Mù Cang Chải isn’t the only hidden gem in Vietnam’s upper reaches. On first glance, its rugged peaks carry a peaceful charm, the landscape only interrupted by the trickle of a stream or locals going about their daily routine. But in the tribal villages that nudge the Chinese border, there’s a handful of times a month where the mountains truly come alive: market day.
From the break of dawn, once-quiet streets are flanked with bustling stalls ready for locals bedecked in colourful traditional dress ready to peruse. For travellers, it’s a fine opportunity to glimpse tribal life and each village’s cultural intricacies, and with such little tourist footfall here, you’re guaranteed they’re authentic.
Spend your Sundays in Bac Ha, which boasts the biggest market in the region, a riot of colour veining its streets, or in Dong Van, where you can taste foods such as banh troi (floating rice cake) and ruou gao (rice wine). Home-stewed thang co is also a must-try meat-based dish that gets its fine flavours from a mix of lemongrass and chilli leaf, giving it a flavourful kick that leaves the mouth ringing for more.
Elsewhere, you can pick up regional vegetables in Cao Son on a Wednesday, sip Lung Phin’s namesake tea and twinning market mooching in Pho Bang with a wander among its ancient tiled roofs is also a delight.
Local insider tip: Make the most of being on the doorstep of a remote mountain range, where fresh produce can be selected and sampled, before cooking up traditional Vietnamese dishes, away from the tourist-packed markets in major cities. Whether you’re tempted by beef jerk that’s been slow-roasted over a firepit, or curious to try lemon fried chrysalis bees, there’s plenty of food on offer to tease the palate.
To find some of Vietnam’s finest pristine wildernesses, you have to make the effort to get there. The islands that make up Côn Đảo National Park are no different – either a 12-hour ferry from the mainland or an hour’s flight will bring you to the archipelago – but the journey is well worth it.
It was once covered in prisoner camps, with Vietnamese soldiers held here both under French rule and the American-backed government between 1862 and 1975. While you can still visit the prisons of old, it’s the striking landscapes that are now the eye-catching focal point.
Côn Sơn is its largest hub, fringed with sandy beaches and snorkel-worthy coral reefs and inland, covered in patches of tropical forest and a charming colonial Old Town. Hiking trails serve up fine wildlife-watching opportunities both on the ground and in the sky, with the chance to spy black giant squirrels, the endemic bow-fingered gecko, red-billed tropic bird and the rare brown booby. Its shores are also one of Vietnam’s most important nesting sites for green and hawksbill turtles, which can be spotted laying eggs along Côn Sơn’s 13 beaches throughout the nesting season between May and October.
Other islands here are also worth venturing to: Bay Canh is a major nesting site for sea turtles and Tre Long is surrounded by an impressive haul of coral reefs, teeming with kaleidoscopic fish.
Local insider tip: Take time to explore other off-beat islands: