Backpacking in Vietnam: Costs, Tips and Places to See
I still remember a time when I had mostly negative feelings towards Vietnam. It was one of the first countries I travelled to and it left me a bit cold compared to the experiences I had in neighbouring countries. That all changed when I spent roughly four months there last year. I got off the well-worn tourist trail and also spend a few months hanging out in Hoi An, which quickly became my favourite city in Southeast Asia. Thinking of backpacking in Vietnam and want the best experience possible? Keep reading my post for ideas on where to visit and some tips on how to make your trip run smoothly. I’ve written about most of these places individually, so click on the links for more information!
Saigon (AKA Ho Chi Minh City)
I’ve organised my Vietnam backpacking route from south to north, as that’s the general tourist trail in these parts. You’ll most likely arrive in Saigon, a sprawling city with a few points of interest. It’s worth spending a day or two in Saigon, checking out the markets and war museums in the city and maybe embarking on a day trip to the Mekong Delta or the Cu Chi Tunnels. There is also some great food to be eaten (as is the case in most places in Vietnam!) and having a few drinks in Pham Ngu Lao, AKA the touristy, backpacker area, is always fun.
In general, the central and northern parts of Vietnam are the best to visit. The South can be skipped through pretty quickly, but make sure to spend a day or two in Mui Ne, one of the best beach towns on Vietnam’s mainland. You can find cheap hotels across the road from the beach and there are lots of nice restaurants serving very affordable food and drinks. The main reason to visit Mui Ne is to see the sand dunes outside of town — check out my post on the ultra budget Mui Ne sand dunes tour.
Nha Trang is one Vietnam’s most popular beach destination, and it has a certain appeal for those looking for a relaxing seaside spot with all the conveniences of a city. The beach in town is alright for such a built up area, and there are countless bars, restaurants and cafes nearby. There is also a Cham tower in Nha Trang, for those looking for a bit of history and culture. If you’re backpacking in Vietnam you’ll most likely want to move on after a day or two — luckily things are about to get a lot more interesting.
One of the best experiences you can have while backpacking through Vietnam is strolling through this ancient riverside town at night. Hoi An’s streets are (mostly) lit by lanterns and the atmosphere is incredibly peaceful (despite the large crowds in the popular areas). It’s almost as nice during the day, when the elegant old shops with their yellow exteriors and uniform tiled roofs dominate the scene. The food in Hoi An is unique (and possibly the best in the country) and there are heaps of boutique shops to blow your money in. The countryside surrounding Hoi An has heaps to offer, including beaches, ancient ruins, rice fields and riverside villages. There are heaps of things to do in Hoi An and it’s such a laid-back place — you could easily spend your entire holiday there.
Da Nang is only a short bus ride away from Hoi An but lacks the old world charm of its neighbour. There are some good beaches in Da Nang and it’s close to the famous (thanks to Top Gear) Hai Van Pass. The Marble Mountains, located between Hoi An and Da Nang, is an interesting little slice of nature filled with cave temples, shrines and viewpoints. There’s no real reason to stay in Da Nang as you can easily see the highlights on a day trip from Hoi An (and Hoi An is awesome).
If you’re into history you’ll want to make sure to visit Hue, a former capital of Vietnam. You can see the main sights in a day, which include the Imperial Citadel and the tombs of various fallen rulers. The city itself is a pleasant place to stay (and again, there is some excellent regional food to try), but you’ll probably want to move on once you’ve seen the sights. It also rains a lot in Hue — every time I’ve been there or passed through it’s been grey!
FURTHER READING: Two Weeks in Vietnam: The Ultimate Holiday Itinerary
If you’ve seen the recent King Kong movie you’ll already be aware of how stunning Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park is. We were actually there while they were filming and got kicked out of our guesthouse after a night because some of the crew needed it. Phong Nha the town is little more than a row of guesthouses and roast pork restaurants, but the countryside is full of karst mountains and caves. Hire a motorbike or a bicycle like we did, and explore for the day. I highly recommend going to Paradise Cave — it’s surely one of the world’s most beautiful caves. The world’s largest cave is also found there, but tours there are very expensive.
Ninh Binh is basically a more popular and slightly less impressive version of Phong Nha, and if you’re in a hurry you could probably skip it. That’s not to say it’s not stunning in its own right though. A boat tour through cave laden rivers surrounded by limestone peaks is a special experience, as is climbing one of the small hills for incredible 360 degree views of flooded rice fields and distant mountains. I did a tour of the countryside near Ninh Binh on the back of a motorbike and it was a fun experience!
The hectic, narrow streets of Hanoi’s old town transport you to a different world, where the rich and poor sit alongside each other on plastic cheers downing bowls of pho. It’s a good place to shop, get to know some locals and see the sights, which include temples, peaceful lakes, an ancient citadel and the obligatory Vietnam / American War museums. Again, it’s not somewhere you need to linger for too long, as there are more exciting places nearby.
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay is the one place that seems to be on everyone’s Vietnam travel itinerary. For good reason too. It’s one of the most scenic places in Southeast Asia and the old boats (known as junks) are pretty cool. It does get overrun at times but the natural beauty hasn’t been diminished (yet). A typical Ha Long Bay cruise lasts for one or two nights, but if you’re in a hurry you can get a taste for it on a day trip from Hanoi. It’s best to book a tour to Ha Long Bay in Hanoi — make sure to bargain hard!
I went to Sapa in winter and it was a bit grim — it even snowed while I was there! People rave about Sapa but I wasn’t a huge fan. The scenery was good, but nowhere near the level of nearby Ha Giang, and the town itself was full of touts. I can’t be too harsh on Sapa as I certainly didn’t see it at its best, but I’m convinced that Ha Giang is the better option.
I’ve saved the best for last. Ha Giang Province, up by the border with China, is the place to go for mountain views, short hikes and hill tribes. It’s way less popular than Sapa, meaning the locals aren’t as eager to sell you things and you can walk for hours without seeing another tourist. Dong Van is the best place to base yourself, and from there you can hike to nearby villages, drive along the stunning Ma Pi Leng Pass and visit local markets. Most visitors to Vietnam don’t make it to Ha Giang, but I can’t recommend it enough.
The places I didn’t go
There are heaps of other places to go in Vietnam — some I’ve purposely avoided because I heard they were average (Phu Quoc) and some I’ve just never got around to visiting (Con Dao, the Mekong Delta). You’ll never see it all in one trip, but you can always return (which I’ll be doing in the next year or two).
Backpacking in Vietnam FAQs
- How much does it cost to travel in Vietnam? It’s one of the best value countries I’ve ever been to. A nice double room in a guesthouse will set you back $8-10 ($10 – $14 in Saigon and Hanoi), meals can be found for $1-$2 and transport is cheap. You can easily get by on $20 – $30 a day, but it depends on your travel style.
- How do you get around? Buses ply the main routes in Vietnam and they are great value, especially if you travel on an overnight bus. These tickets are often $8-$12, but a 4-5 hour ride should only set you back $4 or $5. Trains are common in Vietnam but are a lot more expensive. It’s also worth looking into flights if you’re short on time as there are good deals to be had.
- Will I get ripped off? Yes. People will overcharge you, so make sure to bargain for things like tours, food at markets, taxis etc. I noticed this more the first time I went to Vietnam, so maybe it has improved.
Vietnam Travel Tips
- Don’t buy a hop on hop off bus ticket from Hanoi to Saigon. It’s almost as cheap to book it leg to leg and you can change companies if you have a bad experience.
- Skip through the south. There are some cool things to see but the central and northern regions are more interesting.
- Withdraw money from MB (Military Bank) when possible. The withdrawal limits are much larger than the other banks.
Did you enjoy my post about backpacking in Vietnam? Which places are you most looking forward to visiting? Let me know in the comments below!