A backpacker’s guide to visiting Vietnam
Often described as more hospitable than China, more affordable than Japan, and much less crowded and commercialized than Thailand, Vietnam welcomes thousands of backpackers from around the globe every year.
Vietnam is a beautiful country with long stretches of beach, ancient buildings and relics, winding country roads suited for cycling and motorbike trips, bustling cities, and terrific and inexpensive street food. Visitors describe it as a wildly fun and friendly country to explore, and a place where a dollar goes a long way.
But is Vietnam your cup of Bia Hoi? (That’s Vietnamese for draft beer which, incidentally, costs only 50 cents per liter.)
Far from a complete guide, here is a brief overview of the backpacking experience in Vietnam:
The lay of the land
A popular way to start a holiday and get one’s cultural bearings in Vietnam is in the countryside, in one of the country’s two deltas.
The Red River Delta is situated in the north. It begins in Yunnan, a mountainous region in the south of China and ends in Ha Long Bay. This bay itself is a tourist destination in northern Vietnam, with over 3,000 isles, inlets and reefs. It’s a beautiful place designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The country’s other delta is at the Mekong River in the south of the country. One fifth of the country’s population lives on the Mekong Delta, in its nine provinces.
You have likely seen images on TV and in movies of the iconic floating markets, stilt houses and rice paddies found in the Mekong Delta region.
Cycling and riding motorcycles are extremely popular among travelers in the Delta regions.
But Vietnam definitely isn’t all countryside and river deltas—there are also two major cities.
Hanoi, the capital, is in the northern region and relatively quiet. Some of its architecture dates back to the 11th century. Ho Chi Minh City (commonly called Saigon) is large and extremely busy, and reflects a mix of old and modern traditions, architecture, economics… and karaoke.
If you like beaches, there are several spots on the east coast ideal for basking in the sun, and many resorts. Beaches range in from the extremely popular Nha Trang to quieter and less expensive ones such as Non Nuoc.
It’s cheap to rent a room in Vietnam. There are many hostels in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, more than fifty in each city. Most are absurdly inexpensive by North American standards! At an upper/mid-tier hostel in a major city, expect to pay roughly 8 dollars per night.
Prices for accommodation may be even lower in the country, where you’ll find guesthouses everywhere, and even locals willing to rent out a room for very little money.
The food in Vietnam is outstanding! There are more than 500 native dishes.
While in many ways similar to cuisine in other Asian countries, Vietnamese food differs in that much of it is boiled or steamed, rather than fried. Proximity to the deltas means that great seafood dishes are common in Vietnamese cooking.
For backpackers, so-called ‘street kitchens’ offer tasty food at good value — these are generally street stalls and outdoor restaurants. Indoor sit-down restaurants are more expensive, but still cheap by North American standards.
Good food is everywhere, but not surprisingly, the best variety is found in big cities. If you’re overwhelmed by Asian seasoning, you can find European and Mediterranean restaurants in the city, as well.
One of Vietnam’s best-known and most popular foods is Cha Gio—spring rolls! It’s a safe choice everywhere, unlikely to traumatize an unadventurous Western palate (unlike the photo below).
Vietnam has three international airports, located in Ho Chi Minh City (the largest), Hanoi, and Danang (the smallest). Most flights to Vietnam arrive from other Asian cities, but direct flights from North America and Europe come into Ho Chi Minh occasionally, too.
Vietnam is also accessible on land routes through Cambodia, Laos and China.
Trains connect the major cities in Vietnam, and public buses connect most towns. Though bear in mind that, although the bus is less expensive than the train, buses are rustic and crowded. Private mini-bus companies compete with public transit, but unfortunately these vehicles can be just as packed. You may prefer to rent a motorcycle or bicycle a lot of the time — both are extremely popular ways to get around in Vietnam.
If you have money to spare, you can take short flights between the three airports in the country.
Don’t get fooled
You may encounter minor cons, though likely no real danger while backpacking in Vietnam — it’s extremely improbable you’ll be robbed blind, but someone may try to charge you too much for soup from time to time.
Don’t book your tours and trips through your hostel or hotel – prices they offer will almost definitely be inflated. You’ll get a better price from a travel agent or directly from a tour operator.
Particularly in the city, get in the habit of asking, “how much?” before you eat meals, and before services are rendered.
Similarly, learn to say “no” if anything seems fishy or unfair. Generally, those who might attempt to perpetrate minor swindles on foreigners will back off, smile, and carry on, if you show polite resistance and awareness.
About the author: Abby Clark fell in love with travel as a teenager and has since explored several famous as well as little known cities and towns around the world. She currently writes blogs and guest blogs for Best Quote Travel Insurance which offers Super Visa insurance for travel.