If you’re a budget backpacker then you are looking at the right country. Vietnam travel is one of your best choices because the country is easily one of the most budget-friendly in the world even when you’re backpacking Asia. That means that you can spend as much time in the country as you want (and most people extend their time here) without worrying about breaking the bank.
Personally, Vietnam was a country that I loved to hate, until I fell in love with it. Many pick strong sides about the country either completely loving it or hating it. It’s just one of those places. However, most people do love it and I have a feeling you will too.
But with so much to see and do how do you even begin to plan your trip? Luckily Vietnam caters to tourists in many ways. It’s a breeze to travel through either by bus or by motorbike, it’s relatively easy to communicate, and everyone travels on the same path so it’s easy to make friends (either North to South or South to North).
My best advice is to make sure you give yourself enough time to see all of the country. I’d say a minimum of 2 weeks, but even that makes for a tight schedule. It’s easy to get a month long visa so I recommend getting one and being able to extend your stay if you need to (as you’ll probably want to!).
To start you out for your trip to Vietnam I’ll share some of the best tips for how to get the best bang for buck while traveling through this diverse country.
Transportation: Vietnam is known for its night buses, and they’re dirt cheap. They have the best sleeper buses in SE Asia so your chance of getting a decent night’s sleep is pretty good. I recommend buying them as a package. You simply pick which destinations you want (or may want) to go to as the price changes based on how many places you want to visit. You pay up front and get the tickets on the spot. Then at each new destination you call a day before and let them know you want on the next night bus. Some I even booked day of and only once was I not able to get on that night’s bus. For $45USD I took 5 buses. Keep in mind that when taking night buses it means you don’t have to pay for accommodation!
Another popular way to travel through the country is by motorbike if you’re feeling a little adventurous. You’ll find plenty for sale either in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh. I was definitely too much of a chicken to try but heard so many good things by others who chose to explore Vietnam by motorbike.
For the most part you can walk pretty much anywhere in Vietnam if you’re staying in the central areas (which you can do so cheaply). Or taxis are very affordable. Be careful to not get scammed, it’s best to take the green taxis because they’re metered. You can also get taxi bikes through Grab (it’s like Uber but in Asia).
Accommodation: There is no need to pay more than $10USD per night for accommodation. Most will cost between $3-8USD. For that price breakfast (eggs with bread and sometimes fruit) will be included and most hostels offer an hour of free beer every day. Yes, free beer! You can find both hostels and homestays for this price. Some will even have pools for that price.
Food: Vietnamese food is delicious and the best of it is found on the streets. There are plenty of sit-down restaurants that you can find both local and international dishes for a reasonable price, but you will save much more if you choose to eat at the street stalls. Don’t worry about not speaking the language, they usually have pictures up or attempt to translate below them and you can just point. I highly recommend you try Bánh mì, a baguette loaded with different meats, cheese, eggs and veggies. You’ll find it everywhere but mostly in the South. Street food should cost $5 and under.
And if you love to drink, especially beer, then you’re in for a treat. Friends of mine joked before I got to Vietnam that it’s the best country to be an alcoholic in because it’s so cheap. They weren’t lying. You can get fresh beer for as cheap as 17 cents.
Now that you know all of the budget tips, here’s a rough itinerary what places to visit in Vietnam, for how long, and what things to do in Vietnam! Keep in mind this is a rough guide to give you an idea of how much time to spend in each place.
Day 1-2: Hanoi
DAY ONE: Start to orient yourself in this hectic city by exploring the streets. You’re bound to find something cool. Visit the Old Quarter to take a step back in time with the French colonial buildings that stand between the merchants selling all sorts of random things. Take a peek at the Women’s Museum to understand more about the women’s role in the Vietnamese culture and make sure you find a spot to try some egg coffee.
DAY TWO: Get out early and head straight to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. It’s quite interesting to see how they’ve preserved Ho Chi Minh’s body and all the grand facilities. It closes early (approx. 12PM) so be sure to line up early and double check the times. From there you can visit the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology and/or the Ho Chi Minh Museum which are both close to the Mausoleum. Then spend the afternoon on a street food tour of the city.
Recommended place to stay: Central Backpackers (Old Quarter)
Day 3-4: Sapa
Sapa is one of the best places in SE Asia to stay at a homestay. And it is the place in Vietnam for trekking. You can either book a 2-3 day tour through a company that will include your buses to Sapa and back to Hanoi that includes your trek leaders, homestay, and food. Or you can choose to do it on your own. Plenty of backpackers stay at homestays so you’re bound to find someone to go trekking with if you’re solo.
Day 5-8: Halong Bay
Most tours and buses will use Hanoi as their start and end point, so if you choose to do Sapa and Halong Bay (which I highly recommend) then you’ll come back to Hanoi in between for a night. The majority of people choose to do a tour for Halong Bay (there are literally hundreds) that are either 2-3 days long. Or you can do it on your own. Most people who do it on their own will head to Cat Ba island which is the largest island in the area. Many tours include a stop at Cat Ba, but not all.
Tours can include either sleeping on the boat, on an island or both. They can include activities such as kayaking, cliff jumping, hiking and more. Though most are pretty much the same it’s best to go with a recommendation. The one advertised in Central Backpackers has good feedback and by-far the most popular for backpackers is the Castaway tour. It has stellar reviews but is definitely for people who like to party and it’s not the most budget-friendly. But if you’re going to splurge while in Vietnam, Halong Bay is the place to do it!
Day 9: Ninh Binh
My best advice for Ninh Binh is to get in and get out. Though it is beautiful and referred to as the Halong Bay on land, there is not much to do and you can do it all in one day. Stay in the Tam Coc area as it is the closest to all of the major attractions.
DAY NINE: Before it gets too hot jump on a boat and ride through Tam Coc to see all of the limestone formations and caves. Close by is Bich Dong pagoda, which is not spectacular, but interesting to see. And lastly take a walk up the 500 steps to the top of the mountain to admire the limestone formations from above. Trust me, it’s worth the walk up!
Recommended place to stay: Go NinhBinh Hostel
Day 10-11: Hue
Though Hue can be done in a day, it can be exhausting to take two nights buses back to back. So either get through quickly or take an extra day to leisurely explore Hue.
DAY 10: In the morning explore the citadel. It’s a lot of walking so be prepared for the heat. In the afternoon rent a scooter and head to the abandoned waterpark for Instagram-worthy pictures.
DAY 11: There are seven tombs around the countryside that you’re able to go take a peek at. They’re where some of the rulers from the Nguyen Dynasty lie. Then head over to Thien Mu Pagoda for a bit more history. It’s still regarded as a holy site that has many monks visiting every day. And lastly check out the Dong Ba markets to get a taste of the local culture.
Recommended place to stay: Hue Happy Homestay
Day 12-14: Hoi An
Hoi An is often called the Venice of Asia because of the river that runs through the city and all of the historical sites. Its got more of a small town than city feel and is famous for having anything tailor-made for you.
DAY 12: Take the morning to get yourself oriented in town and start getting ideas of what you want made. It’s best to browse through the shops to see what they can make, though the tailors can make virtually anything. If you need to move on quickly then go to a shop for a fitting as sometimes they need 2-3 fittings to get your piece exactly as you want it. You can then spend the afternoon lounging on one of Hoi An’s beaches that lie just outside of town.
DAY 13: This day you’ll have to head back to any fitting’s that you may have. Before or after you can roam the streets some more and visit any of the historical sites that interest you. You need to purchase a ticket to see these sites. During the evening make your way to see a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show. It sounds funny, but it was actually quite entertaining. Tickets can be bought in town the day of the show.
DAY 14: Finish up any fittings you may have left. Take a cooking class in Hoi An because they have some unique dishes that are only made in this area of Vietnam and are some of the best dishes in the country. On your last evening spend time walking by the river to see the lanterns and to explore the food and shopping markets in the area.
Recommended place to stay: Sunflower Hotel (it’s a hotel set up with dorm rooms and a pool!)
Day 15-17: Nha Trang
Though Nha Trang is known as the place where all the Russian tourists go in Vietnam, there’s good reason why they go. It’s the perfect spot to rest up and enjoy some quality beach time before tackling the south of the country.
DAY 15: Enjoy the beach! Trust me, you’ll be tired after arriving on an overnight bus at 4 AM. At night head to Skylight to par-tay. Its got a seriously great 360 degree view and the drinks are worth the price. They’re delicious! Warning: the party may not start right away, but it will end up a good time with everyone dancing. Pro tip: If you’re used to strong drinks make sure you ask for it, drinks in Vietnam are made weaker than western standards!
DAY 16: Embrace the inner kid in you and go to Vin Pearl. It’s a water and theme park in one. It is a pricier day, but it’s well worth it. Head in early to avoid line-ups and go to the water park first, everyone will go there in the afternoon and it gets packed but in the morning almost no one is there.
DAY 17: After a day of acting like a child and playing you can take some time to enjoy the spa. Head to one of the famous mud spa’s and leave feeling refreshed and cleansed. It’s a four step process and after you can relax by the pool. There are multiple spas to choose from, I arranged one with a pick-up and drop-off through the recommended hostel below.
Recommended place to stay: Mojzo Dorm
Day 18: Mui Ne
DAY 18: Mui Ne can easily be done in a day. Spend the morning lounging at the pool at the hostel I recommend below then go on a tour of the red and white sand dunes and the fairy stream. You can head out that evening on another night bus to your last destination.
Recommended place to stay: Mui Ne Backpacker Village
Day 19-21: Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh is more often referred to as Saigon, its original name that is preferred by the locals.
DAY 19: Arrive in Ho Chi Minh and prepare yourself for a somewhat somber day. Ho Chi Minh is full of war history that’s both interesting and good to know. First, you can head to the War Remnants museum to learn about the Vietnam war. Secondly, check out the Independence Palace to be taken back to the 70’s that served as a government building during the war. And lastly, you should see the Bến Thành Market for some shopping and dinner.
DAY 20: Take a day trip to the Củ Chi tunnels. They’re outside the city so it’s very popular to book a tour and have a bus full of tourists take you out. These tunnels are famous because they were used during the war, some locals even living in them. It’s difficult to understand what it was actually like until you go into the tunnels, which you actually do on the tour! When you get back to the city find a rooftop bar (there are plenty) to chill at for the night and enjoy the view of the bustling city lights.
DAY 21: For your last day in Vietnam you can take another day trip to the Mekong River or use this day to relax at another spot during your trip!
Recommended place to stay: The Hangout
There are some Vietnam destinations that I didn’t mention, Dalat is one of them. I unfortunately, had to skip it because it is for those adventurous souls who like to jump from heights or go canyoning (these were not possible with my sprained ankle). But if you’re into that then definitely take 2-3 days to see Dalat between Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh.
Did you get all of that?! Vietnam is a country so vastly different from North to South that it needed to be broken down like this. Every place I mentioned is worth a visit and there are still more places to visit. These are the highlights and some of the best places in Vietnam.
You will be able to do everything you want and drink you heart out at night while backpacking Vietnam easily for under $50USD a day. And if you’re on a tight budget you can still do plenty on $25USD a day.
Be open to the people, the customs, and the food when you go. Don’t go into Vietnam with any expectations. Let the country tell you how to feel and you will have an unreal time and unforgettable adventure during your Vietnam holidays.
More on backpacking SE Asia:
Tell me, why do you want to visit Vietnam? If you’ve been, did you love it or hate it?
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