Average cost p/day: $US35
Time frame: 1 month +
Currency: Vietnamese Dong
Vietnam is a wonderfully diverse country, with bustling cities, quaint towns, mountains, caves, national parks, beaches and islands…there’s plenty to keep you occupied! Time permitting, most travellers make their way from one end of Vietnam to the other, starting in either Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi. There’s a free two week visa for UK citizens, but I highly recommend taking at least a month (if not more!) to get the best out of Vietnam.
Be sure to indulge in the local food while you’re in Vietnam, it’s so much better than any ‘Western’ food you’ll find there! As well as rice paper rolls and pho, my favourite food in Vietnam was Bun Thit Nuong – a noodle dish filled with pork, salad and spring rolls, covered in sweet chilli sauce (or sometimes a peanut sauce in the north)
It’s very easy to get around Vietnam by bus. Most bus journeys aren’t too long, but the longer distances are possible via night bus – you’ll be suprised how comfy the night buses are! Unless you’re tall. Then you might not quite fit in the bed-like bus seats.
I went to Vietnam from mid March to mid April and the weather in the south was beautiful, but the further north we got, the colder and cloudier it got. Often quite rainy too – though I hear this is unusual for that time of year. Summer is May to October, which means much warmer (humid!) temperatures, but it is also the rainiest time of year. The climate is so diverse across the country that it’s hard to pick a ‘best’ time to go. Seems the general verdict is that Spring (March-April) is the best time to visit, but basically…it’s an all-year-round kind of destination!
WHERE TO GO
Ho Chi Minh
Vietnam’s most chaotic and vibrant city, Ho Chi Minh is filled with markets, bars and delicious street food. The War Museum, while incredibly depressing and somewhat confronting, is a great insight into Vietnam’s war history. To learn more about the war, do a day trip to Cuchi where you can explore the tunnels and traps used in the Vietnam war.
The Mekong River runs through six countries, starting up in China and ending at the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. It is very easy to organise an overnight trip to the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh, but if you have the time, it’s probably worth organising it independently to avoid the tourist traps. The organised tours take you to the floating markets, where locals sell fruit and other produce from their boats. You will also be able to see how rice noodles and coconut lollies are handmade.
Cat Tien National Park
Though Cat Tien is not a particularly well known spot amongst backpackers, it’s a great place to see some of Vietnam’s flaura and fauna. The national park is home to the primate rescue centre, where gibbons and pygmy loris are rescued and rehabilitated so that they can go back out into the wild. The tour is fascinating! Not only can you spend days roaming around the National Park, but the countryside surrounding it is equally beautiful.
Hostel recommendation – Green Bamboo Lodge
This little gem of a city is full of charm. Most of the hostels here are family-run ‘homestays’ that offer a family meal in the evening, making it very easy to socialise with other backpackers. The Crazy House (which is literally just that – a crazy house) and the 100 Roofs bar are wonderfully quirky spots to check out while you’re in town. Take the cable car to the Truc Lam pagoda and spend a few hours looking around the beautiful grounds and nearby lake. You can also take an old rickety train to a little village called Trai Mat to see the Linh Phuoc Pagoda. If you’re the outdoorsy type, then don’t miss the hike up Lang Biang Mountain.
Hostel recommendation – Hobbit Hostel (although..seems there are TONS of great hostels in Dalat)
Nha Trang is a very Westernised “party town” on the coast. As well as spending your days on the big beautiful beach, you can cleanse yourself at the mud baths and check out local waterfalls.
Hostel recommendation – iHome Nha Trang
The city of lanterns! Lanterns line the streets and fill the shops. Beautifully colourful lanterns in every shape and size. If you’re lucky enough to visit during the full moon, you’ll even be able to see lanterns floating down the river while you join in on local festivities. Hoi An is also a popular spot to do a Vietnamese cooking lesson and get clothes tailor made. A short bike ride out of town will take you through vast open fields and down to the beach.
Hostel recommendation – Hoi An Backpackers Hostel, DK’s House
While Hue itself doesn’t have a lot to offer, it is a common backpacker stop purely because the motorbike route made famous in Top Gear goes between Hoi An and Hue. If you are stopping in Hue, the citadel is worth checking out.
Hostel recommendation – Hue Backpackers Hostel, The Imperial
Phong Nha is an incredible haven, filled with caves and beautiful mountain scenery. Phong Nha Cave, reachable by dragon boat, was used for shelter, for storage and as a hospital during the Vietnam war. 400 steps up from Phong Nha Cave you will find Tien Son Cave, admiring incredible views of the rice fields and the river as you trek steeply upward. Paradise Cave is known to be the biggest dry cave in the world, 31km in length! But my personal favourite was Dark Cave. You’ll zip line and swim your way into the cave and then eventually walk along rocky/sandy ground, until it turns to mud… And before you know it you’ll be floating in a mud bath!
Hostel recommendation – Easy Tiger
Rice fields and limestone mountains surround this cute little town. Take a boat ride down the river, through several caves to admire the scenery – plus, all the locals row with their feet! Very cool!
Hostel recommendation – Chez Beo (bungalows!)
A very tacky and touristy town surrounded by incredible mountains which are dotted with lovely smaller villages. A trip to Vietnam would not be complete without a multi day hike through the Sapa mountains, staying with a local family somewhere along the way. The crop-filled mountain views never get old! It’s also worth taking a stroll down to Cat Cat Village to see a waterfall, many markets and more stunning views.
Hostel recommendation – Sapa Stunning View Hotel
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay is perhaps the most iconic spot in all of Vietnam. And for good reason. It is beautiful! A popular way to see the bay is on a two night ‘castaway’ tour. A cheaper option is to get a boat over to Cat Ba island (the boat ride will take you through the bay) and then stay there for a few nights. While there, you can hire motorbikes to explore the caves, beaches and the national park.
Hanoi is slightly less chaotic than Ho Chi Minh, but equally vibrant and lively. On Ta Hien Street, bars and restaurants spill out onto the streets, creating a lively atmosphere day and night (but especially at night!) The Women’s Museum offers insight into wedding and marriage traditions in different parts of Vietnam, as well as women’s fashion and important women in Vietnam’s history. Well worth a visit.
Hostel recommendation – Hanoi Backpackers Hostel (I stayed at ‘The Original’ but ‘Downtown’ is meant to be great too!)