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The Art of Travel Blogging with Tom Divers, Vietnam Coracle

Tom shares his eight-year journey growing Vietnam Coracle into one of Vietnam’s top travel resources.

Tom’s blog, Vietnam Coracle, is my favorite independent travel resource for Vietnam; I have planned five trips over the years solely around his motorbike guides. Meticulously researched and beautifully written, Tom’s posts leave me salivating for the road and hungry to discover Vietnam’s hidden gems before they explode in popularity.

I reached out to Tom to be on the ASE Podcast, but we decided to try something new: a written interview. I am honored to publish this on our site. Tom is such an inspiration to me, as a dedicated writer and explorer – a true upstartist! His photographs and words have captured the Vietnam I love, a place and people undergoing massive change, still warm to foreigners, moving at light speed, yet deeply rooted in and proud of its Vietnamese identity. 

In this interview, Tom takes us behind the scenes of Vietnam Coracle. How did he grow the blog to over 1 million visitors/year and into a full-time job? How does he balance “writing about the things he loves” and supporting himself? At the end of the interview, Tom shares his must-see travel destinations. Don’t miss those. They’ll transform in a blink. 

Highlighted quotes below are mine.

– Darren


How did Vietnam Coracle begin?

Tom: I started Vietnam Coracle in 2012. I’d already been living in Vietnam for several years, supporting myself by teaching English (which I enjoyed), and also travelling whenever I could, both domestically and internationally. I’d been thinking about travel writing for some time: even as a teenager, I would write diaries or long emails about my trips, whether in Europe, Asia, South America or Australia. During my first few years in Vietnam, I wrote articles and pitched ideas to various publications, but nothing ever came of it. Then, on the advice of a friend, when I was back home in London, I started to write about my travels on a blog. The same friend helped me set up a simple WordPress platform and then I began writing and posting.

When I started, Vietnam Coracle was (and, to a large extent, it still is) primarily a means of personal expression: more than anything else, the site is a way for me to record, reflect, analyze, and document my travels in Vietnam. But, even from the beginning, I wanted to do this in a way that would allow others, if they were interested, to go out and enjoy similar experiences for themselves.

By 2012, I’d already travelled a lot in Vietnam – mostly on my motorbike – and I loved it. But I was constantly meeting travellers (and expatriates) who were disappointed or underwhelmed by their own travels in Vietnam. More often than not, these people had been on the so-called ‘open tour’ route, covering the length of Vietnam and hitting all the major destinations: HCMC (i.e. District 1), Mui Ne, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Halong Bay, Hanoi. They’d been funnelled from one tourist centre to the next, and emerged from their trip ambivalent at best. I was quite confident that Vietnam was, indeed, a great travel destination and had a lot more to offer the traveller than this. I felt, too, that I had grounds for this conclusion, because I’d already travelled extensively around the world – I was lucky enough to have visited some 40 countries by my mid-twenties – and I considered my travel experiences in Vietnam to be among the most exciting, rewarding, and fulfilling of them all. I wanted to communicate this somehow – I wanted people to know and experience the Vietnam that I loved. But I found I was unable to do this verbally: I wasn’t a good enough story-teller and I didn’t want to bore people with travel stories. But, by writing and photographing my travels and then organizing them online into guides and articles, I finally found a medium through which I could successfully communicate my travel experiences in Vietnam. Whether my audience was just my family and friends back home in the UK, or my social group in Vietnam, or a wider readership domestically and internationally, didn’t really concern me: all I wanted was an outlet, a means of expressing my travels. And, in turn, Vietnam Coracle gave me a purpose and focus for my trips.

I was lucky enough to have visited some 40 countries by my mid-twenties – and I considered my travel experiences in Vietnam to be among the most exciting, rewarding, and fulfilling of them all. I wanted to communicate this somehow – I wanted people to know and experience the Vietnam that I loved.

Tom Divers

I always wanted Vietnam Coracle to be both practical and aesthetically appealing. I didn’t want it just to be an online guidebook, but neither did I want it just to be a picture book or a piece of literature. Ideally, I wanted to strike a balance, so that the information and details were accurate and useful, the writing was good to read, and the photography, layout and design were beautiful to look at. I wanted the prose to read well enough that a user might enjoy reading one of my guides without ever having the intention to visit that particular part of the country; but I wanted the information to be detailed enough that a user could follow any of my guides and experience the place for themselves. The idea for this had been growing for a while. I remember, for example, reading a short story in a collection of Jack Kerouac’s writings, ‘Atop an Underwood’, where he describes driving northeast from Seattle, leaving the Pacific coast behind, and heading inland to the North Cascade Mountains, where he was to spend a season as a fire lookout. The description hooked me. I wanted to go there. But I couldn’t find the information. I wished there had been a footnote with the details of the location and how to get there or coordinates for a map. When I started writing Vietnam Coracle, I quickly realized how easy it was to include this kind of information online – map locations, transportation details etc. – without breaking the flow of the prose. Free from print, it was simply a matter of highlighting a word and adding a link to Google Maps or to transportation information or accommodation details. The possibilities were endless and this really excited me.

What fascinates me about your blog is how much it seems to be a love letter to Vietnam; supporting yourself seems of second concern. I admire how clear you are about the purpose of the site and how you make money. 

Tom: Vietnam Coracle is a labour of love first, and a means of supporting myself financially second. When I started the site, I was teaching full-time and I worked on the website whenever I could; now, however, I work on Vietnam Coracle full-time, and I continue to teach part-time. Teaching English is a job I enjoy and have been doing for over a decade, and I’ve been fortunate to have my teaching income throughout the time I’ve built-up my website, thus easing the financial burden.

I started Vietnam Coracle because I wanted to: I never intended it to be a business or to earn money – indeed, I didn’t even know it was possible to earn money from an independent travel site. I had an idea – to create a free, personal, independent, online travel resource for Vietnam that focuses on less-trodden areas of the country – and, the more I thought about it, looked into it, realized the potential for the idea to become a reality, the more I wanted to do it and the more I worked on it. The primary motivation was, and still is, to make manifest the ideas that I have. Even today, by far the most fulfilling aspect of working on my site is when I finish an article that I’ve always wanted to do. No one told me to it, no one paid me to do it; it didn’t exist – perhaps it never would have existed – it was just an idea; but I wanted to do it, I did it, and now it exists. There’s a huge sense of personal fulfilment that comes from completing this process, which, I suppose, is essentially the creative process. Of course, it’s wonderful when people react positively to something I’ve written, or when I make money from my site in some way, or when my traffic increases to over a million a year. But the main source of satisfaction, and the main motivation that drives me to produce more content, is making an idea a reality, and one that meets my own personal standards and expectations. It’s worth mentioning, however, that I’m only supporting myself: I don’t have a long-term partner and children. It’s possible that, if I did, my priorities with regards to the site would be different.

Most bloggers toil in obscurity. What (if anything) led to such an explosion of viewership?


Tom:
I don’t think there ever was an explosion of traffic for my site: it just grew steadily. I’ve never paid to promote Vietnam Coracle – not through Google Ads, Facebook marketing, banners, advertorials, paid interviews: nothing. This means all the momentum my site has gained is organic and essentially word of mouth. This takes many forms, from travellers chatting to each other in hostels to people sharing posts on their social media to other bloggers and online publications linking to my site or republishing my work. I just concentrated on producing the content I wanted to, and finishing it to the standards I set myself. The only ways I personally promote my site are by posting my work on my Vietnam Coracle social media channels (Facebook and Twitter), through my subscribers’ newsletter, and by sharing my posts in forums or relevant social media groups. I knew nothing about SEO when I started, and I didn’t base my content around Google keywords or popular searches. It would be nice to think that my site’s traffic has grown simply by virtue of the quality of its content. But, most likely, I’ve just been extremely fortunate. In general, people have responded well to my content and Google’s algorithm has rewarded me with decent ranking for certain searches, and a handful of relatively powerful netizens with large followings have been kind enough to share my content in the past, which must have boosted my traffic and SEO ranking. All these things gradually built-up to an annual readership of 1.3 million. But I think it’s mostly down to individuals reading and then sharing my content in one form or another. And, for that, I’m eternally grateful.

As to why many bloggers ‘toil in obscurity’, I couldn’t say with any certainty. I’m sure there are plenty of diligent, intelligent, hard-working, creative bloggers out there who never see an increase in traffic. However, with regards to travel bloggers specifically, there are a couple of reasons they might not find an audience. Firstly, I think many people start travel blogging with the misconception that it’s an easy way to make a living: it’s essentially a holiday (paid for by one of your ‘sponsors’), but occasionally you write a few lines while laying on a beach and illustrate your text with a nice photograph between sips of a tropical fruit-based cocktail. I can only speak for myself, but this just isn’t how it is. Yes, I do get to travel a lot, but I also spend hours every day writing, researching, and editing. Like any job, to do it well requires a lot of work, time, effort, dedication, and self-discipline. It’s certainly true that one of the perks of travel blogging is that you become location independent – I’ve written on trains, on beaches, in tents, in trees, on boats, on mountains, in forests, temples, pagodas, on little plastic stools over bowls of noodles. But, wherever I am, I’m still putting in the hours. Secondly, many people think too far ahead, and money seems to be the primary motivation. It’s so transparent these days when you land on a travel blog that has clearly been set up only as a way of making money: the research is poor, the writing is bad, the images are stock, the effort is minimal, and yet there are affiliate links everywhere, Google Ads litter each page, and each post features sponsored content of some sort. In the course of writing Vietnam Coracle, I’ve had the pleasure to meet a handful of successful travel bloggers and online guide book writers: they all work extremely hard; they don’t cut corners; they have high personal standards; and they have plenty of self-discipline.

When did you realize you could monetize your blog? And when did you transition to running it full-time? Can you take us behind the scenes for those decisions?

Tom: I can’t remember when I first thought about monetizing the site, but I know that it was at least 3 years before I made a single cent from Vietnam Coracle. Ultimately, as more people started reading the site and I spent more and more of my time on it, I had to monetize it in some way in order to justify my input. The amount of time and money I was pouring into Vietnam Coracle to create more and better-quality content was unsustainable unless I could find a way to make some revenue from it, even if only to cover my own costs. However, I also knew that I didn’t want to compromise the independence or integrity of my site in any way by monetizing it. For me, this meant no paywall, no random Google Ads, and no sponsored content whatsoever: no paid reviews, no freebies in exchange for name-dropping. For a travel blog, trust and independence are by far the most valuable attributes, precisely because they are so rare.

So, I set about researching ways to monetize my site that might actually benefit my readers. I began with affiliate programs that allowed readers to book their accommodation and transportation directly from my site. I consider this a convenience for readers and I’m careful to integrate these affiliate programs only where appropriate, and I make it clear that using them will help support Vietnam Coracle. I also use these companies to book my own accommodation and transportation in Vietnam, so I’m confident about asking readers to do so too.

Local BBQ in Phong Nha. Photo by Tom Divers, Vietnam Coracle

Next, I made advertising space available on my site for businesses, companies, and products that I either have personal experience of or that I feel my audience will be interested in or benefit from in some way. These include anything relevant to my content, such as motorbike rental and tours, street food tours, travel agents, hotels and hostels etc. I personally contact these companies, and there are set rates for my advertising banners and a contract stating that I’m under no obligation to write positively about them or promote them in any way other than to display their advertising banners. In this way, the advertising on my site is always relevant to my content and, rather than being a distraction, should, in fact, be useful to readers.

Lastly, I set up a Support Page enabling readers to make a financial contribution to my site. Over the years, some readers have been kind enough to make generous donations. In addition to this, I’m about to launch a Patreon Page which will allow readers to support my site by becoming a ‘patron of Vietnam Coracle’, thus helping to finance future projects by pledging a one-time or recurring payment. Again, this will be on condition that no ‘patron’ has editorial authority over the content I produce.

Vietnam Coracle is unlikely to make me a fortune, but it keeps me afloat, and more importantly it fulfills me. Whether or not the site pays its way is difficult to ascertain. For example, a full destination guide (which range between 10,000-20,000 words), such as the Con Dao Islands, could take me three weeks to produce: a week of on-location research, a week of writing and editing, and a week of layout design, photo-editing, and final touches. The costs would include transportation there and back, accommodation, food, drink, admission prices and more besides. But, for now, I’m not interested in these calculations: I just want to continue producing content, without compromising my financial and editorial independence. Of course, this may change, as the future of travel looks particularly unstable at the moment.

Dawn in Vietnam. Photo by Tom Divers, Vietnam Coracle

What have been your biggest challenges writing and running your blog?

Tom: One of the biggest challenges is keeping my content up to date, especially travel, food, and accommodation guides. On the one hand, this is something that’s much easier to do with blogs and online travel guides as opposed to printed guides. Online information can be immediately updated at any time with minimum effort, whereas, in print, it’s not possible to make changes until the next edition. However, in a country like Vietnam, which is in a seemingly constant state of flux, growth, and transition, things change all the time: road conditions vary, prices rise, hotels, restaurants, cafes open and close, a beautiful, unspoiled beach becomes a litter-strewn building site. Vietnam Coracle covers the entire nation: all 63 provinces and municipalities, thousands of kilometres of road, hundreds of towns and cities, accommodation options, street food stalls, restaurants, and cafes. I can’t possibly keep all my information accurate and up-to-date. However, I encourage readers to email me or comment on the relevant posts with any updates they might have, and this helps. Also, the more content I produce, the more there is to update. In the past, I used to publish a new post every week. Now, however, I’m more likely to publish a new post every two weeks, with a newly updated post every other week in between. Another challenge is managing my time between projects and all the different aspects of running the site: research, writing, travel, editing, photography, reaching out to advertisers, technical issues, layout and design. There are so many things that I want to do – places I want to write about, ideas that I want to make a reality – it’s difficult to prioritize one over another.

Have you ever thought of hiring others? 

Tom: I think it would be very tricky to hire other writers for Vietnam Coracle. The voice and tone of the site is very important, and it’s consistent throughout: by which I mean, it’s my voice and tone. This is a fundamental aspect of the site: it’s a personal guide to Vietnam. And that goes for the opinions expressed across my content, as well as the expectations of standards, quality, value for money, and so on. However, I would like to introduce other voices and perspectives to the site by way of interviews. Recently, for example, I published an interview with a friend of mine about her experience in a quarantine facility outside Ho Chi Minh City. I enjoyed the process and the article was positively received. I know some interesting people in Vietnam – both Vietnamese and expatriates – and it might be fun to conduct more interviews like this.

On the technical side of things, I have been very lucky to have had the help of several good friends over the years, and their work (which is all far beyond my own limited technical abilities) has helped me immeasurably. I am extremely grateful to them. And so, if the travel industry in post-virus Vietnam recovers and my site continues to grow (and that’s anyone’s guess right now), I will be seriously considering employing someone to work full-time on Vietnam Coracle tech. But this will unquestionably have to be someone I know, like, and am close to; someone who knows my site, uses my site, and respects the philosophy behind it: which, more than likely, will require them to view the work as a passion rather than a job, and to expect the rewards to be largely intangible rather than financial.

Bac Ha Sunday Market. Photo by Tom Divers, Vietnam Coracle

Who or what have been your biggest inspirations along the way?

Tom: I’ve always loved good travel writing – Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Laurie Lee are among my favourite authors. When a place and time is successfully evoked through the written word – such as 1930s Spain in Laurie Lee’s ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’ or 1950s Puerto Rico in the first few pages of Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘The Rum Diary’ – it’s thrilling. I suppose reading these authors in my teens and twenties might have made me want to write about travel and places myself. But, really, the inspiration is simply being in Vietnam. It’s a fascinating country at a fascinating point in time: there’s so much history and yet so much change. It’s an exciting period for the nation, and you can feel this in almost every city, town, village and hamlet. What’s more, I think Vietnam will always be exotic to me: no matter how long I live here or how much I travel around the country I’ll never ‘understand’ it. But, I think, I’ll always want to write about it, or at least communicate it in some way. Every time I travel, or even just stroll down an alleyway in Saigon, I feel the need to express it or record it somehow. Vietnam excites me, and I think it’s worthy of expression, and I want other people to be able to come here and experience Vietnam in the same way.

Some of my friends have massive followings on Facebook, Instagram, Medium, etc and even if they have a blog, it directs readers to their social media accounts. What do you think is the future of blogging – especially in the independent travel space – and are you optimistic? What’s your view on social media as an independent blogger?

Tom: In general, I think social media is a good tool for independent bloggers and small businesses. But, like all tools, it depends how you use it. I use my social media channels (Facebook and Twitter) as a way to direct people to the content on my site. My social media posts are either brief updates illustrated with an image and a link to my site for more information, or they’re effectively announcements about my new content. I treat social media like a noticeboard: alerting people who follow my work that I’ve just published a new article or updated an old one, or reporting bits of travel-related news, such as road works on a particular route or a new ferry service to an island. Because I’ve never paid to promote Vietnam Coracle, social media has been fairly important to me as a way of extending my audience, particularly when followers tag their friends on my posts or reshare my content on their own social media channels.

It’s impossible to imagine start-ups, small businesses, and travel blogs without social media. However, I certainly don’t treat my social media posts as ‘content’ in themselves: a couple of lines of text and an image doesn’t qualify as ‘content’ in my eyes. By contrast, the content of my site – which most of my social media posts link to – almost always consists of between 2,000-20,000 words of text and dozens of images. For me, social media posts are just clippings and excerpts from a much greater content source: my site.

Escalade Resort, Cam Ranh Bay. Photo by Tom Divers, Vietnam Coracle

I think there are definitely problems with the way social media is used, particularly in relation to travel. It’s clear, for example, that Instagram is actually influencing the physical architecture of travel, in as much as every tourist site, trendy hotel, or hipster café has to have a place where people can come and take their social media photos. You see this all the time in popular destinations in Vietnam: Dalat, for example, has several ‘stairway to heaven’ props where people queue, dress-up, make-up, and pay to take their photos. I’m not particularly opposed to these props – in fact, some of them are quite imaginative: what is Ba Na Hills’ ‘Golden Hand Bridge’ if not a gigantic and expensive Instaprop? I just think it’s bit sad if people travel solely to have their photos taken. For some travellers, their entire itineraries are based around social media photo opportunities. When I visited Ly Son Island, for example, it was clear that visitors had a map with a list of half a dozen Instagram-suitable photo spots marked on it: they rented a bike, rode to each one, made themselves look pretty, snapped, posted, and moved on to the next site, then left the next day.

I also think that social media counts can be very misleading. It’s seen as a status symbol to have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of followers, and all businesses know this. But, in the past, when I’ve done freelance writing for travel publications with enormous social media counts, the actual engagement of their followers is extremely low, and their content is extremely limited. A travel company’s Facebook page, for example, might have 100,000 followers, but each post receives just a few likes, no comments, and no shares: in other words, no one is interacting or engaging with the content. By contrast, some of the much smaller travel bloggers I know, have below 10,000 followers, but their posts receive hundreds of likes, dozens of shares, and lots of comments. This is a genuinely active social media channel; one that is engaging its followers. I would hope that, in the future, independent, personally researched, well-presented travel advice will be at a premium, precisely because the industry is currently drowning is algorithm-based, poor quality content.

What are your future plans for Vietnam Coracle? How do you see it evolving?

Tom: It seems likely that the coming months, and perhaps years, will be a tough time for the travel industry. But I intend to continue working on Vietnam Coracle as much as possible: I have no shortage of things I want to write about, places I want to go, ideas I want to make a reality. But even if, post-virus, the travel industry in Vietnam was to make a full recovery, the environment is still a major concern, especially in relation to travel. This is something that occupies more and more of my thoughts. I’ve been thinking for a while now about ways to travel more sustainably. In particular, I’ve looked into electric motorbikes, portable water filters, mobile solar panels to power my electronic equipment, ‘green routes and loops’ for cycling or electric scooters, limiting domestic air travel by using overnight trains, buses and boats, and reducing my consumption of single-use products in daily life, but particularly when travelling. Some of these I’ve already implemented (and written about) and I’m reasonably happy with how they are going; but others are far more complicated than I initially thought.

It seems obvious to me that travel can’t continue in its current form, unless, of course, we accept the inevitable environmental destruction that would incur. But I want travel to survive and I want it to continue. To do that, we’ll have to find ways to make travel more sustainable. For people in the West (which is where most of my readers are based), travel to Vietnam will always involve a long-haul flight, at least for the foreseeable future. This means that, after the massive carbon output involved in getting here, travellers might consider it a priority to travel as lightly as possible once in-country. For example, ride an electric bike or cycle instead of riding a motorbike, stay in self-sustaining homestays or resorts that use green energy or are built around nature rather than on top of nature, travel domestically by train, bus, and boat rather than taking internal flights, get around cities on foot instead of taking taxis. Indeed, most of this is already possible, it just takes a bit more time and planning. I’d like to start tailoring some of my guides towards more sustainable travel. But this will take time.

There are some major technical changes and innovations I’d like to make to Vietnam Coracle, but these are far from completion and may prove impractical and never happen, so I’d rather not go into detail about them here. I’m always looking to diversify my content: I have a broad range of interests and I want them all to be represented in some form or another on my site. Already, Vietnam Coracle is more than just a travel site: it features non-travel-related content, such as history, culture, reading lists, descriptive writing, and interviews. I would like to expand on all of this. And, as long as I have the time and enthusiasm, I will.

Pu Luong Nature Reserve. Photo by Tom Divers, Vietnam Coracle

What advice would you give to those who want to blog and support themselves?

Tom: I can’t pretend I’m any kind of authority on travel writing or supporting yourself through blogging. I had no idea, in 2012, that writing online guides would essentially become my ‘job’. I remember, before I started Vietnam Coracle, reading various pieces of advice from travel writers, guide book creators, and travel bloggers. One of the advices that stayed with me was also one of the simplest. Indeed, I didn’t realize its significance until after I’d already been working on Vietnam Coracle for several years. The advice was: ‘If you want to write, write.’ I know this sounds absurdly simplistic, but, if you do write, it’ll start to make more and more sense. This is very similar to another, equally simplistic but effective piece of advice that a friend of mine, who started her own successful project, shared with me: ‘To begin, begin.’ When I was in high school, like many teenagers, I started a band with my friends. We spent all our time trying to come up with the band name, and none of our time making music. I think many people approach travel blogging in the same way: they like the idea, they come up with the name and the concept and how it’s going to make them money, but they never actually ‘write’ anything, they never actually ‘begin’. I think we all want and expect things to happen very quickly these days, myself included, to the extent that we become reluctant to put the necessary time and effort in, and become impatient if we don’t get the results we wanted immediately.

I also think it’s a mistake to start a travel blog with the intention to make money or support yourself. The chances of that happening are very slim. Travel writing is something you do because you want to do it, and then, maybe, much later, you might get lucky and be able to make a living from it, but even then, it’s a fragile existence. In my experience, the travel content that’s produced solely for money is pretty poor: check online, the Internet is full of it.

Flooded fields in Central Vietnam. Photo by Tom Divers, Vietnam Coracle

I’d argue that riding a motorbike is the best way to experience both city and countryside in Vietnam. Your motorbike guides have been invaluable. Thank you. Given that you’ve crisscrossed the entire country, what are your “must-see” travel destinations for the next 5-10 years?

Tom: I’m glad to hear some of my guides have helped you enjoy your road trips in Vietnam. It’s a difficult time to make predictions about the travel industry, as none of us really know what’s going to happen in the post-virus era: how long will international travel restrictions last? Will people fly less? Will travellers be wary of certain destinations, and certain activities? However, if the travel industry in Vietnam was to make a full recovery, I think for the next 5-10 years there are a few obvious candidates that will get increasingly more attention as travel destinations. These include Phong Nha, which is bound to become one of the most popular tourist spots in Vietnam, and probably all of Southeast Asia, and deserves to. Although the manner of its development will be crucial to its longevity as a destination. At the moment, Phong Nha’s tourism is relatively small-scale and largely community-based, but whether it can retain this and hold-off the giant, multi-storey hotels, international brands and chains, and the inevitable environmental destruction that will bring, remains to be seen: I certainly hope so. The Central Coast, especially Phu Yen and Binh Dinh provinces will start to get very serious attention from travellers and developers alike. That entire coastline is superb, but it’s already suffering from large-scale construction and an alarming litter problem. Ha Giang and the northern mountains will continue to explode in popularity – it’s astonishing how popular the Ha Giang Extreme North Loop has become. The main concern there will be how to prevent Ha Giang from becoming another Sapa, which will be difficult. I think certain southern islands, such as the Nam Du Archipelago, which just got a new fast boat connection with Phu Quoc, will start to see a lot more visitors and tourist development, and so too will Hon Son, Phu Quy, Ly Son, and the Con Dao islands.

For me, travel is often about the journey rather than the destination… The scenery you ride through on your way from one overnight halt to the next, the people you meet along the way, the food you eat at random roadside eateries, the coffee and tea stops, and the banter you share with local people and your riding companions: these tend to be the things you remember most vividly.

– Tom Divers

For independent travellers looking to get a bit further off the beaten track, I’d suggest riding the northeastern provinces of Lang Son, Bac Kan, Cao Bang, and Quang Ninh – the scenery is fabulous, the road network is good, and tourist numbers are still low. Another region that gets very little attention is Nghe An Province. The western bulge of Nghe An – the largest and one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam – takes a huge bite out of Laos, following the Lam River, around which limestone karsts dot the valley, and the jungled mountains of Pu Mat National Park rise on the horizon. There are waterfalls, lakes, streams, homestays, wildlife, good food, tea plantations, history (this is Uncle Ho’s province of birth) and enormous tourist potential (although weather conditions from November to February can be bleak). The vast majority of travellers bypass this region completely. Nghe An would serve to plug a gap in the travellers’ south-north itinerary of Vietnam: at the moment, most poeple go straight from either Hoi An, Danang, Hue or Phong Nha in central Vietnam to Hanoi, Ninh Binh or Halong Bay in northern Vietnam. Nghe An is located roughly midway between these destinations and already has decent road, rail, and air connections.

For me, travel is often about the journey rather than the destination. This is especially true of motorbike road trips in Vietnam. The journey is the goal. The scenery you ride through on your way from one overnight halt to the next, the people you meet along the way, the food you eat at random roadside eateries, the coffee and tea stops, and the banter you share with local people and your riding companions: these tend to be the things you remember most vividly. And these are the things you can’t plan for: the ‘in between’ moments; the unphotographed moments.


Want to see Vietnam off the beaten track? Check out Tom’s writing and guides at Vietnam Coracle: Independent Travel Guides to Vietnam

 

 

 

 

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