Vietnam is a wonderfully diverse country with a long and sometimes tragic history. This Vietnam Backpacking Itinerary explores a month long route through the country that showcases its highlights. It features big cities, treks through rice terraces, exploring caves and much more. The huge range of places throughout the country make it fantastic for travellers. It also includes a look at the countries history. This of course includes the struggles for independence and the war with the USA. There are caves, treks and crazy house’s along the way as this Vietnam Backpacking Itinerary takes you through the country. Diversity is key here, and it’s what makes Vietnam so fun to explore.
The length and route of this Vietnam Backpacking Itinerary
This Vietnam Backpacking Itinerary is designed to take a month to complete. A 30 day Vietnamese tourist visa should be acquired before you travel. This can be done so online using the Vietnamese e-visa scheme or in person at a appropriate embassy or consulate.
If you are planning to travel around the Southeast Asia region then Vientiane in Laos is a good place to do this. As is Bangkok in Thailand. As you will need to specify your entry date it can be better to get your visa in person when travelling long term. That way you can be flexible about deciding when to go.
This Vietnam Backpacking Itinerary route takes in the following stops:
- Cát Bà Island inc Ha Long Bay
- Phong Nha
- Hội An
- Đà Lạt
- Mũi Né
- Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon)
- The Mekong Delta
Travel between these stops is generally by bus. Vietnam has a well established bus network used by backpackers and locals alike. It is how I travelled the country when I visited. Generally buses can be booked through your accommodation, often including pick up. Otherwise your accommodation should be able to advise a bus agency to book with. Often bus journeys will take place overnight on sleeper buses. I have given information about this when appropriate.
There are train lines in Vietnam that run particularly along the coast. They can also be looked into for some parts of the journey. You can check out the Vietnamese state railway website by clicking this link. Its best to check at the actual train stations about buying tickets.
You could also undergo this route by motorbike. Many backpackers choose this method to travel around the country, often buying a bike in Hanoi and selling it in Saigon or vice versa.
A note on how long to spend at each destination in this Vietnam Backpacking Itinerary
Throughout this Vietnam Backpacking Itinerary I have given some information for each stop about how long I advise to spend there and about the journey to the next one.
Vietnam is a large country and the journeys in between the stops listed here can take many hours. As mentioned sleeper buses are popular here and they are good to utilise, to give you more time in each stop. If you’re travelling by motorbike or by train the journey lengths are important to factor in.
This Vietnam Backpacking Itinerary begins in Hanoi. You could also start in Saigon and complete it the other way round. Both cities have international airports that you could fly into to begin your journey. You could also cross by land from Laos or Cambodia at several different points. There is also the option to cross by boat between Cambodia and Vietnam. This is via a ferry that runs along the Mekong between Phnom Penh and Chau Doc. If you are heading to Cambodia afterwards this is a recommended way to cross the border. It is covered below at the end of this route.
The capital of Vietnam has a rather hectic feel to it, but that really adds to it’s charm. Its definitely a city to walk around and appreciate the atmosphere. The main focus for tourists here is the Old Quarter. This busy area is full of street food and other vendors. Its a good place to wonder around during the day and spend your evenings eating and drinking. Hoan Kiem Lake isn’t too far and is another favourite for visitors. It has a some temples and The Huc Bridge to explore.
Hanoi also hosts some excellent museums. The Military History Museum is a good one to visit if you’re interested in Vietnam’s conflicts throughout the 20th century, particularly with the French and Americans. There are some tanks and planes on display here to that actually used in those wars. There are also displays covering history from before this time as well.
How long to spend in Hanoi and onward travel
Hanoi is a great place to explore and you could spend along time here enjoying the city. To fit in the rest of this Vietnam Backpacking Itinerary though I recommend keeping it to 3 nights here. You should travel early in the morning to SaPa. If possible its best to book your bus through your hostel or guesthouse so that it includes pick up.
The mountain town of SaPa in Northern Vietnam is fantastic trekking base. This region is home to several ethnic minority groups, often known as hill tribes. The Hmong people in particular provide guides who take people on treks through the beautiful rice terraces and mountain scenery. It is always the women who work as guides and you are able to meet different people on the way.
To make the most of your experience take a 2 day trip including a overnight sleep in a home-stay. There are plenty of the set up for trekkers and as well as sleeping you get to experience some fantastic home-cooked local food. You will also be provided with food along the way (it’s usually included in the costs but check when you book).
How long to spend in SaPa and onward travel
When you arrive into SaPa I advise staying in the town for 1 night. Book your trek for the next morning. As stated if you are doing a 2 day trek you will then stay a night with your guide and hosts at a home stay. When you get back the next day you can either stay one more night or take a night bus back to Hanoi. From Hanoi you will then need to take a bus to Cát Bà Island. This will include a short speedboat journey across to the island. Look for Cat Ba Express office, they have a good reputation for taking people to the island. They are near the old town in Hanoi, use google maps to find them. You can book online in advance but i think it’s better just to book at the office.
Cát Bà Island inc Ha Long Bay
This part of Vietnam is famous for it’s natural beauty. There are many limestone islands here covered in forest making it visually striking. Many people choose to visit Ha Long Bay on a tour from Hanoi but it’s well worth staying on Cát Bà Island. This gives you the opportunity not only to see the scenery but also engage in more activities. You can take a tour of Ha Long Bay by boat from here. You can also go rock climbing and kayaking in Lan Ha Bay, which is Ha Long Bay’s neighbour and shares the same features. The latter is quieter and see’s less traffic from tourist boats. Its also home to floating villages, which aren’t allowed in Ha Long Bay.
On Cát Bà Island island itself you can head inland to it’s national park. Visit the Hospital Cave, used by the Vietnamese in the American war. As the name suggests, it literally is a cave in which they built a hospital, to protect themselves from bombing. You can also climb up to a viewpoint looking across the parks forest and mountains.
Cát Bà town itself is full of restaurants and accommodation, though personally I don’t think it’s anything special. However form here you can visit the Cannon Fort overlooking the bay the town is located in. You can see some really good views from here. The fort has been used by Japanese, French and Vietnamese Military forces during it’s time, you can visit artillery positions and tunnels. There are also some beaches nearby that are worth a look, even if just for an evening walk.
How long to spend here and onward travel
I would recommend spending at least 3 days here to give you time to explore both the island itself and the local area. Make your decision about when to take the bus to Phong Nha based on how you feel. Decide whether you need to get a nights sleep in a bed or are happy to do so on a bus!
The Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park is famous for it’s caves, and exploring a few of them is the main reason to come here. For this Vietnam Backpacking Itinerary I recommend exploring the caves across 2 days, splitting them up as follows.
The Paradise Cave and The Dark Cave are best done by joining a tour of the national park. This normally includes a go on the longest zip-line in Vietnam too, as well as some swimming and kayaking. The Paradise Cave is a dry cave and a great place to admire stalactites and stalagmites. The Dark Cave however is a mud bath, you will get covered! You definitely need to take swimwear for this.
The Phong Nha Cave and Tien Son Cave are visited by dragon boat sailing along the river. They are both interesting to explore and you have the opportunity to walk around as well as ride the boat. They only take a few hours so you can take some time to relax in the afternoon and evening.
How long to spend here, where to stay and onward travel
How many nights to spend in Phong Nha really depends on what time you arrive. As discussed the above activities cover 2 days. If you have arrived early morning then you may only need 2 nights if you’re able to head straight out. If you’ve arrived during the day/evening then it’s going to be better to stay 3 nights to give you time to see everything.
A highly recommended hostel here is Easy Tiger. Even if you don’t sleep here (there are plenty of guesthouses in town) its worth visiting to book/join tours. Its the social hub in the evening too and has a large area for drinking an chat. Importantly they do a 9:00am Info Talk where you can find out information you need and join with other people to visit the caves together. This is particularly good for visiting Phong Nha Cave and Tien Son Cave.
The bus to Huế takes a few hours so it’s best to start early. When I was there there was one picking up between 4am and 4:30am. You should arrive before 10am. Check with Easy Tiger who they recommend to book with.
Huế is famous for being the capital of the Imperial Nguyễn Dynasty from 1802 until 1945. Its location is notable for the Perfume River, which runs through the city.
A major attraction of Huế is the Imperial City citadel. This includes the Forbidden Purple City which was the personal residence of the emperor. You can explore the grounds and check out the features. Its also worth a wander around outside to see the citadels walls and moat.
The Hue War Museum (also know as the Hue Provincial Museum) is good to check out for it’s perspective on the American-Vietnamese War and other conflicts. There are several tanks and planes here that were used in the fighting on both sides.
The Pagoda of the Celestial Lady, also known as the Thien Mu Pagoda, is a Buddhist temple that was first built in 1601. Its famous for it’s tower and is a good place to explore for an hour or two. On display here is the car that Thích Quảng Đức drove from the temple to Saigon in June 1963. There he immolated himself in protest against the South Vietnamese government’s treatment of Buddhists.
You can also take boat tours along the Perfume River. You can stop and see the Imperial Tombs which are the resting places of many members of the Nguyen dynasty. There are several tombs to see, discuss with the boat operators which ones they will stop at.
How long to spend here, onward travel and a note on the Imperial City
I would advise 2 nights are enough to spend in Huế, especially if you’ve arrived early from Phong Nha. This gives you plenty of time to see the highlights mentioned above and take some time to relax in the evenings. The bus to Hội An takes around 4 hours. It normally goes in the morning and again in the afternoon.
Its important to recognise that the Imperial City was devastated by warfare during the 20th Century. It was damaged during the fighting between French Colonial and Vietnamese forces in 1947. And again in fighting in 1968 during the Tet Offensive. This was an attack by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces against the Americans and South Vietnamese. It is still well worth a visit and a wander around. But temper your expectation, many a backpacker has been disappointed as they have expected more than it is!
The city of Hội An is famous for it’s pretty streets and well preserved old town. It was a major international trading hub for centuries and many merchants sold their wares here. Particularly the Chinese and Japanese, who have left their legacy on the town. There are several old Chinese temples here as well as the ‘Japanese Bridge’ to check out. In general though the appeal is to wander around and enjoy the old buildings and the atmosphere.
Whilst the town does deservedly get much of the attention, there are also some really nice beaches in the area. An Bang beach in particular is a good one to relax at for awhile. Its in the Cam An area which is only around 2.5km from Hội An.
How long to spend in Hội An, where to stay and onward travel
I advise you spend around 3 nights here whilst following this Vietnam Backpacking Itinerary. This should give you plenty of time to explore the town and a day on the beach too. I advise rather than stay in town you consider staying out by An Bang beach. Under The Coconut Tree is a great place to stay which is right by the beach.
The bus journey to Đà Lạt is a long one and can take up to 20 hours. Whilst it’s around 13 hours in distance it often involves a few stops and you will likely have to change at least once, probably at Nha Trang.
The city of Đà Lạt is interesting for the diversity of options here. Its somewhere to have fun and enjoy taking part in different activities.
In the city you can find several things to do. One place to visit is the Crazy House which as the name suggests is rather curious place to visit. Its rather baffling at times and certainty one of the more quirky places you will ever visit whilst backpacking.
Đà Lạt’s very pretty man made lake is a good place to relax. You can rent swan shaped paddle boats here and go for a boat ride around the late. It may seem odd but is actually quite pleasant.
The 100 Roof Bar cafe/bar is a fun place to spend your evenings. Like a cross between haunted house and a wizards mansion it’s an experience hard to describe in words! A popular activity that backpacked splay here is hide n seek with a bottle of rum. It has so many places to hide this game can go on all evening! Of course it has some seating places too, though you’ll have to navigate yourself through the maze that is the house to find them.
Heading out of town the Datanla waterfall is a fun place to stop. As well as the waterfalls here there is a roller coaster which is a lot of fun. Its a nice area and worth looking around for awhile. On the subject of waterfalls
Canyoning is popular around Đà Lạt too. Ask in you accommodation about tours.
Its also worth visiting Langbiang mountain. It is only 12km from the the town and from the top you get some nice views over the surrounding area. You can head through forest on the way up too and enjoy some time in nature.
How long to spend in Đà Lạt, where to stay and onward travel
I’d say 3 nights here is a good amount of time to see everything listed above. Cozy Nook hostel is my personal favourite hostel that I’ve ever stayed in, so of course I recommend it for this Vietnam Backpacking Itinerary. They do ‘family dinners’ every-night which are cheap and very tasty! In terms of onward travel if you leave in the morning you should arrive by the afternoon in the next stop. Its around 4 to 5 hours in travel time.
The coastal resort town of Mũi Né offers you the opportunity to enjoy some relaxation time. The beach itself is decent, walk around a bit to get yourself a good spot. Kite surfing is huge here and even if you’re just relaxing it can be fun to watch. there are also tonnes of restaurants here, you have a lot of choice. If you’ve been eating a lot of Vietnamese cuisine and fancy a change then this is the place to try something different.
A great way to see the area is to take a Dune tour. They are run by hostels in the area and are very cheap. They offer sunrise and sunset torus for this, I did a sunset one when I was there. You will see the fairy steam, which has some interesting landscape and feels a bit off-worldly. Then the fishing village which is quite a spectacle of boats. Its hard to believe they cram that many into the harbour! Then you visit the white dunes which make you fele liek you are in the desert. They offer expensive quad bike rental here but honestly you can just walk round and enjoy them. Finally you visit the red dune for sunset, again feeling you are in the desert. The sunset is great too.
How long to spend in Mũi Né , where to stay and onward travel
If you have arrived early enough then 2 nights is good here. Relax on the beach on the first day and take a dune tour on the 2nd. The rest of this Vietnam Backpacking Itinerary needs around 5 nights to complete. So if you have some days spare I think it’s a good place to relax before you hit the big city of Saigon.
The Mũi Né backpacker Village is a really good hostel here. Its actually part of the Vietnam backpackers chain, they have spots in other place too like Hanoi and SaPa. They have a nice pool and it’s a really good place to unwind. Mui Ne Hills Backpackers also has a good reputation, though I haven’t been there myself. The bus to Saigon should take around 4 to 5 hours depending on traffic. If you are riding a motorbike be careful doing this part, I have a friend who experienced some trouble here. Its a busy area full of lorries and police checks.
Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon)
The city of Saigon can split opinions and to be honest around the main backpacker area it can be rather busy and clogged with traffic. Still though it’s an interesting city to visit, there are parks and a large Chinatown too check out whilst you wander around. The backpacker area is full of bars so a good place to spend your evenings if you want to socialise.
A major highlight here is a tour to see the Cu Chi tunnels. These were used by the Viet Cong and local villages in the war against the Americans in the 1960s-70s. You have the opportunity to go through a tunnel as well as learn about them and the Viet Cong.
The War Remnants Museum is an emotional look at the American-Vietnamese War as well as the previous war against the French Colonials. There is a variety of things covered here, from propaganda posters to a look at atrocities committed by American forces. The use of Agent Orange and the Thanh Phong massacre are particularly covered. There are also military equipment displayed outside, such as US tanks and helicopters.
How long to spend in Saigon and onward travel
I would advise spending around 3 nights here. Though you could keep it to 2 if you wanted to allocate a day elsewhere, the tunnels and War Remnants museum can be done in the same day. You can book a tour of the Mekong Delta through numerous travel agencies in the city. If you’re heading to Cambodia I advise crossing via this tour. If you need to fly elsewhere or home then Tan Son Nhat International Airport has many international connections.
The Mekong Delta
The Mekong river travels through large parts of Southeast Asia passing through several nations on it’s way. This is where it splits into several distributary channel’s as it flows into the sea. The area here is a maze of rivers, streams and swamps. The land is used to grow many crops, agriculture is big here.
A Boat trip tour though the region will involve seeing how the locals live as you drift by, and stops along the way. Often you can see how local products are made such as rice paper and candy. It’s best to check with the tour operator for what if offered and where you will stay.
Heading to Cambodia?
As the land border crossing have somewhat negative reputation for long lines and scams, taking a boat into Cambodia is a great option. Several of the Mekong delta tours will include this. After staying a night on the border in Chau Doc you will cross by boat and head up to Phnom Penh. There is a ferry runs between the 2 points fairly regularly.
The process of going through immigration is quick and it’s a really good method to enter Cambodia. Plus it’s fun to have a ferry ride along the river! Most nationalities can get a Visa on arrival but check visa rules for your own nation first.
That’s the end of this Vietnam Backpacking Itinerary route.
Vietnam is one of my favourite countries and I really recommend visiting it. In terms of this Vietnam Backpacking Itinerary I just want to add some personal reflection on where I think is best to enjoy if your time is limited or if you have extra days to spare.
Personally I think the last 2 stops Saigon and the Mekong Delta are probably the least interesting of the route. They are definitely worth a go though, I wouldn’t have included them overwise! And the Mekong Delta tour really is the best to take if you’re travelling onward to Cambodia. But I certainly would advise prioritising the rest of the places above them.
If you have time to spare and want to relax, then the combination of Hội An, Đà Lạt and Mũi Né are where I would say it’s best to spend extra time. Hội An and Mũi Né particularly if you enjoy relaxing by the beach. And whilst I haven’t been I have friends who have visited Phú Quốc who recommend it for some beach time. Its an island off the Southern Coast, and is actually closer to Cambodia than mainland Vietnam. So if you do have a couple days spare at the end of this Vietnam Backpacking Itinerary it’s certainty somewhere to consider adding on.
Thanks for reading this Vietnam Backpacking Itinerary! I hope it inspires you to visit and helps you plan your own journey!
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