As well as diverse landscapes 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 buses and trains, others opt to explore the country on two wheels, either by motorbike or bicycle like this mad traveller! However, you choose to explore – be prepared for crazy traffic, amazing street food, the strongest coffee and the cheapest beer in Asia! 🍻
Also See Our Vietnam Travel Guides (Listed A-Z) – Each guide will open in a new window
INTRODUCTION | Backpacking Vietnam
- Currency: Vietnamese Dong
- Capital city: Hanoi
- Population: 96 million
- Main religion: 74% Folk Beliefs, 15% Buddhism, 7% Christian
- Main language: Vietnamese
- Telephone code: +84
- Time: GMT +7 hours
- Emergency numbers: Police: 113, Fire: 114, Emergency: 115
Vietnam boasts an impressive coastline of over 3,200 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. Along the way, you’ll discover UNESCO World Heritage cities, enormous caves, beaches, jungle, rice fields and hectic cities. If you’re looking for the most diverse country in Southeast Asia – Vietnam is it.
“What’s so great about Vietnam? – This was the unchanging response from anyone who heard me say that it was my favourite destination in almost six months of travel in Southeast Asia. My reply: “What ISN’T great about Vietnam?!” Soaring mountains, tranquil beaches, weird and wonderful delicacies, vibrant history, wild parties, unlimited outdoor adventures, the cheapest beer EVER… I couldn’t get enough of the place. It’s a fast-blossoming flower on the backpacker scene but is still beautifully untouched in places (for now) – so get over there as soon as you can!” – Cara Vaitilingam – Traveller
5 Things to expect from Vietnam
- Amazing hostels – Warning: you’ll come to expect free beer, which can lead to disappointment in future travels.
- Crazy cities – Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) are the obvious culprits, but Hue, Danang and Nha Trang are also thronging centres of high energy and traffic in a country with 92 million people and 45 million motorbikes. Embrace them: they are invigorating and exciting.
- Astounding Nature – You’ll be blown away by what you see on a ten-minute journey from some activity to the hostel. Resplendent cliffs, impossibly green rice fields and majestic limestone karsts were the backdrop of an unforgettable month.
- Noise – Motorbikes, motorbikes, motorbikes.
- Smell – Garlic frying, petrol, chicken broth.
See here for some amazing facts about Vietnam you never knew!
Read Next (opens in new tab)…
WHEN TO GO | When is the best time of year to visit Vietnam?
Due of the fact that Vietnam stretches over 1,000 kilometres from North to South, the climate across the country can vary. The North tends to get hot summers and very cold winters, and the South generally has a more hot and tropical climate all year round.
The best time to visit Vietnam is generally considered to be from November to April. The monsoon season across Vietnam 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 Danang, Hue and Hoi An. (While we normally encourage travelling Southeast Asia in the rainy season, in Central Vietnam, the monsoon can be quite extreme with devastating floods happening in recent years.)
Also see: The Biggest Festivals in Vietnam. If you’re trip coincides with some of the biggest festivals in Vietnam, such as Tet Nguyen Dan, you will want to book accommodation in advance!
VISAS | Do I need a visa for Vietnam?
Note: Due to COVID-19, Vietnam’s visa service is not running as normal. Be sure to check on the official Vietnam Immigration website for updates.
Citizens of most countries receive a free 15 day pass upon entry into Vietnam by air or land. If you want to stay in the country longer than this, you will need to apply for a pre-arranged visa of 30 days. The easiest way to arrange a Vietnam visa is to apply for the eVisa via the official Immigration portal for Vietnam. The visa costs $25 USD and takes three days to process. You will need to upload a photograph of your passport and pay the fee online with your debit or credit card. Be aware that not all land border crossings accept the eVisa so be sure to check if you are planning to cross via a certain land border.
If you want to stay longer than 30 days, it is also possible to arrange longer tourist visas of 90 days. For more information about visas in Vietnam and how to organise getting yours, see our full visa guide to Southeast Asia here.
HEALTH | Vaccines for Vietnam
We recommend that you visit a travel clinic prior to travelling to Vietnam, however, for general travel to Southeast Asia, the following vaccines are usually recommended. Read in more detail about vaccinations for Southeast Asia here.
- Hepatitis A and B
- Tetanus, Diphtheria and Polio
- Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR)
- Japanese Encephalitis
Malaria and Dengue Fever – Malaria tablets are not usually necessary for Vietnam, however, we do recommend that you ask for the advice of a medical professional before you travel. For more info on malaria risk in Southeast Asia see this article. Dengue Fever is a mosquito-borne disease that is prevalent throughout Southeast Asia. To lessen the risk of Dengue Fever, particularly in Southern Vietnam, you should try your best to avoid getting bitten by mosquitos by covering up your body and wearing a good insect repellant.
SAFETY | Is Vietnam safe?
- Crime in Vietnam – Violent crime in Vietnam is extremely uncommon. Sometimes pickpocketing and bag-snatchings do occur in major cities and tourist destinations, but these are rare. Be as vigilant as you would in any city and you will be fine. Scams are less common these days than they were in the past, though it’s good to be aware of the most common ones. Always agree on the price of taxis and rickshaws before you start the journey.
- Road accidents in Vietnam – As with other Southeast Asian countries, road accidents pose the greatest threat of injury and death to travellers to Vietnam. There are almost as many motorbikes as people in Vietnam and the roads are chaotic to say the least. If you do decide to hire or buy a scooter yourself, always wear a helmet and make sure that you have an International Driving License and proper travel insurance that covers you against motorbike accidents. (Beware of night buses: We do not recommend taking a night bus in Vietnam. We have heard many reports of crashes due to drivers’ being overtired and not being given enough rest stops. Day buses and the trains are much safer.)
- Food and water – Hygiene in restaurants in Vietnam is generally quite good and street food is safe to eat. We do not recommend that you drink the tap water, rather invest in a filtered water bottle which means you can save on plastic and ensure that you always have fresh water to drink.
What’s the best travel insurance for Vietnam? – For backpackers, we recommend either World Nomads or True Traveller. For digital nomads and long-term travellers, we recommend Safety Wing Nomad Insurance which offers a flexible plan that you can pay month by month.
WHAT TO PACK | What should I pack for a trip to Vietnam
See here for our full guide on what to pack for Southeast Asia. Specifically for Vietnam, the following items will come in handy…
- A raincoat – Essential for the frequent morning droplets and afternoon downpours in rainy season, especially if you plan to rent or buy motorbikes. In case of the latter, you’ll need a giant tarp for mud protection and a waterproof cover for your backpack.
- Warm clothes – If you’re thinking of visiting the North of Vietnam during the wintertime or you’re planning on trekking in Sapa, you’ll need warm clothes, especially for the evenings.
- Non-stick bandages – May seem a strange suggestion, but you haven’t truly experienced the country until you get a ‘Vietnamese kiss’: an exhaust burn from one of the inescapable motorbikes. These bandages (and staying out of water) are best for avoiding infection.
- Ear plugs and an eye mask – The Vietnamese drivers just love honking that horn! If you’re planning on taking overnight buses, ear plugs will help you sleep on the way and an eye mask will help block out that intense morning sun.
- Trainers or trekking shoes – While you can get away with wearing flip flops in some of the other Southeast Asian countries, if you’re planning on riding a scooter or going trekking in Vietnam then you’re going to need a sturdy pair of travel shoes.
- Less money than you thought you’d need – Rejoice! Vietnam is one of the cheapest destinations in the world: dorm beds for $3 US, long-distance night buses for $10 US and street food for nothing. The low prices made me spend like a demon but I still stayed well below budget the whole time.
And buy while you’re there….
- Fake branded stuff – North Face, Mont Blanc, Under Armour, Nike and New Balance rip-offs are everywhere and are mostly passable.
- “Peacocking” shirts – The big cities have huge selections of beautiful, affordable shirts (and, of course, matching bucket hats). Look out for the ubiquitous fruit-themed ones.
- Tailored clothing – Hoi An’s famous tailor shops are the shortest route to feeling like a supermodel/movie star/crooner from the ’40s. I went to one with a badly-drawn design on a post-it note, and by the next day, I had a gorgeous maroon silk jumpsuit all for me!
LANGUAGE | 10 Useful phrases for travellers to Vietnam
Note: Vietnamese has got to be the most difficult language in Southeast Asia (if not the world!) to learn. This is largely on account of the pronunciation and the tonal aspect of the language – even the popular street food dishes can be impossible to pronounce (try ordering Pho Bo!). Here are 10 phrases which you may be able to get the hang of during your travels in the country. Be warned that the dialect of the North and the South differ making your life even more difficult!
- Hello – Sin Chao
- Goodbye – Tambiet
- Thank you – Cam on
- Yes – Yaa
- No – Kong
- Do you speak English? – Ban co noi duoc tieng Anh khong?
- How much? – Bao nhieu?
- It’s too expensive – Mac kwa.
- The bill – Hoa don
- Oh my God! – Oy zoy oy!
The below video will help you with pronunciation and tones (don’t say we told you so!).
COMMUNICATION | Phone & Internet in Vietnam
SIM Cards in Vietnam
SIM cards are picked up easily in Vietnam and generally cost a little 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.
WIFI in Vietnam
In general, WIFI is readily available across the country in hostels, cafes and restaurants. Cities like Hanoi and Hoi An have become digital nomad hotspots in recent years so you can expect the WIFI to be fast. Of course, like anywhere, the further you get off into the countryside and off the beaten track, the worse you can expect the WIFI connections to be.
BUDGET | How much does it cost to backpack Vietnam?
With hostels as cheap as $3 US a night, street food meals from $1 US and cheap souvenirs and clothing to fill your backpack with, Vietnam is considered one of the cheapest countries to travel in Southeast Asia (according to our readers). What’s more, you’ll feel richer than you’ve ever done before when you hold a million Vietnamese Dong in your hand (that’s only $43 US)!
Note: If you’re planning your budget, then you’ll want to read our detailed guide to how much it costs to backpack Vietnam here. Here’s a short overview of what to expect…
- Accommodation: Backpacker hostels in Vietnam are amazing and can cost as little as $3 US per night. On average, you’re looking at around $6 US for a dorm room and $15-20 US for a private room. For a more luxurious hotel, expect to pay around $30 US for a private ensuite room.
- Food and drink: Beer lovers will rejoice at the cheapest beer in Southeast Asia – say hello to Bia Hoi! At $0.30 US a glass, you’re going to be drinking a lot of this! When it comes to food, the cheapest way to eat is the local Vietnamese street food, and seriously, why would you want to eat anything else! Fresh, nutritious and delicious, Vietnam’s street food is reason alone to travel to the country. Dishes will cost you around $1 US. International meals will cost more (between $5-$10 US) and we won’t blame you for indulging in that once in a while. (We had a great Mexican at Hola Taco in Hoi An and a cracking Italian at Pane e Vino in Hanoi.)
- Transport: Transport is cheap and good quality in Vietnam. For example, a train journey from Hanoi to Sapa (8 hours) costs around $15 US, while an open bus ticket from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (the entire length of the country) will cost you around $50 US. Travel agents will offer different prices so shop around for the best price.
MONEY SAVING TIP: Organising yourself a travel card before you set off will help you to save money on ATM withdrawals whilst travelling in Vietnam. From Revolut to Monzo to N26 and Starling, we advise on the best travel cards in this article.
TRANSPORT | Getting to & around Vietnam
- Flights – Most flights from Europe or the US to Vietnam stop off in Bangkok, Singapore or Hong Kong, but direct ones from to HCMC are available if you’re willing to pay more. The main international airports are HCMC, Hanoi and Danang (in that order). Within the country, low-cost airlines include Jetstar, Vietnam Airlines and Viet Jet Air, as well as AirAsia which services all Asia.
- Buses: Buses are the easiest and cheapest mode of transport around the country. 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). You can also get buses through the main border crossings into Vietnam from Cambodia or Laos. (Heading from Hanoi to Laos by bus? Read this article!) Warning – We’ve heard several reports that the night buses in Vietnam are not safe due to overtired drivers, avoid them if you can.
- Trains: Vietnam has a very good train network servicing the length of the country. 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!)
- Motorbike – There’s a pretty big community of backpackers buying and selling motorbikes in Hanoi and HCMC and then riding them to the other end of the country to be sold again. Main Facebook groups include Vietnam Backpacker Motorbike Market and Motorbikes For Sale Vietnam.
VIETNAMESE FOOD | Cheap, nutritious and delicious
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) which you can pick up for less than a dollar. Each region will have its own specialties such as fried fish (cha ca) in Hanoi or pork noodle soup (cao lao) in Hoi An.
Some must-try Vietnamese food and drinks include:
- Pho (noodle soup)– The Vietnamese classic noodle soup that could warm the coldest heart… usually eaten at breakfast time across the country. Pho bo (pronounced fur bor) is the beef version and pho ga (fur gaa) is the chicken version, both equally delicious. Each region in Vietnam will have its own unique way of preparing pho, so be sure to try as many as you can!
- Banh Mi – These satisfying Vietnamese sandwiches quickly become a staple in a backpacker’s diet due to their cheapness and abundance across the country. Roasted and peppered chicken or beef, pickled vegetables and thickly spread pâté in a crunchy baguette for $1 US. How could one go wrong?
- Morning Glory – Sometimes branded as water spinach, this crisp Chinese vegetable is usually fried with garlic and always delicious. Eat lots of it to make sure you’re getting your greens!
- Com Ga (chicken fried rice) – With a runny egg on top. Cheap, filling, great for hangovers.
- Bun Cha – An absolute must try, these barbecued mini burger patties are served up with plenty of fresh leaves and white rice noodles in a vinegary, fishy and garlicky sauce. Delightful!
- Bahn Xeo – Originating in the foodie haven of Hoi An, these stuffed pancakes are a must-try. Filled with prawns, pork, beansprouts and other vegetables, they’re Vietnam’s answer to tacos.
- Crisps! – The Vietnamese get creative with their flavours. Spicy crab, crispy seaweed, English mature cheddar and pizza are just a few I spotted.
- Bia Hoi – This freshly brewed draught beer is outrageously, immorally cheap. We became regular customers of a woman in Hanoi who would sit us on plastic chairs on the pavement and pour us glass after glass for (wait for it) 5000 Vietnamese Dong each, which is less than 20p. Bia Hoi junctions are a place you’ll want to stay forever.
- Vietnamese Egg Coffee – A mix between a food and a drink, this breakfast beverage will give you some extra energy in the morning for all that sightseeing. Popular in Hanoi.
- Rice Wine – The preferred local poison. It goes down pretty smoothly, but be warned – it is lethal.
International Food – When it comes to international cuisine, you’ll be overjoyed to find high-quality Mexican and Indian food all over the place. If you’re in Hoi An or HCMC, please do yourself a favour and get a curry or four at Ganesh.
Read more about the must-try Vietnamese street food dishes here!
MUST-DO: 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).
VIETNAM HOSTELS | What is accommodation like in Vietnam?
As I mentioned earlier, the backpacker hostels in Vietnam are out of this world! Here are some hostels that you must experience during your stay in Vietnam…
- Vietnam Backpackers Hostels – This chain of famous backpacker hostels was started by a couple of Aussies in Hanoi. Rumour has it that to advertise their new hostel, they walked around the city with surfboards asking travellers where they could find the beach. There are now six hostels up and down the country with two in Hanoi. A stay at VBH is guaranteed to be fun-filled and boozy! All of the hostels are clean, have great facilities, comfortable beds, sociable activities and some wicked tours that you can book from the hostel desk. Oh and the Hoi An hostel has a lovely swimming pool too!
- Easy Tiger (Phong Nha) – A super-friendly hostel in Phong Nha with a buzzing atmosphere and a great setting. The restaurant does good lasagne and bangers and mash if you need a Western food fix, and the outdoor pool is the perfect place to cool off after a hard day of trekking through caves. The beds in the jungle-themed dorms are comfy too.
- Sunflower Hostel (Hoi An) – This little hostel in Hoi An makes up for its slimy bathrooms and creaky beds with the most diverse buffet breakfast this side of India. From noodles to fresh watermelon and garlic bread to eggs made to order, it’s worth getting out of bed for.
- Ninhvana (near Nha Trang) – Just right for the times when you’re tired of being an intrepid explorer and want to indulge for a couple of days. This newly opened ‘backpacker resort’ near Nha Trang is all-inclusive, so you never have to reach into your pocket – not for one of their huge homecooked dinners, kayak rent nor that seventh passionfruit mojito. There are two pools, courts for volleyball and basketball, big parties in the evenings and a spa. Great fun, but can leave one longing for a bit of grit.
- Vu Linh Farmstay (near Yen Binh) – On the totally opposite side of the spectrum, this simple homestay was hands-down my favourite part of the trip. Located down a dirt track in the middle of a fruit farm, it is as close to an authentic Vietnamese experience as you can get: Giang and his family put you up in their traditional Vietnamese house, cook divine meals for you (which everyone eats together) and treat you like family. And family, of course, would never decline another shot of homemade rice wine, after shouting the local ‘cheers’! If you can’t get to this special place, stay at another of the dozens of homestays that are all over the country. Homestays are an unmissable opportunity to get to know somewhere more deeply, and with greater reward.
Also see: The Best Hostels in Hanoi.
ITINERARY | Vietnam Backpacking Routes
The long and skinny shape of Vietnam makes it pretty easy to plan a backpacking route. Either start in the North of the country and make your way down, or begin in the South and make your way up! To see each place properly, we recommend spending at least 30 days in Vietnam if you have time. (This means that you’ll want to arrange your Vietnam visa in advance to make sure you aren’t automatically given 15 days upon entry.)
- See our suggestions for which places to visit in our detailed Vietnam Itinerary here.
THINGS TO DO | Top 15 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 15 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 looking for an excellent Sapa trek and homestay experience be sure to check out the Real Sapa Experience by Friends Travel Vietnam.)
Northern Vietnam is home to Vietnam’s ethnic minority people, which make up 15% of the population. Major groups include the Hmong, Tay and Dao ethnic groups. Many of these groups emigrated from nearby China hundreds of years ago and have their own unique customs, dress and traditions. (You will also find ethnic groups living in the Central Highlands region around the town of Kon Tum, which is becoming a more popular trekking destination for backpackers.)
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.
2. Visit Dalat, the Alps of Vietnam
Don’t miss a visit to the beautiful central highlands of Vietnam, also 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 in the surrounding countryside. Adventures such as canyoning, rafting, rock climbing and kayaking have made Dalat famous as Vietnam’s adventure sports capital! And when your time in Dalat is over, why not make your way to the next destination of Mui Ne via mountain bike – it’s downhill all the way!
3. Be a Beach Bum
Are you a self-confessed beachpacker? 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 with its famous islands and beaches. 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 (An Bang Beach) 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. Wander around Vietnam’s Capital, Hanoi
There’s nowhere quite like Vietnam’s capital Hanoi in the North of the country for its intoxicating atmosphere and crazy traffic! 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. Buying fresh pineapple from the fruit stalls, huddling around a beer keg in the middle of the street, just dodging the motorcycles as they zoom over the gutters and weave between the cacophonous traffic to a bizarre rhythm only they can hear… Tip – If you’re not sure what street food is what, why not take a street food tour of Hanoi and sample some interesting new dishes!
Hanoi also makes a fantastic base from which to explore Northern Vietnam’s natural wonders, such as Halong Bay, Sapa, Ban Gioc Waterfall (Vietnam’s biggest waterfall), Ba Be National Park and Ninh Binh (or Halong Bay on land). You’ll find yourself returning to this city time and time again.
- Also see: The best hostels in Hanoi.
5. Don’t Miss Vietnam’s Biggest City, Ho Chi Minh
Located in the South of Vietnam, the biggest city in the country Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) has a more cosmopolitan feel than Vietnam’s capital of Hanoi. The city has many international restaurants, a lively nightlife, fascinating museums and (of course) a million motorbikes!
Backpackers tend to base themselves in the traveller ghetto known as Pham Ngu Lao, where cheap hostels and guesthouses are plentiful. So, you can eat crab, dried squid and drink cheap beer from the street vendors in one area, then treat yourself in swanky restaurants, trendy bars and lively clubs in the next! Don’t forget a visit to one of the city’s museums to find out more about the history of the country…
6. Get a History Lesson at Vietnam’s Museums
Vietnam is home to world famous museums such as the ‘American War Museum’ in Ho Chi Minh City, as well as Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi – must visit places to begin to understand Vietnam’s recent history. Plus, you can even visit the tomb of the worshipped leader, Ho Chi Minh himself in the capital. From seeing Ho Chi Minh’s preservative-pumped body in the Mausoleum to crawling through complex tunnel systems built by the Viet Cong (the Cu Chi Tunnels), history buffs will never be at a loose end in Vietnam…
7. Soak Up Culture in Hoi An and Hue
Vietnam has an incredibly rich culture that cannot fail to entice visitors and there’s no better place to get to grips with Vietnam’s history than in Central Vietnam with the picturesque cities of Hoi And Hue. 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. (Art lovers should pay a visit to Tam Thanh where artists have turned a quiet fishing village into a living art gallery!)
And, 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.
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’. If you’re visiting in Hue in August, don’t miss the Hue Festival, a six-day event with performances taking place each day. Check out more Vietnamese festivals here.
8. Drink Beer and Coffee
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. At $0.30 US per glass – why would you drink anything else? It’s a cultural experience in Vietnam you won’t want to miss.
Had too much bia hoi the night before? 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!
9. Visit the Caves of Phong Nha Ke Bang 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.
In Phong Nha, you can also kill your own dinner! Yep, you heard me right. The appealingly named Pub With Cold Beer in Phong Nha offers the ultimate farm-to-table experience: you pick out a chicken, kill it yourself and have an hour or two to float down the nearby stream in a rubber tube while the owners prepare and cook it for you. The result: a plate of rice, morning glory, homemade peanut sauce and the freshest, most ethical and satisfying meat you can get.
10. Ride the Ha Giang Loop and the Hai Van Pass
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! There’s no better way to explore the vast, colourful landscapes than on two wheels. It’s easier than it looks!
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 homestays 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 Backpacker 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! Amazing photos guaranteed.
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!
11. Visit UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong Bay
Did you think that we’d forgotten about Vietnam’s number one attraction? Many backpackers find that a highlight during their trip to Vietnam is the 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 Halong Hideaway if you’re looking for a cheaper alternative. Not sure which Halong Bay Tour to choose? This article will help you decide.
The one downside to Halong Bay is that it’s no secret. Hoardes of tourists visit the bay each year and sadly, there have been reports of water pollution and overcrowding at tourist sites. If you’re looking for amazing scenery without the crowds, you might want to check out the alternative Lan Ha Bay – it could just be Vietnam’s best kept secret!
12. Sun, Sea, Surf and San 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. Here, you can take windsurfing, surfing or kitesurfing lessons for a great price. And, if you’re not into watersports and just want to relax, it’s also 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. Ever been to a theme park and felt that jolt of terror in the split-second you think that your seatbelt is broken? Sand dune buggying in Mui Ne, Vietnam is like having that feeling for fifteen minutes straight – and this time, you don’t have a seatbelt, to begin with. If zooming over vertical planes of sand at a speed so fast you don’t even have time to scream is your thing, buckle up (or not, as it were): this is your calling.
13. 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.
The Mekong Delta can be accessed from Ho Chi Minh City and you can take a day trip from the city or visit by yourself, stopping over at one of the home stays in the area. 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.
14. 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!
15. Check out the Abandoned Water Park
This potential setting for a horror movie/secret rave has stood untouched on a peaceful lake in Hue for at least a decade. Once upon a time, the abandoned waterpark of Hue must have been an awesome amusement park, but now the slides are dry, the water is dark and murky and the only sounds are crickets chirping and broken glass crunching underfoot. There are even rumours that crocodiles swim in the stagnant water around the park! It’s a perfect day out for lovers of all things whacky and slightly spooky. If you love abandoned places, be sure to check out our Southeast Asia abandoned archive here!
More things to do in Vietnam:
- See Vietnam’s Biggest Waterfall, Ban Gioc
- Visit the unusual An Bang Cemetery
- Visit Ba Be National Park
- Visit Tam Thanh Mural Village
What was your favourite thing to do in Vietnam?
Note – One rather upsetting aspect of backpacking Vietnam is the noticeable lack of care, in some areas, to 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 supporting environmentally friendly tours, small, family-run hostels and be a Trashpacker!
Where to go next?
- LAOS – From the capital of Hanoi, the popular tourist town of Luang Prabang is only 24, no wait 26, okay more like 29 hours away by bus…. (Read about the longest bus ride in Southeast Asia here.)
- CAMBODIA – Cambodia is an obvious option for where to travel next from Vietnam, and the bus from HCMC to Phnom Penh is cheap and fairly quick. Be sure to have all your visa stuff in order first!
- THAILAND – Best reached by air. Flights between HCMC and Bangkok are cheap and frequent.
- Anywhere! – Hanoi and HCMC are major transport hubs in Southeast Asia, so whether the next destination on your bucket list is the palm-fringed beaches of Gili Air in Indonesia or a hectic food court in Singapore, you’ll be able to get there with little to no hassle!