Let’s be honest here: not many travellers spend much time in north central Vietnam primarily because, well, it’s not exactly overflowing with attractions. Of course for some, that’s an attraction in itself, but for the rest of us, this region is little more than a blur out of a train or bus window.
Nevertheless, this region of Vietnam stretches for more than 300 kilometres, from Ninh Binh in the north to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) to the south, and if it’s your mission to tick off everything Vietnam has to offer, then you’ll need to spend some time wandering around this part of the country. The massive Phong Nha caverns make a good case for this. Located at the southern end of Dong Hoi province, the cave is recognised as the largest in the world and houses enormous stalagmites of up to 80 metres in height and fossils believed to be more than 300 million years old. There are caves, there are big caves — and there’s Phong Nha, a gigantic, world record-breaking cave. If you’ve only got time for one cave in your holidays — or your life — make it this one.
A visit to Tam Coc near Ninh Binh should be on anybody’s short list and between Tam Coc and Phong Nha, you’ll find a lot of very hospitable people, curiously wondering what on earth you’re doing in their home town, be it Ha Tinh, Thanh Hoa or Vinh. While you’ll find few distractions worthy of a scrapbook entry, you will, in all likelihood, meet many more local people than you will in Hue, Nha Trang and Hoi An — and that’s what travelling is all about, right?
Another reason why you may find yourself in the region is because there are a couple of overland routes from Laos to Vietnam that empty out in this part of the country — you’ll most likely find yourself deposited in Thanh Hoa or Vinh, both of which are more than adequate for an overnight stay before moving on to more interesting parts of the country.
But if you’re after remote, untouristed Vietnam, you’re in the right place and may wish to linger a little longer.