Guide to Backpacking in Vietnam

Guide to Backpacking in Vietnam

In this guide we will tell you all about travelling in Vietnam on a budget, including what to see, where to stay and how to get there.

Why Visit?

Vietnam is a heaven for foodies – the street food is to die for. Cheap and delicious noodle soups (phở), spring rolls (gỏi cuốn) and fresh Vietnamese rolls (bánh mì) are available on nearly every street corner. Vietnam also has an awesome mix of bustling cities and peaceful natural getaways that will make a month seem like too short a visit.

Must-See Places

Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh has over 7.4 million scooters and motorbikes on its streets so prepare to hone your road-crossing skills. While the traffic is crazy, Ho Chi Minh is a lovable city with plenty of great nightlife spots, and plenty of historical attractions to keep you busy. The War Remnants Museum is an absolute highlight of the city, which details the atrocities committed during the Vietnam War. Although very confronting and a rather sombre experience, it is a must see. Within walking distance is Independence Palace and the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral, which are also worth a visit.

TRAVELATOR TIP: You can easily visit the underground war tunnels at Cu Chi on a cheap tour (less than USD$20 per person), although it will be a big group. If you want a more informative and personalised visit, spend the extra cash on a ‘luxury’ tour.

Ho Chi Minh Vietnam
A typical Ho Chi Minh street (without the traffic)

Phu Quoc

Phu Quoc is an island paradise. Still relatively undiscovered by Western tourists, it boasts beautiful white sand beaches and a laid back vibe. Although slightly more expensive than the mainland, there are still plenty of budget food and lodging options available. Our favourite beach was Sao beach – absolutely stunning.

TRAVELATOR TIP: The cheapest and most convenient way to get to Phu Quoc is to buy a flight with Jetstar Pacific or Vietjet – the bus/ferry combo is often more expensive and takes A LOT longer!

Hoi An

Hoi An is the perfect mix of culture and beaches. The Old Town is fantastic to explore on foot, with temples and traditional houses throughout. There are also plenty of high quality tailors who can stitch you together a classy suit. Just 20 minutes from the Old Town is An Bang beach, whether you can relax at one of the many seaside cafes with a cocktail.

TRAVELATOR TIP: Hoi An is a great spot for cycling – hire your own bike or book one of the many cheap cycling tours in town.

An Bang beach Vietnam
An Bang beach

Hanoi

Hanoi is chaos, but once you master crossing the road it is a highlight of Vietnam. Hanoi is home to some of Vietnam’s best street food and has a buzzing expat community. Take a stroll around Hoan Kiem lake and swing past St Joseph’s cathedral, before heading to the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’ prison (known as Hoa Lo prison). The prison museum gives a fascinating insight into the conditions Vietnamese resistance fighters lived in during the French occupation, and a slighly rosy picture of the conditions for American POWs during the Vietnam War.

TRAVELATOR TIP: If you are pining for a taste of home, head to Chops for an amazing burger or the Hanoi Sandwich House for probably the best sandwich you will ever eat.

St Joseph's Cathedral in Hanoi
St Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi

Ninh Binh

If the prices and the crowds in Sapa or Halong Bay don’t interest you, then Ninh Binh is the perfect alternative. Still relatively untouched by tourism, you are unlikely to see many other tourists or be hounded to buy souvenirs by the locals. Ninh Binh is best described as ‘Halong Bay on land’, and a boat trip through the grottoes is truly spectacular (Trang An is a great alternative to the Tam Coc grottoes). There are plenty of homestays to choose from, where you will be fed wonderful cheap local meals and made to feel like part of the family.

TRAVELATOR TIP: Ninh Binh is best explored on your own scooter. Some of the best homestays are in villages quite a distance from the train station, so avoid the expensive taxi fare by hiring a cheap scooter across the road from the station at one of the travel agencies.

Boat rides through Trang Am in Ninh Binh
Boat rides through Trang An in Ninh Binh

Where To Stay

Vietnam is a backpacker’s heaven, and there is plenty of good value accommodation. Here are our favourites:

  • Ho Chi Minh – Long Hostel – In a great central location, Long Hostel is a cheap and spotlessly clean budget option. Although not a ‘party’ hostel, it is a great spot to meet people and is close to the ‘backpacker ghetto’ if you want a night out.
  • Hanoi Tomodachi House – This Japanese-themed hostel is five star backpacker luxury. Each of the dorm beds has its own light, power point and curtains for privacy – and a fresh flower every day! The included breakfast is also great value.
  • Ninh Binh– Ninh Binh Family Homestay – Thang and his lovely young family will truly make you feel at home here. The food is absolutely delicious and the rooms have all the luxuries you could ask for. You will also probably be the only tourists in the village!

Must Eats

Noodle soup (phở)

Phở can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner – and also happens to be a fantastic hangover cure. Phở is found all over Vietnam, and you will no doubt become quite the connoisseur by the time you leave Vietnam. The delicious broth is served with beef or chicken, herbs, bean sprouts and chilli.

Spring rolls (gỏi cuốn)

Light, crispy and filled with delicious fresh ingredients like pork and rice noodles, gỏi cuốn should be your go-to side dish order. The Ninh Binh Family Homestay makes a particularly amazing batch!

Vietnamese rolls (bánh mì)

Crunchy, fluffy white bread rolls filled with barbecued meat, pate, carrot, coriander and chilli – delicious! Super cheap street food at its best.

Bún chả

This is a northern speciality consisting of grilled pork, white rice noodles and herbs served with a side dish of dipping sauce.

Getting Around

The easiest way to get from north to south is by train. Booking agency www.baolau.vn offers online booking in English and all international credit cards are accepted. We had a very positive experience booking with them. You can try to book through the Vietnam Railways website, but your credit card probably won’t work. You can also head to the train station to buy your tickets there, but if catching an overnight train it is best to buy a few days in advance.

For shorter journeys, there are plenty of buses. Just head to the bus station or speak to your hostel about buying a ticket.

There are also very cheap domestic flights, which are great if you are short on time. Jetstar Pacific and VietJet are your best bets.

Getting In and Out

The two main airports are in Ho Chi Minh. AirAsia and Jetstar Pacific are both great budget options if flying in from abroad. Nha Trang and Hoi An (accessed through Danang) can also be reached from other parts of Asia. Overland buses are also available from neighbouring countries like Cambodia and Laos – speak to your hostel to book a ticket.

If travelling to or from Cambodia, one alternative route to the usual Ho Chi Minh-Phnom Penh drag is travelling via Phu Quoc. Travel agents or hostels on Phu Quoc or in Kampot/Kep can arrange a minibus and ferry trip that will cost around USD$20 – we used Ana Tours in Kep without any problems.

Budget

USD$70 per day (for a couple) will get you comfortable private rooms, good local food, a few beers and the odd tour and scooter hire.

Best Time To Visit

The cool season is from November to February, which is the best time to visit. The hot season is from March to May and it is seriously HOT (and humid). The rainy season is from June to October, and the monsoonal rains can bring some practical challenges with dirt roads.

Yay for transparency! This page contains some affiliate links. This means that if you book your accommodation through a link on this page, we get paid a small commission. Don’t worry – you don’t pay anything extra! And we promise that we only recommend places that we have truly enjoyed staying at.

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