either go biking or hiking. ‘The place is ideal for different tours appropriate for different customers, from holidays, sightseeing, and hiking to teambuilding,’ Nam said. ‘We also invested in three-star accommodation to meet demand from both local and international tourists.’

An hour south of Hoa Binh, Pu Luong Nature Reserve has a new hiking route. Stretching from Mai Chau in the northwest to Cuc Phuong National Park, the reserve is blessed with rich rainforests, magnificent limestone mountains, terraced rice fields, and breath-taking scenery. Thankfully, as Pu Luong has grown as an attraction in recent times its landscape and local people have not been commercialised, as has happened elsewhere, according to Brian. Another positive of this hiking route is that there are multiple ways to get to Pu Luong from Hanoi, providing visitors with more options for sightseeing on the journey.

Hikers pass through fields, terraced rice fields, and traditional villages, cross bridges over the Cham River, and see remarkable irrigation systems. Bamboo water wheels transfer water to handmade bamboo aqueducts of different sizes. They then rest at local homestay and try typical local dishes.

Asia Pacific Travel also takes visitors to the central region and the south. Its trek in the central highlands province of Kon Tum is well-known for its almost limitless mountains, thick forests, rivers, and uniquely diverse ethnic minority villages. Visitors can walk along riverbanks and take in the landscape while visiting the remote villages of Kon Kotu, Kon Bil, and Kon Du, and spend time with them to watch their daily life.

Together with Kon Tum, Cat Tien National Park, which about 150 km from HCMC, is the site of another attractive hiking tour Asia Pacific Travel arranges, especially for animal lovers. With an area of about 720 sq m in one the largest lowland tropical forests remaining in Vietnam, the park is home of thousands of plants and wild animals such as birds, langurs, bats, bears, gaurs, deer, Asian elephants, pangolins, and reptiles, and includes a swamp of crocodiles.

CHALLENGES FOR GROWTH

Though hiking as a form of tourism is growing, it still faces a host of challenges. An absence of adequate accommodation and professional services are the biggest issues, the tour operators agree.

Another problem is the weather. As a tropical country, the wet seasons in the north (February and March, and July and August) makes paths slippery and dangerous for hiking. April, May, September, October and November are the best time to go, with nice weather and beautiful rice fields.

Another issue is the spontaneous construction of accommodation and random rubbish dumping, which affect nature and the environment, according to Hung. Aiming for sustainable development, Sens Asia Travel gives visitors guidelines on protecting local nature and respecting local cultures, by not littering and not giving kids sweets, toys, or money. Stationery and books are preferred, and should be given to local schools or community leaders. Tipping is discouraged, though you can buy local products to support the community, and products made from wild animals should not be purchased.

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