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.
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 Travel books are out of date before they’re even published.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.
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.
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.
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.