Vietnam is vibrant with rolling hills of greenery, bustling cities, rich foods, and backpackers galore. It had always been on my bucket list and had heard only great things, so when my boss told me a few days prior I could take the week off, it did not take long for me to decide Vietnam was my next adventure.
Little did I know that Vietnam was even more beautiful and lovely than I had expected. The food is amazing, the locals are kind, everything is cheap, the scenery is breathtaking, and the weather is ideal. I wish I could have spent more time there (I only had one week), but I think even if I had six months, I still could not see everything I wanted to see. Just another great reason to go back!
Before You Go…
It is best to buy your tickets early or about one month in advance. Any closer than that and the ticket prices soar. Because I only had a few days to plan, my flights were abnormally expensive. Don’t let this deter you from visiting Vietnam, because the flight is the most expensive part of a trip to Vietnam. Everything else is dirt cheap.
Where to fly into?
Vietnam has three international airports: Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City (South), Da Nang International Airport in Da Nang (Middle), and Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi (North).
Where you will be spending most of your time (or for me, I just chose the cheapest flight) will determine the best airport to fly into. Some people travel North to South so they will fly into Noi Bai and fly out of Tan Son Nhat. Others travel South to North (what I did and highly recommend), so I flew into Tan Son Nhat and flew out of Noi Bai. Da Nang is located in the center, so if you are doing Da Nang, Hoi An, and Hanoi, this could be a great option.
You need a Visa before entering Vietnam. There are several websites that you can get your visa from- I used Vietnam Visa Center. There are a couple of different options based off of time spent in country (30 days, 90 days, or 1 year), number of entries (only entering and exiting once or multiple times), and delivery time of visa (they will send it to you in 3 business days, 1 day, half day, or 2 hours). Prices vary per option, and you can find all of these options on their website.
I chose a 30 day single-entry 3-business-day visa. Even though I applied for the visa online, I still had to present a passport photo, $25US in cash, and a printed version of the visa to the immigration desk at the airport. So, in total I paid $45US and spent one extra hour at the airport after landing to get my visa.
Create a TENTATIVE Itinerary…
My biggest lesson while in Vietnam (and traveling in general) is that THINGS CHANGE. By the first day, my entire itinerary changed. Being flexible is essential, because most things are out of your control such as weather, public transportation delays, and food poisoning. Also, being flexible allows you to do more things that you actually enjoy. For example, I spent less time in HCMC because it was raining all week and spent an extra day in Halong Bay because I made a lot of great friends!
This does not mean show up with no idea of what you are doing. I recommend looking at a map and picking out points you definitely want to see/do. Then, do some research on hostels in the area and read their reviews. Make a note of these things- this saves time when you arrive to a city.
In my case, I wanted to see the entire country from South to North. The cities I chose to visit were Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Nha Trang (near Dalat Sand Dunes), Hoi An, Halong Bay, and Sapa. I made the mistake of booking all of my hostels in advance, although this may be necessary during high season (May – August). I ended up doing sleeper buses rather than staying in hostels to save time and could not cancel my reservations. This was a minor error that only cost me $5US in total, because hostels are so cheap. I did know that I wanted to do a Halong Bay tour, which I booked in advance through Central Backpackers Hostel.
Money money money…
Complete the standard traveling protocol of setting up a travel notice with your bank so that you can use your cards and reading up on your bank’s international policy pertaining to foreign transaction fees and atm fees. Vietnam prefers the American dollar or their own currency (Dong). So, if you cannot bring American dollars (although you will need cash for your visa- in this case, you could order Dong at your bank), then take out lots of cash upon arrival. Most atm fees are set and are not dependent on the amount you get out. Therefore, it is cheaper to take out more money less often.
How to Get Around…
Download Google Maps- there is a feature where you can download maps of cities to use when you are “offline” or do not have data. Another way I use Google Maps is to mark restaurants and shops that people recommend me. You can mark them using a colored flag. Then, when you arrive, you already have a ton of recommendations and don’t have to do much research which takes time. Another great perk of marking locations on your map before arriving is you can pull it up to show a taxi driver, local, or someone who can help you get where you are going.
Tip: Cross (the street) with confidence! You will never get to where you are going if you are not determined while crossing the street. Do as the locals do- I recommend following closely behind a local the first few times to get the hang of weaving through moving traffic.
A common way for backpackers to get around is via motorbike. I had planned to motorbike the entire country but there were a few things I did not consider: insurance for injuries and damage to the bike, how long it takes to get in between cities, how hectic the roads are in the cities, and money for gas. Due to all of these factors that I had not considered until I arrived the first day, I opted into the sleeper buses and trains.
Sleeper buses and trains…
Not only are they affordable, but sleeper buses and trains are a great way to cover more ground in less time by traveling overnight. For a sleeper bus, I recommend only taking one if you are 5’5″ or less. Luckily, I was able to stretch my legs out, but it pained me to consider anyone taller than me trying to get a good night’s rest all hunched over. I preferred the sleeper trains- you also have the option of renting a room on the trains if you have a hard time sleeping in a chair.
Something to note about sleeper buses and trains is that they are never on-time arriving or departing. So, be sure to give yourself a couple hours barrier on either side before planning an excursion of some sort. Websites I used included: 12goasia and Baolau.
Tip: Beware of taxi drivers! They will wait outside just about every tourist location, especially train stations. The great part is…train stations have wifi. So, before leaving the station, call your Grab! They will pull up to the station and you can rush away before you are overwhelmed by taxi drivers.
Grab is an app, similar to Uber but for Southeast Asia. You can order a car, motorbike, or even food delivery. It is extremely cheap and will randomly give you a huge discount during non-peak hours. One time it was 30 times cheaper and shaved off 30 minutes of transit time to take a Grab than the bus. This is also a safer option than using taxis. I have heard of taxi drivers taking foreigners to the wrong hostel and telling them wrong information. Grab also provides you with a helmet, and sometimes even a rain jacket if it’s raining.
Ho Chi Minh City
I flew into Tan Son Nhat International Airport, retrieved my visa after an hour of waiting, and walked directly out of the airport to the bus station. I simply showed the bus station attendant my map with the address of my hostel and paid him $1US. It was a 15-minute bus ride, and the bus attendant told me what stop to get off at.
Note: You may see signs for Saigon, which is the old name for Ho Chi Minh City. This confused me at first, but I was reassured that it is the same place.
War Remnants Museum – Great museum that commemorates the Vietnam War. As an American I believed this was important to see, and the museum did a great job of bringing everyone together rather than shaming other countries.
Boi Vien – Street with lots of nightlife.
Cu Chi Tunnels – A day-trip which can be booked through your hostel.
Tan Dinh Church – A pastel-pink Gothic church.
Ben Thanh Market – Food and souvenir galore.
Com Tam Moc – AMAZING Vietnamese restaurant!! MUST try!!
Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon
Saigon Central Post Office – the Grand Central Station of HCMC
KOTO – A training restaurant for impoverished students. A great cause to support. There is one in Hanoi as well.
Book Street – An alley way with open-air cafes and bookstores- they have books in Vietnamese and English.
I stayed at Himalaya Phoenix Saigon Hostel. It seemed like there were a lot of people who were actually renting rooms like an apartment building. It was not your typical hostel with a large communal space or backpacker culture. The staff was extremely helpful and informative of everything I needed to know about sleeper buses and recommendations in HCMC.
Tip: Book your buses/trains and excursions through your hostel. They will give you the best price and most of the time will pick you up directly from your hostel.
On the way to Nha Trang, you can stop at Dalat, which is a locals beach and there are also sand dunes. Due to time constraints, I was not able to go. Nha Trang is a coastal city with lots of backpackers. When I say there are a lot of backpackers, I am mostly alluding to the nightlife. There are night markets, bars, and karaoke everywhere.
Note: Kitchens close early (around 8 pm), then open again for late-night eats (midnight). So, be sure to catch an early dinner then maybe a late-night snack if you are still hungry.
I stayed at iHome, which contributed to the backpacker nightlife culture with a “Free Beer Happy Hour”. I discovered many hostels do this. My roommate ended up being a thorough participant in happy hour and threw up all over our bathroom. Other than that, there were a lot of great vibes- fun music, beautiful rooftop, ideal location to restaurants and markets, and great people.
Xom Moi Market
Long Son Pagoda
Lantern – Vietnamese
Hong Duc – Local
Pho Hong – Noodle soup
Olivia – Pizza
Mix – Greek
Local Seafood Place – cheap & good
Com Chay Bo De – vegetarian
Cheap Cheap Restaurant – Vietnamese food
Xuan Chau Barber – cheap & good
Note: Unless something clearly states “FREE”, then it isn’t free. There were times where I was offered beers or given a wet towel at dinner and was expected to pay for it after my meal.
Hoi An via Da Nang…
I arrived in Da Nang via train, then hopped on a Grab motorbike to head to Hoi An. This is only a $2US – $4US 30-minute motorbike ride, and it takes you right along the beach. I just put my destination as Old City, and they will drop you off right on the outskirts, because motorbikes are not allowed in the streets.
Hoi An is a westerners dreamland. It is full of lanterns, located along the water, and heaps of tourist shops and restaurants. It is famous for making tailored suits and clothing.
For hostels, I recommend staying at Tribee Kinh Hostel. They own 4 in the town, and you can use the facilities of all of them (ie have breakfast in one, use the pool of the other, and the bar of the next). They do a free food tour, free bike tour, free food making class (where you can eat everything afterwards), and free alcohol at night.
Another option is to go to Hue, which is North of Da Nang. There is an abandoned water park that you can explore if you pay the person that is supposed to forbid the entrance approximately 20,000 VND. Because there isn’t much to do around Hue, it’s a great opportunity to do a homestay.
Hanoi is another bustling city, but probably my favorite “urban” city in Vietnam that I visited. I took a 17-hour sleeper train from Da Nang to Hanoi, and walked from the train station to my hostel.
From Hanoi, I flew to Ho Chi Minh to catch my flight back home. A flight was much cheaper and faster than the train.
Train Street – food and drinks
Temple of Lit
Bach Ma Temple
Hoam Kiem Lake
Giang Cafe – great coffee
Dong Xuan Market
Note: Everything is SO cheap. Some souvenirs I got were Nike sneakers, NorthFace fanny pack, NorthFace bookbag, and a dry bag – all for $20US.
Day Trips from Hanoi…
Halong Bay. I booked my tour with Central Backpackers Hostel, and loved it so much that I extended my stay on the island another day. It included a hike, kayaking, and boat cruising. You get to visit floating villages with baby shark farms! It is a completely unique experience that you do not want to miss out on. Do the 3 day/2 night tour!
Sapa. I would recommend visiting Sapa via booking a tour through the hostel as well. Otherwise, you can grab a sleeper bus to Sapa and stay at a hostel. Points of interest include Thac Bac Waterfall and Ban Pho Village.
Ninh Binh. Rural, beautiful, natural landscapes.
Ha Giang Pass. This is the famous loop that people take via motorbike. Apparently, it has some of the best views in Vietnam. It is very windy so be extremely careful! It takes about 3-4 days.
What to Eat…
Banh Mi – A baguette usually with egg and veggies. This is a typical street food.
Iced Coffee – Vietnamese coffee is unique in that it uses condensed milk. Or you can try egg coffee which is very popular as well.
Spring rolls – at every meal!
Pho – A noodle soup. I recommend to spice it up with chilis…if you don’t mind sweating during your meal.