Embark on an epic journey across the Land of The Ascending Dragon from Ho Chi Minh all the way up North to Hanoi.
Ah, Vietnam is a tough one. As many travellers would agree, it is one of those countries with beautiful scenery, landscapes and architecture but can be hard to love at times (more on that below). But to never venture forth into the Land of Pho (Vietnamese rice noodles) and gorgeous Ao Dai (Vietnamese national costume for the ladies) is a mistake in itself.
One word; resilient. The Vietnamese has been through countless wars in the past millennium with countries like America, Japan, China and France who either sought to subjugate and colonise the country, or force certain ideologies upon them. So, one cannot really blame the locals for their behaviour towards foreigners (which is also the main problem faced by travellers unfortunately). The communist nation is also one of the few countries that have decent beaches, gorgeous mountain range and restored architectures of old (UNESCO Heritage sites) all in one country.
The good thing about travelling across Vietnam is; the country is elongated. Hence, travelling route is kind of fixed – you either start from Ho Chi Minh City and go up North to Hanoi, or go from the other way around. Travellers like to call this the ‘travellers’ highway’. You get to meet (and bump into the same) travellers (again and again in different states).
There are many ways to travel across Vietnam. Domestic flights are rather expensive so locals and travellers usually travel via buses or railway trains.
- Vietnam is one of the few countries with amazing sleeper buses (although the build is more for Vietnamese who are smaller in stature), make use of it. Don’t take the regular buses because you won’t sleep a wink on them.
- You can buy open tour bus tickets from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. This allows you to make predetermined bus stops at locations already decided beforehand. All you have to do is inform the bus company the day before that you want to go to the next destination. While this is a cheaper and ‘safer’ way to travel, I discourage going by this method because it severely impedes your flexibility to change your itinerary should you decide to do so later.
- Thievery can be a serious problem when taking a sleeper bus. Keep your belongings close and don’t leave them lying around.
- There is no one way to find the cheapest and best-value bus to a certain destination. Most of the time, buying bus tickets from the bus companies themselves is the cheapest way to go but once in a while you find honest third party agencies like Lily’s which gives you the cheapest tickets. For bus company, I go with ThesinhTourist for their track record.
- Some bus agencies charge as much as US$15 more for the same bus route, on the same bus. Don’t feel pressured to buy from one bus vendor without checking the rest along the same road.
- Bus drivers in Vietnam are notorious for ill treatment of foreigners (although I did not really experience any). Ration your water consumption because these bus drivers don’t usually stop for toilet breaks.
- Sleeper train is a pricier alternative to travelling across Vietnam but also ensures better sleep than on a sleeper bus. The availability of sleeper bus tickets is significantly lesser, hence I recommend getting them off travel agencies instead of going all the way down to the train stations to get them.
- Sleeper trains come in 2 categories; hard sleeper and soft sleeper. For hard sleeper, you will be sleeping in a berth with 5 other passengers. It sucks to sleep on the top bed (very near to the ceiling and you have to climb up) so avoid that. But you will still get decent sleep in a hard sleeper berth. For soft sleeper, you will be sleeping in a berth with 3 other passengers. The best way to travel on the train but also the most expensive. Costs US$25 and upward.
This is a tough one. I have had my fair share of bad experiences with Vietnamese locals who tried to cheat me and I have also met locals who were an absolute angel. All throughout Vietnam, you will find Xe Oms (unlicensed motocycle taxis) trying to get you to take their overpriced scooter taxi. You are charged more when you book your bus and train tickets. You even pay more for food sometimes! But having said that, I never felt that I was really in danger in Vietnam. Get away from the tourist hotspots and you find friendly locals who are eager to practise their English and connect with you without any ulterior motive.
1. Ho Chi Minh City (formely known as Saigon)
Begin your journey in HCMC.
Those scooters.. They are everywhere. The land of Pho and Banh Mi is also known as the country with the highest concentration of scooters in the world. One of the first and most important trick you have to learn to survive in HCMC (or Hanoi if that is the first country you arrive in) is to cross a street filled with scooters. It’s actually quite fun.
It is easy to be overwhelmed by the chaos that is HCMC. Take some time to explore and take in the beauty of Vietnam’s former capital. Spend no more than 3 days here.
- Stay at one of the hostels around Phạm Ngũ Lão (also known as the Backpacker Street). Dorm rooms can go as low as US$5. Some hostels (Long Hostel, The Hangout, Phan Anh Backpackers Hostel) even offer free beers in the evenings, great for meeting other like-minded travellers – my expert tip is to pick those! Book through Agoda, Booking or Hostelworld. Remember to go through the reviews, the hostel’s facilities and their refund policies before making your booking.
- Explore the city and visit the Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica and Saigon Central Post Office for its gorgeous architecture. Understand the horrors the Vietnamese had to go through in the Vietnam War at the National Remnants Museum (15,000 VND). Spend half a day away from HCMC, on a guided tour at the famous Cu Chi Tunnels (US$5). I highly recommend making HCMC the most cultured part of your journey by visiting the National Remnants Museum and Cu Chi Tunnels. Pro tip: for those who love to get uncommon souvenirs, you can find really cool postcards that you cannot find anywhere else in Vietnam.
- Shop at Ben Thanh Market if you absolutely have to buy something in HCMC. While the market have all kinds of cool stuff (food, imitation goods, souvenirs, et cetera), the vendors in the market are all armed with decades of haggling experience. So, unless you are going to bring your A-Game and bargain for a good price, chances are that you will be ripped off. It is still a great place to visit, but I will not recommend getting your souvenirs there. The market closes in the evening and the street right next to it comes alive with a night market. Definitely worth a visit! There are also art galleries selling beautiful reproduction paintings by Vietnam’s talented artists that look just like the original famous paintings. And they go at as low as US$25.
- Eat at any of the local roadside stalls. The roadside food is so authentic and meals costs between 30,000 to 45,000 VND (you shouldn’t pay more than that). Get yourself hooked on Pho (rice noodles), Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich), Goi Cuon (Vietnamese spring rolls). The rule of thumb is, if it is cooked, it is (relatively) safe. When deciding which stall to eat at, always look out for customer flow and food preparation process, and you are good to go.
- Drink Vietnamese hot/ice milk/black coffee (w/ egg) (10,000 VND) and Saigon green label beer (15,000 VND). There are tons of drinking spots (all peculiarly facing the road) for you to get really cheap Saigon beer. Unfortunately, Vietnam has a serious water supply problem. Many of its water catchments do not have adequate water treatment facilities. Consume ice drinks with caution. Ice with a hole in the middle indicates that the ice is manufactured in a factory – that is a good sign.
- Getting around HCMC. You can get to the backpacker street by taking the airport shuttle. They will charge you 10,000 VND, double the price for your extra backpack/luggage. Just pay it. It is still so much cheaper than taking the Xe Om (unlicensed motorcycle taxi) or the normal taxis. As for getting to the attractions around HCMC, most of them are located within the same district, hence you can easily walk to them without the need to hop on a bus or taxi. If a ‘friendly local’ tells you he can send you to your destination for ‘free’, don’t believe him. You will have to pay for it.
2. Mui Ne
The coastal town of Mui Ne is an amazing place like no other. Which other town has both ‘deserts’ and the beach in the same location? This ‘Russian’ town is also a great place for travellers without valid driver’s license to try riding a scooter (more on this below). Spend no more than 3 days here.
- Engage in sea sports (kite-surfing, windsurfing, surfing) in Mui Ne. Practically every Russian flock there for the sea sports. Prices can be pretty steep for a backpacker although I heard it is cheaper than doing so in a developed country. Never tried it there but if you have the money, why not?
- Before dawn, visit the White Sand Dunes. Gorgeous is the word to describe it. Bring your cameras and have a blast welcoming first light. The White Sand Dunes is located 25km away from town, hence you might want to join a tour (US$5), or ride your way up (not recommended if you do not have a driver’s license since you will be riding in the dark) Get in on the action next at the Mui Ne Fishing Village as you witness hundreds of locals scourging for the day’s catch as the fishermen come back from sea. Go early to avoid disappointment.
- Visit the Red Sand Dunes and the Fairy Stream. The beach is quite a distance away and I heard that it lacks the beach atmosphere. Give that a miss because there are other opportunities in your next destination in Vietnam.
- Eat fresh seafood. This is a real treat for European travellers and travellers living in landlocked countries. Prices here are not cheap but they are not too expensive either, just about the same price as those you find back at home. Avoid if you are a budget traveller (like me).
- Rent a scooter. A scooter is really the best way to get around this town as many of the attractions are quite a distance away, almost too far by walking. And the Xe Oms are a bloody ripoff. This is a tough call because traffic can get hectic even in the small town and any accidents you encounter when riding a scooter will not be covered by your travel insurance if you do not have the valid driver’s license. But since one is already backpacking and seeing the world, I say throw caution to the wind but that’s just me! It’s also damn fun (although I almost got into an accident). If you do decide to rent a scooter, expect to pay between US$5 to $8 for a scooter. Anything more is a clear ripoff. And the Vietnamese are also very ‘enterprising’. The scooters which you have just rented are always almost out of gas. You should not pay more than 50,000 VND (US$2.30) for full tank of gas. Having said that, I recommend not riding a scooter if you are afraid. Better to spend a couple more bucks on a taxi than risk your life.
3. Nha Trang
Nha Trang is hailed as a ‘Russian’ city. Restaurant menus are in Russian. There are Russians working there. It puts many travellers off, but I had such a great time with other travellers in Nha Trang. Nha Trang is also located along the sea. Spend 2 days here tops. I love it so much, I spent 3.
- Visit Vinpearl Land. Costs 600,000 and 400,000 VND for adults and kids respectively. Get to the island by hopping on a 3km cable car ride (included in the amusement park ticket). Plenty of attractions and rides to keep travellers with kids happy. Pay an additional 60,000 VND (40,000 VND for kids) to go to the Underwater World Aquarium. Fun for the kiddos, but long queues and kiddy-themed amusement park made this a no for me.
- Visit Po Nagar Cham Towers. The gorgeous religious site is believed to have been built between the 7th and 12th century. Entrance fee costs 12,000 VND or 50,000 VND for guided tour. Visit Nha Trang (day) Market and Nha Trang Cathedral.
- Stay at iHome. I highly recommend staying there. There’s free Saigon(!) beers on tap every Happy hour evening from 7 to 8pm. The dorms are okay, but the excellent customer service, awesome rooftop bar, free beers and free breakfast buffet(!) makes this a winner for me. Dorms (starting from US$8) and private rooms available.
- Explore the city and go seashell-picking along the coastlines at Nha Trang Beach. I am not going to deceive you. There ain’t a lot of things to do in Nha Trang unless you are rich and want to spend money on cruise rides and scuba diving. But beyond the tourism and ‘Russian’ exterior, Nha Trang is the perfect place to unwind and chill.
4. Da Nang
Despite being a major city, there isn’t a lot to do in Da Nang. Most travellers make a stopover in Da Nang and head straight to Hoi An (as did I). For those travellers who want to give this city a chance, you can climb the stairs up the Marble Mountains located just outside of Da Nang city, or visit the Da Nang Museum of Cham Sculpture containing the world’s largest collection of Cham artefacts.
5. Hoi An
Gazetted as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999, the ancient town of Hoi An is the attraction itself. Spend time wandering the streets and admiring the beautifully preserved architecture. Many tourists also flock to this town to get their bespoke suits tailored. Spend 2 days here.
- Getting to Hoi An via public bus. It is actually easy to get to Hoi An from Da Nang via the public bus. Find out how in this link. The difficult part to stomach is paying more for the same ride. It is an infamous fact that most travellers pay 40,000 to 60,000 VND, when that bus ride should only be around 15,000 VND. Here is a tip from my Swiss traveller friend Jeanine Reinhard who paid the locals’ rate.
- First of all, you got to have your backpack with you. When boarding the bus, the conductor will usher you to a seat while placing your backpack at the front of the bus. Tell him you want to sit at the front (so that you can be near your backpack, but he might scold you and insist you sit at the back).
- He will then come over to you and ask you for 50,000 VND. Say no and insist on paying 15,000 VND. There should be a signage at the front of the bus indicating that bus fares are 15,000 VND, point to it.
- Lie to him that your friend who is a local told you to pay 15,000 VND for the bus. He might threaten to kick you off the bus, but stay put.
- Offer the 15,000 VND and insist he take it. If you are seated away from your backpack, then it is game over because he could throw your backpack out of the bus, don’t risk it!
- Watch farmer in action at the paddy fields. Admiring paddy fields is something many city kids will never get to enjoy so make sure you do so in Hoi An.
- Explore the old town Hoi An. Apparently, you need to pay 120,000 VND (so expensive) to enter the ancient town and to visit certain attractions within the heritage site. The entrance fee is for ‘preservation’ purposes although I have my doubts after being repeatedly targeted by locals who sought to scam me. I entered old town and also visited the attractions without paying the entrance fee. The trick is to follow and blend in with big tour groups. This is really up to your conscience though.
- Go back to old town in the evening. The entire town lights up with lanterns and is just beautiful to immerse oneself in. Be careful not to be scammed by locals asking you to pay 100,000 VND to plant a lantern boat in the river. There isn’t really any cultural significance in doing so anyway.
- Chill by An Bang beach. What I did not like was having to pay to use the beach chairs. One local asked me for 40,000 VND just to sit on the beach chair.
- Eat Cao Lau at the Central Market. A Vietnamese dish made with pork, noodles and greens and found only in Hoi An, this dish is to die for. Have them at the Hoi An Central Market. One of the loveliest things about the women vendors of the Central Market is that they have decided to join their powers to stabilise the prices of Vietnamese food and to make it affordable. You can get a delicious bowl of Cao Lau for only 25,000 VND! Cheapest food I have had in all of Vietnam so far. Other dishes unique to Hoi An not to be missed include Mi Quang (rice noodle, pork, shrimp, chicken) and White Rose (shrimp dumplings).
- Stay in hostels that provide free bicycles. Do not stay in Cloudy Homestay and Hostel. Very bad service.
The former capital of the Nguyen dynasty between 1802 to 1945, Hue is easily the most beautiful city in all of Vietnam. Slow down your steps and explore Hue and its imperial city. See gorgeous Vietnamese women in traditional Ao Dai doing photoshoots – if you are lucky. Spend 2 days here.
- Join Hue free walking tour. Learn everything you need to know about the ancient city under four hours. To find out more, click here.
- Go tomb-hopping. Hue is the resting place for many Vietnamese emperors. Visitors can visit 5 of the royal tombs. The royal tombs of Tu Duc, Khai Dinh and Minh Mang are popular and known for its interesting architecture, and entrance costs 80,000 VND per tomb. The recently renovated Dong Khanh and Thieu Tri tombs are less popular and entrance costs 40,000 VND per tomb. The tombs are located outside of the city and are quite out of the way. Joining a tour group could be ideal but doing this whole tomb-hopping is optional in my opinion.
- Explore Imperial City. Gazetted as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1993, the walled fortress and palace is currently undergoing restoration after many of its buildings were destroyed during the Vietnam War. Easily spend half a day here. Entrance costs 150,000 VND, really steep in my opinion but worth the bucks. I hear this from some tourists who were scammed. Be careful not to be scammed by the rickshaw drivers, their rickshaw ride circles around the citadel and not inside. Buy the tickets at the Noon Gate.
- Visit Bach Ma National Park. Entrance fees of US$25 makes this national park a tad too expensive. Transportation to and within the national park can get expensive too, so go at your own discretion. I heard travellers who rode on their own bikes to the park, circled around it and still had a great time without entering it.
- Go shopping and eating at Dongba Market. It’s funny how so many tourists say (on TripAdvisor) that they avoided the place because it looked dirty and ‘too Asian’. Might as well stay in your home country then? I love Dongba Market for its authentic local feel. Get a good bowl of noodles for 20,000 VND!
- Chill by Perfume river. Find youths dancing, playing music and strutting their stuff by the river. Great place to relax and people-watch.
7. Phong Nha Caves and Tam Coc
Phong Nha Cave and Tam Coc are both south of Hanoi and I highly advise travellers to stop by either of the two for a day trip before heading their way to Hanoi. Book a trip to the other with Lily’s Travel Agency in Hanoi. Spend a day at each of them.
- Visit Phong Nha Cave. Be spellbound by the magnificent limestone formations formed by nature itself in this 7.7km long cave. Discovered only at the beginning of the 21st century, it is not touristy – yet. A half-day excursion to Phong Nha Cave inclusive of lunch, boat ride, guide and bus to Hanoi costs around US$15.
- Visit Paradise Cave. For those with more time on their hands, visit the newly discovered Paradise Cave stretching 31km long. Many travellers say that the limestone formations in Paradise Cave is much more spectacular than Phong Nha Cave. Package prices for both Phong Nha Cave and Paradise Cave is available.
- See Tam Coc on a boat ride. The Chinese have a saying that ‘a place with mountain and water is a good place’. Tam Coc is the perfect embodiment of that saying with its gorgeous limestone outcrops, paddy fields and a river that runs across the plains. Book a day trip to Tam Coc with Lily’s Travel Agency for around US$10.
- Book with Lily’s Travel Agency. Travelling in Vietnam left me slightly jaded as I have to constantly scourge through bus and tour vendors to avoid being ripped off. Finding Lily was a breath of fresh air. Prices at Lily’s are reasonable, cheapest in town, and she is so nice. Her sister is cute too. I highly recommend going to Lily for all your travel needs in Hanoi. (I don’t receive a kickback from Lily for promoting her!)
Hanoi is gorgeous. It may be equally chaotic as HCMC but I definitely felt that it was more authentic and real of the two. The locals are more indifferent to travellers, which was refreshing considering that many of the locals were trying to make a quick buck out of me when I was travelling around HCMC. Spend 3 days here.
- Visit Vietnam Fine Arts Museum. The museum was once the French Ministry of Information and today houses a substantial collection of contemporary and local artworks. Pay your respects to Ho Chi Minh at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.
- Shop in Dong Xuan Market. Find everything from food to clothes in this enormous 3-storey complex. Get ready to bargain and don’t accept anything more than half the price offered if you do see something you like. The market closes at night and a few streets down the road is closed for its night market. While you will find many imitation goods. the market does carry real goods at discounted prices such as a Northface jacket for only 400,000 VND.
- Stroll or jog around Hoan Kiem Lake. Really popular with locals and foreigners throughout the day, lights up at night. There is also an ice cream stall by the lake which sells 3,000 VND local ice cream – which tasted great!
- Explore Hanoi Old Quarter. Witness locals in their everyday life in the narrow streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. The Old Quarter retains its vintage charm even as the capital moves forward. Grab a beer and people-watch.
- Drink at Old Quarter. The nightlife atmosphere is just amazing. I highly recommend coming here for drinks. Skip the fresh beers even if it’s dirt cheap at 5,000 VND) because it tastes like gutter water.
- Stay at Hanoi Backpackers’ Hostel. The rooms are great and they have free beers on tap during happy hour evenings at the skybar from 7 to 8pm (although the beer is nothing fantastic). The atmosphere is great for meeting other travellers and the staff bring thirsty travellers out on pub crawls for second (and third) rounds of drinks.
9. Halong Bay
The face of Vietnam tourism, the UNESCO world heritage site is translated as ‘descending dragon bay’. Today, the bay with its picturesque limestone pillars in the backdrop is extremely popular with locals and party-seekers. Spend 2 days here.
Go during Summer and Autumn for best views. Don’t take a day trip (travelling to and fro takes up half the time already), go for either a 2-day or 3-day trip to enjoy yourself. A little overrated IMHO. Ideal for the type of travellers who loves getting drunk and all.
- Go on a party cruise. Arrange with your hostel to get on a party cruise with other travellers (from the same hostel) and party all night long. You get to sleep onboard the cruise as well.
- Go hiking, climbing or hiking in Cat Ba island.
- Book with Lily’s.
Hiking the mountains in Sapa is easily the most magical leg of the entire journey in Vietnam. Arm yourself with a good pair of shoes and prepare to be blown away by the gorgeous rice terraces and mountain views. Spend 3 days here.
- Look for your own tour guide. The Vietnamese government stipulates that travellers can only join licensed homestay trekking tours (US$70 and upward). Unfortunately, most of the revenue earned does not go to the villagers. And the homestay experience is not as authentic (you get Western facilities at the expense of authenticity).
- Book just a bus ride (US$10 two-way with Lily’s) to Sapa.
- The moment you get off the bus, tons of village women will try to sell you their craft or get you to go to their village. Politely reject and move along.
- Go to the town square, sit there and wait for the right villager to come along.
- If you feel that the vibe is good with a villager, ask for her rates and what does her trekking tour include. Ideally it should include 2 nights stay at her place, meals all included, and her taking you to rice terraces and to the top of mountains with kickass views.
- Price should be around US$15 for one night.