5 Vietnam destinations off the beaten track, far from the Instagram crowd and at budget prices

PHOTO: Instagram/shuo_thephotographer_

Vietnam has long been a popular destination for its cheap prices, varied landscape and good food.

These days, however, staying by Hoa Kim Lake in Hanoi is not as cheap as it once was, and those boarding a Halong Bay Cruise will find themselves among thousands of other tourists.

So why not take the path less travelled and visit somewhere you might not have heard of that is cheaper and less crowded?

Here are five alternative cities to visit in Vietnam in 2020.

1. NINH BINH

Ninh Binh is like seeing Halong Bay on land - you can find the same karst structures but along rivers surrounded by lush green farmlands - and is a much cheaper alternative to going on a cruise.

Ninh Binh City is two hours south of Hanoi, which also makes it a closer option than Halong Bay, which is four hours east. The best way to get around is by motorbike or bicycle, meandering along the small paths parallel to the main road and discovering hidden views.

Take a small row boat ride along the Trang An river for US$9 (S$13). From the centre, you'll get ushered on a boat by a local lady, then sit back on a four-hour journey as she rows you through hidden grottoes, majestic karst mountains and mystic temples.

Next, stretch your legs with a hike up the steps to the Lying Dragon Mountain for panoramic views over the Tam Coc River and karst mountains.

Getting there: The nearest international airport is Hanoi, which is served by direct flights from 12 countries in Asia and eight cities in Europe. From Hanoi, there are numerous minivan services or private cars to Ninh Binh.

Staying there: Ninh Binh is a large region and it's best to stay in the town of Tam Coc or at one of the quaint homestays around the river. Ninh Binh Mountain View Homestay offers private double rooms for as little as US$12, and you can get a hearty dinner for US$5 per person.

2. PHONG NHA

Most people flock to Sapa to trek along rice paddies in the mountains, but you can also go exploring in its lesser-known caves in the karst mountains near the small town of Phong Nha.

The longest dry cave in Asia - Paradise Cave - can be visited for only US$12. The price gives you access to the boardwalk that extends for 3km. If you want to explore further, there is a small trekking tour that takes you 7km in for US$99.

If you do not want to go too far, you can also take a scenic boat ride from the town centre into Phong Nha Cave. Entry is US$7 and a boat costs US$15, but you can wait for a group of up to 12 and split the cost at the ticket counter.

Getting there: The nearest airport to Phong Nha is the Dong Hoi Airport, which only serves direct flights from Hanoi and Saigon. From Dong Hoi, it's about 1.5 hours by bus to Phong Nha.

Staying there: This writer paid US$26 for three nights in a private room with smart TV and private bathroom at Hang En Hotel near Xuan Son Ferry Terminal, Phong Nha.

3. DA LAT

When it comes to a town with a multicultural history, Hoi An is one of the most visited in Vietnam, but to avoid the masses, consider Dalat instead. High up in the Vietnam Central Highland, it is surrounded by tumbling waterfalls and pagodas. It was founded by the French in the late 19th century as a place to escape the heat.

Taking the city in at the shore of Xuan Huong Lake, you almost feel like you are in a French resort town, with the sparkling lake surrounded by mountains. Classic colonial architecture such as the Dalat Railway Station, which was built in the 1930s, reflects the French influence.

For something more eccentric, the Crazy House is a guest house designed by the artist Dang Viet Nga, and reminiscent of Gaudi with its fluid shape and bright colours.

The Linh Phuoc Pagoda is made completely of porcelain pieces on the outskirts of town and has a pastel Buddhist monument.

Walk through the pagoda's dungeon, recreated with all 18 levels of hell according to Buddhist mythology. Then visit the 30m-high tiered Elephant Falls to take in the full force of the river that floods the plains in the wet season.

Head back to town to grab a few bites at the night market. There are many street food stalls and a must-try is the Dalat Pizza. It's a thin rice crepe topped with sausage and other vegetables - a good snack to refuel after a full day of activities.

Getting there: Dalat has an international airport with flights from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Seoul.

Staying there: It's high up in the mountains, so no air conditioning is needed, which means you can get a double room for US$10 at places like Da Lat 24h Guest House.

4. QUY NHON

With its long stretch of coastline, Vietnam has several pristine beaches to choose from. Nhang Trang used to be the favourite, but nowadays is overrun with resorts and tourists looking for a spot of sun.

While Quy Nhon is still predominantly a fishing town, it is an emerging beach destination with new resorts being built, and for now remains a quieter option.

The seaside city has cheap and delicious seafood, and its beach is a great spot to eat at and chill in beachside bars.

But if you are looking for something spectacular, cross the Thi Nai Bridge to the Phuong Mai Peninsula, where towering sand dunes up to 100m high await you in Nhon Ly. The coral reefs by Hon Kho Island are perfect for snorkelling and the seafood there is fresh, too.

The city was founded by the Champa Kingdom in the 11th century, and you can still visit some of its relics, including Banh It Towers, a cluster of temples with only four still standing. You can see wartime photos and learn about the impact of the Vietnam war on the city in the Binh Dinh Museum.

Getting there: Phu Cat Airport near the city serves domestic flights. The nearest international airport is Nha Trang and it is a five-hour bus ride to Quy Nhon.

Staying there: Double rooms with air con and free Wi-fi are generally around US$9, including TH Quy Nhon in Hai Cang, which is both modern and spacious.

5. HUE

A cultural break in Vietnam does not need to be in Hanoi - you can get a closer look at Vietnamese history in the former capital of the Nguyen Dynasty, Hue. It was the seat of the Nguyen Emperors, who ruled from Hue for almost 150 years.

Today, in the centre of the city, the citadel modelled after the Forbidden City in Beijing still stands. For more Nguyen Dynasty relics, rent a scooter or join a day trip through your hostel for under US$12 to see the tombs of the Nguyen Emperor scattered on the outskirts of the city.

A more off-the-beaten-path choice is the eerie, abandoned water park at Thuy Tien Lake. The once ornate, now dilapidated park has become a popular Instagram spot since it closed due to a lack of visitors.

After paying the guard US$1, take a 20-minute walk to the famous giant, dilapidated dragon head climbing over the aquarium.

In terms of food, Hue is most famous for its slightly spicy beef noodles, which is not the same as pho. A meal can be as little as US$1 at a street store.

Getting there: There is a domestic airport in Hue, linking it to Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi and other airports in Vietnam. Otherwise, it is a two-hour ride from Da Nang to Hue by car or bus.

Staying there: Bon Ami hostel has en suite private rooms and air con for US$10 and the friendliest owner, who also offers fair prices for tours.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.