A feudal capital, a prison island and a kingdom of caves in Vietnam are listed among Asia’s hidden gems.
Vietnam’s rising star on the global tourism map over the last decade has been affirmed by its consistent ranking of global top lists by reputed travel sites and news publications.
These include The Guardian, CNN, Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor and Rough Guides.
In the first nine months of this year, the number of foreign visitors to Vietnam surged 22.9 percent from a year ago to a record-breaking 11.6 million, according to the General Statistics Office. In 2017, the country welcomed 12.8 million foreign tourists.
Some critics said the rising fame has come at the cost of overcrowding, declining service quality, petty crimes and construction that deterred many foreigners from returning.
That said, the country still has enough to attract increasing numbers of foreigners despite the problems listed.
For instance, The Travel, a respected travel publication in Canada, has included three Vietnamese places in a list of 20 lesser-known Asian destinations.
These are relatively unspoilt destinations that are well worth a visit now.
Vietnam’s former imperial capital Hue is 8th on the list, which is topped by India’s Kashmir. Con Dao Island in the 12th position and Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, 18th.
The Imperial City is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Hue. Photo acquired by VnExpress
The former capital Hue was the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty which ruled the country from 1802 until the end of feudal Vietnam in 1945. It’s one of the few places in Vietnam where life proceeds at a leisurely pace and the ambience is predominantly peaceful, to this day.
Sometimes called the city of dreams, Hue’s imperial past has bestowed on it both historical importance and a treasure house of royal tombs and temples.
The Truong Tien Bridge, Thien Mu Pagoda and Perfume River add to the city’s allure.
Truong Tien Bridge is an iconic symbol in the former imperial capital of Hue. Photo by VnExpress/Vo Thanh
Phong Nha- Ke Bang - Kingdom of caves
Photo by Michael Tatarski
Around 500 kilometers to the south of Hanoi, UNESCO Heritage Site Phong Nha – Ke Bang in the central province of Quang Binh is home to over 300 caves and grottoes that date back 400 million years.
Around 30 caves are now open to visitors, and these have sparked a tourism boom that has socially and economically uplifted the once poor, war-torn province.
This hidden gem was thrust into the international limelight after members of the British Cave Research Association completed their exploration of a local resident’s discovery and declared Son Doong, part of the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, the world’s largest, with astounding scenes of forests, rivers and other stunning geological formations inside the cave.
Discovered in 1991, Son Doong, or Mountain River, stretches more than six kilometers (3.7 miles). It was first opened to tourists in August 2013, and tours, which cost several thousand dollars, are usually fully booked a year in advance.
The En (Swallow) Cave, a feeder to Son Doong, has been named one of the most captivating caves on earth by National Geographic. It is also believed to be the world’s third largest cave, according to CNN.
In August, the government triggered a significant debate on the internet when it greenlighted a plan proposed by Quang Binh to build a cable car in the cave kingdom.
The project has met with strong opposition from environmentalists and the public.
Photo by Meo Gia
Con Dao is a collection of 16 islands and islets in the southern province of Ba Ria - Vung Tau, around 230 kilometers (143 miles) southeast of HCMC.
The archipelago was once home to a brutal prison where the French colonialists incarcerated and inhumanely tortured many Vietnamese freedom fighters, but Con Dao’s dark history in now way detracts from its great beauty, mostly unspoiled beaches, forests and turquoise waters.
The island can be reached from Ho Chi Minh City by air. Tourists can also book a helicopter from the nearby beach town of Vung Tau.
Story by Nguyen Quy/VnExpress