Vietnam is one of the most popular backpacking destinations in Asia — and with good reason.
Its epic locales, 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 a few overcommercialized attractions. How you travel will hugely affect your impressions of this beautiful country.
I went backpacking in Vietnam from north-to-south for a month. A few years later, I did it again! But this time I focused on visiting different places and knew better how to avoid the tourist trappy parts. I loved my second trip even more than the first.
In this guide, I’ll share my best tips after backpacking Vietnam twice.
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 actually similar to that of Japan or nearly the whole West Coast of the USA. Driving from the north to south tip in Vietnam would take at least 40 hours combined.
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 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 karst archipelago of Ha Long Bay, 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 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. They sometimes get mixed reviews, but they can be great unpretentious places to party or hang by a swimming pool. Want something quieter? Then I quite like the seaside town of Qui Nhon.
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).
Because Vietnam has so much to see, I created a separate post with the top places to see in Vietnam.
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 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 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 cover the whole works to have an incredible trip. It can make sense to focus 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?”.
Because of its elongated shape, it just makes sense to travel from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon) or the other way around.
Personally, I prefer going north-to-south. That’s in part because the north is just a great place to start. But 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. Since people move in only one of two directions, roughly speaking, it’s easy to make friends and continue to see familiar faces as you move either north or south.
Getting your Vietnam visa
To enter Vietnam you need an approved tourist visa. Unfortunately, Vietnam has one of the most convoluted tourist visa systems in Southeast Asia. It’s honestly a bit of a mess at the moment.
I wouldn’t blame you for getting a bit confused! But let me try to clear things up.
I put together a step-by-step guide to getting your Vietnam visa that has all of the gnarly details. You can follow the flowchart in that guide to see which visa is right for you.
But in a nutshell, there are two common options:
Entering Vietnam overland: if you want to cross the border into Vietnam, for example from Cambodia or Laos, then you need to get a visa from a Vietnamese embassy. This could be an embassy in your home country or in a nearby capital like Bangkok. Important: you will need to pre-select your entry date for Vietnam, so you need to know in advance on what date you want to start travelling in Vietnam.
Entering Vietnam by flying: if you’ll enter Vietnam at any of its international airports, then it’s easier to get a visa on arrival. But this also works differently from visas-on-arrival in other countries! You need to be pre-approved and hand over some forms at immigration when you arrive. The easiest way to get this paperwork done is via Vietnam-Visa.com.
Vietnam Visa Pre-Approval
It’s easy to get your visa-on-arrival online!
Avoiding the tourist traps
Okay, time for some brutal honesty: Vietnam can sometimes feel a bit like a tour factory.
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. 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 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.
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. If you do them as a day-trip, they also involve a ton of driving.
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 Victory Coffee & 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.
A better way to do it: ignore the Tam Coc tourist trap and go for the better but less known 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.
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 know that the experience will be very touristy. 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 cool ways to see Ha Long Bay that will avoid some of the crowds.
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.
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, such as 12Go Asia, Baolau.com and the Vietnamese startup VeXeRe.com, which all 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.
The best booking sites for buses, trains, ferries, or minivans are:
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 12Go Asia or Baolao (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. While 12Go Asia doesn’t let you book trains departing within the next 24 hours, Baolao might still let you make such late bookings.
There are no hop-on-hop-off tickets for the train. If you’re going south to north or the other way around, 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 it’s 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.
Sounds convenient, right? Well, keep in mind it reduces 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 places to stay
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.
The best booking sites for Vietnam are Booking.com and Agoda, which list a lot of local and smaller-scale accommodation. Hostelworld is also a great site to check, as always, if you’re intending to stay in backpacker hostels.
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. Be sure to check descriptions so you know what to expect.
Recommended hostels in Vietnam
Old Quarter Hostel
Cheap & super central hostel with hotel-like beds and amenities
Vy Khanh Hostel
Family-run place in the main backpacker district
Tribee Bana Hostel
Great vibes, one of the few hostels inside the ancient town
Loved staying here; 2 min from the beach
Hue Happy Homestay
Great vibes, in quiet part of the center
Best time to go to Vietnam
A challenge with Vietnam is that the climate can be very different in the north, center, and south. You can’t go to Vietnam expecting the weather conditions to be ‘perfect’ if you’re going to travel all of it. I myself have travelled in winter (December/January) and in spring (March/April).
While much of the country is tropical, 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 okay, in my opinion they’re nothing like the unspoiled and beautiful beaches you can find in Malaysia, Indonesia, or The Philippines.
I know that might sound a bit critical, but I just want to give you an honest take. If you’re coming for Vietnam just for beaches 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 you’ll probably still find plenty to like.
The top beach destinations tend to focus a lot on mass tourism. Phu Quoc Island is a large-scale resort island (with big hotels, golf courses, its own airport, etc.) which 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 personally really 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 rather pleasant, albeit very crowded.
As far as snorkelling or scuba diving goes, in Vietnam it’s 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.
Backpacking Vietnam: my impressions
On my first backpacking trip to Vietnam many years ago, I didn’t really get a totally positive impression. This was probably quite subjective, but I think there was also a certain objective element to it.
I went to Ha Long Bay in December when it was all misty and drab — and my tour guide seemed really disrespectful to foreigners. I got scammed in numerous locations, even a bit aggressively at times (like a taxi driver shutting the doors and basically holding me hostage). Some of the tours were lame and seemed mostly designed for package tourists wanting to do a bit of standard sightseeing in as little time as possible.
My conclusion, back then, was that Vietnam has some cool stuff in it, but it was ‘too commercial’. This was basically the opinion I shared in backpacker hostels around Southeast Asia — and I met many travelers who agreed with this. Quite a few other travel bloggers have also written opinion pieces on why they wouldn’t return to Vietnam, seeing it as a one-time-only kind of destination.
I returned in 2019 anyway — and I loved it to bits! I think it’s partly that the attitude of Vietnamese towards tourists has mellowed out a bit over the years. The economy of Vietnam is booming now, which must have reduced some of the scams and short-term attitude. And if you use apps like Grab, drivers will no longer be able to overcharge you.
I also really loved going to places not yet touched by mass tourism, like the Ha Giang region, Phong-Nha, and the beaches around Qui Nhon. I now got to see Vietnam as an amazing destination that’s filled with helpful and kind people (outside the tourist traps).
If you feel certain places in Vietnam are a bit overtouristed, don’t judge this book by its cover! Try adding a place or two outside of the typical route, focus on experiencing the culture, and you’ll have an amazing time backpacking Vietnam.
P.S. Remember getting a visa for Vietnam works a bit different than for other countries like Thailand or Cambodia. If you’ll be flying into Vietnam, it’s best to get a visa-on-arrival online before you go.
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