Ever wanted to learn to dance with ethnic minorities? Or go bird-spotting at dusk in a canoe? Or share a cup of arabica with coffee farmers? These days in Vietnam, sustainable tour operators are pioneering new ways to bring guests closer to the places they’ve come to see. Created with respect for nature, culture and local communities at the core, these tours have one thing in common: They’ll leave you feeling like you’ve connected with your destination in a meaningful way. Below are a few rising stars from tour operators across the country.
Timeless scenery and culture in the North
Just a few hours south of Hanoi, lie some of the most scenic destinations in Northern Vietnam. Following a mountain range that reaches from the Laos border to the coast, this route — sometimes referred to as the ‘limestone loop’ — links the valley town of Mai Châu to the ancient forests in Cúc Phương National Park and the UNESCO-protected karst landscapes in Ninh Bình. If you can see yourself exploring mossy pagodas, taking surreal boat rides, and being surrounded by nature, this part of Vietnam will delight you.
365 Travel offers a four-day sustainable tour that not only covers the highlights of the limestone loop, but also supports small communities. Spend the night in a Thai stilt house in Mai Châu, where you can cycle or hike for hours through rice fields and picturesque hamlets along the valley floor. Later in the trip you’ll encounter rich wildlife and ancient trees in Cúc Phương National Park, wander through Vietnam’s former captial at Hoa Lư, and drift beneath grottoes and towering karsts in Tam Cốc.
Multi-day trekking and homestays in Sapa
Over centuries, ethnic minorities have carved rice terraces into the hills and slopes of Sapa, creating one of Vietnam’s most striking highland destinations. Ethnic villages, bamboo forests, and rushing streams are sprinkled over the mountainous landscape. Here many H’mong and Red Dao people practice long-held traditions of wet-rice farming and foraging, live in slatted wood houses and wear the beautiful embroidered clothes of their people.
To make the most of your time in Sapa, book a personalized tour with Sapa Sisters — a social enterprise that is owned entirely by H’mong women. Ranging from one to three days, you can tailor your time to visit colourful markets, make your own batik printed fabric, cook H’mong dishes over an open fire, and learn all about the people that call this place home. If you visit in August or September you can even add rice harvesting to your itinerary.
Off the beaten path in the Central Highlands
Vietnam’s Central Highlands are an undiscovered trove of natural beauty, and home to a number of fascinating ethnic groups who have held onto time-honoured traditions with tenacity. On the plains and hillsides of the region, Ede, M’nong, Garai, K’Ho and other minorities build villages following indigenous architecture, celebrate festivals with gong performances and folk dance, and cultivate crops such as coffee, cacao and corn. Even in the provincial capital of Buôn Ma Thuột in Đắk Lắk, ethnic presence is strong, and is on display in the city’s annual coffee festival and its superb ethnology museum.
Leading sustainable tour operator EXO Travel has put together a journey in the Central Highlands that focuses on community-based tourism and the natural highlights of the region. Taking visitors deep into the Central Highlands, this five-day tour features remote ethnic villages from Kon Tum to Buôn Ma Thuột. Meet, dance, and eat with Gia Ra, Sodra, Bahnar and Jan minorities, trek to thundering waterfalls, and enjoy Vietnam’s first ethical elephant tour in Yok Đôn National Park.
Wildlife adventures in Cát Tiên
Protected since the 1970s, Cát Tiên lies just a few hours north of Ho Chi Minh City. This expansive national park covers over 700 square kilometres in three provinces, as is one of the few places in Southern Vietnam where you can encounter rare birds, yellow-cheeked gibbons and pangolins in the wild. Cát Tiên is home to more than 1,600 botanical species, as well as elephants, crocodiles and bears.
Footprint Travel offers a two-day ‘Mindful Trek’ for nature lovers, deep inside Cát Tiên National Park. The itinerary features hiking in the tropical rain forest trails, flora and fauna spotting with the help of expert environmentalists, and canoeing on Đồng Nai River in search of birds at dusk. A limited number of visitors is allowed into the park each day, helping to preserve the natural state of the park, and travellers can feel confident they are giving back, as 30% of the proceeds of each tour goes directly to environmental education projects by Save Cat Tien Group.
Life along the water in the Mekong Delta
Bicycles and boats are the ideal modes of transport in the Mekong Delta, an area with as much water as land, and countless sultry, shaded paths and canals. This fascinating region in Southern Vietnam is a world of its own. The small towns set on the banks of the Mekong River and its tributaries are overflowing with colourful sights. The Delta is one of the most fertile and abundant regions in the country, and visitors are always treated to platters of sun-ripened fruit, just-caught fish, and delicious noodle dishes.
To showcase the Mekong Delta while making a positive impact, Travelife-certified operator Images Travel has put together a three-day tour starting from Ho Chi Minh City. The tour will bring you to the house of Marguerite Duras’ ‘The Lover’ in Sa Đéc, as well as one of the region’s most interesting floating markets in Long Xuyên. Other highlights include bicycle tours of lush islets, nights in family-run homestays, and Mekong-style lunches.
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