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 and a must-try dish! Best eaten in a styrofoam bowl off the streets of Hanoi.
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 costs around $15 USD for 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.)
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!
Check out our travel guides to the best places to visit in Vietnam below! Scroll further down and you’ll find some important travel info (visas, the best time to visit etc.) as well as an overview of each region and a clickable map!
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. Or, sit at the famous Bia Hoi Junctions with the locals and soak up the atmosphere of one of Vietnam’s most atmospheric cities. Don’t forget to sample some of the local Hanoi street food while you’re there.
Did you know? 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!
Northern Vietnam is a great area for backpackers to explore and one that’s hard to beat on diversity. 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…
Further inland, from the Mai Chau Valley to the untouched mountain village of Mu Cang Chai to beautiful Sapa, you’ll find some of the most incredible scenery in Vietnam. You could be trekking amongst hill tribe villages in mountainous Sapa one week, wake-boarding by the beach in Cat Ba National Park the next. Or, why not experience Tam Coc, nicknamed ‘Halong Bay on Land’, just three hours from Hanoi.
The North East of Vietnam is an area that is little visited by tourists and where you’ll find many of Vietnam’s colourful ethnic minorities. Check out our recent article about cycling through this amazing region on a 15-day Vietnam cycle tour.
Hiking, kayaking, water-sports, rock-climbing, even scaling the heights of Vietnam’s highest peak ‘Fansipan’, for the intrepid traveller, the adventures to be had on land or at sea in Northern Vietnam are never-ending!
- Halong Bay and Castaways Island – 3 days / 2 nights.
- Mai Chau Valley Homestay – 3 days / 2 nights.
- The Buffalo Run, Hanoi to Hoi An – 7 days / 6 nights.
Travel Guides for Northern Vietnam
Introduction to Central Vietnam:
Heading further down the coast to Central Vietnam, you’ll find the ancient towns and UNESCO World Heritage Towns of Hue and Hoi An – must-stops for backpackers interested in culture, architecture, history and art. For food lovers, they’re also great places to try some delicious Vietnamese local specialities or perhaps take a local cooking course. And while you’re in Hoi An, why not fill your rucksack with some brand new tailor-made clothes!
Adventure junkies should not miss the incredible Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, with rafting, kayaking, trekking, mountain biking and caving opportunities. Recently, the world’s largest cave was discovered in the area of ‘Han Son Doong’.
Group Trips in Central Vietnam
- The Buffalo Run, Hanoi to Hoi An – 7 days / 6 nights.
Travel Guides for Central Vietnam
Introduction to South Vietnam:
After all that history and culture, if you’re beginning to get withdrawal symptoms for a beach, don’t panic! Look no further than Vietnam’s beach resort of Nha Trang. A long white stretch of sandy beach, accompanied by lively night-time bars will keep travellers coming back for more. Or, you may prefer the quieter, more chilled out Mui Ne, famed as the windsurfing capital of Vietnam, it’s a great (and cheap) place to kick back for a few days.
Down South, the country’s biggest city, Ho Chi Minh City, (formerly Saigon) has a completely different feel than Hanoi. Distinctly more modern and sprawling, it’s Vietnam’s powerhouse and economic centre with plenty of hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs to keep the backpacker busy. From here you can also take trips on the famous Mekong Delta.
After the city, from here it’s just a short journey to Phu Quoc Island, South Vietnam’s answer to a beach paradise!
Exciting, extremely diverse, at times exasperating, but never boring, Vietnam will shake up your senses and leave you with some fantastic and unforgettable travel moments!
Travel Guides for Southern Vietnam
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…
Accommodation 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. Search for rooms on booking.com by clicking here!
You can also check out some of our Best Hostels in Vietnam here.
Vietnam Travel Basics:
- 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
- Visas: 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.
- Climate: The climate of North and South Vietnam differ greatly, with generally a hot tropical climate in the south and hot summers and cold winters in the north. The monsoon season is between May and October which brings rain to most of the country. The central coast can experience typhoons between August and November.
- Language Essentials: Sin Chao (Hello). Thank you: Cam on (thank you) Oh my God!: Oy zoy oy!
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