August 2023 Update: the Vietnam government has introduced a new 90-day e-visa that lets you enter Vietnam much more easily and stay longer than was possible before! You can find the latest details under the visa section.
Vietnam is one of the most popular backpacking destinations in Asia — and with good reason.
Its epic natural sites, mouth-watering food, insanely bustling cities, distinct culture, and low cost have drawn backpackers and holidayers alike for decades.
But it’s worth planning your Vietnam trip well, especially if you want to have a more authentic experience!
The honest truth is that Vietnam has a bit of a reputation for tourist traps and some overcommercialized areas. But it also has some of the most amazing and authentic experiences in all of Asia. How you travel will hugely affect your impressions of this beautiful country.
I’ve done two month-long trips in Vietnam, both following a north-to-south route. My first trip followed more or less the typical Vietnam itinerary, while my second trip (a few years later) was more focused on going off the beaten track.
While my first trip made me think of Vietnam as a bit too commercialized in places, my second trip gave me a whole other perspective, easily turning it into one of my favorite destinations in the world.
How to plan a route
There are a lot of places to explore in Vietnam. In this map below, I sketched out a few of the most common travel destinations:
By the way, Vietnam is bigger than you might realize!
Its length is similar to that of Japan or almost the whole West Coast of the USA. Driving from the very north to the south tip of Vietnam in a continuous manner would take at least 40 hours.
Keep these distances in mind when planning your trip. Night buses and overnight trains are a common way to efficiently cover more ground, something I’ll talk more about later.
Despite its size, many travelers try to cover the whole length of the country in one trip. To do such an itinerary justice I think you need at least 3 weeks (but ideally 4 weeks).
Popular stops on such a grand backpacking tour of Vietnam include the capital Hanoi, the archipelago of Ha Long Bay (formed of numerous limestone islands), the cute riverside town of Hoi An, the imperial city of Hue, and the cosmopolitan southern city of Ho Chi Minh City.
Even if you have 3 or 4 weeks to spend, you will probably have some tough decisions to make on what to include in your route.
Places to visit in Vietnam
Vietnam has several places that are very popular and that most people end up including in their itinerary.
There’s Halong Bay, a collection of thousands off small limestone islands of the coast that you can see as part of a sailing trip. The town of Sapa in the north is famous for its rice terraces and mountain treks. Hoi An is a touristy but very atmospheric town with many things to do and that a lot of backpackers rate as their favorite. And finally, in the south is the Mekong Delta region, where you can see floating markets on the river, where loads of little boats converge to sell fruits and vegetables.
Besides these, you’ll probably also want to visit one or both of the major cities (Hanoi and Saigon).
Many backpackers stop by the seaside resorts of Nha Trang or Mui Ne. These places sometimes get mixed reviews, but they can be fun unpretentious places to party or hang by a swimming pool. Want something quieter? Then I quite like the seaside town of Qui Nhon.
But my own personal favorite places include Hue, a city with many pagodas and temples, Ninh Binh (sometimes called the Ha Long Bay on land), Phong Nha (home to the world’s largest caves) and Ha Giang Province (an amazing mountain region).
Planning a shorter trip
If you have only one or two weeks in Vietnam, then consider focusing on just the north + center, or the center + south.
There’s no shame in doing fewer things but doing them properly! Not everyone has infinite time available, or maybe you’re visiting Vietnam as part of a larger Southeast Asia trip and still have many other countries to visit.
On my first one-month backpacking trip in Vietnam, I actually didn’t see much in the north. It was still very cold and misty there in December, so I skipped entirely over some popular places in the north like Sapa.
On my second visit a few years later, I skipped a lot in the south instead. I just felt more like seeing the northern mountains than the southern beaches. In both cases, I had an amazing time.
All I’m saying is that you don’t necessarily need to include everything to have an incredible trip. It is possible to create a trip that’s focused on just a part of Vietnam.
Heading north or south?
When you meet backpackers in Vietnam, one of the first questions you’ll surely hear is “are you going north or south?”.
Personally, I prefer going north-to-south. That’s in part because the north is just a great place to start. The weather will also get more tropical as you go south, so you can reward yourself with some beach time towards the end of your trip.
By the way, the topography of Vietnam makes it a great place for a solo traveller. Broadly speaking, people move in only one of two directions, so it’s easy to make friends and continue to see familiar faces as you move either north or south.
Recommended hostels in Vietnam
Cheap & super central hostel with hotel-like beds and amenities
$$ Ho Chi Minh
Family-run place in the main backpacker district
$ Hoi An
Great vibes, one of the few hostels inside the ancient town
$$ Da Nang
Loved staying here; 2 min from the beach
Great vibes, in quiet part of the center
Getting your Vietnam visa
Vietnam used to have one of the most convoluted tourist visa systems in Southeast Asia. This section used to detail all the different types of entry permits you could consider, each with different limitations and validities.
I’m happy to report the situation has been massively streamlined!
As of August 2023, you can enter Vietnam on an e-visa with a validity of 90 days. Travellers of any nationality can apply for e-visa.
With an e-visa you can:
- Apply directly online on the Vietnamese government website
- Stay in Vietnam for up to 90 days
- Enter Vietnam multiple times using any airport or overland border
You can apply for an e-visa here. (Be sure to switch the site to English in the top menu.) There are still some agencies that can help you with traditional visa requests, but this won’t be necessary for e-visa.
The government fee is $25 for a single entry and $50 for a multiple-entry visa. Be sure to get the latter option if you plan to, say, make a side trip to Laos or Cambodia and then circle back to Vietnam.
For a select group of countries, there is also a visa exemption. For example, travellers from Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the UK do not need a visa at all and can stay visa-free for up to 45 days. You can check the full list of visa-exempted countries. If you need to stay longer, you can get the e-visa instead.
In some cases, you may still need an old-school paper visa from a Vietnamese embassy (pictured below) but most travellers will now be able to enter Vietnam easily using the e-visa or the exemption.
Avoiding the tourist traps
Okay, time for a brutal truth: Vietnam can sometimes feel a bit like a tour factory. And this can honestly give some people the wrong impression of Vietnam. I’ve sometimes heard negative things said about Vietnam that do not reflect what the country is truly like.
At least, that’s if you travel Vietnam in a totally standard way. I did this the first time and Vietnam sort of subjectively felt like a 7/10 destination. Not the worst, but not really amazing either. Then I did it in different ways on my second visit and it easily became a 9/10.
Some of the popular experiences in Vietnam have really been packaged for the masses, focusing on quantity over quality. These local tours can be disappointing as you get shuffled around like cattle, mixed in with other groups, or led around by impatient and humorless guides. The most touristy locations also tend to attract scammers or other annoyances.
Luckily, by exploring independently or taking alternative tours, you will often have a much better time.
And chances are, you’ll get to know a way more welcoming and friendly side of Vietnam.
The following tips can help you avoid Vietnam’s main tourist traps. I think these might actually be the most important travel tips I can share!
Mekong Delta tours
The Mekong Delta region is a vast maze of rivers, rice paddies and riverine islands in southern Vietnam. Loads of organized tours can take you around there.
These tours usually include a brief visit to the floating markets of Can Tho, a staged photo opportunity where you wear a conical hat while paddling through a bit of bamboo forest, as well as a few other touristy sights. It’s fun, but not that authentic. You may end up having a good experience, but if you look on sites like TripAdvisor you’ll typically find complaints about the ‘conveyor belt’ nature of some of these trips. If you do them as a day trip from Ho Chi Minh City, they also involve a lot of driving, which will be quite tiring.
A better way to do it: make your way to the city of Can Tho and stay a night in the Enjoy Mekong Hostel or find other accommodation there. The hostels can arrange early morning boat tours (starting at 5 AM) just for the floating markets. This way, you’ll beat all the daytrippers and will experience the true hustle and bustle of the market during the early hours.
In the afternoon, you can rent a motorbike or bicycle and explore the rice fields by yourself. You’ll get a true taste of rural life in Vietnam and the riverine landscapes of the Mekong Delta!
Tam Coc boat rides
The karst landscapes of Ninh Binh are sometimes called the ‘Ha Long Bay on land’. While the mountains are a bit smaller (and, obviously, on land) I think the area here is one of the real highlights of Vietnam.
That said, the popular riverboat ride in Tam Coc is known to be a bad tourist trap with a lot of scammy behaviour from the boat drivers. Every backpacker has some different story about how they were forced to buy things or got a ton of grief for not giving more money.
A better way to do it: ignore the Tam Coc tourist trap and go for the better Trang An boat ride. This one starts about 20 minutes further north (and not inside the town), but it’s worth getting there. Choose the longer Route 1 and with some luck you may have the whole place to yourself, as most day-trippers and groups take the shorter Route 2 or Route 3. It’s an amazing experience with none of the hassle.
Halong Bay cruises
Nearly everyone on their first visit to Vietnam wants to see Halong Bay, so there are tons of companies running tours there of varying quality. The location is magnificent and definitely worth it, but the overall experience will depend on the tour company. Since it’s on the water you also can’t do it independently; you have to go on an organized boat tour or cruise. This limits your options a bit, but there are still some ways to have a slightly different Ha Long Bay experience.
A better way to do it: Inform yourself about the tour options and their routes. Consider tours that include Bai Tu Long Bay or Lan Ha Bay. These bays are a bit further out so they don’t have as many boats. You could also choose to stay on Cat Ba Island (the big island near Halong Bay) and take a day-trip from there in the morning — you might beat the rush of tourists coming in from further away like Hanoi. You can book a trip to Lan Ha Bay starting in Hanoi here.
Most travelers agree that Halong Bay is worth seeing, but know that it’s getting busier every year. As long as you don’t expect to be alone, you’ll surely enjoy the experience.
How to get around in Vietnam
Getting around in Vietnam usually isn’t too difficult. It has a great bus network and the Reunification Express railway running from Hanoi to Saigon also lets you easily cover a lot of miles.
That’s not to say your journeys will always be comfortable though; local buses can be slow and most night-buses have awkward bunk beds with not much leg space. Sometimes it’s worth spending a bit more on a 1st class train ticket or ‘VIP’ bus service for a bit more comfort if you have the budget.
How to book buses or minivans
Bus services in Vietnam are run by hundreds of different companies. This means timetables are not always complete and not every bus can be booked online.
You can usually book transportation easily via your hotel or hostel reception (who will make a call for you) or at any of the small ticket agents that you’ll inevitably find in any place that any tourists go.
Some sites have made booking online easier in recent years, which accept international payment methods such as PayPal or credit cards.
Do keep in mind there is no centralized booking system in Vietnam. The sites offering online booking basically have to set up lots of separate partnerships with some of the hundreds of bus operators. When you book on their sites, they often still have to manually call the bus operators to confirm. Unless it specifically says ‘instant confirmation’, you may have to wait a few hours to receive the actual ticket.
How to book trains
The trains in Vietnam do have a central booking system these days, making it very easy to book them. In fact, you can now only book trains online.
Trains are slower and somewhat more expensive than buses but, if you ask me, they’re also much more comfortable. I’ve caught far more sleep on night trains than on any of the buses. They’re also a cool way to travel!
After booking your ticket you’ll be sent a PDF document with a QR code and your carriage and seat number. You can simply show this on your phone to the attendant. Every carriage has its own attendant, so there’s always someone to help you find your seat.
Note that you can’t book trains directly with Vietnam Railway as they still only accept Vietnamese payment methods, so you have to book with a booking platform like 12Go Asia (which charge a 40,000 dong commission).
It’s best to book trains at least one or two days ahead of time, as they do fill up pretty quickly. There are no hop-on-hop-off tickets for the train, so you’ll have to buy individual tickets for each part of your journey.
The excellent site Seat61 has a wealth more information about trains in Vietnam.
Traveling at night – is it worth it?
Yes, I think it’s often worth it. It’s common for backpackers in Vietnam to travel overnight, which makes sense given some of the distances involved. There are many night buses and the Reunification Express running from Hanoi to Saigon offers a range of sleeper carriages.
Night travel can save you time and money: you’ll spend fewer waking hours in transit and you get to save a night’s accommodation. But not all night travel will be that comfortable.
Normal night buses: Vietnamese night buses typically have 3 rows of bunk beds stacked two levels high. The beds have a plastic casing around them which is quite restrictive especially if you are tall. There are usually no toilets, so the bus has to take regular toilet breaks that interrupt the journey. At the back there is usually a large flat bed space that will accommodate about four people. These may seem like prized spots at first, but the lack of barriers will make you move constantly and may lead to involuntary spooning of some unwashed stranger.
What I’m saying here is that the regular night buses aren’t all that great. But… they’ll get you there.
VIP/luxury night buses: Unless you’re traveling on a tight budget, be sure to keep an eye out for any upgraded ‘VIP’ buses, which operate between only some destinations. I took one of these from Hanoi to Ha Giang, for example. For just $8 more I got myself a private cabin with a comfy massage bed, USB chargers, snacks, A/C, and more. I thought this was totally worth it.
Night trains: There is a choice from various classes of seats and beds on the Reunification Express. The 2nd class berths have 6 beds in them. They’re quite cramped and there’s not enough room to sit upright. They also might have people sleeping on stretchers in the hallway outside and I’ve also seen certain six-legged insects crawling around the 2nd class carriages (sorry… I thought you should know). The 1st class (soft sleeper) carriages have 4 beds and are a lot more comfortable and clean. 2nd class is probably fine for a budget backpacker, but the 1st class upgrade is worth it if you can spare just a bit of extra dong.
Hop-on-hop-off buses – are they worth it?
There are several operators selling hop-on-hop-off bus passes for Vietnam. This means you can travel the full length of the country (between Hanoi and Saigon) on one ticket and going in one direction.
Even though that sounds convenient, it does reduce your flexibility a lot. Friends of mine did this but felt constantly restricted in which buses they could use. They were also unable to switch to trains or minivans for particular legs of the journey where these would have been more convenient.
I’ve always booked my transportation one step at a time. Even if the hop-on-hop-off ticket is slightly cheaper overall, it’s not so great to have to lock yourself in. In my opinion, this makes them not really worth it.
Motorbiking in Vietnam
Arguably the best way to explore Vietnam is by motorbike. The feeling of freedom you’ll get is amazing. You’ll also be able to go off the usual travel circuit, getting you much closer to the real country of Vietnam.
There is an active second-hand market with travelers (and locals) buying and selling motorbikes. It’s not too difficult to find one in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, the common starting points for a journey.
Some companies even specifically target motorbike travelers with rental or tour services. One of the first companies to do this was Easy Rider (and there are now many copycats with similar names). If you don’t know how to drive, you can rent motorbikes with drivers.
Even if you’re not doing a grand tour of Vietnam, it’s great to rent motorbikes for a few days here and there in each location. Scooters (by which I mean small motorbikes) are the most common mode of transportation in Vietnam and so you can rent them pretty much everywhere. This usually costs around 100,000 VND per day, but it depends on the type of bike.
Several scenic routes are especially popular with self-drive travelers. Consider for example the incredible Ha Giang loop in the north, or the Hai Van pass in central Vietnam. The local blog Vietnam Coracle is a fantastic resource describing many more alternative routes. You’ll also find many tips in our guide to motorbiking in Vietnam.
Taxis & local transportation
Local taxis are inexpensive by Western standards — but do keep an eye on the meter, as not all drivers are honest! An easy way to book taxis or motorbikes is the Grab app. It will also help with the language barrier as you can simply type in your destination. With Grab you still pay in cash, but hail taxis via the app in a manner similar to Uber or Lyft.
Finding hostels & hotels
Accommodation is very cheap in Vietnam. You can already get a great private room for around $20 per night, or a dorm bed for $10. And if you’re not too picky, you can get budget options for even half those amounts.
Hostelworld is always the best site to check if you’re intending to stay in backpacker hostels. The best hotel booking sites, in my opinion, are Booking.com and Agoda, as they list a lot of smaller and cheaper places.
One important thing: words like ‘homestay’ or ‘eco resort’ are used pretty liberally in Vietnam. Often this is just empty marketing used by regular hotels or guesthouses. For example, while there are real family-style homestay experiences, some ‘homestays’ are just commercial hotels or bungalows. And nothing might be particularly ‘eco’ about a place except that it’s just near some nature. Check the descriptions so you know what to expect.
Best time to go to Vietnam
You can’t go to Vietnam expecting the weather conditions to be ‘perfect’ if you’re going to travel all of it.
There’s no way getting around the fact that the climate is just very different in the north, center, and south, which are very geographically separated.
While much of the country is tropical, keep in mind the north is in a temperate zone. Expect the mountainous north to be a little cold in winter. Even in autumn or spring it can be a bit cold at night. Pack a hoodie, and maybe a jacket for winter. If you’re going in summer, expect it to be very hot and humid.
The north also tends to be quite cloudy and misty for much of the year (because of both weather and smog). The best chance of clear skies in Halong Bay is in April to June, and September/October.
For central and south Vietnam, the wet season is something to keep in mind. For central Vietnam (e.g. Hoi An, Hue, Da Nang) this is in October / November. In the south (e.g. Ho Chi Minh City) it’s May until October.
Best beaches in Vietnam
If you’re hoping for super dreamy beaches that look straight out of a travel magazine, then Vietnam is maybe not the first place to look. While the beaches are good, in my opinion they’re nothing like the unspoiled and beautiful beaches you can more easily find in Malaysia, Indonesia, or The Philippines.
Not to sound negative — it’s just my honest opinion. If you’re coming for Vietnam just for beaches maybe it’s not the ideal place to go, but if you just want to add some relaxing beach time to a cultural trip in Vietnam, then there are many great beaches to choose from.
The top beach destinations tend to focus a lot on large-scale tourism. Phu Quoc Island is a massive resort island (with big hotels, golf courses, its own airport, etc.) which maybe isn’t the vibe you might want as an independent traveller. Mui Ne has only a thin strip of a beach, much of it paved with concrete blocks to prevent erosion. Nha Trang meanwhile mainly targets Russian and Chinese package tourists, though it can be a fun place to party.
I like the beaches of Qui Nhon, which have more of a laidback vibe. Other travellers have recommended to me the island of Con Dao. The beaches near Hoi An are also pleasant, albeit crowded.
If you’re an intrepid traveller, you can find hundreds of beaches throughout Vietnam where you can relax and get away from it all. In my opinion, they do lack some of those funky beach hostels or the kind of Balinese touch that make the coasts in Indonesia or Thailand so charming, but you can still find some really nice spots in Vietnam.
As far as snorkelling or scuba diving goes, in Vietnam it’s sadly just OK. There’s not a lot of life due to overfishing and visibility can leave a lot to be desired, at least compared to other spots around Southeast Asia. Leave your scuba diving budget for other countries, unless you’re just doing your training dives.
Food in Vietnam
Vietnamese food is simply amazing. But you’d be wrong to assume it’s only about pho noodle soup or spring rolls! Yes, these are things you may already be familiar with from Vietnamese restaurants, but there is a whole other world of Vietnamese food to taste.
I’ve noticed that many backpackers end up ordering only bland or generic ‘chicken stir fry’ or ‘noodle soups’ from tourist menus. There’s nothing wrong with these per see, but there’s loads of other delicious stuff to try in Vietnam.
Parts of the country also have their own specialities. One of the best things you can in Vietnam is to take a guided street food tour in Saigon or Hanoi, as this will give you an incredible crash course in all that’s there on offer. You might also want to check out our very own guide to the best Vietnamese street food.
Backpacking Vietnam: my impressions
I had a great time on both my journeys through Vietnam. The first in 2013 offered a great introduction to Vietnam, though as a less experienced traveler I did face various challenges. It was this trip that I was probably scammed the most I have ever been, including by a taxi driver trying to charge $80 worth of dong for a 5-minute trip (and getting aggressive when I refused), a restaurant switching their menu for another one with much higher prices, and many other such shenanigans. As a result, Vietnam felt less welcoming.
I had no such difficulties at all on my second trip in 2019; in fact, I discovered how kind and welcoming the Vietnamese truly are. Maybe I knew better how to avoid such annoyances, or it’s possible Vietnam has simply chilled out a lot more in recent years now that its economy is booming. Technology has helped too: if you use apps like Grab, drivers will not be able to overcharge you. There are some older blog posts out there complaining about Vietnam but I think this may be a different Vietnam from the past.
All in all, I believe Vietnam is one of the most exciting destinations in Asia, especially from a cultural, culinary, and adventure point of view. It maybe doesn’t have the best beaches, but backpacking in Vietnam is about so many other things than that.
Consider places not yet touched by mass tourism like Ha Giang region, Phong-Nha, and the beaches around Qui Nhon. Or go on a homestay in Sapa, visit the national parks, embrace the chaos of Hanoi, or go on a motorbiking trip through rural Vietnam. They’re some of the best experiences you can have in all of Asia.
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