Vietnam is a wonderfully diverse country with an interesting yet tragic history. There are so many different things to do here its a country that appeals on many varying levels. You can explore big cities and go trekking in remote villages. Relax on the beach and admire historic towns. Learn about war history and sample amazing foods. And much more!
Vietnam really is a fantastic country for backpacking and I’ve written this guide to help you plan your visit. And if you don’t have plans to go then I hope it inspires you to make some! This Vietnam Country Guide has been written based on my own experience of backpacking the country. I did lots of research for my own trip so I’ve put that together with what I actually experience to create this post.
This guide is best used in conjunction with my Vietnam Backpacking Itinerary.
If your crossing into Vietnam by land you will need to sort your visa in advance. You will have to specify your entry date so if your travelling around Southeast Asia then its probably best to do it close to your planned entry date. The Vietnamese embassy in Vientiane (Laos) is a good place to get your 30 day tourist visa sorted. There are land crossing points from Laos, Cambodia and China.
Some nationalities can get visa on arrival if flying in by air. These tend to be only a couple of weeks though. Check your countries rules well in advance and be aware that some countries deals are time constrained. There are loads of airports in Vietnam. Hanoi, Saigon and Da Nang are the 3 main cities for international flights.
When I visited I crossed from Dansavan which was a pretty crazy experience.
Sleeper busses travelling through the night are a standard option here. You save on a nights accommodation and can meet loads of other travellers. Just be careful to keep your valuables secure on the bus with you. You’ll have to put your big pack in the hold and occasionally they do get rummaged through. Buy tickets through hostels/guesthouses.
There are trains between the south and north, generally along the coast. Buying a ticket a day or two in advance at the train station is your best bet if you want to do this.
A lot of people like to travel through Vietnam by motorbike and I have several friends who’ve done it and really enjoyed it.
Vietnamese dong can generally only be bought and sold inside Vietnam. The best approach is to get some out from an ATM when you arrive and spend/sell what you have left before you leave. Even if you do see it for sale outside the country the exchange rate will probably be terrible. Carry some US dollars with you in case of emergency’s.
The food in Vietnam is fantastic. Pho is a popular noodle soup that is widely available. Spring rolls, meat, seafood, tofu, friend vegetables, rice and noodles are all common staples of the diet. There are some interesting hotpots that can be found in the country, the above picture is of a vegetarian one. When people think of Southeast Asian cuisine they might think of Thai food as the best but i’d say Vietnamese food is equal to it.
To note: Vegetarian food in Vietnam is called ‘Chay’. You can find my overview of travelling as a vegetarian in Southeast Asia here.
There are loads of hostels in Vietnam and you shouldn’t have a problem finding anywhere. 2 of my favourite hostels in the world are located here – Cozy Nook in Da Lat and Under The Coconut Tree in Hoi An. Prices for dorms are cheap, in line with the rest of Southeast Asia. Otherwise there are plenty of hotels and guesthouses. Private rooms can be a bit more depending where you are.
During Tết (Vietnamese new year) the country virtually shuts down for a week so its probably best to avoid travelling here at this time. Its based on the lunar cycle so change each year. Get some info and check dates on Wikipedia.
Bia hơi is the term for Vietnamese beer that is brewed and sold on the same day. Its found on lots of street comers and in the smaller bars. Its really cheap, generally under 40 cents ($).
Watch out for bag snatchers on motorbikes in the big cities. Vietnam is generally a very safe country but this is one of the very few blemishes. A simple solution is to wear a bag with straps over both shoulders as this makes it physically harder to snatch.
Remember that the Vietnamese either lived through the terrible American war or have family who did. Many will of course have family that died in the war too. So be sensitive to this and understand that the history of the war is seen very differently here than in Western Countries.
Where to go in Vietnam:
(Note: As mentioned earlier I have written a more detailed Vietnam Backpacking Itinerary here).
The capital of Vietnam has a fascinating old quarter. Its jam packed with people walking the streets and riding their motorbikes through the roads. This really is a full on bustling area. If you want to try street food or have a night out then this is the place. There are loads of lakes in Hanoi too, Hoan Kiem Lake is in the Old Quarter area and features the Thap Rua (Turtle Tower).
There are loads of museums in Hanoi The Military History Museum is a good one to visit if you want to learn about the Vietnamese battles against the French and then Americans during the 20th century. You can see the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum in memory to the man who led the communists for so many years. I won’t list the rest here but suffice to say you will need to do a bit of research if museums are your thing!
This beautiful area in Northern Vietnam is perfect for trekking. Local hill tribes women will take you along the trekking routes and you can see the amazing rice fields as well as the beautiful mountains scenery and awesome locals. There are various options available, you don’t need to arrange in advance just turn up and sort something in the town. All your meals will be included but take snacks and water with you. I’d really recommend one that includes an overnight homestay. You stay a night with local villagers and it means you can explore further into the countryside than a day trek would allow.
In SaPa town itself be sure to check out the tourist area on Ham Rong Mountain. Great view over SaPa town and if you keep going up past the rest of the tourists you’ll come to a peaceful wood area.
I loved my own visit to SaPa and the trek I did around there.
Cat Ba Island / Halong Bay
Cat Ba island has really developed as a tourist destination in the past few years. Not only is the island itself good to explore but its also a good base to visit the local area from. This includes the famous Halong Bay with its beautiful limestone islands. Take boat tours of varying lengths to visit it. These can also be arranged in Hanoi or Halong city. In Lan Ha Bay you can people living on the waters in floating villages. From Cat Ba island you can also arrange activities like Rock Climbing and Kayaking. On Cat Ba island itself check out the national park, hospital cave and Canon fort. The latter 2 have interesting history relating to the Vietnam war in particular.
Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park
Known as Phong Nah for shorthand, this national park has some amazing caves including the biggest cave in the world! Alas you need thousands of dollars spare to actually visit Hang Sơn Đoòng but the other caves are much more budget friendly and very interesting and beautiful! There is a hostel here called Easy Tiger and even if you don’t stay there it is a great hub to meet people and arrange tours. The Paradise Cave and Dark Cave are a good combo that can be done a tour organised from there. It also includes the longest zip line in Vietnam. Phong Nah cave and Tien Son Cave are good to visit to, get a group together at Easy Tiger and go there by boat.
Its important to remember when visiting Huế that the main attraction here – the Imperial City – was heavily damaged during the Vietnam war. As such if you expect some grand labyrinth you will be disappointed. But be realistic and its still great to see the vast walls and gates that surround the city and there are some interesting parts remaining.
Running through Huế is the ‘Perfume River’. It is popular for boat cruises but don’t come expecting scenic beauty straight off, it is a modern busy city after all! I haven’t done it myself but you can take a tour along the river to visit the ‘Tombs Of The Emperors’. When you recall that the city was home to the Nguyen dynasty for years the name is rather self explanatory!
Be sure to check out the Thien Mu Pagoda too. The monk Thich Quang Duc drove from here to Saigon and self immolated himself in 1963 as protest at the then South Vietnamese regime. Also stop by the Thuan Thien Hue Museum which has lots of captured US equipment from the war.
Huế has a backpacker area based around Pham Ngu Lao street and you can find plenty of hostels, bars, restaurants and supplies around here.
The city of Hoi An was once one of the most important trading ports in Southeast Asia. Merchants from Japan and China in particular have left a big influence on the city. The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and attracts large numbers of tourists. Its easy to see why, the town is very picturesque! Take some time to wander around the beautiful streets and admire them. The city is also really well known for its tailor industry, clothes are a big deal here. If you want something customer made then this is the place to do it!
Not far from the old town you can find An Bang beach. Its a great place to relax by the ocean. I’d say this is one of my favourite beaches in Southeast Asia as it is very chilled out. I mentioned the ‘Under The Coconut Tree’ hostel earlier – this is right by the beach and definitely worth a couple nights stay and take it easy.
Da Lat is full of things to do, some of them definitely on the weird and wonderful side. As an example here’s 3 things to do inside the city. Number 1 is visit the Crazy House, a truly bizarre creation. Its kind of a twisted fairy tale building slash guesthouse slash who knows? 2 is spend the evening playing hide and seek at the 100 roofs Cafe. Part house of horror, part maze maze and part bar, its a very odd experience. Lots of fun! And finally 3 is take a swan boat ride on the lake. Because its cliched as hell and hilarious!
Outside the city visit Datanla waterfall. As well as the waterfall itself here’s a cool roller coaster ride you can take there. You can also do ‘Canyoning’ there is you fancy trying it. Langbiang mountain is worth a visit to, get out of urban areas for a bit!
There are 2 things i’d recommend doing in Mui Ne, a fun coastal town in Southern Vietnam.
The first is take a sunset tour of the area. It covers the Fairy Stream, Fishing Village, White Dunes and Red Dunes. Yes, Vietnam has big sand dunes! Its a varied tour and its cheap (only $5 when I was there in 2016). The fairy stream is like a scene from Star Wars on something and the fishing village is quite remarkable. Environmentally terrifying, but remarkable all the same. And the Dunes well they are huge sand dunes! At the white dunes you can ride a buggy if you so wish…it costs a lot though.
The second is to relax on the beach. Its a good standard and a nice place to relax. There are also tonnes of kite surfers here which are fun to watch. Or join in if that’s your thing and you afford the rental prices!
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
The typical backpacker area (district 1) in Saigon is pretty hectic. There’s loads of bars here so the night life can be pretty full on. Loads of travel agencies and hostels are based here too. You might get hassled a bit as you walk around the streets but just keep smiling and ignore them.
Saigon is a place where you can really learn about the horror of the Vietnam war. Aka the American war. The War Remnants Museum really hits home with its details on things like Agent Orange and the Thanh Phong massacre. There’s also lots of interesting posters about the peace movement and some old war equipment outside. Whilst in Saigon I advise you go on a trip out to the Cu Chi tunnels, the tunnels used by the Viet Cong and local villagers in the American war.
The Mekong Delta
The Mekong Delta is often referred to as the ‘rice bowl’ of Vietnam due to its importance in production of food. Particularly production of rice as the name suggests. The Mekong runs here all the way from China, through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. The area is a patchwork of rivers, swamps and other wet areas. Its also full of people who live on the river or on it, their livelihoods dependant on it. You can organise varying tours in Saigon to visit the area and see how people live here.
If your planning to travel into Cambodia from Vietnam then the boat crossing at Vinh Xuong border point is quick and efficient. Choose a tour that includes this as its much better than the land crossings, which can involve large queues and hassle.
See route on the map:
Where else in Vietnam?
The places I’ve listed above are what I covered in one month in Vietnam. There is of course much more to see and if you have longer you won’t be disappointed.
For example Ninh Bình to the south of Hanoi is said to have some stunning scenery. The limestone hills around Tam Coc are a draw for people. Da Nang is a popular big city on the coast, just north of Hội An. And to the west of Hội An you will find Hindu temples at Mỹ Sơn. In the south you can find Phu Quoc which is a popular island destination.
Personally I hope to return and visit lots more places in Vietnam in future!
Thanks for reading this Vietnam Country Guide!