Note: you might need to get your Vietnam visa arranged in advance. Avoid issues by reading my Vietnam visa explainer.
Note 2: I’m heading back to Vietnam in March 2019! I’ll soon be doing many updates on Vietnam here. Subscribe to my mailinglist if you want to be notified when my new posts are up.
When people ask me what I think of Vietnam, I always have to tell them I’m of two minds about travelling there. On the one hand, it is one of the most incredible countries I have visited; the vibrant chaos of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City blew me away, Halong Bay with its karst limestone islands is easily one of the most impressive sights in the region, and exploring a Vietnamese food market is arguably the ultimate Southeast Asia cultural experience.
On the other hand, I should admit that backpacking Vietnam left a slightly bitter taste. The typical attitude of the Vietnamese towards visitors can be quite nasty, which has the potential to spoil your mood. Scams and tourist exploitation are more commonplace than elsewhere, which requires some awareness. (More on this further down the page.)
Fortunately, the many positives of the country do outweigh the few negatives…
Vietnam at a glance
Take a quick look at a map of Vietnam and you will immediately notice it’s unusual elongated shape. This means that Vietnam itineraries roughly all follow the same route, either north-to-south or south-to-north. Simply choose whether you want to start in Hanoi or in Ho Chi Minh City and then work your way to the other end of the country.
In the north the main places to see are Hanoi, the UNESCO world heritage site of Ha Long Bay, and the town of Sa Pa (or Sapa) which is famed for its rice terraces and highland treks and homestays. I’ve also heard excellent things about Tam Coc (which I sadly had to miss), where you’ll find beautiful karst landscapes set among rice fields and rivers.
In the middle of the country you will find Hue, the former imperial capital and home to many tombs and temples. Although you wouldn’t be able to tell now, north of Hue was once the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) where many clashes took place during the war. With a guide, you’ll be able to learn more about the history. A bit south of Hue is Hoi An, a cute and pleasantly touristy town famed for its hand-made lanterns and cheap tailors. It’s a great place to stick around for at least a few days.
In the south the must-see place is Ho Chi Minh City, which was once the south’s capital. A popular sightseeing destination nearby is also the Mekong Delta, though keep in mind the tours here can be quite cookie-cutter and set up for mass tourism. If you have any opportunity to explore the Mekong Delta on your own, you might be able to find more genuine homestays or local markets than you’ll see on such a standardised tour.
Your Vietnam itinerary can cover many more places of course, but these are typically some of the places most people include. If you want to cover all of Vietnam and not rush too much, you probably need at least 2 to 3 weeks. Any less and you should try to narrow things down.
How to get around
You can go by bus and buy a multi-stop ticket in advance. Friends of mine did this though felt constantly restricted in which buses they could use with their combination ticket, so it may be better to book buses one by one (this is what I did, and I was happy I took this approach).
Another great option is to go by train—Vietnam has a great network and taking night trains is particularly convenient for covering longer distances. I did this between Hanoi and Hue and thought it was a fantastic way to travel. You can travel all the way from north to south or vice versa using trains.
Finally, it’s easy to rent motorbikes and this gives a chance to see the countryside and go off the beaten track.
You can use 12Go Asia below to search for transportation options:
Places to visit in Vietnam
Here are just some of the best places to visit and top things to do in Vietnam:
Enjoy the hustle and bustle of the big cities
No other place in South-East Asia gave me more of a sense of wonder than Hanoi. It’s a strange, frenzied place. I hadn’t felt this way about a city since I saw the craziness of Tokyo… but while a city like Tokyo is like an anthill—in that beneath its madness is a precise and orderly system—Hanoi is just pure chaos and anarchy. There are so many motorbikes rushing through the streets that it sometimes feels like you’re caught in a giant swarm of wasps. Much in Vietnam takes place on the street; people eat and drink there, get their haircut, read the newspaper and play games. Be sure to bring a camera if you want to do some great street photography.
I arrived in Vietnam in the north, so for me Hanoi was the first major Vietnamese city I was introduced to. Those who start from the South might be more enthralled by Ho Chi Minh City instead, which has tons of interesting places to visit. I guess it depends on where you get your first exposure to the insanity of Vietnamese city life. Either way, I recommend getting lost and spending some time people-watching, because immersing yourself properly in the Vietnamese city life is one of the best things to do.
Visit local Vietnamese markets
There are interesting local markets all over Southeast Asia, but it’s the markets in Vietnam that often struck me as the most vibrant and interesting. I will not easily forget the smells and the sights! At one point I saw some salesmen walk in with a giant tub covered by a net; I was expecting it to be filled with chickens or ducks, but instead it was filled to the brim with live frogs. They keeled over the tub, and started processing the frogs… by picking them up, cutting their head off with a pair of scissors, and then manually gutting it with their bare hands. That’s just one little vignette.
Try the local markets in the bigger cities. The Mekong Delta also has some amazing floating markets where many people in boats sell all sorts of fruits and vegetables.
Marvel at the temples around Hue
Many people make a stop at Hue mainly to see the Imperial Citadel, but keep in mind that nearly everything at this site was bombed in the war so it is unfortunately not the greatest sight around. Fortunately Hue is still very miuch a worthwhile city to go, and it’s great to spend a day visiting some of the nearby Tombs of the Emperors which are all mostly still intact. They provide some interesting examples of Vietnamese Buddhist aesthetics and architecture, and are well wroth a visit.
Visit the fishing village of Mui Ne
While the town of Mui Ne itself did not impress so much and neither did its beach (razor-thin and even fortified with concrete in places due to erosion), the sights in and around Mui Ne are not to be missed. The old fishing village is extremely picturesque and is famed for its colourful fishing boats. There is also a great little river canyon walk nearby, as well as white sand dunes where you can watch the sunrise or try sliding down the dunes on a board.
Read This: Cool Things To Do In Mui Ne
Above: the picturesque Mui Ne fishing village
Relax in the quiet town of Hoi An
Hoi An is mainly famous for being the one place where you can get custom-tailored clothes at rock bottom prices. Many a traveller leaves Hoi An with a tailor-made suit or dress in their backpack!
In contrast to the major cities I described above, Hoi An is generally quiet and pedestrianised. While it’s touristy, it maintains a charming character. There are a couple of interesting sights in the area and there is a decent beach nearby, so it makes for a good base for a couple of nights.
Try Vietnam’s incredible food
Vietnamese food is simply amazing. And the best examples of Vietnamese cuisine you are not necessarily going to find in a restaurant. Be sure to try the street food. Order some Pho (rice noodles) from a street cart, preferably from some old lady who’s no doubt been making this same dish on this same street corner for all her life and knows just how to make it perfectly.
Lots of local eateries where seating only consists of little plastic chairs offer some truly delicious stuff. Try the spring rolls, or the summer rolls (Gỏi cuốn) which are not fried but fresh and come in many varieties. These are of course just the most famous dishes; this article has a list of 20 Vietnamese dishes that are worth looking out for on your menu.
Get your “Pho” fix from a place like this…
Incidentally, try the coffee too. It’s usually served as a small but strong cup with a bunch of syrupy sweetened condensed milk. While not to everyone’s liking, it’s definitely different from anywhere else.
Party in Nha Trang
As a beach destination, Nha Trang is at best average: the waves are too rough, there are too many big hotels, and the urban beach is far from the prettiest. But to tell the truth, Nha Trang is a fun place to party. There are tons of bars and drinks are cheap. Before you know it you might find yourself on a spontaneous bar crawl, perhaps eventually ending at the aptly named “Why Not?” bar.
The beach, while far from a tropical paradise, is nevertheless a good place to wallow through your hangover the next day. If you’re not into partying or you’re not a Russian tourist, you may want to give Nha Trang a skip.
Visit Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
Between Hue and Hoi An is this under-the-radar national park where you can visit a series of amazing caves, while the nearby town of Phong Nha village lets you glimpse into the everyday life of the local families and farmers. I sadly had to miss this one, but check out this post for more information on this little-known destination in Vietnam.
Gain a new perspective at the war museums
Of course, there is Vietnam’s war history, and there are a good number of museums dedicated to them. The war remnants museum in Ho Chi Minh City is especially a must-visit, though expect it to be uncomfortable, heart-wrenching and shocking. While the museum is government-run and potentially one-sided, it does give you a perspective you wouldn’t get anywhere else.
Visit the tunnels of Vinh Moc
Not too far north of Da Nang and Hue are the tunnels of Vinh Moc, an elaborate complex of shelters built by villagers during the war. The tunnels were a success and no villagers lost their lives, though they had to live in absolutely awful conditions. It’s a very insightful place to see, and there are also the similar Cu Chi tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City in the south of Vietnam.
Learn about the war from a veteran
There are a number of tour companies employing Vietnamese war veterans as guides, particularly around the former DMZ near Da Nang and Hoi An. This is an incredibly personal way of learning about the Vietnam war. The ‘sights’ around the DMZ are honestly difficult to appreciate without a guide, as they are barely visible ruins for the most part, but get a veteran to explain to you what happened there and these sites become so much more significant. Highly recommended if you are interested in the history.
Other things to see & do
- Of course, there is Ha Long Bay, a famous archipelago of karst islands. It gets very busy, as basically all boats end up in the same bay. Inevitably it’s a bit of a canned experience: most junk boat tours include a bit of kayaking, a walk up to a viewing point, and a visit to a cave. (But don’t get too excited: the cave has been paved with concrete and has colored lights installed, feeling basically like a queue in a theme park). The scenery at Ha Long Bay is spectacular, but just know that you won’t be alone. Bai Tu Long Bay is a much quieter alternative, if you can find a boat that goes there. Tours to Bai Tu Long are 3 days minimum, which keeps the day-trippers away.
- The Mekong Delta is another major attraction, or at least it’s advertised as such. On the tours here you may be cynically herded from tourist trap to tourist trap. It’s basically how everyone gets their picture taken in a small row boat wearing a conical hat (a Facebook classic). Try to explore the Mekong Delta on your own if you can. The highlights are the markets, which you could explore by yourself.
- Sapa in the far north is famed for its rice terraces and makes for a great base for hiking as well. It’s a popular area to go on a homestay. You might just sleep in a netted hammock in a hut, and eat sitting on the floor with a local family; it’s a great way to get a feel for life in the highlands.
- Vietnam is not really a “beach paradise” type of place as most beach destinations pale in comparison to those in neighboring countries. One major exception seems to be Phu Quoc island, though it’s been targeted for mass tourism development and is expected to change rapidly over the coming years (it’ll be the “new Phuket”, apparently). For now, it’s probably your best bet for finding a beautiful beach.
Suggested hostels in Vietnam
Hostels in Vietnam tend to be more soberly styled than in Thailand (think marble tiles, dark wood furniture, and maybe a creaking fan), though recent years have seen loads of modern and creative hostels getting added to the mix. Below are some suggestions.
|New Saigon Hostel 2||Ho Chi Minh City||Modern backpacker hostel with custom-built dorm beds and privates.|
|Long Hostel||Ho Chi Minh City||The interior has more of an authentic Vietnamese vibe here. Great for meeting people.|
|Hanoi Dahlia Hotel||Hanoi||Modern hotel in the Old Quarter with rooms ranging from about 9 to 20 USD.|
|Nexy Hostel||Hanoi||Colorful and quiet boutique hostel with rooftop terrace views of the city.|
|Why Not||Hue||If this Wild West-themed hostel strikes you as a little unusual, wait till you see the beds. Even the dorm beds are fit for a king!|
|Sac Lo Homestay & Hostel||Hoi An||Chill hostel with cozy residential feel, in a street away from the city noise.|
Suggested budget hotels
Hotels and guesthouses offer excellent value in Vietnam. A basic private room for a shoestring traveller will start at about $15. For double that, you can already have something very nice! Check out some of the examples below.
|Diep Anh Guesthouse||Ho Chi Minh City||Budget hotel in the backpacker district. Dated interior (as common in Vietnam) but excellent value.|
|Sunny Guesthouse||Ho Chi Minh City||Bright guesthouse close to Ben Thanh Market with rooms starting at $25.|
|See You At Lily’s||Hanoi||Boutique hostel close to the Old Quarter with restaurant and travel desk.|
|Awesome Homestay Hanoi||Hanoi||Braggy name? Perhaps. But you may want to stay here for its old colonial building with distinct vintage vibe.|
|Loc Phat Hoi An Homestay – Villa||Hoi An||Great value hotel with lush garden courtyard. While not a true homestay (this term gets used pretty loosely in Vietnam), it’s a beautiful family-run hotel.|
Scams & other issues
I should note first of all that impressions are always subjective, and there are always exceptions to every rule. However, based on my experiences as well as those of a few others, I should say that the attitude of some Vietnamese towards tourists can leave a sour taste. That shouldn’t discourage you from going, but it’s good to know what to expect.
While in Vietnam for one month I was targeted by scammers pretending to be collecting donations for the Red Cross (nope, the money went into their own pockets), got in an aggressive confrontation with a cab driver who tried to charge me the equivalent of $80 USD for a 5 minute ride, got hit by menu switching scams in restaurants, and was unfairly overcharged numerous times. Also, at one point a wild monkey ran off with my beer, though I’ll try not to blame that one on Vietnam.
Okay… you might tell me that I should expect this, or that it happens everywhere, or that maybe I was just unlucky. This could be the case, but I genuinely do feel the attitude towards tourists can be more cynical in Vietnam than in many other similar countries (I’ve been to a few!).
For an additional perspective, check out this article by Nomadic Matt. While my conclusions are not as strong, I can see where he is coming from.
If you let the scams and annoyances get to you, they could easily spoil your mood. I recommend reading up on common scams beforehand, and if you do get stung try not to let it affect your enjoyment of an otherwise amazing country.
Getting a Vietnam visa
The Vietnam visa system is a lot more complicated than other countries in Southeast Asia. In countries like Thailand, Laos, or Cambodia you can typically just show up at the border, pay a fee, and get an easy visa-on-arrival right there and then. Don’t expect it to necessarily be that easy with Vietnam! You usually need pre-approval, and some visas (or visa exemptions) you can only use at the airports, and not at land borders.
For much more on this, be sure to read my detailed Vietnam visa explainer.