Vietnam is versatile and it has something to offer for everyone. A tourist, a traveler or a backpacker, irrespective of age or country, one can find plethora of things to do in Vietnam. Below is a comprehensive guide for backpacking across Vietnam – it has information on getting visa, weather, places, costs, and some essential travel tips.
We visited Vietnam as part of a larger travel plan across South East Asia and spent around 15 days traveling from south to north before flying to Laos. We had planned most of the things – where to stay, which places to visit, what activities to do, and left very few things unplanned. Vietnam is larger than we realized and there are too many things to do in Vietnam that require way longer than 2 weeks.
Before going, we had read mixed reviews about Vietnam. People who had been to Vietnam either loved it or hated it. Most people wrote that they didn’t enjoy the country or its people, and they wouldn’t ever go back.
We had few bad experiences and many memorable experiences – overall we enjoyed our backpacking across Vietnam. We have not seen all the places and there are so many things we could not do in Vietnam. However we did our best to make most of our 15 days. Below is a comprehensive guide for backpacking across Vietnam.
Backpacking across Vietnam – Essential Information
Getting Visa to Vietnam
You do not have to go for a third-party vendor or a travel agent. Vietnam has launched e-Visa systems for citizens from 46 Countries. If you are eligible, can directly apply in Vietnam e-visa Site, fee is 25 USD and is processed within 3 working days. It is a single entry e-Visa and is valid for 30 days.
Read the FAQs in the website and make sure that you have every document handy while applying for e-Visa.
Note: If you do not belong to the list of 46 countries or if you need multiple-entry visa, then you need to explore options for Vietnamese Visas and Visas On Arrival.
When to visit Vietnam?
We visited Vietnam during January. With each place climate varied greatly and it was a mix of hot, humid, wet, and cold. The best time to visit Vietnam is spring (February to April) and autumn (August to October). During these times, temperatures are favorable and rainfall is lighter.
What to Pack?
You need to pack things that are absolutely needed. You find day-to-day essentials and packed foods everywhere in Vietnam for reasonable prices. So skip food, chocolates, multiple soaps and other regular items.
Keep in mind that in Vietnam, weather goes from hot and humid to cold and wet in no time. So have a rain cover for your backpack and pack a set of warm clothing. Wear a comfortable footwear with good grip.
Do not forget general medicines and personal medication if any. You never know when you might need them and the ones that are available in Vietnam might not suit you.
Some Important things to Note
- Install Grab and Uber apps in your mobile.
- Carry your Driving License.
- Download offline maps of your initial locations.
- Google language translator is your best friend.
- Know your current currency exchange rates
- Pack a universal travel adapter
- Get a travel insurance
Travel Direction – North to South or South to North?
Northern Vietnam has a pleasant weather where as southern Vietnam is mostly hot. Also north is more scenic than the south. If you are travelling just to Vietnam, it is wise to travel from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi for a memorable experience. If you are country hopping, choose your entry and exit points based on cheaper flights, border crossing rules, visa requirements etc.
BEST PLACES – Backpacking across Vietnam
There are plenty of beautiful places and wide range of activities to choose from in Vietnam. Based on the time you have and the things that interests you, one can choose between mountains, beaches, caves, cities, historical places and even the roads less traveled.
The southern Ho Chi Minh City is a hot and noisy with complex history and rich culture. The central Da Nang is enchanting, modern, and vibrant . Hoi An is rustic and artistic where as My Son holds a mirror to the Mythology. Hue City resonates the glory of imperial Vietnam and Phong Nha is home for mystical caves. Ninh Binh is picturesque and makes you feel at home. On the contrary, Ha Long with similar landscape is chaotic and crowded. SaPa is serene and surrounded by magical mountains. And the northern city and the capital of Vietnam – Hanoi is a fascinating blend of Vietnamese motifs and French flair.
You have plenty of options – so take your pick. For complete details on places Read: 13 Stunning destinations of Vietnam
1. Do your homework
To avoid bad experiences you need to know exactly what you are getting yourself into once you are in Vietnam. Do your homework – know about the exchange rates, price range of things, location of market places, list of budget accommodations, names of food and its ingredients to avoid confusion between vegetarian/non-vegetarian options. Learn some basic Vietnamese words and phrases – locals appreciate travelers who show interest in their language and culture. If you are a vegetarian – say ‘An Chay’ or you will end up with fried beef toppings or a pinch of fish salt on your vegetables.
2. Know the Cost
You can eat for as less as 2$ and get a room for as less as 10-15$. Internal flights are cheap. Food, accommodation or local transport – there are no fixed prices in Vietnam. So whatever prices you read in blogs or books is just an approximation that helps you in knowing the price range of different things in different places. Vietnam is cheap only if you know where you get what you need and how much it might cost. Be aware of overcharging and be prepared to bargain hard. If you disagree most likely you hear curses from the vendor – do not get in to unpleasant arguments, instead walk away.
3. Money and Exchange Rates
Everyone in Vietnam is a Millionaire. Understand the currency – 1 USD is approximately 22000 VND. Though most vendors accept USD as a mode of payment, it becomes expensive as compared to paying in Vietnamese Dong (VND). Here are few important things to note:
- Airport exchange counters give a descent USD to VND exchange rates.
- You get best exchange rates at Bank. So use USD till you reach from airport to city and then exchange $ at a bank.
- Travel Card is helpful during long travels, but becomes an expensive affair during the short ones, as each withdrawal incurs extra charge.
- You will usually deal with the 10.000, 20.000, 50.000, 100.000, 200.000, and 500.000 denominations and you will be easily cheated if you are not careful. Double check if it is 10 or 100 – 20 or 200, and 50 or 500 while paying and also while receiving the change.
- And most importantly, before you leave Vietnam, exchange the left over VND in a bank or at the airport.
4. Sim Card and WiFi
Vietnam runs on Fast and Free WiFi. Airports, hostels, restaurants, shopping malls, trains, buses and every other place is connected with WiFi. So our suggestion is NOT to buy a sim card, instead use offline maps connect to free internet at your accommodation. The fastest WiFi connection of our lives was in Vietnam.
Budget accommodations cost between 2$ to 15$ depending on the place, facilities provided, and distance to nearby attractions. Things to note:
- If you are on tight-schedule, pre-book your accommodation and if you are traveling slow then you can explore options on the go.
- Know the names of budget accommodations and their distance from airport/bus-train stations.
- If you are arriving at a place early in the morning, say 6 AM, usually you will have to pay for 2 days.
- Pay while checking-in to avoid surrendering of your passport. A well-maintained budget accommodation costs between 8-10$ per night.
- If you are choosing dormitory accommodation, be extra careful of your valuables (money, phone, camera, passport) – anyone irrespective of their looks or talks can be a thief.
6. Guided Tours
Carefully research about the guided tour options. Be it for Ha Long or Cu-Chi or SaPa, there are plenty of scams throughout the country. Things to note:
- A cruise advertises 50% discount on a 160$ Ha Long Bay day trip if you book 15 days prior. So you will be getting the trip for 80$. Online bookings rae most expensive.
- When you book the same day trip through your hotel reception, you will pay 50$. This is cost and time effective option.
- Funniest thing is, if you book directly at the tour operator’s office, you will be charged only 40$. Walking around the street, inquiring tours, and carefully choosing an operator is the cheapest. However this consumes time.
Same goes for any other guided tours around Vietnam. You pay what you pay, so do your research before booking any tours.
Also make sure that you double check the itinerary of the tour and vocally ask the person confirming your booking if all the places mentioned in the list are covered. We were given below plan, however neither the cruise nor the food was bearable. They even skipped Ti Top Island.
Vietnam is vast, distances are long, and traffic is crazy in Vietnam. Things to note:
- To reach from airport to your accommodation – Grab or Uber is comparatively cheaper and is usually reliable.
- Renting motorbikes (100.000 – 140.000 VND per day, 5-8 $) is the cheapest way to travel within the cities and to visit nearby destinations.
- If you are a novice rider, Vietnam is definitely not the place for you to ride motorbike. Traffic is horrible, lanes are crowded, and it is not easy navigating through all the chaos.
- Renting cabs and hiring tuk-tuks can be tricky and needs excellent negotiation skills.
- For long travels, opt for night sleeping bus which costs between 200.000 – 350.000 VND depending on the distance of travel or the best option is pre-booking night trains that are on time, clean, and comfortable. This saves you a lot of time during tight travel schedules and also saves the cost of accommodation.
- At times local flights are cheaper than the bus/train and saves you long hours of travel. So explore your options well ahead in time for a cost-effective plan.
8. Tourist Attractions and Entry Fees
There are beautiful places in Vietnam with free entrance or reasonable entrance fees and there are also some terrible places with steep entrance costs. Few things to note:
- For enchanting marble mountains in Da Nang you pay 40.000 VND and visiting the mesmerizing Bai Dinh Pagoda is FREE.
- For visiting the tombs of Minh Mang and Tu Duc and Khai Dinh in Hue City you will have to pay 100.000, which is definitely not worth it.
- The ancient town of Hoi An has an entry fee of 120.000 VND, where as the Sanctuary of My Son has an entry fee of 150.000 VND. Once paid, you need not pay for any other entrance fees within these cities.
- Caves of Phong Nha have varied entrance costs – Tien Son Cave (80.000 VND), Phong Nha Cave (150.000 VND), Paradise Cave (250.000 VND), Dark Cave (350.000 VND), 1 day Tu-Lan Caves (1.800.000 VND) and it goes on higher to explore the lesser known caves. Few tours are organized only by Oxalis Adventures, pre-book with them to ensure seat availability.
- Trekking Fansipan legally costs between 60$-100$ per person depending on the group size and you need to find organizers locally. Taking a cable car to Fansipan top costs 600.000 VND.
- Water Puppet Theatre in Ho Chi Minh costs 160.000 VND where as the one in Hanoi costs 100.000 VND. This is an activity you MUST DO.
So while planning your itinerary, research about the entrance fees and read about the places. It is important to make an informed decision on what all to do while you are in the country. It helps you save both money and time.
9. Passport and Security Deposit
Be extra careful of your passport. Some accommodations hold on to your passport till you check-out and every motorbike rental place keeps your passport as safety-deposit. So while vacating the room or while returning the bike, make sure that you do not forget collecting your passport. And open your passport and check that indeed is yours.
Never leave in hurry to airport/bus station/train station without making sure that you have your passport with you.
If you are heading out on an adventure, make sure that your passport and valuables are with you protected by a waterproof cover or in a safe box. Never leave it unattended in your bag or with other travelers or the guide or on the boat/bus etc.
10. Shopping and Souvenirs
Vietnamese are creative people and their markets are shoppers paradise. There is an unlimited set of things one can buy on the streets of Vietnam – delicious food, aromatic coffee, handmade souvenirs, and replicas of world famous brands. Things to note:
- Coffee is part of the culture in Vietnam – Vietnamese Iced Coffee, Hanoi’s Egg Coffee, Coconut Coffee and the list goes on. They even have a unique coffee brewer – which makes a perfect souvenir.
- Hoi An night market has vibrant lanterns, tailor made dresses, handmade flip-flops, and crafty souvenirs.
- On the other hand Da Nang – Han Market has ready-to-eat foods, cheap apparels, north-face replicas and made in Vietnam souvenirs.
- Hanoi old quarter is filled with Vietnamese hat, postcards, replica apparels of all famous brands and hand-made paintings.
So what to buy and where to buy and how to choose from a multitude of things is a challenge in itself. We would say – Vietnamese Hat & Coffee maker are two things one must definitely buy.
NOT-TO-DO in Vietnam
- Do not get into cab or buy food on streets without asking the price. You do not want to end up in an unwanted situation or end up paying 20$ for a 5 km ride.
- In Hanoi old quarter and in Ho Chi Minh City you come across strangers inviting you on to free party with free drinks. Say NO to FREE Parties and FREE Drinks offered by strangers.
- Unless you eat anything and everything, ask about the ingredients in a food. Pork, Beef, and Sea Food Salts are extremely common.
- An extremely cheap accommodation/dorm comes with an extremely crappy maintenance. You do not want to stay in an accommodation filled with cockroaches, bed-bugs, unwashed linen, and a messy bathroom just to save a dollar or two. So choose wisely.
- Unless you are short on time, do not book everything ahead in time. And definitely do not book guided tours and Ha Long cruises online.
- While shopping in night markets, never buy anything without exploring the market for an hour. The initial shops always quote higher compared to the ones at the end and there are always more than one shop selling the same product.
- Do not try to visit every museum and every tourist attraction listed in a travel guidebook or blogs. Slow down. Visit only those places that actually interests you and is best suited for the duration of your stay.
- Do not get into arguments with vendors or cab drivers. Ask for the price and bargain if necessary. If you reach a state of disagreement, let it go and look for other options.
- Do not ignore the locals or other fellow travelers. Traveling is just not about seeing places. It is about understanding a new culture, knowing the history of the place, and interacting with its people.
- Do not count every penny. You might be on a budget travel, still it is important to contribute a little towards a society that survives mainly on tourism. Buy souvenirs, opt for street food, pick fruits from road-side, and get your morning coffee from a vendor around the corner.
I have shared the pros, cons, and the important sights to see in Vietnam along with travel tips. If you have any questions/suggestions, please post them in the comments section. I will be happy to connect.