Vietnam is a pretty cool place to visit and has become very popular. The country seems to retain it's culture without having changed too much as a result of tourism and Western influence. People are very friendly, although that's a bit different in the major cities and tourist spots. The vendors can be pretty aggressive trying to sell you stuff. The nature in Vietnam is pretty varied and there are some really spectacular places to visit. It's also really easy to get around by train or overnight bus. I did the south on my own and the center up through the north with Stray Asia
, a hop-on hop-off bus tour. Personally, I didn't find the south very interesting, and if you have limited time, I would suggest seeing places north of Da Nang
. I thought the north was better for nature, culture, and cities/towns. I do think Vietnam is a bit overhyped, as the tourist areas are all about trying to sell you stuff, but if you can get out into the rural areas, that's where the magic is. Vietnam was one of the easiest places to meet people I've visited, second only to Costa Rica
. Since most people take the same route along the coast, you often run into people you've seen before.
Suggest Staying: 2-3 weeks
Transport: Plane, bus, minibus, train, taxi, tuk tuk
1. Hoi An
Highlights: Ancient town, ruins, beach, nature, caves, jungle, history, food
Suggest Staying: 3-4 days
Stay Around: Ancient Town
Hoi An is considered a World Heritage Site and it’s easy to see why. Very diverse and beautiful. It is also the place in Vietnam to get custom clothes made and it’s very inexpensive. In fact, you can get just about anything made, including tailored suits, dresses, jump suits, shoes, and bags. And, they turn it around in 1-2 days! Pretty amazing. I had a custom pair of convertible pants made with secret pockets and also a pair of sandals of my own design. There are a ton of shops to choose from, I recommend searching TripAdvisor or just asking around. Some are better than others. Additionally, the town is very pretty and has a bit of a European style added to the Asian foundation. There are a couple of day trips you can do that are only 30-60 minutes away that are worth doing.
See & Do
- Historic Ancient Town. Mixed euro-asian style with restaurants, shops, and bars down along the river.
- Japanese Covered Bridge. In the Ancient Town.
- Marble Mountain. Wonderful hike up the mountain, parts of which are marble, with caves, temples and Buddha statues. Located in Da Nang about 30 minutes away.
- Monkey Mountain. Temple on the mountain with many statues and great view of Da Nang and the sea. Located in Da Nang about 30 minutes away.
- My Son. Like a smaller Angkor Wat located in the jungle about 1 hour away.
- Cui Dai Beach. Local beach that is pretty long.
- Clothing. If you decide to have anything custom made or tailored, make sure you give them at least 24 hours to make it and then an extra day in case you need alterations made.
- Food. In the ancient town there are two main strips of restaurants and bars. Across the bridge away from the center is much cheaper. Go to the left all the way down and you will be wrapped around into an area that has several small places with outdoor tables. Try Hi. The food is super cheap, local Hoi An cuisine, and really good. I recommend the Cao Lao, a special dish unique to this area. Also, Bahn Mi Queen makes excellent bahn mi sandwiches.
- Haircut. Tuan Boy does a great job and is very inexpensive.
- Artbook. Neat bookstore.
2. Phong Nga-Ke Bang
Highlights: Caves, nature
Suggest Staying: 2-5 days
Stay Around: Anywhere (it’s a small town)
This place is awesome. The caves are spectacular, each a different and unique experience. The nature of the national park itself is also beautiful. Definitely spend at least a couple days to do the caves and there are even some day hikes. The backpacker crowd is very cool and the town itself is very small and chill. Met a lot of friendly travelers here. If you’re not big into nature though, you might get bored after a day.
See & Do
- Paradise Cave. Big, wide open cave with a boardwalk path that goes through it.
- Phong Nha Cave. Boat ride along the river into the cave and you can also walk around in the different chambers.
- Dark Cave. Zipline across the river into the cave where you trudge and eventually float through a sea of thick mud in complete darkness.
- Hang Son Doong. World’s largest cave, waterfall and beach to sleep on overnight.
- National Park. The actual park itself, best experienced via motorbike.
- Hang Son Doong. Requires a guide, costs $3,000, and takes 5 days. There is limited space, so you must reserve at least a year in advance.
- Phong Nha Cave. It’s easy to just walk down to the river to catch a boat. On the way, gather everyone walking in that direction so you can split the cost of the boat. It’s one price regardless of the number of people. The cost of the cave is per individual and is separate.
- Nightlife. Everyone hangs out at Easy Tiger Hostel, so go there if you want to socialize, or stay.
3. Sa Pa Rice Fields & Trekking
Highlights: Rice fields, mountains, trekking
Suggest Staying: 2-3 days
Stay Around: Any Mountain Village
I almost skipped Sa Pa due to the weather, but luckily it lightened up for a couple days. If it’s not raining, Sa Pa is amazing. The town is ok for an afternoon, but the real sites are in the mountains. You can either pre-arrange or just go to the main church in Sa Pa town to make arrangements to stay at a local village homestay in the rice fields. Around May and Sept are the best times for the most greenery, but I think the views are pretty magnificent any time of year.
If you’ve never stayed in a homestay before, it’s kind of like cabin camping but with a local family. Basic facilities and you’ll likely be provided meals. It’s a really cool opportunity to meet the local Hmong people, who are actually very different from the majority of Vietnamese people. There is Chinese influence since Sa Pa is very close to China and many of the Hmong tribes speak their own language, which is not Vietnamese. I stayed with Mu (Phone: 01278207692 or 01695583773) which was a great experience. Very friendly, great guide, speaks English very well, and is an amazing cook. The homestay has western style flushing toilets and shower. There is also the most amazing view down the hill just behind the backyard. Her youngest son, maybe around 4 years old, showed us around.
- Getting There. Take the overnight train from Hanoi. You can reserve a tourist car (nicer, more expensive) or a local car (cheaper, more of an adventure). You can purchase tickets at the station, from a travel agent in town, or online through Bao Lau which I did. The gate opens 1 hour before departure, any earlier and you have to wait outside. I suggest a bottom bunk (there are 4 beds per room in the local car) because you can store luggage underneath, are next to the table, have a charging plug, and are further from the A/C if you get cold. At Lao Cai, the train station closest to Sa Pa, there are several restaurants where you can eat, drink, and use Wifi until 30 minutes before departure when you can board. The trains’ A/C is pretty cold but the blankets provided are warm.
- Money. If you go trekking, bring cash to buy water and snacks because there are no ATMs in the mountains.
- Electricity. Charge your phone, camera, tablet, etc. before you go if you can because if you sleep at a homestay there will likely not be outlets.
4. Cat Ba Island & Lan Ha Ba
Lan Ha Bay
Highlights: Limestone karsts, kayaking, bay, beach, nature, islands, monkeys
Suggest Staying: 3 days
Stay Around: Cat Ba Town
Ha Long Bay is one of the top destinations in Vietnam. You will see many pictures of Chinese styled cruise ships sailing along the beautiful blue bay surrounded by spectacular limestone karsts. Many people do a 2-3 cruise around Ha Long Bay and possibly into Lan Ha Bay. Alternatively, many backpackers choose to visit Cat Ba Island, which is what I did. Not a huge fan of boats in general, although I managed for several days living on a boat in the Galapagos Islands, I chose Cat Ba on friends’ recommendations and that it sounded less touristy. The island is great, has easy access to the bay, and a beautiful park to visit as well. There are also several really nice beaches and a fancy hotel on the beach with water slides! If you want something a bit less touristy, cheaper, and alternative to a cruise, try Cat Ba and visit Lan Ha Bay.
See & Do
- Cat Ba Island. Beautiful island that is a good alternative to a cruise if you want to see the area.
- Cat Ba National Park. Very beautiful and there is a nice trail that takes you to the top for an outstanding view of the island.
- Hospital Cave. Was used during the war as a hospital, hidden from the outside world. It’s pretty massive and not crowded at all. There are some huge rooms as the place was also build so people could live normally down there for awhile.
- Cat Co Beaches. There are three of them (Cat Co 1, 2, and 3 if you look on the map). There is a not so obvious, dare I even say secret, path along the rocks between Cat Co 1 & 2 which is really cool right along the water.
- Cannon Fort. Walk up the hill to the fort with several cannons and gorgeous view of the bay.
- Lan Ha Bay. I heard from many people that Ha Long and Ha Long Bay is very touristy, crowded, and dirty. However, Lan Ha Bay is basically part of the same body of water but a bit farther away and just as nice with less people. I saw maybe two other boats on a day trip out in the bay.
- Monkey Island. Very cool small island where there are a bunch of monkeys, some of which may chase you around the beach if you taunt them. They are clever and I saw a group of them chasing someone into the water. They are not dangerous or aggressive though, just hilarious. But you can climb to the top of the small peak there and get a great view of the island, beach, and limestone karsts of the bay off in the distance.
- Kayaking. You can find an operator to take you around the bay for a day or afternoon which can include kayaking around the bay and grottos. I saw some rare monkeys native only to this area and kayaked inside some small caves and into some secret grottos. Was very cool.
- Getting There. Take a bus from Hanoi. You can buy a single ticket that will take you to Haiphong, then another bus takes you to the pier, hop on a boat to Cat Ba Island, and then one last bus takes you to Cat Ba Town. The journey takes about 5 hours and costs between $10-$15. No breaks, so use the facilities before you go and take some food with you.
- Lan Ha Bay. If you plan to see this, staying in Cat Ba is easier and closer.
- Monkey Island. Wear shoes, the rocks are very sharp.
Live Street Music
Highlights: Museums, shopping, food, live music
Suggest Staying: 3 days
Stay Around: Old Quarter
Hanoi is a very unique city within Vientam, and has a very cool vibe, especially in the Old Quarter. It’s fun to just walk around, to see people eating and drinking in the streets.
See & Do
- Ban Dan. Street with great noodles.
- Old Quarter. Heart of Hanoi.
- Hoan Kiem Lake. Lake of the restored sword.
- Hang Gai Street. Souvenirs, shops, and narrow streets.
- Nightlife. Bia Hoi Corner is where locals go to sit outside, drink, and people watch. On some nights you can find live music on the streets.
- Food. Orchid Restaurant was excellent and a little different. Certainly pricier than street food, definitely at least worth a peak in.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Chua Ngoc Hoan
I wasn’t super impressed with Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a bit loud and crazy due to all the motorbikes and I didn’t find people all that friendly. There are a couple nice streets that are similar to something you might see in Europe but with an Asian style. There are a few neat temples in the city, and the Cu Chi Tunnels outside the city which are very popular. Stay around Bui Vien Street.
See & Do
- Chua Ngoc Hoang. Jade emperor pagoda.
- Dinh Thong Nhat (Reunification Palace). History about the fall of Saigon and underground tunnels for the military from the war.
- Ben Thanh Market. Popular market where you can get cheap stuff.
- Bui Vien Street. Backpacker artsy area.
- Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica. Styled after Notre-Dame in Paris.
- Thich Quang Duc. Stone tribute to the monk who burned himself in the street to fight Vietnamese Buddhist persecution.
- Cu Chi Tunnels. Old tunnels along the Ho Chi Minh trail used by the Viet Cong during the war. About 2 hours from the city.
- Cao Dai (Bei) Temple. Religion that mixes Confucianism, Buddhism, and Catholicsm. About 3 hours from the city. It’s cool, but if you’re short on time, skip it.
- Cu Chi Tunnels. You can go down into a narrow set of tunnels about 400 meters long at the end of the guided tour. There are a couple of exits to get out if you don’t want to go all the way through. Tunnels are tiny, so if you are claustrophobic or tall it won’t be pleasant. If you have a backpack, leave it outside if you can.
- Cao Dai. You can combine with Cu Chi into a day trip. Go to Cao Dai at lunch time when they have their daily prayer.
- Safety. Motorbikes are everywhere and they drive very crazy. Don’t learn how to ride a motorbike here, it’s extremely dangerous. As a pedestrian, you may even see motorbikes riding along the pavement.
- Shopping. You can get really cheap stuff at Ben Thanh which is great if you’re traveling light and/or needed to stock up while travelng.
- Gear. There is a cool store U Best that sells neat clothing, camping, and tactical gear.
- Artbook. Sells interesting books, cool coasters, and movie posters. Some small inexpensive stuff that doesn’t take up much space in you bag.
- ABC Laundry. In the backpacker area. Does a great job and is super cheap.
The Mekong Delta, about 2 hours south of Ho Chi Minh City, is a neat trip if you have time. Definitely something unique to check out in Vietnam. There are several small islands and villages to visit, all of which are pretty standard among all the tour operators. The best thing to do is a 2-day overnight trip, but you can do part of it in a day. You will see how vermicelli noodles are made, water coconuts along the canal, get a taste of special honey, and cruise through the floating market along the mekong river. There is a lot of local Vietnamese cuisine to try and you can see how a lot of it is made. The Mekong Delta is pretty touristy, but it’s fun nonetheless.
See & Do
- Can Tho. Cai Rang and Phong Dien floating markets.
- My Tho. Boat trip down the canal.
- Ben Tre. Famous for coconut candy and you can watch how it’s made.
- Vinh Trang. Temple with giant Buddha statues.
- Getting there. Easiest to go with a tour operator. The prices for 2-day trip is usually less expensive if you specify to stay in a cheaper hotel and don’t want meals included.
The drive up through the mountains to Da Lat, a small town north of Ho Chi Minh City, is really nice. On the way, just outside of the town, is Datanla which has waterfalls and a toboggan you can ride yourself down to the bottom to see the waterfalls. You can also go abseiling down a waterfall. In the town itself, there is a lake, although it looks man made, and some nice gardens if you want to relax. Otherwise not much going on.
- Datanla Waterfalls. Very pretty area outside Da Lat where you can ride a toboggan down to the base of the waterfalls.
- Da Lat Market. Local market.
- Garden. Across from the base of the lake.
- Abseiling. Canyoneering/repelling, done down a waterfall.
- Dankia Lake. About 45 minutes outside Da Lat.
- Datanla. If you keep going past the waterfalls, there are steps that go farther down into the park. There are additional waterfalls and a cable car.
- Toboggan. It’s not scary, you have full control to break and can go as fast or slow as you want.
- Abseiling. Pick a company that looks safe and wear safety equipment. While I’m sure it’s generally fine, I heard some people died a week after I visited Da Lat.
I only passed through here on the way to Marble and Monkey Mountain from Hoi An, but it looked quite nice. Although it’s decent sized city and I would imagine it’s similar to other cities, the beaches looked very nice.
I read about and heard from other travelers that Nha Trang was supposed to be a really nice place with a wonderful beach and even some scuba diving. Personally, I didn’t like it here very much. It’s a very touristy beach town with many Russian and Chinese tourists. Nothing against either of these folks, but if you’re not from one of those places or Vietnam, you might feel a bit out of place. There are also quite a few skeevy middle aged men looking for Vietnamese girls, similar to places in skeevy areas in Thailand. I also didn’t think the beach was all that nice, but if you go about 20 minutes north up the coast, there are beach huts and it looks much nicer. One interesting thing about Nha Trang is that from the main part of the beach, you can see off in the distance a funicular (cable car) that crosses the sea to a nearby island which hosts an amusement park.
This is basically a stop for tourists traveling between Hue and Hanoi. There isn’t a ton to do here, but it is very beautiful. In fact, just before I arrived here they were filming part of the new King Kong Movie. You can take a boat ride or rent a bicycle. Almost got chased by some water buffalo.
See & Do
- Tam Coc. Boat ride through some small caves along the river and up close to the mountains.
- Tran An Grottoes. Rent a bicycle and explore the area around.
- Vuon Quoc Gia Cuc Phuong National Park. Nice forest with several different species of monkeys.
- Boat Ride. Catch it in the town center, or at the end of Tran An (a bit far by bicycle but doable).
I found Hue pretty boring, but other people like it. It’s a nice city, but small. The Citadel is pretty cool and there are a bunch of imperial tombs around the city.
See & Do
- The Citadel. Old imperial city. Very large and will take 1-2 hours to walk around.
- Forbidden Purple City. Within the Imperial City.
- Royal Tombs. Tu Duc, Khai Dinh, Minh Mang, Dong Khanh, Thieu Tri. Royal tombs spread around outside the city center. Pay for each separately.
DMZ & Vinh Moc Tunnels
This was the division between North and South Vietnam, and referred to as the DMZ (De-Militarized Zone). There is an exhibit about the history and also tunnels used by the Viet Cong from the war. These tunnels are much bigger and easier to walk through than the Cu Chi Tunnels.
- Purchases. Negotiate for everything, it's expected. But no need to take advantage, as a dollar there goes much farther than a dollar in the U.S.
- Transportation. Most popular is train (day/overnight) or bus (day/overnight). Open Bus allows you to pay one fee for the places you want to visit and gives you the option to go whenever you want as long as there is space on the bus. My friends who did this booked their seat a day or two in advance.
- Vaccinations. Check with your doctor and the CDC website. Figure out which ones you need in advance for those that take time to become effective or require multiple doses.
- Weather. Can be quite different in the north and south. In February when I went, the south was very hot reaching up to 90°F/30°C. In the north around Sa Pa and Ha Long it was around 60°F/15°C. Be sure to wear a hat, sunscreen, and even long sleeves/pants if you can bear it. Drink plenty of water. Bring a jacket.
- More Info. Travelfish has the best in depth information about Southeast Asia.
Stray Asia (Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus)
When I first started traveling abroad, I joined Trafalgar tours. I very much enjoyed them, but have since graduated to planning myself. While in Bangkok, I serendipitously stumbled across Stray Asia. I was asking about bus tickets in Thailand when I noticed a sign about a hop-on, hop-off bus. There was a map that showed several itineraries around Southeast Asia, identified with places you could "hop off" and catch the next bus in a few days. They promote off the beaten path travel and the opportunity to meet other like minded people. After traveling for a couple months I thought it would be nice to meet some people.
While I really didn’t want to do any tours this trip, I have to say that traveling with Stray was an amazing experience. It’s a bit pricey, especially if you’re on a strict backpacker budget, but they have sales on occasion which really brings the price down. But, you get your own private bus with guide who makes all the arrangements and takes you to places most other people don’t go or even know about. Pretty much all of the guides I had were fantastic. The group sizes range anywhere from 6-20 depending on the bus and who signed up. There is a lot of flexibility to do your own thing and to stay in a place longer if you really like it. Stray can make lodging arrangements for you and usually will receive a discount, or you can book on your own. Even better, we went to some places I had not heard of that were great and off the beaten path. The majority of the travelers on the buses were really great as well. It’s mostly a younger demographic on a gap year or something similar, but ages range anywhere from 18-80. It’s not a party bus, most people were very down to earth, and although the majority of people were from England, there was a range of people from all over Europe and North America. Tours include a guide, bus, and some entrance fees. Things like lodging, food, and optional excursions are extra.
I’m am not affiliated with Stray in any way, I just really like the company. After traveling with them through Vietnam and hearing my fellow travelers rave about how Laos with Stray was the best, I signed up. I found it easier and more interesting traveling through Laos with Stray because the group was great and we saw things I otherwise would not have know about or seen.
Get your visa before you go and allow yourself some lead time. The process can take several business days. The visa on arrival (VOA) is an approval letter allowing you to get a stamp once you enter the country. So you don't actually get the visa until you get to Vietnam. You can go to a foreign embassy or get online. I used MyVietnamVisa, a private company online. Everything was great regarding the process of getting my approval letter, but there is one caution. When approval letters are submitted to the Vietnamese government, they are submitted in batches. So when you get the letter back, you will see your name along with a list of others complete with the name, date of birth, and passport number for each of you! If you go through a third party instead of an embassy, ask if your information is protected. If not, I would take a different approach.
For Americans, you must purchase a visa which lasts for 30 days if you do the basic single entry. Supposedly if you are from the UK you get 15 days for free. If you need more time, you can get a visa extension for another 30 days. I got mine in Hoi An from Mr. Hung. If you go to the police station, they will direct you to Mr. Hung for the extension. It basically goes back to them, but this way they don’t have to fill out the paperwork. Mine came back the next day and was very easy.
Mosquitoes, Malaria, and Dengue
While not really a problem in the popular tourist destinations, some of the more rural areas in Vietnam have a risk of malaria. In urban areas there is a risk of Dengue. The best you can do is cover up with long sleeves, long pants, and socks that cover your ankles. Also, be sure to wear bug spray on exposed skin, especially at dawn and dusk. You can get bug spray in Vietnam.
Regarding malaria tablets, I brought a bunch with me, both Malarone and Doxycycline, but I didn’t end up taking any of them. I talked to quite a few people about malaria tablets and a few of them who took medication had some awful stomach issues. Others, however, were not affected. I decided for me that covering up and wearing bug spray was best, especially since I needed to protect against Dengue anyway, and I didn’t want to risk the potential side effects of the pills. This is just what I did. I’m not a doctor so you should consult yours before deciding what do about malaria medication.