Backpacking Vietnam… If you are seeking epic adventures, unique experiences, mouth watering foods and ancient historical sights; Vietnam is the place for you. Once upon a time, the very mention of Vietnam conjured up images of war-torn destination but now Vietnam is a backpacker haven and travelling in Vietnam is a popular part of many Southeast Asian adventures.
Backpacking Vietnam offers an incredible opportunity to get off the beaten track… Explore dramatic mountains in the North, stop in for some corn wine and a friendly chat with the locals before heading south to party the night away…
Many travellers opt to explore Vietnam by motorcycle. Vietnam is a big country and there are lots of Vietnam backpacking itineraries on offer… The most popular backpacking route is heading from Hanoi to Saigon.
Backpacking in Vietnam is a great choice for broke backpackers on account of the super cheap cost of living and the plentiful adventures.
Why Go Backpacking in Vietnam
Vietnam is an older Southeast Asia. It still presents all the gorgeous sights that we’ve come to associate with Southeast Asia – rolling green highlands, steaming jungles, twinkling azure coastlines, and ancient delights – however, it’s a more mature-feeling country to travel than Thailand or Cambodia (for example).
A lot of travellers – particularly, veteran travellers – choose Vietnam as a destination for work, English teaching, or general expat living. Vietnamese cuisine is sublime (arguably the best in Southeast Asia), the cities offer a modern if dense style of living, and the mountains?
Vietnam is generally split into two regions, the north and south. Deciding on where to stay in Vietnam, and what the best area for you is, can be a pretty hard decision.
If you only have less than two weeks, you can focus on one region. Another popular way to backpack Vietnam is to combine a trip with a neighbouring country. For example, combining Southern Vietnam and Cambodia.
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- Best Travel Itineraries for Backpacking Vietnam
- Places to Visit in Vietnam
- Top Things to do in Vietnam
- Backpacker Accommodation in Vietnam
- Vietnam Backpacking Costs
- Best Time to Travel to Vietnam
- Staying Safe in Vietnam
- How to Get Into Vietnam
- How to Get Around Vietnam
- Working in Vietnam
- What to Eat in Vietnam
- Vietnamese Culture
- Final Advice Before Visiting Vietnam
Below we have put together the grand tour itinerary. This is great if you have over 3 weeks to backpack Vietnam, and best completed by motorbike or bus! If you only have 2 weeks, aim to complete the first or second half of the itinerary.
Backpacking Vietnam 1-Month Itinerary #1: The Grand Tour
This itinerary can be complete in either direction, but I will discuss from North to South. Start your trip backpacking in Hanoi – Vietnam’s beautiful capital city. Make a side trip to the countryside of Sapa, where you can ride your motorcycle through the hills and explore waterfalls. Then arrange a trip to Halong Bay, a highlight on any Vietnam trip.
Head south, stopping to stay in the town of Hue, before moving on to visit Hoi An, where you can get an affordable, good quality suit made. Then go to Nha Trang to let loose, get a bit wild and have some fun on the water. A popular water sports area with the likes of windsurfing, paragliding and jet skiing on offer; there’s enough adrenaline here to keep even the most adventurous happy.
Head to Mue Ne and for a short stay in Da Lat, then on to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh), the starting point for most backpackers travelling Vietnam. Saigon is a crazy bustling city. You can also go explore the Mekong River, a paradise for wildlife.
Below we’ve explained each destination on the itinerary in much more detail, including what to do, see, and where to stay in each place.
One of my favourite cities in all of Asia, Hanoi is a beautiful combination of Old meets Modern: a gateway to the incredible mountains and scenery to the North and the warm beaches and bustling cities to the south. Hanoi is worth spending at least a couple days exploring, on foot, or by bicycle.
I recommend staying at the fantastic Babylon Garden Hostel. The dorms are comfortable and at only $5 a night, including breakfast, internet and free beer- they certainly know how to cater to those backpacking Vietnam.
As for my personal favorite places to visit in Hanoi?
In Hanoi, it is definitely worth visiting the War Museum, easily spotted it has a great collection of weaponry marking the entrance. It costs just $3 to get in and it’s a good introduction to exploring Vietnam’s war-torn past.
Stop by the Temple of Literature; Founded in 1070 it was Vietnam’s first university where the rich and incredibly brainy attended. Even if you’re not into the history behind it, it’s handcrafted architecture is pretty breathtaking. If you aren’t templed out, definitely head over to the ‘old section’ of the city and stop by Bach Ma Temple. The oldest temple in the city. If you only see one temple while backpacking through Hanoi, make it this one.
Hoan Kiem Lake, also known as the ‘Lake of the Restored Sword’. The legend goes that once the Emperor defeated the Chinese from Hanoi, a giant golden turtle grabbed the sword and disappeared into the lake to restore it to its rightful owners. All traffic here is banned between 7 P.M. to midnight every Friday to Sunday turning this beautiful place into a meeting place for friends, giving it an almost funfair vibe. If you’re an early bird and like morning exercise, 6 am Thai Chi takes place every morning.
Oh and be sure to check out the Old Quarter.
An explorers paradise, you are likely to arrive here early in the morning. Check into one of the awesome hostels in Sapa, leave your bags here, and go in search of Motorbikes for hire! It’s around $10 per day to hire a motorbike, cheap for the freedom to explore some of the incredible sights around Sapa at your own pace.
Getting lost on a Motorbike, exploring the beautiful countryside is just one of the many adventurous things to do in Sapa. Drive to the beautiful Thac Bac Waterfall, around 15kms outside Sapa main town. A legend says if you look at the falls long enough, you will see a white dragon peering down into the valley below.
Get off the beaten track while backpacking Vietnam and take a day trip out of Sapa town and visit the incredible Ban Pho Village. One of the friendliest tribes in South East Asia, it stands out among others due to the Mongolian Ban Ha population here. Settled on a Mountainous Cliff side these guys literally live life on the edge. Come and explore the culture, talk to the villagers and try not to get too drunk off the legendary corn wine they will insist you taste. Multiple times.
If motorbikes aren’t your thing, you can still make an awesome tour of Sapa Valley by bicycle. If you go with a company all of your food and extra transportation (not on a bicycle) is covered, but it is easy enough to organize yourself.
There are some truly awesome treks around Sapa and you could spend a few days here exploring. For the more adventurous, why not conquer Vietnams highest peak, Fansipan. Not quite Everest but standing at 3,143m it’s pretty impressive; it is possible to do in a day but most will recommend at least 2 days. You can do this hike solo or with trekking companies in the area.
Backpacking Ha Giang
If you fancy heading off on some even more adventure-fuelled forays, consider treks around the area or better yet, motorbiking the Ha Giang Loop! It’s one of the most under-appreciated areas in Vietnam and attracts far less Western tourists than Sapa.
Although it’s getting more and more popular every day, there are still some hidden gems here, like the remote lake of Na Hang. There’s plenty of ripe adventure material left to find travelling in this part of Vietnam.
When looking for accommodation in Ha Giang, be sure to check out our friends at Hmong Moonshine! They are great people (ask for Tuyen) and the property itself is very beautiful. You can also learn how to make local moonshine while staying here!
Backpacking Halong Bay & Cat Ba Island
A UNESCO world heritage sight, often known as the Eighth Wonder of the world, is an unmissable stop whilst backpacking Vietnam. Almost everyone who visits Halong Bay does it as part of a pre-arranged package. I’m not normally one for taking the tour option but it is pretty impossible otherwise. The tour’s not too expensive and it was totally worth it.
We had a great time and were surrounded by some awesome people. It’s essential to prebook your trip and accommodation in Halong Bay; we booked a two day, two-night tour from our stay at the Central Hanoi Backpackers Hostel.
Whilst exploring Halong Bay we stayed on a cool ‘Junk Boat‘ one night and in beach huts the other. Being part of a prepackaged tour meant all our food, transport and everything else was included, making it a hassle-free adventure.
Once the tour is over you can either stay on Cat Ba island and check out the rock climbing scene or head back to Hanoi for a night before travelling South.
This is a beautiful small town offering a great break in the journey from Hanoi to Hoi An. One of Vietnams most royal cities, Hue is littered with impressive historic sights, delighting the inner nerd in us all!
There are also heaps of cool backpacker hostels in Hue with bouncing little traveller vibes. Check into the awesome Hue Happy Homestay to meet other travellers and get some great local recommendations from the knowledgeable staff.
Check out the impressive Citadel on the other side of the perfume river. This impressive piece of history is made up of four separate citadel’s and will take a full day to explore, you can hire a bike to get around! There is a ton of things to do in Hue and you could easily spend weeks here.
Check out the Thien Mu Pagoda; standing at 21 metres high and decorated with mind-blowing architecture this pagoda is a pretty spectacular eyeful.
If rest and relaxation are what you are after the beaches of Lang Co and the mineral hot pools of Phong An are just a short distance away.
Backpacking Hoi An
Hoi An is THE place to get tailor-made clothes whilst backpacking Vietnam. There are loads of things to do in but most backpackers visiting Hoi An come here to get a suit made. Clothes tend to take at least three days to make so you want to get measured as soon as possible… So first stop? Find a tailor! I recommend Mr XE II – possibly the best tailor in Hoi An!
Check into Hoi An Vietnam Backpackers Hostel – dorms start from $7 USD a night, and it has an awesome pool! Spend a few days exploring the local area by bicycle. The hostel provides them for free. It’s located close to the beach which is great on hot days, as you don’t have to go far!
Looking to get back into the city? Da Nang is a great day trip, only a forty-minute drive from Hue; the sandy beaches, caves and Buddhist shrines among many other activities make for the perfect day out.
Backpacking Nha Trang
Nha Trang is a perfect place to let loose, get a bit wild and have some fun on the water. A popular water sports area with the likes of windsurfing, paragliding and jet skiing on offer; there’s enough adrenaline here to keep even the most adventurous happy. No need to prebook, all can be arranged from the beach.
The best area to stay in Nha Trang is down the side alleys and not on the main road. It’s quieter, cheaper, and just more chill.
If you need to get a job or just want to have an awesome night out head to the Why Not Bar, they are often hiring. The work is easy and fun, it’s a great way to replenish funds while travelling Vietnam. The beach at night is a great place to hang out with other backpackers and get royally pissed however it, can be dangerous and a few backpackers have been robbed there so avoid ending up there alone.
There are some great backpacker hostels in Nha Trang with awesome social vibes. heck into the iHome Hostel for as little as $7 a night they’ll offer free beers in the evening and free breakfast to fix you up in the morning.
While enjoying the nightlife be aware of the many hookers strolling the street at night. They will try to pickpocket you by grabbing at your crotch with one hand and slipping the other into your pockets… Keep your hands in your pockets, no matter what.
Backpacking Lak Lake
Recover from the heavy nights in Nha Trang and break up the journey to Dalat by venturing out to the tranquil and beautiful Lak Lake, the largest natural body of water in central Vietnam.
This region of Vietnam is home to the Mnong people. An ethnic group indigenous to Vietnam (which a small population in Cambodia too), the Mnong people, rather curiously, are renowned for designing one of the world’s oldest instruments: the lithophone.
Paddle out in a kayak at sunset and enjoy the still waters and beautiful scenery. You can also explore Jun Village: A Mnong settlement of wooden stilted houses. It’s a very beautiful place to go in Vietnam and a slight departure from the regular tourist trail.
Backpacking Mui Ne
From Nha Trang you can head to Mui Ne which is home to one of the best beaches in Vietnam. You can check out the awesome sand dunes or hire a motorbike from Easy Rider for roughly thirty dollars and ride up the mountain paths to Dalat.
There isn’t much other than the sand dunes, beaches, and a fairy stream in Mui Ne. Ostrich riding is totally a thing though, which while totally awesome (and a fantastic opportunity to reenact my beloved Donkey Kong Country), I am going to please ask you to consider your actions when engaging with animal tourism.
That is to say, please don’t ride the ostriches. Bombing the sand dunes is plenty fun enough.
Backpacking Da Lat (Dalat)
There is not a whole lot to do in Da Lat, but the ride itself is very scenic. I managed to crash and hurt myself quite badly because the roads are difficult, and if you have limited riding experience I suggest you hire a driver and just go on the back of the bike. Most backpackers do this rather than riding themselves.
Although it’s not as stacked with activities as a lot of other destinations in Vietnam, there are still awesome budget accommodations in Dalat for backpackers to stay at. It’s a nice place in Vietnam to stay and take a breather for a few days.
Backpacking Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)
The starting point for most visitors to Vietnam, backpacking in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) is a crazy bustling experience. Expensive for us broke backpackers in comparison to the rest of the country, I recommend venturing into the ‘real’ Vietnam pronto.
Although there are plenty of cool things to do in Ho Chi Minh, many of the ‘must-see’ sights around are related to the terrors of the Vietnam War. The War Remnants Museum is a haunting insight into the life of those fighting on the front line during the period of 1954 – 1975. It costs around $1 to enter.
Take a trip out of the city and tour the incredible network of Cu Chi Tunnels. Brave claustrophobia and crawl around the safer sections of the restored tunnels, popping (or squeezing) out at the other end. You can pre-book half-day tours of the tunnels through the Hide Out Hostel travel desk.
From Saigon, it is easy to arrange a bus onwards to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. You get your Cambodian visa for a fee on the border.
Mekong Delta is often referred to as the ‘Rice Bowl’ of Vietnam (there are lovely rice paddies everywhere) this maze of rivers, swamps and islands are home to tiny villages floating on the banks of the Delta. Paddle into the floating markets and pick up some cheap trinkets, you’ll find anything and everything. Unfortunately the market is becoming increasingly popular and much of the trinkets being sold are aimed at those travelling Vietnam.
If you have a day to kill in the Mekong consider renting a vintage Vespa scooter and checking out the Delta countryside and local culture.
Moving past the ‘tourist’ trap section the Mekong Delta is a paradise for local wildlife. The quiet and noise of nature is a refreshing change from the busy streets of Ho Chi Minh.
Trips to the Mekong can be as quick as half a day or a couple of days, depending on budget, however, I would recommend spending at least a day exploring the Mekong Delta. The best place to stay when exploring the Mekong Delta is Can Tho just south of Ho Chi Minh
Getting Off the Beaten Path in Vietnam
Vietnam is certainly shooting up as a popular destination for both backpackers and holidayers. While you can stick to exploring the typical areas of Vietnam that most people visit, there is so much more to discover once you get off the tourist trail.
The Ha-Giang Loop (which I’ve already mentioned) is once such choice. It’s not one of Vietnam’s completely hidden gems anymore, however, it’s still far from touristic. Even attempting the Ha-Giang Loop by motorbike is going to give a feeling of real adventure material while simultaneously bringing you into closer contact with local communities.
As an extension of that, travelling Vietnam by motorbike (while definitely a common activity for tourists) brings even more potential for exploring the unseen sides of the country. The good thing about having your own wheels is that you can go anywhere! No village is too far off the beaten track.
I’m also going to throw the suggestion of the Ta Xua mountain range at you. Close to Moc Chau village (another underexplored locale), the Ta Xua mountains give the feeling of walking above the heavens themself. Mountain trails wind the ranges over oceans of rolling cloud formations – sunrise is a real treat.
And lastly, if you’re packing for a beach day but prefer the feeling of lost isolation, Vietnam has heaps of lesser-known beaches to explore too! Just heading north up the coast from Nha Trang is going to land you in some dope spots like Quy Nhon. If you’re still keen to branch out from there, just rent a bike and start looking!
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Top Things to do in Vietnam
Vietnam is loaded with cool activities both for lovers of tourist affairs and for lovers of the road less travelled. Here’s my top pick of the coolest things to do in Vietnam!
1. Cruise Halong Bay
No journey to Vietnam is complete without a trip to check out Ha Long Bay. Admire the breathtaking scenery of mountainous limestone rocks while cruising Halong Bay. When the humidity hits take a leap off the side and into the tranquil water below and splash around till your heart’s content.
2. Squeeze into the Cu Chi Tunnels
See how the Vietnamese used underground tactics during the Vietnam War. Squeeze yourself into the tiny tunnels, overcoming claustrophobia as you try to experience what the Vietnamese Soldiers once did back in 1954.
3. Trekking in Sapa
Leave the hustle and bustle behind and check into some of the most beautiful mountainous landscapes in Asia. Home to Vietnam’s highest peak Fansipan, Sapa is a dream to trek, and standing at 3,143m it’s pretty impressive. If this is a bit too adventurous, enjoy the day walks or simply kick back and take in the beautiful views.
4. Suit up in Hoi An
Thailand has Elephant Pants and Vietnam has incredible Silk Suits. Watch the talented tailors at work in Hoi An and get your own creation made cheaply, beautifully and in just a few hours!
5. Bar Hop Ba Hoi
Friendly bars with cheap beer, laid back feels and even more friendly locals. Often located up sketchy looking side streets, these little bars are a great place for a laugh and cheap beer.
6. Water Puppet Show
Originating as far back as the 11th Century from the villages of the Red River Delta in Northern Vietnam, Water Puppet Shows are incredible. Lasting from as little as 5 minutes to hours, these are shows that you have to check out when travelling in Vietnam.
7. Street Food
For as little as $1 for a great meal, you really have no excuse not to try some of the local delicacies. If its good enough for Obama, it’s good enough for me.
8. Motor Bike across the Country
This is a fantastic way to see the countryside. Check out the motorbike travel section below for more info.
Vietnam probably has some of the cheapest accommodation in South East Asia. You can find a dorm bed for as little as $3 USD a night or a private room with a fan for $7 USD. There are plenty of budget accommodation options like hostels, guesthouses, home-stays & budget hotels.
Read our epic review on the best hostels in Vietnam before booking somewhere to stay!
The Best Places to Stay in Vietnam
|Location||Accommodation||Why Stay Here?!|
|Hanoi||Central Backpackers Hostel||Easily one of the best hostels in Hanoi. Free breakfast, city tour, beer & pub crawl… What more could you want?|
|Sapa||Ta Van Hostel||Nestled in a small ethnic minority village away from the touristy Sapa town. You really get in touch with nature here & have incredible views of the rice terraces & Fansipan mountain range.|
|Ha Giang||Hmong Moonshine||A dreamy little villa built right on the edge of a lake. As the name implies, you can sometimes make your own moonshine here! Ask for guiding ace, Tuyen, to organize Ha Giang tours.|
|Cat Ba Island||Cannon Fort Cat Ba Hostel||Well located and surrounded by nature, this is the highest rated hostel in Cat Ba!|
|Hue||Hue Happy Homestay||Ran by the sweetest family who treats you like your part of it. Great location in town that’s close to everything.|
|Da Nang||Travellers Nest Hostel||Cozy, warm, and stacked with facilities, this is a cool place to stay in Da Nang for a few nights. If you feel like splurging, the private rooms are sweet!|
|Hoi An||Vietnam Backpackers Hostel||Great party hostel & it has a pool. Loved the social scene here & prime location.|
|Nha Trang||iHome Hostel||Located just off the main strip & close to the beach. Love the social atmosphere, rooftop bar, buffet breakfast & free beer!|
|Mui Ne||Mui Ne Backpackers Hill||Dude, full-power. There’s not one, but woo pool, and a roof-top jacuzzi! That’s just the tip of the iceberg with all the goodies you get here too.|
|Da Lat||Mr Peace Backpackers||Great travel family vibes here, especially with their family dinners. The free breakfast & happy hour is awesome too!|
|Ho Chi Minh||The Hideout||Party vibes to the max! Cafe, rooftop bar, epic pub crawls, a sweet pool, and neon lighting… you can even top it off with a free breakfast after you get silly in Saigon.|
Travelling in Vietnam can be cheap without you really having to think about it. I spent around twenty dollars a day in Vietnam, sometimes a little more when splurging on a day trip or imported beer.
If you are staying in hostel dorms, trying the local delicacies on the street, catching buses and trains (rather than domestic flights) and enjoying the odd day trip; you can expect to spend no more than forty dollars a day, if that.
A Daily Budget in Vietnam
|Expense||Broke Backpacker||Frugal Traveler||Creature of Comfort|
|Total per day:||$9-$34||$37-$67||$80+|
Money in Vietnam
Ever wanted to throw cash in the air and feel like a millionaire? Well, the Vietnamese Dong allows every broke backpacker travelling in Vietnam the opportunity to feel rich. As of 21/10/20, $1 US = 23,000 Vietnamese Dongs – crazy huh?
Plus the name is Dong… Which, when enjoying multiple dirt-cheap beers, is consistently amusing.
Don’t try to obtain Vietnamese currency before entering the country, it’s pretty much impossible. If you managed to snag some, you’ve probably had a pretty bad exchange rate. Take US dollars into Vietnam, you’ll find many shops and services accept US dollars.
Credit and Debit cards are widely accepted in the more built-up areas such as Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi but many of these, charge pretty insane withdrawal fees so it’s advisable to avoid small ATM transactions and get out a bunch of cash at once – just make sure you hide it well.
Travel Tips – Vietnam on a Budget
Vietnam is one of the cheapest destinations in Asia however, it is still possible to go a little out of control, especially when the currency makes you feel like a millionaire. Standard budget backpacking tips aside, here my top tips to keep it for backpacking Vietnam on a budget…
- Camp: Vietnam has some incredible countryside and coastline, views that shouldn’t be wasted by sleeping inside. Camping is most popular within the National Parks up and down Vietnam. Check out this post for a breakdown of the best backpacking gear for outdoor adventures.
- Take the Bus: The national bus service or ‘the chicken bus’ has great links throughout Vietnam, even into some of the more remote areas. For as little as $1 a ticket, I’d happily sit next to a chicken for a few hours.
- Cook your own Food: Stock up on some simple basics at the market/supermarket and cook your own feast. I have a small backpacking stove which I take throughout my travels. It saves you more money than you’d think!
- Understand the Money: If, like me, you don’t have a great mathematical brain, use a currency app to help you understand how much you are spending. Knowing the value of the currency will help you avoid being ripped off or spending too much without realising.
- Couchsurf: To connect with the locals, try meeting people with Couchsurfing. You’ll get a free place to stay, and you’ll probably make a friend!
- Keep it Local: Where possible drink the local beer, eat the local delicacies and for day trips, try to use local companies. By using local companies you can haggle a bargain price that larger, international tour operators won’t offer. Plus supporting local businesses thrive is awesome!
- Hitchhike: I didn’t hitchhike whilst backpacking Vietnam but I have a couple of amigos who have hitched the whole length of the country, no worries. Getting around by hitchhiking is a great way to travel for free, meet local people, and kick plans to the kerb!
Why Should You Travel to Vietnam with a Water Bottle?
Whilst there’s a lot that we can do when it comes to traveling responsibly, reducing your plastic consumption is one of the easiest and most impactful things you can do. Don’t buy one-use water bottles, don’t take plastic shopping bags, and forget straws. All of this just ends up in landfill or in the ocean.
If you’d like some more tips on how to save the world, be sure to watch the video below.
Best Time to Travel to Vietnam
Vietnam is a country with multiple weather patterns ranging from monsoon rains, cold snaps and hot, humid sunny days. It can be hard to catch the whole country at a consistent time of year. But no fret, it is possible!
If you are planning to backpack Vietnam from top to bottom, the best time of year generally is September – December (Autumn) and March – April (Spring). These times of the year are your best weather window, where you might be lucky enough to see the whole country in sun!
Looking for specifics? Let me break down by regions, the best time of year for backpacking Vietnam;
- North Vietnam: October to May will give you dry weather the majority of months. Expect some colder temperatures in the mountains and from March onwards, a little more rain as it gets more humid.
- Central Vietnam: February to July is the best time of year to avoid heavy rain. Temperatures will hit the upper 30s in June to August.
- Southern Vietnam: December to April is the ‘dry’ season. Temperatures will rarely fall below 20 degrees and will reach up to 40 degrees come March/April.
Festivals in Vietnam
Given Vietnam’s demographic spread of religious heritage – and its wide assortment of folk-traditions and cultures – there are a lot of grand and unique festivals in Vietnam! Here are a few of my top picks:
- Tet Nguyen Dan (January/February) – Also known as the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, Tet is the big, big, big festival you definitely don’t want to miss if you’re visiting Vietnam at the right time. You’ll get a nice mix of festivities country-wide from traditional visits to the temples to ecstatic lightings of fireworks, however, shops and transport in villages tend to shut down around this time.
- Perfume Festival (February/March) – Another milestone celebration, and this time it’s Buddhist! Every year, masses of pilgrims make their way to the sacred Perfume Pagoda site near Hanoi. They take the long way around, however, travelling the Yen River to the base of Huong Mountain for the climb. It’s a very scenic pilgrimage!
- Hoi An Lantern Festival (monthly on the full moon) – If you’re a fan of candles, colours, and romantic ambient light, then definitely swing by Hoi An for the Lantern Festival! Once a month, the lights go off, and the whole city switches instead to candles and paper lanterns. There’s also free entry to most of the temples in town to see the monks performing their celebratory ceremonies.
- Mid-Autumn Festival (varies – usually between August and October) – A very kid-friendly festival with lots of colours, lanterns, and the Lion Dance. Being a harvest festival, you can expect sweets and snacks galore! (Which is really the reason I’m telling you about this Vietnamese festival.
What to Pack for Vietnam
Make sure you get your packing for Vietnam right! On every adventure, there are six things I never go travelling without:
Active Roots Money Belt
This is a regular looking belt with a concealed pocket on the inside – you can hide up to twenty notes inside and wear it through airport scanners without it setting them off.
GRAYL Geopress Filtered Bottle
Having a filtered water bottle means you can drink from just about any source. The GRAYL Geopress is hands-down the most effective one we’ve ever used as well!
Active Roots Microfiber Towel
Hostel towels are scummy and take forever to dry. Microfibre towels dry quickly, are compact, lightweight, and can be used as a blanket or yoga mat if need be.
Petzl Actik Core Headlamp
A decent head torch could save your life. If you want to explore caves, unlit temples, or simply find your way to the bathroom during a blackout, a headtorch is a must.
Active Roots Camping Hammock
Taking a tent backpacking is not always practical but hammocks are lightweight, cheap, strong, sexy (chicks dig hammocks), and allow you to pitch up for the night pretty much anywhere.
Hanging Toiletry Bag
I always travel with a hanging toiletry bag as it’s a super-efficient way to organize your bathroom stuff. Well worth having as it helps to have quick access to all your stuff.
For plenty more inspiration on what to pack, check out my full backpacking packing list.
Staying Safe in Vietnam
Vietnam is extremely safe for travel. Violent crime is almost nonexistent in Vietnam. Petty crime and pickpocketing can be an issue in the cities, however, so just watch your valuables or leave them locked at your hostel. Where backpackers need to be careful is riding a motorcycle.
Vietnam’s cities are hectic, and the countryside has windy roads and animals roaming around. Even though road tripping with a motorcycle is a huge part of Vietnam tourism, I don’t recommend this for beginners.
Dense cities and tourist attractions are still questionable (as they usually are). Vietnam isn’t rife with petty crime, however, keeping an eye on your valuables is always a recommendation as is travelling with a money belt.
Past that, Vietnam is pretty standard ‘travel in Southeast Asia’ stuff, and even by that metric, it’s very chill. Stick to the standard advice for safe travel and you’ll be fine.
Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll in Vietnam
The penalties for drugs are really harsh in Vietnam, like other neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia. Weed is the most commonly used drug throughout Vietnam, but you will get into a bunch of trouble for having it if you’re caught. Drugs are around, and you can definitely find them.
Picking up in Vietnam can be quite difficult if you’re chasing a traditional Vietnamese woman. Chances are you’ll have to meet their parents & marry them if you want to engage sexually. The women in big cities like Ho Chi Minh & Hanoi tend to be more western-influenced & relaxed. Just stay safe & use protection. Vietnam still has a big HIV problem.
Travel Insurance for Vietnam
A wise man once said that if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t really afford to travel, so do consider backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on an adventure! Travelling without insurance would be risky. I highly recommend World Nomads.
I have been using World Nomads for some time now and made a few claims over the years. They’re easy to use, offer the widest coverage, and are affordable. Also, this is the only company I know of that lets you buy travel insurance after leaving on a trip.
If there’s one insurance company I trust, it’s World Nomads. Find out why I recommend World Nomads, check out my World Nomads Insurance review.
A message from Will, the OG Broke Backpacker
“Once upon a time, I almost lost my leg in a sweltering jungle…
I battled a seriously nasty infection that snaked up past my knee and by the time I made it to a local hospital they wanted to amputate. I was delirious, unable to walk, and in a lot of pain but I managed to call my insurance provider – they moved me to a much better private hospital where the doctors were able to save my leg.
I wracked up $15,000 in hospital bills, but these were completely covered by my travel insurance. Luckily, I still have my leg today, and whilst it is permanently damaged, I’m grateful every day it’s still attached!
Moral of the story: consider getting travel insurance before you head out into the wilds, people!“
And if you’re still not sure whether World Nomads is the right provider, then I recommend you check out our comprehensive comparison of the best travel insurance companies on the market.
How to Get Into Vietnam
Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia’s most accessible countries. Whether you are travelling the Southeast Asia loop and entering by land, coming down from China, or flying directly there, border crossings are relatively straight forward and the days of the tricky Vietnamese visa are now over.
There are long-distance bus/train services that you can use to get all the way from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City, or if you’re feeling more adventurous, train it from Europe all the way to Vietnam…
You can enter Vietnam by motorbike easily too. For those backpacking Vietnam without the luxury of time, the best way in is to catch a flight to Ho Chi Minh City. There are flights with the likes of Emirates (via Dubai), Air China (via Guangzhou) and many more Airlines. I’ve found Vietnam Airlines tend to have the best deals for flying direct to Ho Chi Minh City.
Most flights will land in Ho Chi Minh but you can fly to other parts of the country. You can easily travel from Cambodia across the border to Vietnam using local buses or, if you fancy travelling in style, there are VIP bus services available for flash-packers.
Entry Requirements for Vietnam
Most countries require a visa to enter Vietnam, however, there is a shortlist of countries that are exempt for short stays. Past that, you’ll need to organise a Vietnam e-visa for a 30-day stay.
Thankfully e-visas are relatively straightforward to organise before you travel to Vietnam. If you don’t want to organise it yourself there are many companies out there who can help you apply; I’ve used iVisa previously to get mine done quickly and to avoid the laborious paperwork.
NOTE that as of 2019 there is now an official portal for obtaining your Vietnam visa online too! Check out the Vietnamese visa webpage for more information.
And if the 30 days in Vietnam just feels too short, no worries! You can extend once you’re there (or organise a longer visa before arrival, but that’s a process too).
Travelling to Vietnam During COVID Times
Currently, Vietnam remains closed to tourism. Earlier in 2020, they were keen to begin the reopening process and start the economy kicking over again, but the reopening of borders was delayed and then indefinitely put on hiatus.
While it does not seem likely that Vietnam will reopen its borders to tourism in 2020, they have just recently begun reopening some air corridors with major international Asian business partners. Perhaps in early 2021, we’ll hopefully see some movement.
When the situation changes, we’ll most definitely be updating this guide to let you know! Until then, why not check out COVID Travel Guide of the countries currently reopened to tourism?
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How to Get Around Vietnam
Comfortable long-distance transport and constantly improving road quality make travelling in Vietnam pretty smooth. Vietnam has a great coastal train line that extends up to Chinese border making travelling onwards to China a snap! It’s a great way to travel across Vietnam on a time limit.
Most backpackers choose to explore Vietnam via bus network. Buses in Vietnam are cheap, plenty are hop-on/hop-off style tickets, and they have ever-increasing presence of Air Con. Basically, they are a broke backpackers dream.
A great way to get from one end of the country to the other fast and scenically. Vietnam Railways operates a single track train network running from Ho Chi Minh city all the way to the Chinese border with beautiful views of the countryside and coast. Slightly slow in places as much of the train line dates back to the colonial period; but that’s just part of the charm, right?
Ensure you book your tickets in advance, hard sleeper class offers the best value. Be aware that if you buy a through ticket you cannot break up the journey along the way, you will need separate tickets for this. Hop on the Reunification Express for a breathtaking journey.
Many adventurers backpacking Vietnam choose to explore the country by motorbike. With a motorbike, you have a lot more freedom and will see a side of the country that is completely inaccessible if you are travelling by bus or train. Best of all, motorbiking Vietnam can work out pretty damn cheap as you can simply sell your used motorbike to another backpacker at the end of your trip.
I did not travel via domestic flight within Vietnam. However, if you are on a time limit, a 2hr flight from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi is a lot more favourable than 30hrs + it can take on the train. Vietnam Airlines, the national carrier and Jetstar both offer cheap and backpacker-friendly flights to many destinations within Vietnam.
Rather than just rocking up at the station in the hope they will have space to fit you on, you can now book tickets in advance for most of Southeast Asia using 12Go.
To kick your backpacking adventure into the next gear, get a motorbike. Motorbiking across Vietnam is often more cost-effective than paying for multiple train/bus tickets. It gives you the freedom to really explore, get off the highway and go in search of raw adventure… Plus you look cool and you don’t have to deal with the drunken Aussie lads on the bus attempting to rope you into a game of ‘drink the beer’.
I picked myself up a Honda Win Manual Motorbike second hand from one of the many backpackers selling their bikes in Ho Chi Minh. I paid around $300 and for the few weeks I had it, only some minor repairs were needed.
Before travelling to Vietnam, I had never actually ridden a motorbike before and I was, in truth, a little intimidated. Luckily, riding a motorbike is a lot easier than it looks and after about an hour of (somewhat, hilarious) practice, I was good to go.
I had this expectation that the roads in Vietnam were going to be dangerous dirt tracks, but for the most part, they are fairly decent besides a few potholes. The biggest threat to you on the road is your own lack of attention, other drivers and animals/people. Make sure your travel insurance covers you for riding a motorbike in Vietnam.
Unfortunately, accidents among travellers are common, I came off my motorbike myself in Dalat and got away with just cuts and bruises… The bike flipped and hit me in the back of the head, and my helmet almost certainly saved my life – always wear a helmet.
I’d also onsider bringing a dedicated tent for your motorbike if you want to save money on accommodation. I usually rocked up to a restaurant for dinner & politely asked if I could set up there for the night, they always said yes & never charged me a dime.
The feeling of complete freedom is awesome, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face the entire time. For anyone backpacking Vietnam, I highly rate buying a Motorbike to explore this beautiful country. Once your back in Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi, you can sell it on to another backpacker before leaving and let them have the experience!
Working in Vietnam
Yes, yes, 1000 times yes! I have no short number of long-term travelling friends that do a stint in Vietnam to build up their cash supplies on the road.
You will need a work permit to work in Vietnam though. A work permit/visa is valid for up to two years (non-renewable) and the pressure of the paperwork is off because the responsibility is on your employer! You’ll need to be sponsored by your prospective employer who will then be responsible for the organisation of your working permit.
If the regular ol’ day job isn’t beckoning, however, volunteering in Vietnam is a spectacular back-up choice! You’ll lower your travel costs, connect with local communities, and give back all your best vibes and smiles while you’re at it!
Keen to live the digital nomad dream while traveling the world? Who the hell isn’t?
Teaching English online is a great way to earn a consistent income on the road. Depending on your qualifications, you can work remotely from your laptop and make a positive impact on the world! It’s a win-win!
Check out this detailed article for everything you need to know to start teaching English online.
Volunteering in Vietnam
Volunteering abroad is an amazing way to experience a culture whilst helping your host community. There are plenty of different volunteer projects in Vietnam including teaching, construction, agriculture, and pretty much anything.
Vietnam’s struggle with environmental issues and social inequality means there are plenty of opportunities where backpackers can offer up some time and skills. Conservation and English teaching are the main areas where volunteers can make a big difference. Other opportunities include hospitality, social work, and web development. Most nationalities will need a visa to enter Vietnam, and a volunteering visa is required if you’re staying long-term.
If you want to find volunteering opportunities in Vietnam, then we recommend that you Signup for Worldpackers – a volunteer platform that connects local hosts directly with traveling volunteers. As a Broke Backpacker reader, you’ll also get a special discount of $10 when you sign up. Just use the discount code BROKEBACKPACKER and your membership is discounted from $49 a year to only $39.
Volunteer programs run through reputable work exchange programs like Worldpackers are usually very well-managed and reputable. However, whenever you are volunteering, do stay vigilant especially when working with animals or children
Worldpackers: connecting travellers with meaningful travel experiences.
Teaching English in Vietnam
Teaching English in Vietnam is one of the most popular forms of work for foreigners in the country. With the right qualifications (i.e., a TEFL certificate), you’ll find a lot of doors opening to you with some decent wages too (relative to the standards of Asia).
TEFL courses open up a huge range of opportunities and you can find teaching work all over the world with one! Broke Backpacker readers get a 35% discount on TEFL courses through MyTEFL (simply enter the code BACKPKR).
You’ll need a prospective employer to sponsor you (and to go on a contract too), however, then an expat lifestyle in Vietnam awaits! There are heaps of schools around Vietnam that are always looking for fluent English speakers willing to teach. There are even heaps of adults wanting to learn.
A lot of people end up working in the major cities (like Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh) simply for the amount of work available and modern lifestyle. Of course, as I always tell people looking to teach English abroad, getting out of the urban jungles and into the villages and rural areas is going to offer a much more authentic and wholesome experience.
What to Eat in Vietnam
Vietnamese food is popular all around the world! I would be gobsmacked if you have yet to try spring rolls or bread rolls?
As well as tasting absolutely wonderful, Vietnamese food is one of the healthiest foods in the world. Prepared with fresh ingredients, vegetables, herbs and either rice or noodles, each dish is different but delicious!
Fresh from the sea or fresh from the rice paddies, the food in Vietnam is sublime. Here are a few you should definitely try whilst backpacking Vietnam…
Popular Vietnamese Dishes
- Buncha – One of my favourites! This is basically a Pork Meatball Noodle Salad. Yum!
- Goi Cuon – The famous Vietnamese “Summer Rolls” are a perfect light bite. Normally filled with shrimp and/or pork, herbs and vegetables. They are wrapped in rice paper and served with Peanut dipping sauce.
- Pho – Basically noodle soup. There are many varieties of Pho, perfect for those slightly unsure about Vietnamese food.
- Banh Mi Thit – Or in other words, the best sandwich in Asia! Basically, a well-sized baguette stuffed with yummy treats such as ham, cheese, fish, vegetables etc.
Although only surpassed only by Indonesia as Southeast Asia’s most heavily populated country, Vietnam is the region’s most ethnically homogenous country with the Vietnamese making up about 85% of the population. Most of the remaining population in Vietnam is made up of a variety of minority ethnic groups and peoples with their own customs and traditions.
Buddhism is undoubtedly the most commonly practised religion, but Vietnam has a rich and wide variety of other religions including Catholicism, animism, theism and ancestor worship. In truth, the majority of the Vietnamese people either identify with folk traditions or are just straight atheistic
Useful Travel Phrases for Vietnam
Below I have listed helpful travel phrases for Vietnam. It always pays to learn a new language as you travel to be able to communicate with the locals. At the very least, try!
- Hello – Xin Chao
- Goodbye – Tam biet
- Thank You – Cám on Ban
- No Problem – Khong Van De Gi
- I like to Eat – Toi Muon An
- What is this? – cái si te nài?
- I am Sorry – Toi Sin Loi
- No plastic bag – Không có túi nh?a
- No straw please – Không có r?m, xin vui lòng
- No plastic cutlery please – Không có dao nh?a xin vui lòng
- I’m Hungry – Tôi Doi
- What is your name? – Tên cua ban là si
- I don’t understand. – Toi khong hieu
Books to Read About Vietnam
Here are some books to read while you’re travelling Vietnam. There’s nothing quite like reading about a place just to then see it in the flesh!
- Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram – An incredibly personal account of the Vietnam War. Translated from Vietnamese, it can be a bit choppy but a heart pulling read.
- Vietnam: Rising Dragon by Bill Hayton – Written by a BBC journalist, it’s an informative book which will help you understand contemporary Vietnam. Very readable I found this really helpful in understanding Vietnam.
- The Dogs of Nam: Stories from the Road and Lessons Learned Abroad – A collection of short stories from over a decade of travel. This is no glamorous tale of #wanderlust, but a true and honest accounting of what it means to be a traveller.
- Destination Saigon – A funny and fascinating book about backpackers travelling in Vietnam. If you are planning your backpacking trip to Vietnam, or just curious about the culture, this book is perfect!
- When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (Tie-In Edition) – An account from a survivor of the Vietnam war who fled to America and then returned to her hometown many years later.
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Brief History of Vietnam
In the late 19th century, Vietnam became a French colony. The French built infrastructure in Vietnam such as the Saigon to Hanoi railway through taxation, and the Vietnamese wanted independence.
When France was losing in WWII, Japan took advantage and occupied French Indo-China. The Vietnamese Communists or Viet Minh fought the Japanese and by 1945 they controlled parts of North Vietnam. Viet Minh took control of most of Vietnam and declared Vietnam independent by 1945, but France ignored this. With no intention to give up power, fighting broke out between them and the Viet Minh.
After a siege lasting 57 days the French were forced to surrender.
In North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh introduced a Communist regime while in the south Ngo Dinh Diem became ruler. Gradually, the USA became involved in the Vietnam War during the Cold War. First they were sending military advisers to South Vietnam. Financially, they supported the French and later the South Vietnamese government.
Then in 1964 two US ships were supposedly subject to ‘unprovoked’ attacks by the North Vietnamese. The Americans then bombed the north and Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution allowing the president to take ‘all necessary measures’ to prevent ‘further aggression’. As a result by December 1965 there were 183,000 US soldiers in Vietnam and by the end of 1967 there were nearly half a million. However, the Vietcong continued their guerrilla war.
Americans withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, but the South Vietnamese continued to fight the Vietcong alone until 1975 until the North Vietnamese captured Saigon. Vietnam was reunited under Communist rule.
Final Advice Before Visiting Vietnam
Before you visit Vietnam, I have a couple more tidbits for your consideration.
Joining an Organised Tour in Vietnam
For most countries, Vietnam included, solo travel is the name of the game. That said, if you are short on time, energy, or just want to be part of an awesome group of travellers you can opt to join an organized tour. Joining a tour is a great way to see a majority of the country quickly and without the effort that goes into planning a backpacking trip. However, not all tour operators are created equal, and that is for sure.
G Adventures is an international, solid down-to-earth tour company catering to backpackers just like you, and their prices and itineraries reflect the interests of the backpacker crowd. You can score some pretty sweet deals on epic trips in Vietnam for a fraction of the price of what other tour operators charge.
Check out some of their awesome itineraries for Vietnam here…
Another option for organized tours is through a local tour operator like Vietnamtours.com who also offers some unique and authentic itineraries.
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Be Good to Vietnam
Writing your name in black marker on temples, chugging beer in Saigon while shirtless, swearing loudly, and visiting unethical animal attractions? You, Sir, are a twat. Luckily, most backpackers don’t fall into this category but, when you’re out and about and have had a few too many drinks, it can be easy to embarrass yourself.
It’s easy to get carried away in Southeast Asia; everything is so damn cheap and so much fun. I’m in no way the perfect traveller: I’ve been the drunken idiot on the street. I know first hand just how hard it is to be the one person in a group to say no when somebody comes up with a stupid idea that, for some reason, everybody is down for.
By no means am I telling you not to drink, smoke, and party. Do it and love it. Just don’t get so drunk you turn into an imbecile your mum would be ashamed of.
Wear a helmet when you hop on a motorbike in Asia. Despite being an experienced driver, I’ve had a total of three crashes in Southeast Asia over the last ten years.
On the one occasion, I wasn’t wearing a helmet, I split my head open and had to go to the hospital. It was an expensive mistake. The local people are sick of scraping foreigners off the road and, trust me, you don’t look cool for not wearing a helmet.
Humans are humans; treat people you meet along the way with the same respect you would show your friends and family back home. You are not superior to anyone including the girls/guys walking the streets. Sex workers in Southeast Asia are people like you and me; they may enjoy what they do, or they may be on the darker side of it.
Regardless of your beliefs and thoughts on prostitution, remember this is another person with thoughts, feelings and a life outside of the sex industry too. You are not superior to any of these people: you just got luckier in the lottery of life.
Go to Asia and have the time of your life, do the things you’ve dreamed of but be respectful along the way. Travelling the world makes you an ambassador for your country, which is awesome. We can make a positive impact on people when we travel and get rid of any ugly stereotypes that may be associated with your country…
Vietnam has had it rough over the years. Just be good to it, is all, And soak it up.
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