Backpacking Vietnam: Top experiences
- Riding on the back of a motorbike through the mountains around Dalat
- Sampling Southeast Asia’s best cuisine — and learning to cook it — in Hoi An
- Taking a canoe trip to floating markets in the Mekong Delta
- Trekking between hill tribe villages near Sapa
- Cycling through the rice paddies outside Ninh Binh
Jump to the list of posts from Vietnam, or read on for my comprehensive Vietnam travel guide.
Vietnam itinerary ideas
Vietnam is a long and narrow country. So most Vietnam itineraries begin in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City — the urban centers of the north and south — and end in the other. Major stops along the way (from north to south) include a Halong Bay cruise, Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Dalat, and Mui Ne.
If you only have two weeks for backpacking Vietnam, you’ll have to cut out a few of these stops. You could start in Hanoi and head south until you reach Hoi An — this would allow you to hit almost all the top things to do in Vietnam.
Three weeks would allow you to cover the entire north-south route but would limit your time for side trips.
The ideal Vietnam itinerary is a full month long. With that much time, you’d be able to cover the north-south route, with an additional stop in Ninh Binh. You’d also be able to go north to Sapa and trek in the hill tribe regions, and you could spend some time hopping around the Mekong Delta independently. Or, skip one of these stops and go to Phu Quoc Island if you prefer beaches to mountains.
When planning a trip to Vietnam, consider your tolerance for long-haul bus rides. Hanoi to Hue alone is often 18+ hours, depending on traffic.
Vietnam weather and the best time to visit Vietnam
The biggest factor to consider when deciding when to go to Vietnam is the rainy season. From June through November, monsoon rains fall for a short period nearly every afternoon. Typhoons are a risk in coastal areas as well. But despite the rains, June-August is still the most popular time to visit the country. Expect high prices and book in advance at popular Vietnam vacation spots.
Shoulder season is March-May. This is the best time to visit Vietnam overall. You’ll have warm weather and sunny skies throughout the country. The only downside is the famous emerald rice paddies that dominate the countryside will look a little brown and dried-out this far from rainy season.
Winter is also a great time to go backpacking Vietnam weather-wise. If you don’t like heat and humidity, aim to visit in December-March. You can even get cold temperatures in Hanoi and further north at this time of year. Just try to avoid traveling during Tet (Vietnamese New Year). It’s a major holiday for the locals and transport will be booked up weeks in advance.
Language in Vietnam
The main language spoken in Vietnam is Vietnamese. It’s an extremely difficult language to learn — tonal, with pronunciation unlike anything English-speakers will be familiar with. That being said, Vietnamese people are extremely gracious with even the most pathetic attempts to speak their language. Bring a phrasebook and do the best you can.
The one thing that makes Vietnamese infinitely easier to navigate than the languages of its neighbors is it’s written with a modified Latin alphabet — a.k.a. letters you’re familiar with. This means you’ll be able to read street signs, bus routes, restaurant names, menus, etc. When planning a trip to Vietnam, familiarize yourself with the basic pronunciation so you’ll have an easier time ordering food and reading street signs.
Most locals who work in the tourism industry speak extremely good English, and many folks in urban areas who don’t work in tourism speak English well too. If you stick to the beaten path while backpacking Vietnam, you will always be able to find an English-speaker.
However, if you venture off-track or into rural areas — especially if you rent your own motorbike — you’ll need some Vietnamese or lots of hand gestures. The Mekong Delta, the mountains around Dalat, the far north outside Sapa, and the countryside surrounding Ninh Binh are all popular Vietnam destinations where little English is spoken.
Budget for backpacking Vietnam
Backpacking Vietnam is cheaper than backpacking Thailand and Malaysia, and more expensive than Cambodia and Laos. At the extreme end, a Vietnam budget could be as low as $15 a day. That would mean mostly staying in dorms, eating street food, and skipping some of the pricier activities. $30 a day would be a comfortable budget, and anything higher would allow you to enjoy more of a mid-range travel style.
One place not to skimp in your Vietnam backpacking budget is on transportation. You can find outrageously cheap intra-city bus tickets, but the companies may cut corners with safety, or may not leave on time. Go with a reputable company — road accidents are a big issue in Vietnam, and you don’t want to be in one on a bus.
Private room in a simple guesthouse: 230,000 dong
Bowl of pho at a market stall: 20,000 dong
Glass of bia hoi: 5,000 dong
Museum or historical site admission: Free-150,000 dong
Hop-on, hop-off bus ticket from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City with Sinh Tourist: 750-900,000 dong
Motorbike rental (per day): 15,000 dong
Cooking class in Hoi An: $40 USD
Vietnam visa requirements
Getting a Vietnam visa is a bit of a bureaucratic nightmare. While the process is improving with the pilot introduction of e-visas, it’s constantly changing. Check the latest information with the consulate in your home country while planning a trip to Vietnam.
If you’re from the U.S., the UK, and a handful of other countries, you can now apply for an e-visa online here. Be sure to check that every single detail you submit is correct, as border officials will check closely. The website is kind of a mess. E-visas cost $25, are single-entry and valid for 30 days, and take up to a week to process.
If you’re flying into one of Vietnam’s international airports and aren’t eligible for an e-visa, you can still apply for a visa on arrival. You’ll have to go through a tour agency — this one is highly recommended — and pay an additional $20 processing fee on top of the $25 stamp fee.
If you are crossing the border by land, your only option is to apply for a visa in advance for your Vietnam trip. Cambodia is the easiest neighboring country to do this in — you can find consulates in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. It costs $40 and takes 3-5 days, although you can pay extra for faster turnaround. You’ll need passport photos. Visas are valid from the date of issue, not the date you enter the country.
Crossing the land border between Vietnam and Laos is slow and painful no matter how you do it, especially at the remote Tay Trang–Sop Hun border crossing. Make sure you have your paperwork in order to avoid even longer delays or being turned back (in which case you’ll likely be stranded without transport).
Accommodation in Vietnam
You’ll find some of the best value for money on accommodation that the world has to offer when backpacking Vietnam. The country is truly a treat for travelers who have been slogging their way from dingy guesthouse to dingy guesthouse all across Southeast Asia.
In each of the major cities and popular Vietnam vacation spots, you can find good backpacker guesthouses. You’ll usually have a choice between dorms or private rooms. Private rooms in family-run guesthouses or homestays are usually significantly cheaper than those in Vietnam hostels. All have amenities like free wifi, tourist information, private bathrooms, hot water, and common areas.
Off the beaten path (such as in the Mekong Delta), you’ll mostly find business hotels. These are still inexpensive, but have much less personality. Owners often don’t speak English. But it’s worth the hassle to experience some of the best places in Vietnam where tourists don’t usually venture.
Unless you’re traveling at the peak of high season (during Tet or June-August), you never have to book Vietnam hostels or guesthouses in advance. Check out a few rooms before choosing.
Food in Vietnam
Many people are surprised by the quality of the food when backpacking Vietnam. But it often ends up being their favorite cuisine in Southeast Asia, with fresh ingredients and complex flavors. In fact, eating your way through the country is one of the top things to do in Vietnam!
Pho Noodle Soup
Pho (noodle soup, pronounced “phuh”) is the national dish. It’s most common as a breakfast food, but the more famous places stay open for lunch and (more rarely) dinner. The most traditional meat is beef, but chicken and vegetarian variations are available. You can eat pho in markets or at dedicated pho restaurants — restaurants usually offer several options for which cut of beef you prefer.
You’ll get your bowl of soup and noodles, and a plate on the side topped with herbs, bean sprouts, and lime. Tear the basil leaves as you drop them into your bowl, load up on bean sprouts, squirt the limes in, and add the (ever-present) sriracha and hoisen sauces in copious amounts. Stir and enjoy!
The best cities in Vietnam for pho are in the north — it originated near Hanoi. Southern styles have different broths and wider noodles.
Other common Vietnamese foods
Bahn mi is a pork sandwich served on a baguette, with pickles and spicy sauces. You’ll see folks walking around with carts filled with baguettes — those are the bahn mi vendors. You can also find vegetarian bahn mi (made with tofu instead of pork), as Vietnamese Buddhists don’t eat meat. Enjoying an authentic bahn mi — on plastic chairs in the boiling mid-day sun — is one of the best things to do in Vietnam.
Hoi An is one of the best places in Vietnam for foodies. Some of the specialties are white rose dumplings and grilled fish in banana leaves. If you’re up for a splurge, Morning Glory restaurant is the best place to sample these. Claypot dishes are also popular here, as are rice-paper pancakes.
Bun is a vermicelli noodle dish. Every region has its own variation, but the most famous is bun bo Hue (from Hue, obviously). It’s made with meatballs.
Where to eat
Even if you’re backpacking Vietnam on a tight budget, you don’t have to skimp on the food. Restaurants — even nicer ones — are shockingly affordable. Expect to spend just a couple dollars on a white-tablecloth meal throughout the country.
Vegetarians will especially appreciate the huge variety of veg-friendly food available in Vietnam. You can find a veggie adaptation of every common meat dish. Look for restaurants labeled “com chay” — you can always find them near temples while you’re doing some Vietnam sightseeing.
You can eat at street stalls while backpacking through Vietnam, although they’re less common than elsewhere in the region. Most have menus. Markets are a more reliable source of cheap food. Look for a food court filled with noodle and stir-fry vendors somewhere near the middle of the market. For dinner, try a night market — the Hanoi night market is one of the best in Southeast Asia.
Drinks in Vietnam
Vietnam is the world’s second-largest producer of coffee. Therefore, it’s easy to get a good cup of joe while backpacking Vietnam — although the preparation differs from what you may be used to.
When you order a Vietnamese coffee, you’ll get a mug topped with a specially designed coffee pot. The grounds are in the bottom, and you pour the hot water over the top and watch it brew in front of you. When it finishes, remove the coffee pot from the mug and place it on a (usually provided) side plate. Order it with sweetened condensed milk (“ca phe sua“). If you want it over ice, order “ca phe sua da.” Black coffee is “ca phe den.”
In addition to being a coffee haven, Vietnam also has some of the cheapest beer in the world. Bia hoi is locally produced draft beer. It’s basically water and tastes awful, but sitting on the sidewalk and having a couple of bia hoi is an unmissable Vietnam experience and will cost you less than a buck. You can find marginally better local beer at bars for a significant markup.
When it comes to liquor, the Vietnamese love rice wine. It’s truly nasty stuff, but you’ll invariably be persuaded to try it at least once while backpacking Vietnam.
Activities you can do while backpacking Vietnam
The top things to do in Vietnam include exploring the cities, going to the beaches, doing adventure activities, trekking, and more.
Vietnam’s historical sites are concentrated in Hanoi, Hue, and Hoi An. All three cities boast imperial relics, colonial shop houses, mystical pagodas, and much more. If you’re more into military history, the best Vietnam destinations are Ho Chi Minh City, the Demilitarized Zone near Hue, or go off the beaten path to Dien Bien Phu.
The best Vietnam beaches — the tropical strips of sand you’ve dreamed about — are in the south. Nha Trang has a fun urban beach vibe. You can sled down sand dunes in Mui Ne. Phu Quoc Island is a tropical paradise. And the coast and islands near Hoi An are virtually untouched. You can dive at most beach destinations. The best dive shops are in Hoi An, where you’ll do a lunch stop on a nearly-deserted island.
If you want to trek, go north. Sapa is the gateway to the region for most people backpacking Vietnam. You can walk between hill-tribe villages on one, two, or three-day treks. While the views are spectacular and the hill tribe cultures are fascinating, you’ll share your trek with dozens of others. If you have your own two wheels, go further north — toward the border with China — for a more remote nature experience. Halong Bay and Ninh Binh are among the other best places in Vietnam to witness its incredible natural scenery.
It’s worth hiring a motorbike guide to get off the beaten path at least once. After all, some of the best places to visit in Vietnam aren’t on public transportation routes. The Easy Riders in Dalat are among the country’s best. You can rent or buy a motorbike to drive yourself too, but the traffic is insane and you’re technically supposed to have a local driver’s license. (This is rarely enforced but could mean your travel insurance won’t cover you if you get into an accident or have a breakdown.)
Transportation in Vietnam
Considering how huge of a country it is, Vietnam is actually pretty easy and quick to travel around. But travel in Vietnam isn’t without its hassles. The main modes of transportation are flights, trains, motorbikes, and buses. The latter are the most common — but also the most problematic.
Vietnam has a huge domestic flight network, with affordable prices on many routes. Most people backpacking Vietnam on short trips will need to take a flight or two to avoid 18-hour overnight buses.
Today, you can travel most of Vietnam by train — from Ho Chi Minh City all the way to Hanoi and northward to Lao Cai. The trains are comfortable — you can choose a large reclining seat or various sleeper berths. They’re relatively efficient compared to buses. The only downside is they’re quite expensive, but the extra cost is worth it for the longest north-south journeys (like Hanoi to Hue). Check Vietnam train timetables and ticket prices here.
By far the most fun way to get around Vietnam is by motorbike. You can rent your own, or if the traffic makes you (justifiably) nervous, hire a driver and ride around on the back. You’ll pay as little as $8 a day for a rental only, or $20 a day for a driver/guide who speaks English.
If you choose to rent or buy your own motorbike, keep in mind that you’re technically supposed to have a Vietnamese driver’s license. Also beware of motorbike scams where the rental agency removes a part right before you drive off, only to charge you for it when the bike breaks down 10 minutes later. Also be careful about buying petrol from roadside vendors — it’s probably watered down.
Getting around Vietnam by bus
Everyone who has been backpacking Vietnam has a horrifying bus story. There’s no avoiding it completely, but you can reduce the risk by traveling with a reputable company.
The most popular buses when backpacking Vietnam are the hop-on, hop-off buses that cover the north-south route. You buy one ticket for the whole journey, and then reserve each leg as you go. These buses very much cater to tourists foreign and domestic, so you won’t interact much with the locals. However, they’re convenient for getting to the best places to go in Vietnam, and they tend to be more comfortable than local buses.
Sinh Cafe (or Sinh Tourist) is the best option. Prices for a ticket from Saigon and Hanoi start at 750,000 dong and increase if you want to add out-of-the-way stops. In Hanoi, there are hundreds of copycat Sinh Tourist offices. The real office’s address is 64 Tran Nhat Duat St. Never buy your Sinh Tourist bus ticket from a travel agent.
If you want to meet more locals, get off the typical tourist route, or save (marginal amounts of) money, you’ll need to take local buses while backpacking around Vietnam. These usually depart from bus stations outside each city’s center, and you can buy your ticket on the spot. Make sure the bus looks like it will make it to the final destination, and be prepared for delays and maniacal driving. Choose government-operated buses when possible, and avoid minibuses at all costs, since the drivers must truly have a death wish. A reasonable compromise would be to take local buses for shorter journeys, but use a hop-on, hop-off ticket for overnight trips.
Safety when backpacking Vietnam
As a whole, backpacking Vietnam is extremely safe. You have almost no chance of experiencing violent crime here. The biggest risks are the litany of scams targeting travelers, and getting in a road accident.
Vietnam’s cultural norms allow for much more aggressive haggling than its neighbors. If you ask the price for something you want to buy, you’ll be told a number that may be ten times what you should really pay. This is especially true near major Vietnam tourist attractions. It’s easy to bargain — just keep asking “what’s your lowest price?” until they give you something more realistic. You often have to haggle for everyday things like a bowl of pho or a bus ticket.
Apart from trying to overcharge you, some unscrupulous taxi/motorbike drivers will try to earn commissions by taking you on unauthorized shopping trips. Don’t let anyone convince you that your guesthouse is burned down, that a museum is closed, or that a bus isn’t running and therefore you should go on a tour with them instead.
While locals in general are very friendly, be cautious for anyone who comes on too strong, too quickly. They may try to take you to a cafe or bar and stick you with a huge bill. This includes “English students” around the lake in Hanoi. If you’re at all unsure about a new friend, insist on hanging out in public places like a park.
The biggest risk to your safety is vehicle accidents. Choose your bus companies wisely — if you’re traveling overnight, doubly so. When crossing the road on foot, be aggressive — just walk head-on into the sea of motorbikes. The drivers will swerve around you. You should not attempt to walk around them, nor should you expect them to stop. If you come to a panicked sudden stop in the middle of the street, you’re actually putting yourself in more danger — drivers won’t be expecting it.
Vietnam travel tips for women alone
Backpacking Vietnam presents no problems for women alone. Vietnamese women enjoy high levels of autonomy, and the culture is pretty liberal. Sleazy men are rare.
You don’t have to worry too much about what you wear. Leave your beach garb for the beaches, but you can get away with shorts or skirts and t-shirts. Local women — especially younger ones — wear shorts.
If you book overnight tours — like the Mekong Delta, trekking in Sapa, or motorbike trips — you can often find female guides to go with. This is more a matter a personal preference than safety. Male guides are also totally respectful and accustomed to working with solo women.
It’s very easy to meet other travelers on the main Hanoi to Saigon route and in Sapa. You may be on your own for independent trips to the Mekong Delta.
Ready to get started? Check out the posts from Vietnam.
Like this Vietnam travel guide? Pin it!