The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Vietnam

August 26, 2016

Vietnam is glorious. It’s hectic, stunning, and surreal. You can walk the streets of Saigon and relish in the sounds of motorbike horns and shouting salesmen, or you can find your oasis in the mountains of Sapa. You can float in the mud in Phong Nha, and you can custom make that banana suit you’ve always wanted in Hoi An.

I spent 78 days in Vietnam and traveled from the south to the north. Here is my ultimate guide to backpacking in Vietnam, where I’ll break down the activities, costs, and transportation in each city I visited.

Saigon

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Vietnam

I loved Saigon. I loved the insanity, the convoluted traffic, and the bars that never closed. There’s a ton of delicious food options and a lot of friendly locals.

Where to Stay

  • Hangout or Hideout Hostel: These sister hostels are $8 a night and include breakfast and a free beer. They’re both right in the backpacker area of Bui Vien Street. They also do a pub crawl 6 days a week. Hangout Hostel is a bit quieter than Hideout (which is where the pub crawl begins).
  • Lee Hostel: Once I decided that Hangout and Hideout Hostels were too expensive, I moved to Lee Hostel. It’s $3 a night, and while it’s nothing to brag about, it has air conditioning, lockers, and is also right in the backpacker area. And it’s $3. Make sure you book it online since it’s cheaper!

What to Do

You can easily spend weeks doing a new activity every day, or you can spend weeks solely eating delicious food. That’s the glory of Saigon.

  • Cu Chi Tunnels: These tunnels were used during the Vietnam war by the Viet Cong for transportation and hide outs. Book a morning tour here at one of the many tour operators in Saigon. I booked mine from a random tour shop on Bui Vien street. It cost 80,000 VND for both transportation and a guide, and an additional 110,000 VND to get into the tunnels.
  • War Museum: The war museum is 50,000 VND to enter. Here you will learn about everything about the Vietnam War they didn’t tell you in school. It’s a sobering experience about the realities of war.
  • Giang Dien Waterfall: If you or a friend has a motorbike, I recommend visiting this waterfall. It’s nice to get out of the city for an afternoon and spend the day splashing in the water and walking along the tree-lined pathway.

Where to Eat

  • Bun Cha: Bun Cha is a delicious soup of noodles and pork and topped with cilantro, herbs, and even fried spring rolls. Go to 145 Bui Vien to a restaurant called Bun Cha and order the bun cha, fried fish balls, and fried spring rolls, and then get back to me and tell me how it changed your life.
  • Bahn Mi: A sandwich loaded with liver pate, herbs, cucumber, pork, and various other delicious items, all on a toasted and tasy baguette. Eat this at 26 Lê Thị Riêng, Ben Thanh.
  • Pho: A noodle soup with chicken or beef and topped with cilantro and various herbs, bean sprouts, and garlic, all garnished with lime. Eat this at 25 Hoàng Sa.
  • Bun Thit Nuong: This was my favorite dish in all of Saigon, it’s rice noodles with pork, fried spring roll, herbs, green onions, and pork rinds. Eat this at 195 Cô Giang. 

Bus from Saigon to Mui Ne: $7

Mui Ne

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Vietnam

I only stayed in Mui Ne for one night. I wasn’t a big fan of Mui Ne; I thought the town was a bit sketchy and there wasn’t too much to do besides the sand dunes.

What to Do

  • Visit the sand dunes at sunrise: You can book a tour to the sand dunes at sunrise ($7) or sunset ($5). Breakfast was included afterwards at the hostel for the sunrise tour.

I went at sunrise, which was lovely. We also visited the red sand dunes (which were full of garbage and children trying to sell you sled rides), the Fairy Stream, and the Fisherman’s Village.

Where to Stay:

Mui Ne Backpacker Village: This hostel has over beds, a swimming pool, and a lively bar. If you’re a solo traveler, this is the place to be. Everything looked brand new and clean!

Bus from Mui Ne to Dalat: $5

Dalat

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Vietnam

I LOVED Dalat. It’s a tiny city in the middle of the mountains. The air is fresh and clean, the weather is chilly and cozy, and the overall ambience gives off a very homey feeling.

What to Do

  • Pongour Waterfall: This waterfall is about 50 kilometers south of Dalat, and reachable by motorbike. Don’t make the same mistake I did.
  • Elephant Waterfall: An easy half day trip from Dalat. Visitors can also hike underneath the falls.
  • Datanla Waterfall: Ride a roller coaster to a waterfall. The waterfall itself is unimpressive, but the rollercoaster, which you control, is too much fun.
  • 100 Roofs Bar: Imagine trying to find a bar by choosing between tons of different staircases that intertwine with one another, take you through dark tunnels, and bring you face to face with demon and goblin statues. That’s 100 Roofs for you.
  • Crazy House: Still being built, the Crazy House started as a project and is now a 40,000 VND attraction for visitors wishing to get lost in its halls. You can also spend a night or two here.
  • Go Canyoning: This is the activity to do in Dalat. It’s about $40 for an all day adventure along the waterfalls.

Where to Stay

  • Backpacker’s Paradise: For $5 a night, guests get free breakfast, free dinner, and free rice wine for an hour. I didn’t want to leave this place. The rooms come with thick, fuzzy duvets, there’s an adorable cat running around that loves cuddling during the day, and the overall atmosphere is very homey.

I didn’t really eat in the city of Dalat, since my hostel gave us free breakfast and dinner!

Bus from Dalat to Hoi An: $10

Hoi An

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Vietnam

I could see myself living in Hoi An. It’s a small city on the coast of Vietnam with good food, a beautiful beach, and plenty of opportunities to get something custom made.

What to Do

  • Monkey Mountain: This mountain is actually in the nearby city of Danang, but offers spectacular views of the ocean and the city from the top. Rent a motorbike and explore for a day. Try and find the monkeys!
  • Marble Mountain: A series of five marble and limestone hills caves and intertwining pathways, the insides offer shrines, pagodas, and sanctuaries.
  • Go to the Beach: The beach in Hoi An is about a 15 minute motorbike ride from the city center.

Where to Eat

  • 474 Cua Dai: This is the address since I’m not sure if this restaurant actually has a name, but they have cheap and delicious Cua Dai (noodles with pork and croutons, the dish of Hoi An).
  • Bahn Mi Phuong: Cheap, and some of the best Bahn Mi I’ve ever had (around 20,000 dong for one sandwich)
  • Orivy: A nice restaurant with home made Vietnamese food. They also have a vegan menu.

Where to Stay

  • Sunflower Hostel: I didn’t stay here but went to the bar at night, which is lively and offers good drink deals. This is one of the only hostels in Hoi An.
  • Green Bud Guesthouse: Tia, the woman that runs the guesthouse, is incredibly friendly. Her guesthouse has the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in.

Bus from Hoi An to Hue: $3

Hue

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Vietnam

The history of Hue is fascinating. It’s known for it’s huge Citadel that’s surrounded by a moat and wall, which is around the Imperial City.

What to Do

  • Visit the abandoned waterpark: A few kilometers south of the city center is a waterpark that was abandoned in 2004 It’s creepy and surreal, and takes some courage to walk around inside. Try and find the live simulator and dragon building!
  • Go to Thuan An Beach: 15 kilometers away from Hue and a lovely day trip to escape the city.
  • Visit the Citadel
  • Visit the Royal Tombs

Where to Stay

  • Hue Backpacker HostelA fun hostel and a great place to meet other travelers. It’s in a great location in the middle of Imperial City.

Bus from Hue to Phong Nha: $5, which included a free night at a (sketchy) hostel

Phong Nha

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Vietnam

I loved Phong Nha. It’s a small town next to a beautiful national park that’s home to some of the biggest caves in the world.

What to Do

  • Visit the Dark Cave: Zipline down Vietnam’s largest zipline, swim into a cave, float in a mud pool, and kayak between cliffs. The tour costs about $20. Don’t book a tour beforehand, only show up to Dark Cave and leave with the next tour group (it’s cheaper).
  • Ride around Phong Nha National Park: Rent a motorbike and drive the 65 kilometer loop in both directions.

Where to Stay

  • Easy Tiger Hostel: There’s a pool, a bar, and a restaurant that serves delicious Western food. They also have red wine for a decent price.
  • Thien Phu: This hostel is across the street from Easy Tiger, but I stayed here because it was cheaper than Easy Tiger (and includes breakfast).

Bus from Phong Nha to Hanoi: $8

Hanoi

I’m going to be honest; I didn’t like Hanoi. It may be because the first few days I was sick, and then the second time I visited my hula hoop and iPhone were stolen. I was unimpressed with the nightlife and the choice of hostels, and I didn’t find there was much to do.

So I spent most of my time sipping coconut milk coffee at Cong Caphe.

I stayed at Funky Monkey the first time. The Wi-Fi didn’t work and the breakfast was usually cold, the eggs and noodles full of grease.

The second time I stayed at Hanoi Rocks hostel. My hula-hoop was stolen off of their bed, and I found the staff to be very unhelpful during the situation. They never watched the security tapes after I asked multiple times. Every time I asked, I received “tomorrow we will watch them” as a response.

The room they initially gave me smelled like mold, had no windows, was extremely cramped, and the AC barely worked. It was the worst hostel room I had ever been in, but they let me switch rooms when I asked. My phone was also stolen right outside of their doorstep. The only thing I liked about this hostel was the price and breakfast.

Where to Eat

  • Pho Thin: Smokey beef in rice noodles, topped with herbs, lime and garlic. Get this delicious dish at 13 Lò Đúc.

Bus from Hanoi to Sapa: $10

Sapa

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Vietnam

Sapa is another city in Vietnam that I adore (can you see a pattern? Mountains!). Although visitors get bombarded with trek and homestay offers the second they step off of the bus, it’s a lovely, small city. The views of the surrounding mountains are beautiful.

What to Do

  • Go on a trek and homestay: I highly recommend doing a trek and a homestay. I did one with a Hmong woman named Mama Mu and had one of the greatest experiences of my life.
  • Drive the Tram Ton Pass: The most beautiful drive I have ever been on. The meandering mountain road will take you along cliffs and through valleys, and I promise, will leave you speechless.
  • Visit the nearby waterfalls: Silver Waterfall and Love Waterfall are two beautiful waterfalls right outside of Sapa and are easily accessible by motorbike.

Where to Stay

  • Go Sapa Hostel: The top floor of this hostel offers gorgeous views of the mountains on clear days. The beds are as hard as a rock but come with curtains, which was a plus.

Where to Eat

  • Baguettes & Chocolate: Get their scrambled eggs. They’re light and fluffy and perfectly paired with a toasted baguette.
  • Sapa O’Chau: Delicious breakfast with eggs, which you can add mushrooms, tomatoes, and other staple items to.
  • Little Sapa: Their vegetable curry was creamy and loaded with juicy vegetables

Bus from Sapa to Hai Phong: $20

Bus from Hai Phong to Cat Ba: $7

Cat Ba Island

thumb_DSC_0483_1024

Cat Ba town is… dirty. Unimpressive. It’s full of neon lights and tacky decorations. But once you get out of the town, the island is gorgeous.

What to Do

  • Trek the mountains at Cat Ba National Park: If you like riding motorbikes, then rent a moto and head to Cat Ba National Park. If not, you can take a taxi. There are hiking trails in the park that take you to a beautiful viewpoint above the mountains.
  • Cannon Fort: Observe the limestone cliffs and turquoise water from above at Cannon Fort. It’s a 40,000 dong entrance fee. The view is unbelievable, and one of the best in Vietnam.

Where to Stay

  • Cat Ba Central HostelBig, comfortable beds, good AC, and free breakfast. It’s in a great location as well.

Where to Eat

  • Oasis: Their vegetable pho and vegetable springs rolls are delicious, as is their chicken curry
  • Green Mango: Get their seafood pho. It’s actually the best pho I’ve ever had. The restaurant itself is quite pricey compared to surrounding restaurants.

A lot of tour agencies in Hanoi will try and sell Ha Long Bay tour tickets. While the relaxed, family oriented ones are probably worth it, I’ve heard (again, I’m not speaking from experience, but I have heard this from many, many people) that the party boat to Ha Long Bay, especially Castaways, is not worth it at all. The island is dirty, and the price (up to $200) doesn’t include alcohol or water and is a complete rip off.

While in Cat Ba, my friends and I booked a day trip around the island, which included lunch, kayaking, swimming, and a visit to Monkey Island, all for $13. We even made it our own booze cruise and brought bottles of vodka on board!

Transportation from city to city is cheap and efficient. You’ll come to love the sleeper buses. Prices range from $3-20 depending on where you’re going. There are also trains throughout Vietnam, but they are a bit more expensive.

Alternatively, you can buy a motorbike in either Hanoi, Saigon, or Hoi An (depending on the direction you’re going) for around $250 and drive through Vietnam. I met plenty of people that did this, but be careful. The roads are dangerous, trucks don’t care about you, and if you’ve never ridden manual or even a motorbike, Vietnam is not the place to learn.

Trust me: you’re going to quickly fall in love with Vietnam.

Go top
%d bloggers like this: