Vietnam is a beautiful country that boasts sweeping rivers, bustling markets, dramatic coastlines and enticing aromas.
It’s cheap, easy to navigate and back-packer friendly.
I travelled here as part of a long trip with my boyfriend and two friends to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos starting in July 2015.
One of the things that truly struck me about the country was how different each place we stayed was - they all had their own character and I honestly think I could have spent about 3 months here without getting bored!
Currency: Vietnamese Dong
Language(s): Vietnamese, English widely spoken
Plug Sockets: Type A, C and D.
Ease of travel: 5/5
Ease of communication: 4/5
Ease of meeting others: 5/5
General costs: £
Generally, most travellers do the same rough route - either starting in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). It’s a really easy route to follow with plenty of transport between the stops - you can tailor the trip to include more or less stops depending on your length of trip.
We flew into Hanoi and made our way down to Saigon, stopping by Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, and Da Lat on the way.
The great thing about following the backpacker route is that it is really easy to meet people and travel together - we met the same people over and over again and ended up organising our buses together and recommending hostels and things to do. A lot of those people had come to Vietnam on solo trips, and seeing how easy it was for them to integrate really opened my eyes to a whole new type of travel I hadn’t ever considered before.
Hanoi was a great place to start the trip; lots of sights, great restaurants and markets, and slightly less busy than Saigon.
We stayed in an airbnb owned by a lovely Vietnamese woman and her Australian friend.
The airbnb was in a great area - walking distance to many sights and tourist areas (e.g the lake), and down the road from some modern Vietnamese cafes and bars. Our hosts were very welcoming and gave us a walking tour around the area on our first day. Link to their site: https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/2211801?s=S2UfyTMS
Things to do:
1. Hoam Kiem Lake
Hoam Kiem Lake is a beautiful lake and popular with both locals and tourists. It also marks the start of the real backpacker area. In the centre of the lake you’ll find Ngoc Son Temple.
2. St Joseph’s Cathedral
Definitely worth a visit! This grand neogothic building looks slightly out-of-place lodged between the tightly-squeezed shops, cafes and market stalls.
3. Temple of Literature
This is a huge temple built around 1070; it was dedicated to Confucius and later became a university.
Hoam Kiem Lake, Hanoi
There are lots of museums in Hanoi for any history buff to enjoy.
My favourites were the Women’s museum, the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology and Hoa Lo Prison museum.
5. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
This is situated in Ba Dinh Square, where the declaration of independence was recited in 1945.
Many Vietnamese see it as a place of pilgrimage and you will see the queues forming from around 11am.
6. Tay Ho / West Lake
Another lake, and one of the biggest masses of water is Tay Ho / West Lake. Here you can rent the famous “romantic” swan boats - although slightly tacky, I’d still say paddling through the rippling lake at sunset was a pretty lovely way to end the day. Just watch out for the swarms of dead fish that float on the surface!
The markets in Hanoi are pretty incredible - each area sells specific goods - for example if you walk around you’ll find a whole street or two devoted to shoes (that’s ‘shoe street’) or another street full of fabrics.
Sunset over West Lake, Hanoi
Be careful of bikes when crossing the roads!
My favourite places to eat / drink:
‘The Rooftop’ - bar - this is an (expensive) but fantastic cocktail bar overlooking Hanoi. The service isn’t great - but the views make up for this.
Bia Corner - basically a corner of 4 roads where all the pubs sell half-pints for 5000dong (15p!). There’s also other beer halls around and going rate is about 15000 dong (48p).
Countless places serving pho - enjoy it in Hanoi because it’s by far the best place for pho! My favourites was the little stall right outside my air bnb!
Banh Mi 25. It’s one of the top rated ‘restaurants’ in Hanoi on trip advisor. We managed to track it down eventully after passing it a few times by mistake - turns out it’s actually a street food seller - the queues were down the road, and honestly it’s the best sandwich I’ve ever had.
Hanoi Social Club - an eclectic cafe-come-bar with mouthwatering burgers and cocktails with a modern twist.
Nola Cafe - a really cosy and relaxing cafe with delicious fusion modern vietnamese food.
The view from the rooftop bar
Halong Bay is a must-see; a UNESCO world heritage site, a beautiful gulf of 3000+ islands and the scene of thousands of postcards and instagram shots!
Halong bay is possible as a 1/2/3 day trip from Hanoi - We did a two day trip using a tour company.
It is also possible to organise yourself (by booking bus, boat and accommodation separately), however if you’re organising it yourself you’re best off picking Cat Ba island and Lan Ha bay. Here it is much less touristy and there are more options for accommodation, renting kayaks and you can see the more authentic floating markets. You can also visit the hospital cave, which was a secret hospital during the Vietnam War.
If you want to go with a tour then you’ll soon find there a tonnes to choose from - all varying in price but generally of similar quality. We chose a mid-range price tour, however I’ve spoken to friends who have used cheap ones, and others who have used more expensive ones and it didn’t really sound like there was much of a difference.
Generally the more expensive tours are filled with older tourists, and are less ‘party-ish’. The budget ones are more ‘party-boat’, but you often end up having to pay for a lot on the boat itself - food, drinks, activities etc, so it made it about the same price as the others in the end!
I booked my tour through a well-known hostel in Hanoi, Hanoi Backpackers.
There were two types of tour you could pick from - A two day or a three day tour. We chose a two day tour, however in hindsight I think the three day option would have been better as we would have had time to see Cat Ba Island too.
The trip was stunning. We drifted through the beautiful bay, gazing at the hundreds of islands. We took a guided tour through one of the limestone islands before it came to kayak time!
The kayak trip started well - myself and Paul in one kayak, Nik and John in the other.
Paul and I were doing pretty well, gliding through the waters at quite the speed. Suddenly we heard a couple of shrieks from the others - John had decided to try to scare Nik by pretending to capsize the canoe, rocking it back and forwards until it eventually did tip over. I think they realise their mistake at that point when they realised it was far too heavy to try to tip it over.
After a few attempts, we decided to tie theirs to our kayak, and we tried (and tried) to tug it back to the boat, Nik and John swimming at our side. After about 20 minutes of hard work, and only about 8 metres to show for our efforts, one of the tour guides at spotted us and came over with a powered boat to help - and Paul and I got a lift back to the boat - Nik and John, swimming the 20 minutes back behind us.
One thing I would say about Halong Bay is you need to be flexible if you’re travelling in rainy season (July-August) because the boats won’t leave the harbour if it’s stormy, and for good reason; there was an incident a few years back where a lot of tourists died during the storms. Since then the rules have been much stricter about when boats can leave, and so many tours are cancelled last minute. You might find that local boats (containing mainly Vietnamese people) will still go out, but we were strongly advised against going on any of these.
This is another 2/3 day trip from Hanoi. It’s a township in the North of Vietnam is a picturesque valley of rice fields and mountains. Sadly I didn’t have time to do this, although I would have loved to.
Hue was our next stop, and also our longest travel journey - we took an overnight train for this one.
Hue has been described by Lonely Planet as the ‘intellectual, cultural and spiritual heart of Vietnam’.
The main attraction of Hue is the citadel, which is a massive complex built in the early 1800s.
Although mostly ruins, some parts have been rebuilt. It’s difficult to imagine that this used to be the grand home of many Vietnamese Emperor’s.
Outside the citadel are the royal tombs - the best way of seeing these are either to hire mopeds or hire a taxi for the day to take between them all.
The Perfume river as is the huge river in Hue - so named as it is flooded with orchards during the autumn season, bringing a perfume-like scent to the surroundings.
The Perfume River, Hue
We stayed in a great hostel - Hue Backpackers. Along the road outside are backpacker bars and lots of clothes shops.
If you don’t want to go straight from Hue to Hanoi, then consider stopping in Ninh Binh.
Hue-Hoi An (or vice versa)
One of the best days on the trip was spent motorbiking along the coast from Hue to Hoi An along the Hai Van pass. The whole journey was a 130 km stretch of road that passed through beautiful countryside, fishing towns and fantastic scenery; an unforgettable day!
Although you will still get lovely views if you choose to take the road by coach, I honestly don’t think you would get the same incredible experience that I did.
Beautiful views from our fishy lunch spot!
There are various ways of biking between the two cities - you can rent your own motorbikes or mopeds, or you can go on a ‘motorbike tour’ - where you sit on the back of a motorbike.
We opted for the motorbike tour - and I do believe this is the best and most relaxing way of doing the trip. Unless of course, you are already a competent moped/motorbike driver that is. Although it’s quite a short distance I think you’d find it harder to stop in as many places - and there are a lot of amazing stops along the way. Plus it was great to feel completely safe on the back of a bike and just soak in the scenery (and take as many photos and videos as I liked!).
We went with a company who are very highly recommended (and we had to book a week or so in advance).
They were absolutely fantastic - slightly pricier on first glance than other companies, but they included a lot more than others (lunch, beers etc) and they were so good, I think it’s definitely worth it. We stopped several times along the way and I never felt rushed to move to the next place. You could tell that they all genuinely loved their jobs, which I think means a lot.
It was pretty rainy!
They picked us the four of us up directly from the hostel. There was one bike (and driver) each, and a van that carried our backpacks.
I was terrified at first (I’d never been on any type of motorised bike before), however my driver made me feel completely at ease and very safe throughout.
Our journey started out with a trip to a fishing village, then to Elephant Springs, where we stopped for a swim and some beers in the falls! It started to rain after this, but amazingly our drivers brought out waterproofs for us to wear!
The crisp coastline with charming fishing boats and descending clouds made for a beautiful backdrop for our lunch spot at a delicious floating restaurant (all included in the price). After our bellies were stuffed from the tantalising prawns, squid, fish - you name it.
We continued along the coast until we reached an old US army bunker at the top of a hill - amazing views all around!
Our last stop was at the Marble Mountains. This is an area of limestone and marble mountains full of caves, underground temples, pagodas and a fantastic viewpoint from the top! We were pretty tired out from the drive so we took the elevator to the top of Thuy Son mountain.
At the end of the trip we were dropped off at our hostel in Hoi An.
View from the old US army bunker
Around the old US army bunker
Temple inside the Marble Mountains
Our little motorbike gang
Hoi An is vibrant, rich in culture and a happening city which was very different from the places I’d been to so far. The well-preserved ancient town is a motor-free area and is a huge mix of historical architecture - ranging from colonial buildings, Japanese bridges and chinese shops.
Hoi An is THE place to get tailor-made clothes, shoes, bags - you name it. They can literally make anything. If you are planning on getting some items made then you really need to stay for around three days, and go to the tailors on the first day. Although they tend to make the clothes overnight - you will likely find that you will need one or two fittings until the items are perfect.
If you aren’t keen on getting items specifically made there - but do have clothes at home that need tailoring or adjusting, you can also get that done here.
It can definitely be quite daunting at first as there are hundreds of tailors to choose from - I would recommend researching online first - tripadvisor have some great reviews.
I didn’t actually get much tailor made specifically - there are hundreds of market stalls selling all sorts of dresses, skirts, trousers etc incredibly cheaply. I bought a selection of pre-made dresses - tried them on in the shop, and then paid a small fee (10,000 per item) to get them taken up, turned in, sleeves cut off - you name it, to make clothes that perfectly fitted me!
The boys all got kitted out in fancy suits - using the tailor, Bebe.
If you don’t need specific western-style clothes, but just fancy getting some clothes that really fit you, I would recommend doing this.
My one piece of advice if you choose to do this is to be firm with sellers. I like dresses to be well-fitted, however I found that a lot of sellers would tell me they were already well-fitted, or that I wasn’t ‘asian-size’ and therefore wouldn’t fit into smaller clothes, even though the dresses were very obviously far too baggy on me. I’m not sure if they just assumed I wouldn’t fit because I’m white, or were worried they would make them too small and then I wouldn't pay, or what the reasons were - however I was firm and explained exactly how much I wanted to take in/up and was really pleased with how they all turned out!
One of the many dresses I bought. I even managed to convince Paul to by a sterotypical patterned shirt - I think he wore it once and didn't remove it from his backpack after again.
We were really lucky to have timed our stay in Hoi An with the full moon lantern festival. It was a beautiful night and an unforgettable experience. It happens on the 14th day of the lunar month.
All the electric lights in the city were switched off at sunrise and instead, lanterns and candles lit up the streets.
A tradition is to light a candle inside a lotus-shaped lantern and float it down the river - for luck, prosperity and love.You can buy lanterns from the many street sellers around for about 5000 VND. Paul and I took a sampan boat-ride along the river - it was utterly amazing to row through lantern-lit waters.
Prepare to haggle for this! We paid around 110,000 VND. The photos leave a lot to the imagination sadly as I didn’t have a very good camera at the time and the photos do not do the scenes justice! If you don’t fancy the boat ride, then watch from the Cau An Hoi Bridge for the best views!
Hoi An was great, but it was time to climb onboard the overnight bus to the next place.
Crammed into our overnight bus seats! (I've never been so grateful for being short!
By this point, we were yearning for a beach stop, so thankfully Nha Trang was next on the map. One of the first things we immediately noticed was that instead of English translations, there were Russian translations as it’s a popular Russian tourist spot!
The weather in Nha Trang is really quite odd - because we went to Vietnam in wet season, each stop so far had been cloudy, humid and drizzly. Everyone I had met in the hostels along the way had said not to worry - Nha Trang is always sunny, and they were right. Nha Trang had beautiful blue skies and crystal clear waters.
Nha Trang have a lot of diving schools - we booked through our hostel.
The diving isn’t the greatest compared to other places, however it’s a great place to start if you’re new to diving! I would recommend wearing long-sleeved, long-trouser wetsuits if you can. A lot of the companies will tell you there are only small jellyfish in the waters, however this is not true; I was stung by a jellyfish about 1 ft diameter, it was agony, and I still had the scar two years later!
If you have time, then Vinpearl Land is a great place to spend a day! It’s a huge theme park on an island off the main beach. To get there you take a cable car over the sea. The park has huge water slides, rides, magic fountain show, watersports (e.g. jet skiing) etc. It’s got a bit of a disneyland feel to it - they even played disney music from time to time through the loudspeakers!
My next stop was Da Lat - and this was by far my favourite place in Vietnam.
It’s much cooler in temperature than the rest of Vietnam and it’s in jaw-dropping countryside.
There is lots to do here - particularly outdoor sports, including hiking, kayaking, rafting, motorbiking, abseiling, canyoning etc. There are also a few beautiful waterfalls to visit - we rented mopeds and biked to Elephant Falls.
Biking to Elephant Falls
The Crazy House, Da lat
Another highlight is the Hang Nga Crazy House! - Think Vietnamese Gaudi. This is a house inspired by nature and built in the style of winding and unpredictable tree branches. If you’re not convinced, just look at the photos. You can stay here overnight, or you can visit in the day.
Da Lat itself is great to wander around - they have a huge night market and some great patisseries! Also home to the famous Da Lat pizza!
The guesthouse/hostel we stayed in in Da Lat was fantastic -‘Tiny Tigers’. It’s run by a lovely family who cooked everyone in the hostel a group meal, and then took us on a ‘foodie’ walking tour around the city. They were great when it came to organising our activities and renting mopeds, and the accommodation itself was brilliant. They also run short trips in the area - my sister did a three day cycle tour with them around the Highlands, which was one of her highlights of Vietnam.
Our delicious home-cooked spread at Tiny Tigers
The scenery around Da Lat is stunning.
If you’re keen for some outdoor fun, you will find there are lots of choices of companies.
We went with a company my guesthouse recommended - they also turned out to be the company many of my friends had previously used! They are called ‘Highland Sport Travel’, and I highly recommend them. There are definitely some dodgier companies that you should look to avoid; the year before we visited, three 3 UK travellers died abseiling down the waterfall I had abseiled down. I don’t know the ins and outs of what actually happened, but there was evidence that the company they used did not routinely use ropes for safety. So with that in mind, we decided to be pretty vigilant and to check the reviews online first!
I would highly recommend our tour company, Highland Sport Travel - http://highlandsporttravel.com/ they were very professional, made me feel safe (I am terrified of heights and they really made me feel at ease!) and they took lots of photos and sent them to us, which I thought was a really nice touch!
We practiced on a dry hill to learn the basics of abseiling, then tackled two waterfalls. One was significantly higher than the other, but with less volume of water. The other... well, the other one was something else entirely. Not as high but with significantly more forceful water cascading from the top. I took a couple of steps down and suddenly found myself being thrown around by the water above me. It was impossible to move, and couldn't for the life of me twist back to get into the abseil position. Cue a mid-abseil panic attack.
Despite being told "Once you're off the edge, there's only way down" multiple times, I think they realised I wasn't going to make it.
Apparently I was the only person to date that they've pulled up the waterfall.....!
The tour guides were really good after my ordeal. I was clearly very anxious, but after some chats from both the guides and Paul telling me I should abseil down the first waterfall - "If you don't do it now, you'll never do it again because you'll think you can't", I decided to give it a go.
It was scary, but nothing compared the other one, and I made it down! Yay!
Proof that I did manage one of the waterfalls.
Our last stop in Vietnam was Saigon.
We sadly didn’t have much time here but managed to fit in a fair amount before we headed to Cambodia.
Saigon is a very hectic city - full of tiny little unmarked alleyways (where most of the hostels are hidden). I would give yourself double the time to expect it to take to get anywhere - it’s very easy to get lost!
Top things to do:
1. Reunification Palace
Built in the 1960’s, it’s quite a modern palace and it’s purpose was as South Vietnam’s presidential palace.
2. War Remnants Museum
This was a really interesting museum, particularly the ‘Agent Orange’ exhibition. Agent orange wasn’t something I was familiar with before coming here - and for those in a similar position it is a chemical that was used by the US military during the Vietnam War to destroy forests and crops. It later turned out that it caused many severe health conditions including birth defects, some cancers, diabetes, psychological conditions amongst others.
The photos in this exhibition, and the others in the museum are quite gruelling - and not for the faint-hearted! But interesting and important to see.
3. Notre Dame Cathedral
This enormous romanesque church looked totally out of place in the centre of Saigon.
4. Central Post Office
It sounds like an odd choice of building to be labelled a 'must-see sight', but it is very grand and beautiful - it’s near to the cathedral and worth a look around!
5. Cu Chi tunnels
These form part of a huge network of underground tunnels used in the Vietnam War. Sadly didn’t have time to go here, but would have loved to! It’s a few hours away from Saigon and lots of hostels and hotels organise day trips there.
Notre Dam Cathedral, Saigon
The jam-packed alleways in Saigon
Getting around Vietnam:
Thanks to the huge number of backpackers who flock to Vietnam each year, getting around Vietnam is incredibly easy. There are various options: train, bike, bus, plane.
A popular way of travelling short-distances (e.g. from Hue to Hoi An). Bikes are cheap to rent, widely available and you usually the choice of mopeds or motorbikes. It’s also a popular option to bike the whole way around Vietnam - but this will understandably require a longer period of time. Biking in the cities actually felt safer than being driven in a car! Mostly because they’re so common in Vietnam that people are much more used to them. Always wear a helmet, however!
(A surprisingly high number of companies do you not routinely offer these when you rent them!)
Train travel is an option between some destinations. It’s normally more expensive than buses and often much slower! Comfort in the day is probably better on trains, however I actually found them much worse than buses for overnight travel; they are bumpier, louder, and the toilets aren’t great. We booked through our air bnb host.
I chose the ‘4 berth soft sleeper’ which was fine. Pretty small beds, but I’m only 5ft3, so it didn’t really bother me. A cheaper option is hard-sleepers, however having spent the night in the soft sleeper I dread to think what the hard-sleeper would be like!!
The most popular way of getting around for backpackers. Buses are really easy to book - either from a travel agent (there are loads dotted around the cities), or many hostels can do this for you. There are lots of companies, some better than others. I didn’t look into the companies very much because I was usually booking about a day or so ahead, so didn’t have a great deal of choice! Some buses had toilets on them, others didn’t - that was the main difference I found.
I found bus travel pretty comfortable. Night buses were, in my opinion, much more comfortable than train travel. The buses were less bumpy, less noisy and stopped whenever you needed for toilet/food breaks.
They were quite entertaining as they usually played (loud) borderline soft-porn vietnamese music videos until about midnight, when all the lights would go off and you were expected to go to sleep. Don’t be alarmed when you’re asked to remove your shoes and put on some strange foot covers - this is just so that the bus floor doesn’t get dirty.
I can’t remember how much the buses were, but they were very cheap.
Some tips for buses:
1. Take earplugs.
2. They often arrive 3 hours earlier than they were supposed to. It’s best not to question how. Most hostels gave us sofa’s and rooms to sleep in when we arrived (at 4-5am) until breakfast time - they’re used to people arriving at all times through the night, and many hostels had a dedicated ‘backpacker sleeping room’!
3. Beware of people sleeping on the floor! The buses tend to fill up with locals willing to sleep on the floor - so if you have to get up to go to the toilet in the middle of the night, try not to stand on anyone!
4. If you’re tall, try and claim the triple bed at the back of the bus. If you’re travelling by yourself you may end up sleeping face to face with another person, but it’s the only place that will actually be long enough for your body. If you’re travelling with a friend, it’s not so bad!
5. Be careful of your belongings on the buses! Keep your personal items next to your head and padlocked at all times - my kindle was stolen on one of the night buses whilst I was asleep!
A more expensive, but comfortable, way of travelling. If you’re not keen for overnight buses, but are tight for time, then it’s a reasonable option. There are lots of flight companies offering routes - including Vietnam airlines, VietJet air and Jetstar Airways.
I’d recommend them for distances of about 6-8 hours driving, but be aware that a lot of the airports are a distance away from the cities themselves so it might not be as quicker an option as it first seems.
How we got around Vietnam:
Places in Vietnam I would have liked to visit:
Mekong Delta - this is a beautiful region with famous floating markets and floating restaurants. I would have loved to have visited but unfortunately, time did not permit this!
There are also a number of Vietnamese islands that you can get to from Saigon if you are wanting more beach time!
Getting from Vietnam to Cambodia:
We took a bus from Saigon to Pnom Penh (Cambodia).
Crossing borders overland could be confusing and tricky - judging by the articles online. We opted for the slightly pricier but simpler option of using 1 company for the whole trip.
You can do it cheaper and take 2 separate buses with separate companies, but the price difference for us was negligible.
Crossing the border basically involves getting a bus to the border.
You are then given a sticker to wear which allows the company to identify you on the other side and direct you to the correct bus. Before the border the bus takes your passport and visa’s are processed for them all. You then get them given back. You have to walk through the border with your passport, where they check your visa. You walk to the other side and someone tells you which bus to get on. The next bus takes you to Pnom Penh. Yay!
Check what visa you need and make sure you have the correct amount in USD before arrival!
Getting from Vietnam to Laos:
You can get a bus from Hanoi to Laos, however it is a very long journey and I read a number of reviews online saying it was pretty miserable!
We chose to start in Hanoi and finish in Luang Prabang (Laos), thereby avoiding that journey.
You can also fly between the two cities.