Misty mountains, magical karst landscapes, hectic buzzing cities, sweeping rugged coastlines fishing villages, sandy beaches. The best thing about Vietnam is its diversity! In this guide we’ll tell you EVERYTHING that you need to know about backpacking Vietnam, but first, a short taster…
EAT! – Pho: A steaming bowl of chicken or beef noodle soup topped with onions, coriander and lime, is a local Vietnamese speciality. Best eaten in a styrofoam bowl off the streets of Hanoi. Read more about the must try street food in Vietnam here!
DRINK! – Bia Hoi: Grab a plastic stool and sit at a Bia-Hoi Junction with locals and fellow travellers whilst drinking Vietnam’s most beloved draft beer. (At $0.50 / litre who cares if it’s a bit watery?)
WEAR! – Red T-Shirt with a Yellow Star: Have you been to Vietnam? Get the T-shirt.
BEWARE! – Crossing the Road: Cars, trucks, motorbikes, bicycle rickshaws, bicycles, street hawkers, lorries, pedestrians, your first challenge in Vietnam is simply crossing the street! Our advice? Locate a gap, commit and then whatever you do… Don’t. Stop. Walking!
What to Expect From Backpacking Vietnam?
Vietnam boasts an impressive coastline of nearly 3,500 kilometres of rugged sandy beaches and sheer cliffs that back onto national parkland in many areas. At its thinnest point, the country is only 31 kilometres wide. The skinny shape of the country means that it is a fantastic country to travel the length, from north to south, or south to north. Hop on an open bus which covers the whole length of the country or take the comfortable sleeper trains that run from Sapa in the north to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Did you know? Vietnam was recently voted the cheapest country to travel in Southeast Asia in our recent Readers Poll.As well as diverse scenery and exhilarating cities, Vietnam has a vibrant backpacking scene, with super cheap sociable hostels (from $3 US Dollars a night!) and a variety of value for money trips and tours that will help you to explore the country. While some travellers prefer the (relative) safety of the buses and trains, others opt to explore the country on two wheels, either motorbike or bicycle like this mad traveller! However, you choose to explore – just be prepared for the craziest traffic you have ever seen in your life! (Yes, we’re sure it even beats India.)
When is the best time to visit Vietnam?
Because of the fact that Vietnam stretches over 1,000 kilometres from North to South, the climate across the country can vary greatly. The North tends to get hot summers and very cold winters and the South generally has a more hot and tropical climate year round. The monsoon season is between May and October which brings rain to most of the country. However, the central coast can experience typhoons between September and November, which affect the central cities of Hue and Hoi An. If you are looking to avoid rains be sure to miss these monsoon seasons as they can be quite extreme!
Also see – Festivals in Vietnam. If you’re trip coincides with some of the biggest festivals in Vietnam, you will want to book accommodation in advance!
Regional Differences in the Climate of Vietnam
With all of these regional differences, it can be quite tricky planning a trip to Vietnam if you would like to travel to many different places in one stint! Therefore – our advice (as always) don’t plan or worry too much – you will be sure to find somewhere in the country with perfect weather during the time that you would like to visit! Each season in each place has its own particular charm. And, as long as you pack well, you will be prepared for any eventuality that Vietnam throws at you! In general, you can split Vietnam’s climate into three zones…
Zone 1: Climate in the North of Vietnam
The North of Vietnam experiences the winter and summer at the same time as Europe. November to March is considered winter, with January being the coldest month, and Summer falls between May and October. Summer is also the time when the north of Vietnam experiences the highest rainfall which makes it a great time to visit the incredible Ban Gioc Waterfall. We recommend visiting in September or October as the falls are at their most impressive and you can avoid getting too wet! Spring and Autumn are considered excellent times to visit Northern Vietnam with warm temperatures, bright sunny days and little rainfall.The capital of Hanoi can be visited all year round, just be sure to pack shorts, t-shirts and a sun hat for the summer and jumpers and jeans for the winter! If you are interested in trekking in Sapa, the spring (March – June) or the Autumn (September and October) are generally the best times as the weather is pleasant, with sunny bright days ideal for hiking. However, trips to Sapa are still possible in the winter months, just be sure to pack warm clothes, gloves and hats. Halong Bay, being in the North of Vietnam experiences the same seasons as Hanoi.
Zone 2: Climate in the North of Vietnam
The central coast has a more tropical climate than the north of Vietnam. Here, there are generally three seasons: dry season (January to April), hot season (May to August) and monsoon season (September to December), however depending on the place (and the particular year), this can vary quite a lot. The coastal city of Hoi An experiences monsoon season during the months of October and November. These months sometimes bring typhoons which can be quite extreme and are best avoided if possible.
Zone 3: Climate in the South of Vietnam
The south of Vietnam, including Ho Chi Minh City, has a tropical climate with hot humid days all year round. There are mainly two seasons: wet and dry. The monsoon falls between May to November and during this time it’s pretty certain that you will get wet! (Tip: Buy a poncho!) However, during this time the countryside is lush and green and it can be a beautiful time to visit with less crowds and cheaper prices. If you are travelling to the hill station of Dalat, temperatures are cooler due to the higher altitudes and if visiting the south of Vietnam during the summer can be a great place to escape the sweltering heat!Check out our travel guides to some of the most popular places to visit in Vietnam below!
How to Plan Your Vietnam Itinerary & a Vietnam Map!
The long and skinny shape of Vietnam makes it pretty easy to plan a backpacking route. Either start in the north of the country or the south and make your way up or down via train or bus. To see each place properly, we recommend spending at least 30 days in Vietnam if you have time! See our suggestions for which places to visit and for how long in our article about the best Vietnam Itinerary here. Here’s a nice visual to help plan your trip. This map is only a rough guide and is not an accurate to scale map! (Head over Google to Google maps for one of those!)
Top 21 Things To Do in Vietnam!
Maybe it’s Vietnam’s spectacular variety that makes it one of the most popular countries in Southeast Asia for backpackers. If you’re planning a trip to this country, you’re in for a treat! Here are 21 things to do in Vietnam that prove why this country has something to suit every backpacker…
1. Go Trekking in Northern Vietnam
Head north from Hanoi via overnight train for some incredible trekking experiences where you’ll walk amidst misty mountains and rice terraces from one hill tribe village to the next. The hill town resort of Sapa is a good starting point, as well as the more remote Mai Chau Valley and Ba Be National Park. If you’re feeling up for the challenge, you may like to try to conquer Vietnam’s highest peak, Mount Fansipan! If you’re looking for an excellent Sapa trek and homestay experience be sure to check out the Real Sapa Experience by Friends Travel Vietnam. You can read more about trekking in Sapa here.
2. Go Canyoning in Dalat!
Don’t miss a visit to the beautiful central highlands of Vietnam, known as the ‘Alps of Vietnam’ where you can base yourself in the quirky town of Dalat and try out some of the many adventurous activities on offer, like canyoning down a waterfall. Rafting, rock climbing and kayaking are also available!
3. Be a Beach Bum
Tropical white sandy beaches don’t instantly come to mind when you think of Vietnam – with beach hungry backpackers tending to head first to neighbouring Thailand. Don’t fall into the same trap! Vietnam’s long coastline is filled with incredible beaches and islands that will satisfy any beach bum. From the picturesque coves shadowed by impossible limestone cliffs at Cat Ba National Park to the long stretches of sand at Hoi An and Nha Trang – Vietnam is a great place to enjoy sun, sea, sand and cocktails! There’s also the beautiful island of Phu Quoc just a few hours south of Ho Chi Minh City with fishing villages and beaches galore!
4. Visit Vietnam’s Capital, Hanoi
There’s nowhere quite like Vietnam’s capital Hanoi in the north of the country for its intoxicating atmosphere. From the moment you arrive you will be energised by its pulsating vibe and over a thousand years of culture and history. Winding streets, buzzing street life, the smell of spicy street food, eclectic architecture and a million motorbikes make this city an assault on all of the senses.
5. Don’t Miss Vietnam’s Biggest City!
In the south, Ho Chi Minh City has a more cosmopolitan feel – eat crab and drink cheap beer from the street vendors in one area of the city and treat yourself in swanky restaurants, trendy bars and lively clubs in the next!
6. Soak Up Culture in Hoi An and Hue
Vietnam has an incredibly rich culture that cannot fail to entice visitors. Wander through the streets of UNESCO World Heritage City, Hoi An, appreciating influences from over five centuries of world trading with the Chinese, Dutch, French and Indians. In the nearby city of Hue, don’t miss the ancient Imperial Hue Citadel, an important part of Vietnamese history as well as the ‘Tombs of the Former Emperors’.
7. Visit Vietnam’s Museums
Vietnam is also home to world famous museums such as the ‘American War Museum’ in Ho Chi Minh City, as well as Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi. Plus, you can even visit the tomb of the worshipped leader, Ho Chi Minh himself in Hanoi.
8. Eat Amazing Street Food!
Vietnamese street food is an adventure in itself! From Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, try delicious street food dishes such as pho bo (beef noodle soup), banh mi (vietnamese style sandwich) and goi cuon (spring rolls). Read more about the Must-Try Vietnamese street food dishes here!
9. Drink Bia Hoi
The local beer in Vietnam is refreshing and super cheap and you’ll see locals drinking it every day sat on small plastic chairs by the side of the road. The beer is known as ‘bia hoi’ and so-called ‘bia hoi junctions’ are great places to people watch, soak up the atmosphere of Vietnam and interact with locals and fellow travellers. If you’re into your craft beer, check out the craft beer tours in Hanoi.
10. Visit the Caves at Phong Nha National Park
One region, which has only recently been discovered by backpackers, is Phong Nha National Park – with amazing scenery and loads of adventure sports such as kayaking, rafting, mountain biking, hiking and caving. Raging rivers, spectacular waterfalls, swimming lagoons, rugged mountains and of course the world’s biggest cave (Hang Son Doong!) make this region one of the most exciting adventure capitals in Southeast Asia.
11. Ride the Ha Giang Loop
The Ha Giang Loop in the North of Vietnam offers some of the most spectacular scenery in the country! If you can drive a motorbike, this route is best done on two wheels and can be arranged independently, staying at small home stays along the way. If you want to do the Ha Giang Loop in a group, check out the popular True North Bike Tour with Flipside Hostels where you can ride the motorbike yourself or choose to ride pillion. Another alternative is to hire a local “Easy Rider”, an experienced Vietnamese bike rider who will show you around his home country while you just sit back, relax and enjoy 360 views from the back of the bike!
12. Sip Deliciously Sweet Vietnamese Coffee
After dodging the traffic and avoiding the touts in Hanoi, relax by Hoan Kiem Lake and sip sweet Vietnamese Coffee whilst you people watch in the park! The Vietnamese ‘drip coffee’ is extremely strong and extremely sweet (on account of the condensed milk) and is highly addictive. If you’re brave, be sure to try egg coffee too – a Hanoi delicacy!
13. Hop on a Motorbike Yourself!
There are over 20 million motorbikes in Vietnam, more than 3.5 million of which can be found on the streets of Hanoi, which averages at nearly one motorbike for every two people! So – if you can’t beat them – join them and hop on a motorbike yourself!
14. Ride the Hai Van Pass
Considered one of the best coastal roads in the world, the Hai Van Pass connects Hoi An with Hue in Central Vietnam. Many tours are offered depending on how you’d like to experience the road. You can take a Hai Van Pass Motorbike Tour or ride the pass by jeep. Either way, it’s a beautiful stretch of road made famous by none other than Top Gear!
15. Visit Halong Bay!
Did you think that we’d forgotten about Vietnam’s number one attraction? Many backpackers find that their highlight during a trip to Vietnam is UNESCO World Heritage site Halong Bay, which translates as the ‘bay of descending dragons’. Here, more than 3,000 limestone karsts rise from the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin and there are hundreds of caves, beaches and floating villages to explore… Check out Castaways Island, the most popular trip for backpackers to Halong Bay or check out Halong Hideaway if you’re looking for a cheaper alternative.
16. Climb Vietnam’s Highest Mountain
Mount Fansipan is Vietnam’s highest peak, located in the Northern region of Sapa. If you’re up for the challenge and you have your hiking boots at the ready, you can arrange to summit the peak from Sapa. It’s best to go with a local tour company for this trek as it’s easy to get lost! Check out this extreme Fansipan Adventure Tour with our recommended Vietnamese travel provider.
17. Take a Cooking Class
For food lovers, after eating all that delicious Vietnamese grub, you may like to try your hand at cooking! You can take a local cooking course in many places in Vietnam, from Hanoi to Hoi An. We particularly recommend Hoi An as you can learn to make local specialties such as Bahn Xeo (pancakes) and Cau Lau (pork noodle soup),
18. Get Tailor-Made Clothes in Hoi An
While you’re in Hoi An, why not fill your rucksack with some brand new tailor-made clothes! Historically famous for its tailors, the colonial town of Hoi An is packed with places offering to get you a tailor-made suit for $20 US! You can even get tailor-made flip slops! Getting measured and kitted out in new clothes to take home is a cultural experience and great if you’re nearing the end of your travels in Southeast Asia.
19. Do Water Sports and See Sand Dunes in Mui Ne
Many backpackers fall in love with the chilled out beach town of Mui Ne, famed as the windsurfing capital of Vietnam – it’s a great (and cheap) place to kick back for a few days. Mui Ne is also home to the famous red and white sand dunes, a must visit destination at sunset and a place to capture some amazing photographs!
20. Take a Trip on the Mekong Delta
The Mekong Delta in South Vietnam is a fascinating network of canals and waterways where you will witness a unique way of life. As local people travel up and down the streams selling goods and going about their daily life, you can take a boat ride to get amongst this interesting region of Vietnam. If you’re looking for an alternative kind of Mekong Delta Tour, check out the Mekong Madness motorbike tour, or read an in-depth review it here.
21. Visit Ninh Binh “Halong Bay on Land”
Just a few hours south of Hanoi, you’ll find the amazing province of Ninh Binh, home to Tam Coc Village and “Halong Bay on Land”. With dramatic limestone karsts rising up from bright green rice fields, snaking rivers and mysterious caves, there region is definitely worth a visit for a day or two. Don’t miss a hike up Hang Mua Cave for incredible views all over the valley. You can visit Ninh Binh on a tour from Hanoi, or make your own way there by motorbike!
Local Transport in Vietnam
Vietnam has a very good bus and train network servicing the length of the country.Open bus ticket: A great way to travel in Vietnam from north to south is with an open bus ticket. Many travellers buy an open bus ticket from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City or vice versa which allows you to travel in between these two cities, hopping on and off the bus when you like. (Costs are around $50 USD).Vietnam trains: The train is a fun, safe and affordable way to travel in Vietnam. Sleeper trains can be more comfortable and safer than night buses, especially in mountainous areas. The rail network connects the northern capital city of Hanoi (as well as Sapa, Halong Bay and the Chinese borders) with Ho Chi Minh City. (The entire journey would take 34 hours with no stops, but we recommend you get off and explore along the way!)Search buses, trains and boats in Vietnam here…
Hostels in Vietnam
There’s a huge range of accommodation in Vietnam from buzzing backpacker hostels to fancy resorts. A dorm room can cost as little as $3 USD / night, whilst private rooms start around $15 USD. You can check out some of our Best Hostels in Vietnam here. Or you can check out reviews and search for rooms on booking.com here!
Visas to Vietnam
You will need to arrange your Vietnam visa in advance, or you will only receive 15 days travel in Vietnam upon arrival, instead of 30 days for people who have pre-arranged visas. For information about visas in Vietnam and how to organise getting yours, see our visa guide to Southeast Asia here.
Staying Connected in Vietnam:
SIM cards are picked up easily in Vietnam and generally cost less than in other Southeast Asian countries. All SIMs will need to be officially registered so although SIMs can be purchased from small independent stores, it may be better to go direct to an official shop. The SIM card recommended for backpackers is Viettel as their coverage is good and the connection speeds are the best. For more information about carriers and how to buy a SIM, see our Vietnam SIM card guide here.
More Basic Info
- Currency: Vietnamese Dong
- Capital city: Hanoi
- Main religion: Tam Giao (Triple religion – Confucionism, Taosim, Buddhism)
- Main language: Vietnamese (official)
- Telephone code: +84
- Time: GMT + 7 hours
- Emergency numbers: Ambulance: 115, Police: 113, Fire: 114
- Language Essentials: Sin Chao (Hello). Thank you: Cam on (thank you) Oh my God!: Oy zoy oy!
The Environment in Vietnam
One rather upsetting aspect of backpacking Vietnam is the noticeable lack of care, in some areas, of the environment. You’ll see litter strewn across beaches and rivers being polluted right in front of your eyes. There is also a disregard for animals in some areas. With tourist pressure, this is changing, and there are many local people who are leading the way in making others more environmentally aware. If you go to Vietnam, become part of the solution by being a Trashpacker!