Backpacking Vietnam


Time from Seattle: 16 hrs (two flights) Duration of trip: 12 days

Currency: Dong ($1 = ~23,000)

Packing List:

  • DSLR 18-135mm lens

  • 5 pairs of shorts

  • 3 t-shirts

  • 4 tank tops

  • 1 raincoat/long sleeve shirt/sweater/jacket

  • 2 skirts (i like maxi skirts best)

  • 2 dresses

  • 1 pair of water-resistant pants I wore these on the plane there and when it got cold in Hanoi. They were awesome!!

  • 6 pairs of socks

  • 4 bralettes

  • 1 real bra

  • 14 pairs of underwear

  • 1 or 2 swimsuits

  • Converse

  • Tevas/chacos Cute and stylish, slight arch, great for walking. Water-resistant!

  • Travel-sized shampoo/conditioner

  • (other travel-sized toiletries to carry on flights)


Tips + Tricks

Before I get into the details, here are a few of the most important tips I encountered while in Vietnam.

  1. Uber is your best friend

  2. Choose between Uber Moto (aka motorbike) and a regular car to get around the city. It’s your cheapest option and you’re sure not to be haggled. After the entire 12 days of Ubering, our group of four people ended up spending only $7 each.

  3. Uber Moto is also a TON of fun. The drivers are super skilled when maneuvering around the crazy traffic in Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi.

  4. Unfortunately Hue doesn’t have Uber, but motorbike rental there is easy, cheap, and there’s much less traffic than in the big city. You can also get an automatic (moped).

  5. Don’t pay any more than 50,000 Dong for pho and that’s even expensive. The cheapest we found was 20,000 which is less than a dollar!

  6. You must haggle with vendors or there’s about a 95% chance you’ll get ripped off. How do you haggle? - Approach vendor. Ask how much? - The first price is usually incredibly inflated. Offer 1/2 – 2/3 the price. Odds are, they’ll say no. Then say okay too much and walk away. - If they’re willing to haggle, they’ll usually call out a lower price. Say no again. Then they’ll ask how much you’re willing to pay? - Decide on a price and stick with it. If you say things like, “that’s all I have,” and “that’s my last offer,” they’ll usually take it! - Yay! You’ve got yourself $3 elephant pants!

  7. Pick pocketing is a thing, but usually only in crowded places. So be mindful, get a purse that zips, but don’t worry about those body wallets that go under your shirt. It’s a little high key.

  8. Ask your hostels for advice about where to eat and what to do!! They’ll also provide you with the cheapest options too. They’re a wealth of information and really helped guide us on our trip!

  9. It might be a good idea to ask your hostel how to say “thank you.” We found out the hard way that a slight mispronunciation actually means “shut the fuck up.” Don’t want to make that mistake.

  10. Pho is probably the most common Vietnamese food and it can be eaten for every meal. But, again, pronunciation matters. Pho pronounced “fuh” means the noodle soup. Pho pronounced like the “foa” part of “foam” means street. So when you see it on street signs, don’t get too excited.

Those are the basics… now on to the adventure!

Ho Chi Minh

We started our trip with a two-hour drive to Vancouver, Canada, to save a couple hundred dollars on flights. We arrived in Beijing 11.5 hours later where we had a three-hour layover followed by another 5-hour flight to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in south Vietnam. We spent a total of two full days here. The first to explore the city, starting off the day like the locals with some pho at one of the many markets, and the second to see the Mekong Delta. The War Remnants Museum is something you have to do if you have the time. Many of us have only experienced the American side of the Vietnam war, but this museum offers additional information and perspectives you may have not previously encountered. Though we didn’t make it to the Cu Chi Tunnels or the Mui Ne Dunes, we heard nothing but good reviews. We did, however, receive some questionable reviews about the Mekong Delta.

After much contemplation, we decided to book the day tour. Do take note, however, that the day tour doesn’t allow you to see the actual floating market, but is rather a chance to learn about Vietnamese culture with traditional music, and other activities such as their hot honey drink where they mix locally sourced honey with actual pollen and hot water. I wish I could remember the name! You’ll also stop at a coconut candy factory. You’ll see every step of production and get a few samples at the end. Find the snake and scorpion alcohol for a free taste as well! Ask the tour guide about the history too, it’s an interesting one. One part of the tour is a ride in a traditional boat down a small river through the lush jungle (with a bunch of other tourists, but still a fun ride!). The two-day tour does the same routine the first day but adds a night in a homestay and the floating market early the next morning. It was a cool experience! I would’ve done the two-day tour if I had the time but it was a good compromise for only having a day to spare.










Hoi An

And we’re off to Hoi An via VietJet airlines. We looked into bussing but it’s not as cheap as you would expect! Plus, a bus from Ho Chi Minh to Hoi An took about 17 hours when a flight took just one. We managed to book three flights (from Ho Chi Minh to Hoi An, Hoi An to Hanoi, and Hanoi back to Ho Chi Minh) all for under $100 while gaining about two full days in the process. Flying is the way to go.

Sea Snail Homestay is the place to stay. The owner greeted us with freshly squeezed passion fruit juice accompanied by fantastic tips on everything you could even think to ask about and more. She’s all about buying cheap and saving money but also getting the best quality for your dong. She led us up to our two-bed room, which was absolutely gorgeous. Freshly cut fruit followed us up the stairs. This homestay is also just a block from the beach where you’ll find pagodas and lounge chairs that aren’t always packed. It’s like Waikiki without the people. There are locally owned restaurants that line the beach as well, each with their own beach entrance. Pina Coladas, cold beer, and Vietnamese food served right to our lounge chair on the beach? Who wouldn’t want that? The best part? My bill for the day was under $10.


The town itself is a little touristy, but things are touristy for a reason, right? Its charm is on an entirely new level. We rented motorbikes (150,000 dong for the day. That’s approximately 5 US dollars, each seating two people) to drive into town, passing rice paddies and water buffalo along the way.

PRO TIP: Pay for parking! We made that mistake and were convinced we lost our motorbikes for good. It turns out the company picked them up without our knowledge.

Check out the Old Town for some awesome temples, museums, and architecture! If you want to go into the old fixtures, you’ll have to buy a pass for 100,000 dong, valid for as long as you’re there. Otherwise, the streets and shops are open to everyone. Walk the river, check out the market, and if you’re there during the full moon, partake in the Hoi An Lantern Festival! Purchase a lantern of your own, make a wish, and send it down the river.



This is the place to get a suit, dress, romper, or really any article of clothing tailor-made for you! Suits for men from Yaly – the best tailor in Hoi An – are about $400. I went to a different place and bought a romper that I concocted from a variety of Pinterest photos and a few examples she had on display. The woman could make anything. The total was about $28 and I love it!! Totally worth it and such a wonderful one-of-a-kind souvenir.


Pro Tip: If a girl comes up to you with a shirt that says, “Don’t be a Pussy, be a Tiger,” and says she’ll give you free drinks… she’s not lying. Totally safe: we survived.

Eat:

  • Cau Lau – local to Hoi An

  • basically a thick noodle dish without soup. Add duck to get a little fancy.

  • White Rose (english name – not sure of the Vietnamese name) – also native to Hoi An

  • Seafood Dumplings


Don’t be afraid of the tiny portable food stations that are all over the city – the ones with the little tables and red stools. Their food is great, cheap, and super authentic. Would you believe me if I said I had the worst stomach issues eating airport food than any of the food I ate in Vietnam? They want your business, they want you to come back; don’t be afraid of their food!



Hai Van Pass

From Hoi An, we booked a few motorbikes and drivers through Easy Rider (referred to us by our homestay) who took us over the pass. If you’ve motorbiked before, it’s definitely doable on your own! We were told it was super dangerous for even the local drivers, and while the road does have a lot of twists and turns, it’s all nicely paved. It’s comparable to the PCH, but without the cliffs. I would’ve felt comfortable tackling it on my own, but if you feel more comfortable getting a driver, it’s not too expensive! The upside to having a driver is that everyone can take in the breathtaking scenery. The first stop is Marble Mountain. It’s a group of temples in a section of mountain just outside of Hoi An. We only had a short amount of time here, but it was absolutely gorgeous. There’s even an elevator if you don’t feel like taking the stairs. Expansive views of Da Nang and the ocean follow you as you continue up and over the pass. An American bunker lies on the top featuring more incredible views. We passed a group of goats on our way down the other side, and too many water buffalo to count. The last stretch is the longest as it’s a straight road through a few smaller towns and a tunnel. The guides were super nice the entire time and even bought us a poncho when it started raining. Highly recommend.


We stayed at The Beach Bar in Hue for the night in our own hut or “dorm” right on the beach. It’s open to the air with draped mosquito nets over the beds. Head out to the beach at night for the most amazing phosphorescence you’ll ever see. Your footprints glow as you walk. It’s basically like you’re living in the movie, Avatar. The sound of the waves put us to sleep in no time at all. We spent the next morning eating our free breakfast on the beach and playing a little beach volleyball. We then rented motorbikes from the hotel (150,000/bike) and drove about 45 min to the temples (all of which are down two streets). Ask the receptionist for their top suggestions if you don’t have much time!


Take into account daylight hours when returning from Hue because no one likes to drive over the pass at night. 3:30 p.m. is about the latest you can leave whether or not you’re motorbiking, renting a private car, or taking a bus. We chose the private car because it was the cheapest option when divided among four people.

Our last night in Hue was a short one as we had to leave for the airport at 3 a.m.

Hanoi

The Vietnam Backpacker’s Hostel Downtown (very important distinction from “original”) is the place to be. Even those who aren’t staying there show up for tours or night life. It’s comfortable, clean, offers free breakfast, has an upstairs lounge with free access to computers, a pool table, an outdoor patio, a tv and couches, and the main floor has a different activity every day of the week ranging from beer pong tournaments to glow parties. It’s a wild time. Don’t miss the unlimited free hour of beer at 6 p.m. every day and free shots at night. It’s awesome.


So, we checked in at around 8 a.m., hung out for a while, and hopped on the free walking tour at 10 a.m. It was a bit lengthy, the tour guide was super knowledgable but he talked… a lot… At least make it through the part where they show you the best egg coffee around. It sounds gross, I know, but it’s honestly one of the best coffee drinks I've ever had. It’s a shot of their fantastic coffee with what I believe is whipped egg whites with sugar? Don’t quote me on that but it basically tastes like melted marshmallow foam over a sweet espresso shot.


The history behind such a weird drink? Milk was only for the wealthy back in the day in Hanoi, so they made do with eggs. It’s genius. It’s native to Hanoi so don’t leave there without trying it. The cafe they take you to is pretty hidden as well so it’s nice to go there on a tour. I would’ve felt uncomfortable going on my own as you literally walk into a dark cement room and up a flight of stairs in the back of what looks like someone’s private home. But nope; it opens up into this adorable second-floor cafe overlooking the lake. Cafe Dinh is the name.


We ended up dropping off the tour in the French quarter at the most expensive hotel in Vietnam to roam the streets on our own. If you’re in need of a new pair of Nikes or Adidas, this is the place to get them. They may be knock offs but there’s no way you can tell. The quality is great and they’re under 10 USD. Northface is manufactured in Vietnam so most of what you see is probably real Northface goods for a fraction of the price. Take advantage!

Check out the night market if you’re there over the weekend. The main stretch is along Hang Ngang street with many blocked off surrounding streets to make it easier to maneuver the crowd. Here you’ll find local handicrafts, elephant pants galore (and for the cheapest price! ~60,000 – that’s under $3!), and a lot of local food. Be careful of pick pockets here! It doesn’t happen too often, but it’s good to be more aware in over-crowded areas.


Please your taste buds with…

  • “Chay” – milk tea/yogurt with jellies and fruit

  • Pho (Say “Chai” for vegetarian)

  • Pork/Chicken Skewers

  • Dumplings

  • Sausage on a stick

  • Cha ca thang long – mudfish, dill and other spices cooked right in front of you

  • Hot Pot – easily my favorite meal in Hanoi

  • Hanoi beer and/or Tiger beer

The next two days were dedicated to tours, but if you have an extended amount of time in Vietnam, I’d advise against the planned tours. You can find buses and travel on your own time to best accommodate your interests. However, if you’re like us and want to see as much as you can in only a couple of days, tours are quick and effective.

Halong Bay and Ninh Binh blog posts coming soon!

Activities Overview:

  • Ho Chi Minh - War museum - Cu Chi Tunnels - Markets - Mekong Delta - Mui Ne Dunes Nightlife - Rooftop bars - Chill Sky Bar - Pub crawls

  • Hoi An - Old Town - Beautiful architecture - Lantern Festival - Beach day - Beach bars at night! -Market -Second-floor dining - Tailor-made for you, quality clothing/suits for cheap

  • Hue - Motorbike the pass - Temples - The Beach Bar - Phosphorescence - Try their seafood!

  • Hanoi - Halong Bay - Ninh Binh - Sapa - Egg coffee - St. Joseph’s Cathedral - Ho Chi Minh’s resting place - Snake Village (delicacy in Vietnam) - Cha ca thang long – mud fish, dill, and some other vegetables and spices cooked right in front of you.

Happy wandering!


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