Where to Go Backpacking in Vietnam

Backpacking in Vietnam is made easy by the country’s thin, vertical shape. But boy are there a lot of backpackers roaming that North-South stretch! This 1-month travel itinerary for backpacking in Vietnam offers the best of both worlds: the major backpacker hubs where Vietnam’s most notable sights are located and detours off the beaten track to where white Western faces are few and far between.

Our Vietnam backpacking route went from north to south, but it would be equally good to go backpacking from south to north as well. We began in Hanoi, in the north, because we flew over to Vietnam from Taiwan and it was closer for us to reach Hanoi from Taipei.

If you plan on crossing the border and continuing backpacking in neighbouring South East Asian countries, it may be worth looking at the best areas to cross the border before deciding which end of Vietnam to start your backpacking trip in.

Backpacking Vietnam Route Map

This map shows our backpacking route, starting in Hanoi and stretching south until our final stop in Ho Chi Minh City:


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Hanoi (2 days)

Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city, is a great place to start backpacking in Vietnam. Not only is it overflowing with museums, monuments, markets and cafes, it is also a bird’s nest for travellers making trips to the surrounding areas. Luke and I fell absolutely head over heels in love with Hanoi because it was bustling, cultural and had the most delicious coffee you’ve ever tasted. The coffee was so good, I even wrote a whole blog post on it. We daydream and talk about going back to Hanoi to live for a little while all the time.

Best things to do in Hanoi

Indulge in Hanoi’s cafe culture, revel in the hustle and bustle of the streets, wander around Hoan Kiem Lake, visit the Temple of Literature, and definitely check out the Vietnamese Women’s Museum.

backpacking in vietnam
backpacking in vietnam

Halong Bay (2 days, 1 night)

The next stop for many travellers who are backpacking in Vietnam is the stunning Halong Bay. Here you can cruise around thousands of limestone karsts and islets. Always ranked as the top sight in Vietnam, it’s undeniably beautiful and romantic, but it’s also teeming with tourists and scam merchants, so mind how you go. We felt that the 2 days, 1 night tour was enough time in Halong Bay.

Best things to do in Halong Bay

There are a couple of activities you can do in Halong Bay. Activities include a visit to the cave, kayaking, visiting a pearl farm and a hike up one of the karsts. All of these activities were included within our two-day tour. Beyond these, there’s not much more to do in Halong Bay aside from relaxing and appreciating how beautiful the bay is.

halong bay backpacking in vietnam
backpacking in vietnam

Sapa or Mai Chau (2-3 days)

After a pit-stop back in Hanoi, head to the tribal villages and rice terraces of the highlands. The most popular is Sapa, famed for beautiful treks and colourful ethnic minority tribes. However, the town is completely overrun by tourists and tribal women trying to sell their wares from woven baskets on their backs. Some travellers might not mind that, but we found it quite difficult to handle the constant noise and pleas when all we wanted to do was hike in the peace and quiet.

In retrospect, I would definitely opt for a smaller, lesser developed settlement like Mai Chau, which is closer to Hanoi and a more rustic, ethnic experience. We heard from other backpackers in Vietnam that Mai Chau was really beautiful too. Don’t miss out on visiting a local tribal village when backpacking in Vietnam.

Best things to do in Sapa

Visiting Sapa is all about hiking with the hill tribes and admiring the beautiful rice terraces. We recommend going on a trek with Sapa Sisters, a social enterprise owned by the local guides. Stop by Baguette and Chocolate, an ethical cafe that employs local students from low-income families.

backpacking in vietnam

Hmong Tribe in Sapa - Charlie on Travel (2)

Hue (2 days)

If you’ve had enough of the cold mountainous north, an overnight train will take you south down to the historic Hue. Despite being full of World Heritage Sights and known for its Imperial Citadel, Hue is overlooked by a lot of backpackers in Vietnam. We absolutely loved Hue, even though we got caught in rainstorms multiple times while we were there!

Best things to do in Hue

Rent a bicycle to get around the magnificent citadel and if you’re feeling up for a little adventure then you can go further out to see the colourful incense making village. Eat at the Lien Hoa temple, an excellent option for vegetarians and a tranquil place to enjoy a meal served by the temple’s monks.

backpacking in vietnam

Hoi An (3-4 days)

The ancient city of Hoi An, is bustling with tourists bartering with rows and rows of tailors for suits, dresses, shoes and all other number of garments. Despite being a hotspot for travellers, Hoi An is an absolute gem. Cobbled streets adorned with sunshine yellow-painted wood architecture line the river banks. You’ll definitely need 3-4 days here if you are planning on visiting a tailor in Hoi An.

Best things to do in Hoi An

Aside from visiting tailors and browsing shops, you’ll want to check out the Japanese Bridge. There’s a delicious Vietnamese vegan cooking class in Hoi An which we absolutely loved. It was one of the only vegan cooking classes we found in Vietnam, so take the chance while you have it!

backpacking in vietnam

Nha Trang (1 day)

Nha Trang gets a bad wrap from other backpackers in Vietnam for being full of hedonistic gap-yah bingers and Russians. While that’s kind of true, there’s a lot more to Nha Trang than you first realise. While you can spend all day drinking banana smoothies on the beach, Nha Trang is also home to the Cham Towers and some very cool earthy Mud Baths.

Best things to do in Nha Trang

Nha Trang’s Cham Towers and Mud Baths make for a really excellent day out and a much more interesting (and cultural) than the main-strip and tourist beach. It’s a long walk to the towers and the baths, so we’d recommend renting bikes in town and cycling over.

IMG_2289

Dalat (1 day)

To escape the tourist scene, head inland to Dalat, the “city of eternal spring.” Over-rated by Lonely Planet, Dalat is better seen as a gateway to Vietnam’s national parks in our opinion. We recommend just one day in Dalat to enjoy the town’s picturesque lake. The next day, head north to Yok Don or south to Cat Tien.

Best things to do in Dalat

There’s not a huge amount to do in Dalat itself and many travellers use Dalat as a base for adventure activities like canyoning and kayaking, and other day trips. We heard great things about the Elephant Waterfalls. In the town, you can visit the Crazy House, though we don’t really recommend it. Stop by the Bicycle Up Coffee Bar if you’re in town during the day and head to Dalat Market a local hot soy milk drink to warm up in the chilly evenings.

Dalat Market by Bang Nguyen

Dalat Market by Bang Nguyen

Yok Don (3 days)

Want to get-off-the-beaten track while backpacking in Vietnam? Then Yok Don is for you. Fewer people speak English and white-faced tourists are rarely seen. Locals don’t bat an eye-lid when a foreigner goes by because they don’t care. Unlike other places in Vietnam, locals here aren’t trying to sell to backpackers because there aren’t enough around for them to make a good trade from it. The nearby town of Ban Don is a good rest stop away from the constant you-buy-something sellers and high-commission tour operators littering the main backpacker route.

Trekking with elephants in Yok

In the National Park, you can go trekking with elephants along with one of the park rangers. Just down the road though, there are some very unethical elephant rides taking place. Avoid getting involved with this as the elephants are mistreated, and instead opt to support the nation park. You can stay in a traditional stilt hut in Ban Don or in one of the rooms just inside the National Park entrance, while visiting Yok Don.

backpacking in vietnam

Mui Ne (2 days)

Mui Ne, talked up by backpackers as a similar but better version of Nha Trang, actually had equal numbers of drunks and Russians. The only difference was that Mui Ne came with a luxury price-tag that doesn’t really suit the budget of most people who are backpacking in Vietnam.

Best things to do in Mui Ne

Motorcycle away from the beach to Mui Ne’s real treasure: the red sand dunes. These dunes were absolutely stunning, though the sand is burning hot! The Fairy Stream is also worth a walk along too. Avoid ostrich rides that happen not far from the Fairy Stream as these are not an ethical activity.

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backpacking in vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City (2-3 days)

Heady and heaving, Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon locally) is alive with neon lights, world food, and markets. It’s a backpacker favourite because of the excellent transport links. It’s more metropolitan, more multinational, louder and sassier than the rest of Vietnam, but it’s also not so quintessentially Vietnamese. There are a lot of great experiences to be had for backpackers in Ho Chi Minh City, including exciting street food and grand museums and art galleries.

Best things to do in Ho Chi Minh City

Top of our list of things to do in Ho Chi Minh City is the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, which tells the history of Vietnamese independence. When we went, there was a great little art gallery outside the back too. Be sure to pass by the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica.

Mekong Delta (3+ days)

If you have a little extra time, the Mekong Delta is the next big stop for anyone backpacking in Vietnam. Unfortunately we only had 3 weeks for our backpacking trip in Vietnam and we didn’t make it down to the Mekong. If you’re backpacking from north-to-south in Vietnam, you’d ideally leave yourself 4 weeks so that you definitely have time to make it to the Mekong as well. If you have a little extra cash, travellers also say Phu Quoc Island is paradise.

Photo by Malingering

Photo by Malingering

How to Get Around Vietnam

We travelled mostly by bus in Vietnam by bus. You can buy a multi-stop bus ticket in advance, but we chose to book buses one-by-one. This also means you’re less restricted and can be more flexible with your travels. It’s never any trouble to buy last minute tickets between the major towns and bus travel is very easy. However, the night buses in Vietnam aren’t for the faint-hearted backpacker.

We opted for trains between some places. The trains in Vietnam were excellent. While they weren’t fancy or anything, you could get a more comfortable night’s sleep and a more pleasant journey on a train rather than on the night buses. We travelled by train from Hanoi to Hue and would highly recommend it.

Renting a motorbike is another option. We decided against renting a motorbike mainly because we didn’t want the hassle of bartering for one or it potentially breaking down and because we weren’t confident about driving on the very windy Vietnamese mountain roads alongside the very erratic Vietnamese drivers. Luke’s younger brother motorbiked from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi a few years later and said the experiences was incredible, but also dangerous. While he was fine, one of his friends came off his bike and broke his ankle.

When to Go Backpacking in Vietnam

Deciding where you want to go backpacking in Vietnam is only one part of the equation. You should also think carefully about when you want to go backpacking in Vietnam.

Winter is from November – April

We travelled in November, which is the beginning of rainy season in Vietnam. At this time of year, the weather is slightly cooler. However, in the northern hilltribe villages like Sapa and out in Halong Bay, we experienced really misty and sometimes rainy weather that meant our views of the rice terraces in Sapa and limestone karsts in Halong Bay were often obscured. However, prices tend to be lower at this time of year.

Summer is from May – October

The summer season means clear weather all the time, but it also means that there are even more backpackers in an already popular backpacker destination. July and August is high season and prices for hostels and accommodation will be much higher during this time.

Rainfall in Vietnam

Rainy season in Vietnam varies depending on the region. In northern Vietnam, summer season is the rainy season. In central Vietnam, rainfall varies. Around Hue, you’ll likely see rain from September to February, while further south towards Nha Trang it’s  most likely to rain in November and December. In southern Vietnam, it usually rains from May through to November. Rainfall tends to be in short bursts, so you just need to duck into the nearest cafe when you feel it coming. You can read more details on Vietnam’s rainfall here.

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Do you have questions about backpacking in Vietnam? Ask in the comments below.

 


Cover Image by Jorge Cancela.

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  6. Many thanks for all the excellent information,has saved me a lot of time .
    I checked out Phu Quoc and i must say that looks like the place to relax after the rigours of travel.

    Cheers

    David

  7. You’re insight and experiences are amazing and you have convinced me to book a trip to vietnam! Looked like you had a blast and I can’t wait to try out some of your recommendations.

    Just a quick note… there was a spelling mistake in the travel by bus section :)
    Again thank you so much!

  8. Nice article Charlie. Myself Menno & Janneke, my wife are new to traveling as “midlifebackpackers”. We are from South Africa & are planning a Vietnam trip from North to South. Unfortunately, many young backpackers have their focus on parties. We prefer nature’s beauty, cultural exchange & generally savoring the experience. Reading your post, I see that your focus is also more inclined towards these things which is why I find your blog useful. We will be sure to keep your post as reference when our draft plans get off the ground. I think we will have around 6 weeks, so glad to see that it is a realistic time frame. We are after all 49 & 50 years young midlifebackpackers. :-)