31 days. 12 cities. Hundreds of new friends. Thousands of memories. No regrets.
After a month that came and went way too quickly, I have officially fallen in love with Vietnam. There are no words to explain how much I learned traveling through this incredible country, so I wanted to share a bit of insight, lots of tips, and an ideal itinerary for a month-long trip. Feel free to share this post with anyone you think might find it useful for a future trip! I also made a GoPro video of my Vietnam trip if you want to check it out here :).
Traveling in Vietnam: Because Vietnam is such a long, narrow country, almost everyone travels from north to south or south to north, starting in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. I personally did north to south, so that is what this itinerary follows, but it can very easily be done the other way around. One of the best parts about this is constantly seeing other travelers you know! I loved knowing I would always know people at every hostel I stayed at, and I ran into familiar people in the randomest places. You will notice that it is a VERY small world in Vietnam.
The easiest two ways to get around are by motorbike and by bus. Those who are confident enough to ride over 2,000 km via motorbike will buy one in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City and sell it at the end of their trip, but many choose to rent in certain cities (particularly the famous Hai Van pass from Hue to Hoi An) or just take buses. I rode on the back of many motorbikes, but never actually rented one myself in Vietnam (probably will in Cambodia) and opted for buses instead. Buses are very easy and cheap to book, and night buses save you money on accommodation as well :).
Cost: The U.S. dollar is strong and worth approximately 22,000 Vietnamese Dong, so it is ideal for foreign travelers who are on a budget. Everyone has a different style of traveling and often prefer to spend their money in different ways, so it can be difficult to say how much to expect to spend for a month in Vietnam. I chose to save money on food and accommodation (~$5 US/night for hostels) so I could splurge more on activities and can’t-miss experiences, meaning I spent a bit more than someone who prefers to just chill out or not spend money on doing crazy stuff like rappelling down waterfalls. Note that alcohol can play a big factor in your daily budget, depending on how much you drink, but many hostels in Vietnam give out free beer and cheap drinks ($.50 to $1 is common for a beer and ~$2 for a cocktail, but pub crawls are the best way to get your money’s worth). In my month in Vietnam, I spent an average of $35/day, which includes everything from buses, food, snorkeling, canyoning, custom clothing, etc. I didn’t find it too bad for going all out :).
Hanoi– 3 or 4 nights
This big, bustling city is a great starting point for Vietnam. Soak up the culture and get excited for awesome food and more motorbikes than people!
Where to stay:
- Vietnam Backpackers Hostel- Original or Downtown (both are great, downtown location is more of a party hostel)
- Hanoi Rocks Hostel (very much a party hostel, I stayed here one night and that was plenty 🙂 but tons of fun!)
- Central Backpackers (I didn’t stay here but I’ve heard great things)
- Chien Hostel (newer hostel and my friends who stayed here loved it)
Do not miss:
Explore the Old Quarter, do a pub crawl through a hostel, walk around the lake in the Old Quarter, see the water puppet show, check out the bookstore street perpendicular to the post office (has the word Dinh in the street name), and if you want a splurge meal, Pizza 4Ps is amazing!
Sapa– 2 nights
Doing a homestay in a village outside of Sapa in northern Vietnam (close to China border) is almost a rite of passage for backpackers. You can book a tour or homestay in advance in Hanoi or when you get to Sapa, but I actually just showed up on the bus without a plan. I got very lucky and had an incredible experience with locals I met right outside of the bus station (they will come up to you and show you their guest book with reviews in English). Typical homestays arranged in Hanoi are about $100 USD, but I only paid $40 for two nights (not including bus fare), which was a much cheaper price and was a more authentic experience than what most of my friends did. However, there is no guarantee you will get lucky like I did, so make sure to do your research first and ask other backpackers for recommendations (I heard of many “mamas” to stay with through word of mouth). I stayed with Mama Mai in the Hmong Village, which was a 4 hour trek from Sapa. It doesn’t get any more rural than that! My favorite part about doing the homestay was being in the Hmong Village, which I found actually has the most documentation/artifacts/photos online and in museums out of all of the ethnic groups in Vietnam. I even saw a photo of the grandma I stayed with at the Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi- how cool is that?!
When you do a homestay, no matter how you choose to book it, the local guides will take you trekking to see other villages and explore the rice paddies, cook local cuisine for you, and help you experience the incredible beauty of the mountains of northern Vietnam (you literally will hike through the clouds!). Overall, I highly recommend taking a trip to Sapa, even if you only have one night and have to take a night bus. It was one of my favorite things I’ve done on my entire trip! Even if the family you stay with doesn’t speak much English, my advice would be to interact with them and learn from them as much as you can. You can always talk with other travelers, but when else can you ask a local person questions about their culture and learn about their experiences first hand?
Halong Bay– 2 nights
Seeing Halong Bay is an absolute must in Vietnam. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is world famous for its thousands of towering limestone islands topped by rainforests and you’ll never see anything else like it. Because it is so popular, you have many different options to see it. If you are not looking for a party scene and want to save money, I know many people who took a bus or motorbike to Cat Ba Island, then booked a boat tour to Halong Bay from there. The more popular option is to book a tour in Hanoi, and even still, there are tons of options either from tourist offices or hostels/hotels.
If you’ve done any research on Halong Bay, you’ve probably heard of Castaways Island, which is the most well-known party tour run by Vietnam Backpackers Hostel. Beware- there are MANY copycat tours and even more scams from companies who claim to do “Castaway Tours”. I can’t even tell you how many people I heard of getting scammed an overpaying for a tour which was not what was advertised. Make sure to ask lots of questions, and if you are want to guarantee you have a fantastic time, go straight to Vietnam Backpackers Hostel- Original and book it in person from there. Though I felt physical pain when I paid for this very expensive tour ($200 US for 3 days), it was WELL worth it. At Castaways, you stay on a private island with a beach, go tubing and kayaking, go on an all-day boat cruise, drink copious amounts of alcohol, and meet truly incredible people. Anyone wearing the yellow wristband in Vietnam shares a special bond of what they experienced at Castaways :). I have also heard people who went on the tours run by Central Backpackers Hostel and Hanoi Rocks to Halong Bay and loved it, so Castaways Island is definitely not the only party tour out there, but it is definitely (in my biased opinion) the best.
Phong Nha– 3 nights
Taking a night bus to Phong Nha from Hanoi is cheap and easy, so don’t worry if it’s your first one. Do not under any circumstances skip Phong Nha! I am baffled when I hear of people going straight to Hue from Hanoi and missing out on one of my favorite spots in Vietnam. The actual town of Phong Nha doesn’t have much to see, but it is a truly incredible area surrounded by farmland and national parks, known mostly for the famous caves.
Where to stay:
- Easy Tiger Hostel- This hostel is fantastic and has a pool, which is a huge selling point for the hot weather in Phong Nha. They also have a ton of hammocks on the property, which is perfect if you take a night bus and arrive early in the morning before reception opens. The staff is extremely helpful and they do a talk every morning at 9:00 a.m. to explain all of the activities to do in the area. The hostel is huge and extremely social in the day and at night, so I highly recommend it!
Do not miss:
Dark Cave (ziplining into a mud-filled cave…need I say more?), Phong Nha Cave (you go in a boat and it looks like Pirates of the Caribbean!), farmstay happy hour for sunset (info at Easy Tiger), and if you’re feeling really adventurous, go to “The Pub with the Cold Beer” in the countryside where you can kill your own chicken before you eat it. I won’t post the gruesome photos or videos here….but I did participate in this traumatizing/unique experience. Sorry vegetarians! Feel free to ask me about it if you want more info :).
Hue– 1 night
The bus from Phong Nha to Hue is only about two hours, so it’s super easy to head down there just for a night as you travel south. Hue is fun to see and Vietnam’s beautiful imperial city on the river, but if you are pressed for time, I would accept it if you skipped it.
Where to stay:
- Hue Imperial Backpackers Hostel, which is run by Vietnam Backpackers Hostel (other locations in Hanoi and Hoi An)
Do not miss:
The famous imperial Citadel, tombs, pagoda, abandoned waterpark (super cool!), Hai Van pass to Hoi An on a motorbike if you’re up for it!
Da Nang– 1 or 2 nights
The bus from Hue to Da Nang is only about 2 hours and run throughout the day. Da Nang is a beach town mostly known for Vietnamese vacationers and not too many westerners (even my hostel roommates were Vietnamese!), but definitely has a lot to offer. My favorite part about Da Nang is how modern the city looks, especially when it is all lit up at night.
Where to stay:
- Funtastic Beach Hostel- Funstastic has two locations, and I chose the one at the beach, which was great. One of the owners is a world-famous food blogger, so they have awesome food tours and restaurant recommendations here. They even offer free van rides to Hoi An every day!
- Danang Backpackers Hostel- I didn’t stay here but it gets great reviews and has a more central location!
Do not miss:
The Dragon Bridge Show is held on Saturday and Sunday nights and is absolutely fantastic! The giant bridge across the river is in the shape of a dragon and lights up at night, but on the weekends, the dragon spits out fire and water at 9:00 p.m. and soaks everyone around the bridge! This show is actually more like a festival with food, carnival rides, live concerts, etc. and is ALL Vietnamese tourists. No joke, I did not see another westerner the entire night and I was in a sea of thousands of people! Everyone was taking photos of me and my Norwegian friend and asked us to practice English with their kids. It was hilarious! Also, I didn’t have time to do it, but walking food tours are very popular. Check out multiple beaches in the area, as well as the famous Marble Mountains :).
Hoi An– 5 nights minimum
Hoi An is easily one of my (and everyone else’s) favorite places in Vietnam, so I am not joking when I say to stay for 5 nights. Known for its tailor shops on every corner, well-preserved Ancient Town, coffee shops, and French colonial influence, Hoi An is somewhere you will definitely want to spend more time. If you can, try to time your visit around the Full Moon Lantern Festival, because this was an absolutely unforgettable experience. Releasing lanterns into the river and seeing thousands of them around the entire city was awe-inspiring. Rent a bicycle or motorbike to explore the countryside, go to An Bang beach (just watch out for the jellyfish!), walk around the old city at night, and enjoy the unique atmosphere of Hoi An.
Where to stay:
- Sunflower Hotel (actually a hostel with a great pool and fantastic free breakfast)- Book in advance because it can fill up. I showed up without a reservation and got lucky, but I heard of many who were turned away. This is the #1 spot for backpackers to stay!
- DK Hostel (part of Vietnam Backpackers Hostel group)- More expensive at $12 US/night, but I’ve heard good things about it.
- Under the Coconut Tree- This hostel is on the beach (a 10 minute drive outside of town) and is perfect to chill out for a few days. I didn’t book in advance and wasn’t able to stay here because it was booked, but plenty of my friends have stayed here and said it was great. If you don’t stay at the beach, you can easily rent a bicycle or motorbike or take a taxi to spend a day there. One thing I wish I did was get up early to watch the sunrise from the beach! The pictures I’ve seen look incredible.
Do not miss:
Full Moon Lantern Festival (look up dates online and see if you can make it!), get a tailored suit/shoes/clothes/bathing suit, rooftop drinks at the Chef, An Bang Beach (tip: walk farther down the beach for cheaper lawn chairs and food), and Bale Well restaurant to make your own spring rolls with a set menu.
Nha Trang– 1 or 2 nights
I would highly recommend stopping in Nha Trang, not necessarily because it’s a particularly amazing place, but it breaks up your journey from Hoi An to Dalat and puts you on a bus for 12 hours instead of 17, which makes a huge difference. Nha Trang is mostly known for being a beach town EXTREMELY frequented by Russian tourists (literally, all of the signs are in Russian). For some reason, it can get a bad rap with travelers, but it is definitely worth seeing for at least a night.
Where to stay:
- iHome- This is the popular backpacker hostel in Nha Trang, and though I didn’t stay here, I’ve heard amazing things about it!
- Mojzo Inn or Mojzo Dorm- They have two locations and I stayed at the inn, which is closer to the beach, and had a great time. They have free beer every day, are very helpful at the reception, and it’s only a 5 minute walk to the beach.
Do not miss:
Snorkeling or diving (Nha Trang is known for this), nightlife, Bai Dai Beach (aka Long Beach) is a 30 minute motorbike ride out of the city, but you will NOT regret it. Why? See exhibit A:
Dalat– 3 or 4 nights
I would recommend taking the 4 hour bus ride to Dalat from Nha Trang during the day, because it is absolutely gorgeous! My bus was at 4:00 p.m. (I squeezed in snorkeling in the morning), but I didn’t get to see much scenery on the way up in the dark. If you do take a later bus, take a daytime bus when you leave Dalat! Dalat is a cooler (literally, the temperature is actually cold and you will not sweat- it’s amazing) mountain town that is a favorite for many backpackers. It’s great for outdoorsy activities, waterfalls, and enjoying cooler weather!
Where to stay:
- Dalat Family Hostel- The actual rooms are mediocre and cramped, but the atmosphere, staff, and travelers make up for it times 10! If you’re looking to meet amazing people and have a good time, just trust me on this one and stay here :).
- Cozy Nook Hostel- Lots of my friends have stayed here and loved it!
Do not miss:
Canyoning (rappelling down waterfalls, cliff jumping, etc.), night market, Crazy House (on top 20 list of weirdest hotels in the world), waterfalls, 100 Rooms Maze Bar (yes, this bar is a super tall building made into a giant maze that looks like Alice in Wonderland!)
Mui Ne– 1 night
The bus from Dalat to Mui Ne is about 4 hours, and is a great stop to make on your way to Ho Chi Minh City. Mui Ne is known for its watersports and sand dunes, but there is not much to see in the city itself, so in my opinion, one night is enough, though I could’ve spent an extra day just hanging out at the pool.
Where to stay:
- Mui Ne Backpacker Village- This is basically the only place you’ll want to stay in Mui Ne, mostly because of the awesome pool. This is a pretty large hostel and it’s very social, so even if you are just there to see the sand dunes, you will still meet lots of people. P.S. the chicken burger special at the hostel restaurant is amazing!
Do not miss:
The sunrise tour to the sand dunes! For only $7, you can spend the morning riding around in a Jeep to all of the best spots in Mui Ne, including the white dunes, red dunes, and the Fairy Stream. Definitely worth your money! If you are willing to splurge, for about $40 US, you can take surf or windsurfing lessons. Lam Tong Family seafood restaurant is a short walk from the backpackers village and has AMAZING cheap seafood!
Ho Chi Minh City– 4 or 5 nights
The bus from Mui Ne to HCMC takes about 5 hours, not because of the extreme distance, but the sheer amount of traffic there is getting into this crazy city! HCMC is an incredible place with lots to see and is a wonderful way to end your time in Vietnam.
Where to stay:
- Vietnam Inn Saigon- This hostel was fantastic and includes free breakfast, two free beers every day, and an awesome rooftop bar on the 9th floor. The pub crawl is on Mondays and Thursdays and it was probably the best one I have done on my trip so far! The hostel is very social and pretty large, so it’s ideal for solo travelers wanting to meet people.
- Hideout or Hangout- I didn’t stay at either, but I’ve heard great things about these partner hostels. The original location (Hideout) is more expensive, but the Hangout and Vietnam Inn Saigon are both the same price and only a 2 minute walk from each other across the park. The pub crawls go to the same places as well, so I saw lots of friends who were staying there while I was out.
Do not miss:
War Remnants Museum (hopefully this is a given), Cu Chi Tunnels, a pub crawl (through hostel), Street Food Market (best food I’ve had in Vietnam…still dreaming about that bacon wrapped pulled pork hot dog), ABC Bakery, The Lunch Lady (best pho and spring rolls ever!), Sky Bar on the 52nd floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower for drinks at sunset (you can pay $10 US to go to the Sky Deck viewing area, or just go to the bar for an overpriced drink, which is what I did)
Mekong Delta– 1 night
Almost every tourist office and hostel in HCMC advertises tours to the Mekong Delta. Many people choose to go on a day trip, but I would actually recommend staying overnight there because it would be an extremely long travel day and completely exhausting just to take a day trip. I booked a two day trip with a homestay through my hostel, and had an amazing time! This was partially due to the people I met and did the trip with :). The tour can be cheesy and fast-paced at times, but you can’t miss seeing the morning floating markets, riding on a boat through the canals surrounded by tropical trees, or seeing the copious amounts of random animals at some of the stops (i.e. crocodiles, snakes, porcupines, horses, frogs, weasels, etc.).
I will never forget my homestay experience either! After eating a home cooked meal with fresh fish the father caught that day and talking with the family we stayed with, we played cards and did magic tricks with the father, who did not speak a lick of English. Sitting around the table with two Dutch people, a guy from Spain, two Czech people, another American, and a Vietnamese man playing cards was an awesome way to connect without needing to speak the same language. Waking up to Vietnamese coffee with a view of the river wasn’t too bad either :).
Extra tips for Vietnam:
Street food– always look for crowded places where locals are. The best food is typically at places where you sit on a plastic stool/tiny chair outside! I never eat anywhere that’s empty or if it looks super westernized. Don’t be afraid to try places without English translations! Don’t even ask what it is, just be open to trying new things.
Safety– Though Vietnam is generally very safe, there are dangers in any country. My first day in Vietnam, my phone got stolen by a guy on a motorbike when I was walking at night. I cannot even tell you how many of my friends were robbed in Vietnam, so make sure to be aware of your surroundings, especially at night. Do not take ANY valuables out with you at night especially, never walk alone, keep belongings close and away from the street where someone could snatch it from you, and even try walking against traffic so no one can sneak up behind you on the road. This is not to scare you, but it is a sad reality in Vietnam and it is important to be aware. If you are robbed, don’t let it affect your view of that city, of Vietnam, or the people, because generally, people are VERY nice! I certainly learned my lesson and I am SO thankful for travel insurance. If you do happen to get robbed or need to file a claim with your travel insurance, make sure to file a police report and get an official stamped copy, as you will need to submit it with your claim.
Open Bus Ticket– If you plan to take buses the majority of the time, you may want to purchase an open bus ticket. This will save you money and you can buy a ticket for 4, 6 or 10 rides, but it can be a bit complicated to book them because you need to find that same company in each city. If you do buy an open bus ticket (I didn’t, but I would’ve saved a bit of money if I did), I would book it through Sinh Travel or Hanh Café, which are big companies and easy to find throughout Vietnam.
Easy Riders: This motorbike company is a great option for people who want to ride on a motorbike and enjoy the views of Vietnam, but not necessarily drive it. Easy Riders are common in every city or town and you can hire them to drive you to a destination (my friends and I rode with Easy Riders to one of the caves in Phong Nha), do a one-way rental to drive a shorter distance like the ____ pass between Hue and Hoi An, or hire a driver to take you on a multi-city tour for as long as you’d like (I met someone who was with a driver for 5 days visiting the towns through central Vietnam). It is a bit more expensive than renting a motorbike yourself, but it is a safe way to enjoy the sites and not worry about directions/roads/other drivers.
Visas– It is important to know that you need to prepare for your visit in Vietnam in advance. It is one of the few countries in Southeast Asia that you cannot just show up to and get a visa on arrival. As far as visas are concerned, you have two options:
- Get a government letter of approval for tourism online (~$18 US) and fly into the country to get a visa on arrival for $25 US. A quick Google search will populate a ton of websites to get you this letter, so just make sure you look at a few for prices and make sure it’s legit. I used http://www.vietnamvisa.govt.vn, but there are plenty of others out there. Again, you can only get a VOA with this letter of approval if you FLY into Vietnam.
- Send in your passport to the embassy in advance to get a visa before you arrive. I did not choose this option simply because I was already traveling when I was planning this trip and could not send in my passport, but it is a popular option and eliminates any stress about getting a VOA. This is also the only way to can get into the country over land, so keep that in mind if you want to take a bus or another form of transport besides a plane.
You can choose either a 30-day or 90-day visa and either single entry or multiple entry visa, depending on your travel plans. If I could go back and do anything differently, I would’ve gotten a 3 month visa to give me more flexibility and not feel rushed toward the end. Save yourself the trouble of trying to extend your visa (an annoying and pricey process) and just get the 90-day visa because you WILL want to stay longer in Vietnam, I guarantee it!
Phew! That was a ton of information. I hope that helps if you are planning a trip to Vietnam, currently traveling there, or just wanted to see what I’ve been up to this past month. Thanks for reading, and as always, feel free to add anything I missed or feedback in the comments section!