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Vu Pham Van / © Culture Trip
Vu Pham Van / © Culture Trip
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The Ultimate Backpacking Guide to Vietnam

Picture of Matthew Pike
Writer
Updated: 28 February 2018
Vietnam is a pivotal length of the Southeast Asia backpacker loop, and thanks to its shape, the route pretty well draws itself. This is a land of diverse experiences and amazing people, so whether you’re a partier or a quiet, introverted type, you’ll find something fun for you in this fascinating country.

The backpacker scene

You’ll find the whole spectrum of backpackers in Vietnam. No matter the motivation, they’re here. Some come to see how the country is doing after the war – a conflict that dominated the lives of many around the world during their formative years. Others just want to take a dozen shots of tequila and dance until their brains and legs shut down – and there are plenty of spots to do just that.

On the quieter side of things, Vietnam has temples and yoga retreats for those whose chakras are unaligned, places where you can whisper “namaste” to jungle canopies with other wonderful people from around the globe. Do you want to lay in the shade under an umbrella made of banana leaves and bamboo and read a book as waves lap on a beach that goes into the horizon in both directions? Vietnam has that.

Swimming is a necessary skill in Vietnam | © Kiwisoul/Shutterstock
Swimming is a necessary skill in Vietnam | © Kiwisoul/Shutterstock

There’s Ho Chi Minh City’s manic energy, Hanoi’s stoic charm, the unparalleled beauty of the mountains and as beautiful a coastline as anywhere else in the world. Whatever your pace of travel, Vietnam should be on your itinerary. Backpacking here might not be a life-changing experience for everyone, but you won’t know until you’re left to carve out your own path in a strange land. Vietnam is happy to take a bit of your money and scratch whatever travel itch you have. But enough hyping. Let’s get into details.

Making the most of it

Do your research

There are millions of opinions freely available on the internet. Long gone are the days of backpackers with their noses glued to a Lonely Planet book. Travel books are out of date before they’re even published. Do your research online to get a better idea of what to expect. Sim cards and data are comically cheap in Vietnam. Just find a place with cell phones in a display case and point at your phone. They’ll figure you out. With the internet in your pocket, you don’t have to roll the dice on an eight-hour day trip you might hate. You’ll have plenty of unexpected moments in Vietnam, so there’s no need to gamble your day on an activity that hundreds of other people have already established wasn’t any fun.

Do not join a big tour group

The language barrier is not a problem these days. English has been the official second language for a while now, and pretty well everyone who works a job related to tourism will be able to speak enough English to help you. You might think you’ll want somebody to organise your bus tickets and itineraries for you, but trust us, it’s not that hard to do it on your own. It’s no fun getting bused around day after day to temples that all kind of look the same, and markets all selling the same stuff. Backpacking Vietnam is best done at your own pace. Build your schedule from how you’re feeling and you’ll have a much better time.

Police officer in Hanoi, Vietnam | © Cocos Bounty / Shutterstock
Police officer in Hanoi, Vietnam | Cocos Bounty / Shutterstock

Go with the flow

Remember that you’re in a different part of the world. Don’t expect staff here to always adjust to your expectations of how things should be. There will be delays, restaurants will mess up your order and more than a few taxi rides will go astray. This is normal. Leave plenty of space in your schedule for things to go hilariously wrong.

Safety

Violent crime against foreigners – aside from those who practically begged to be punched – is very rare. It’s the traffic you should really be scared of. If you’re ever on a motorbike, wear a sturdy helmet. Broken bones and road rash heal, but brains don’t.

There are, however, plenty of creepers in Vietnam. If you’re a solo-travelling woman, stick to apps like Uber or Grab if you need to get home late at night. It’s no guarantee of safety, but at least you’ll have a digital stamp of who drove you. That’s usually enough for them to keep their hands to themselves.

Overcharging and shortchanging are common, and so is petty theft. Backpacks are the best, but if you do prefer to wear a shoulder bag, get one with a thick strap – preferably leather. Motorbikes roam the touristy areas prowling for foreigners with easy-to-snatch bags. Even if they fail, you get some serious whiplash. We’ve seen it, and it’s not pretty. Wear a bag that doesn’t look like an easy target.

Tourist spotted | © kitzcorner/Shutterstock
Tourist spotted | © kitzcorner/Shutterstock

Always keep your electronics in physical contact with you. Don’t leave your phone out on the table. Don’t rest your camera bag next to your chair – or if you do, keep a leg through one of the straps. You’d be amazed how many people don’t realise their stuff’s gone until long after the culprit has blended into the crowd.

But, to bring the fun back: Vietnam is relatively safe. The policing is more so at a community level, and everyone knows backpacking money makes life better in the long run. If tourists started getting stabbed, or tossed in jail for frivolous reasons, the income valve would shut for a lot of hardworking people.

Food and accommodation

Every restaurant and food kart in Vietnam adds its own flavour and style to your meal. Even the standard dishes – ones like Phở or Bún bò Huế – take on a new life as you travel the length of the country. Then there are the strange delicacies to try, from stomach-turning duck foetuses to fried frog legs. There are a lot of international cuisines in Vietnam as well – Indian, Thai, Italian and American BBQ – but you’ll break your budget in no time unless you eat what the locals are eating: bánh mì for breakfast, some kind of rice or noodles for lunch, and something from the grill for dinner. Remember, sidewalk restaurants are your friend. Until they aren’t… but that’s what the pharmacy is for. You’ll survive.

Worth the risk | © Rex Roof/Flickr
Worth the risk | © Rex Roof/Flickr

As for accommodation, well what’s your daily budget? For $6 USD a night you can sleep on a bunk bed with seven other people. And, as long as you have good ear plugs, they’re fine. You’ll make all the new friends you could ever want. When everyone is a stranger, it levels the barriers.

Now, if you like the finer things in life, then Vietnam is more than happy to make you feel like royalty. Want a beach bungalow with your own stretch of white sand? For less than $50 a night, you can have your own little paradise where the sun is the only clock you’ll need. Maybe you just want to hide near the rooftop pool and sip margaritas all day? That’s easy enough – whether you’re in Da Nang, Hue, Nha Trang or Ha Long Bay.

Making friends

Vietnam is well known for its prevalent cafe culture Hang out at one long enough and you’ll meet other people. Pub crawls aren’t for everyone, but they can be a lot of fun. Even the surliest people come out their shells after a few drinks.

But the best way to meet new people is to get out on excursions. Those bus rides and roadside restaurants are where you make friendships that can last for months on the road – or for a night, if that’s your style. And when you’re doing things you enjoy – things like kayaking or rock climbing or binge drinking – you’ll meet others with similar interests.

Plenty of good kayaking spots in Vietnam | © Bruce Potter/Flickr
Plenty of good kayaking spots in Vietnam | © Bruce Potter/Flickr

We also recommend that you learn a few essential Vietnamese phrases. It shows you respect their culture enough to try and learn their language – even if just a few simple words.

Money, money, money

Currency

Welcome to the Vietnamese đồng, which usually looks like ₫ or just VND. The best part about this currency is how everyone gets to make the same millionaire jokes over and over again and still get guaranteed laughs. It never fails. Your euros and dollars and yen and won – or whatever you use to buy groceries – multiply quickly in Vietnam.

22,763 : 1 – VND to US Dollar (as of Feb 2018)

So, you can, for $44 USD, be your own self-made millionaire. Vietnam is largely a cash society, but don’t worry about cash flow too much, because your debit/credit cards all work in the ATMs – and all the major credit cards are accepted at most hotels and travel agencies. Just don’t expect to swipe for your morning coffee unless you’re at Starbucks or McDonald’s…

Banks can do exchanges for you, but if you’re like us and hate waiting in herds to beg for money, the gold shops will also help you out for a fair rate. Keep an eye on the difference between the 20,000 and 500,000 VND notes. They’re both blue, and not everyone will be nice enough to point out your mistakes. Learn more about the đồng here.

Millions of Vietnam đồng | © Matthew Pike
The bill in the middle and the one below it are not the same | © Matthew Pike

Costs

1 meal ($1–$25USD) Mostly on the lower end, though.
1 beer ($0.50–$5USD) Dollar is normal. $3+ for a foreign or craft beer.
1 night at a backpacker hostel ($5–$20USD)
1 cheap mode of transport for inner-city travel ($2–$10USD)
1 hygiene/medical essential (at a local shop) ($2–$5USD)
1 affordable experience (e.g. average entry to visit a Temple) ($1–$5USD)

Where to go

Hoi An Ancient Town: UNESCO doesn’t just hand out honours, and there is a reason why Hoi An is practically synonymous with backpacking in Vietnam. It lives up to the hype.

Hoan Kiem: Hanoi is a city with its own distinct feel, where long-gone history looks at you from every direction. The area around Hoan Kiem feels mystical, like you’re in the heart of a giant. It can be touristy, but there’s still a lot of fun stuff to do there.

Sa Pa: The whole of the far North, really. Up in the mountains, the roads slither through terraced rice paddies and life moves at a pace set by nature’s mood. Tours by motorbike through the North are a life-changing experience. Just make sure you actually know how to ride one before you get going. Don’t stress too much, though. There are plenty of driving schools and quiet roads for you to practice on.

Beautiful valley near Sa Pa | © Matthew Pike
Beautiful valley near Sa Pa | © Matthew Pike

Bui Vien: It’s been described as “dirty and dangerous,” and we agree… Read here to find out more about the home of filth and depravity in Ho Chi Minh City – a place where America brought its carnal needs during the war, and where millions of people come to get wild every year.

Bucket list experiences

Kayaking Ha Long Bay: Tour boats are a mighty fine way to see this natural wonder, but we think kayaking is more fun. You can go at your own pace and just have a nice, long-exposure look at the amazing sights.

Hiking in Da Lat: There are varying levels of hiking difficulties in Da Lat, from gentle slopes and paths through flower gardens to mountains with wild views. A healthy dose of nature will do your lungs some good after any time in smoggy cities. Da Lat is also the perfect terrain for some good mountain biking.

Elephant waterfalls near Dalat | © Hoang Tan/shutterstock
Elephant waterfalls near Da Lat | © Hoang Tan/shutterstock

Motorbike trip to Anywhere, Vietnam: Motorbikes are the lifeblood of this country and the best way to see the country like a local. It’s scary as hell sometimes, but there’s no feeling of freedom quite like an open road in warm weather with two wheels. You should get a licence, because your travel insurance won’t cover you if you were driving without one when you crashed – and every accident involving a foreigner in Vietnam is always their fault in the eyes of the mob and the police. If you do encounter any trouble, hide your keys in a hurry and keep a 200,000VND ($8.80USD) note ready for the cops. Safe travels out there.

Bonus articles about Vietnam

Before you leave, here are some more articles to help you out.

An Adventure Traveller’s Guide to Vietnam

The 10 Most Beautiful Towns In Vietnam

The Ultimate Vietnam Bucket List

A Solo Traveler’s Guide to Vietnam