Tips for Backpacking Vietnam

Updated on January 2, 2019
marleyjustine profile image

My husband and I backpacked through Vietnam in December of 2016. Here's everything we researched beforehand (or wish we had!).

Sightseeing in Hanoi
Sightseeing in Hanoi

Recently, I found myself going through pictures from the trip that my husband and I took to Vietnam in December 2016, and I decided that I wanted to write about it. Rather than babble about my time there, I thought I would share tips for backpacking Vietnam.

This is not meant to be a definitive travel guide. These tips are purely based on my own experiences and come from questions that I had prior to going to Vietnam, as well as questions I've been asked by other people about my time there.

Is Vietnam Safe?

This was probably the first question I had after deciding to visit Southeast Asia, and simply put, the answer is yes, Vietnam is safe. That being said, you have to be smart. Just because I consider Vietnam to be safe doesn't mean I would leave my cell phone on the table during dinner or walk around a market dangling an open purse.

You've probably already heard that traffic in Vietnam is something else. Forget everything you thought you knew about crossing the street because if you play by those rules, you will never, ever, ever manage to cross a street in Vietnam. Don't assume there won't be oncoming traffic because a traffic light said you could cross the street. You are going to feel like you're about to be hit. As terrifying as it is, keep moving. People on bikes will go around you if you are walking with confidence and in control and by that I mean, don't zig zag and jump around, let your movement be very predictable.

Talk to Your Doctor Before Traveling to Vietnam

As soon as you know you're going to Vietnam, preferably with an idea of where exactly you'll be, talk to your doctor. They may recommend you get vaccinated for Japanese encephalitis, typhoid, cholera, MMR, and hepatitis A and B. You may also be prescribed anti-malarial medication and be told about the importance of using mosquito repellent and other methods during your stay.

Note: I was never asked for proof of any vaccination, but I always make a point of carrying a copy of my vaccination record.

Do I Need a Visa to Go to Vietnam?

As much as I love travel, I don't know the Visa requirements for most nations. I do know that if you are a Canadian, American or UK citizen, yes, you require a Visa for entry into Vietnam.

What my husband and I did was applied for a pre-approved Visa on arrival. You do this online and within 24–72 hours, you are e-mailed a letter that you print out and take with you and you are issued a Visa upon arrival.

As far as I know, you can only do the pre-approved Visa on arrival if you are flying into a major airport. Fortunately, if you're flying into Vietnam, you're probably going to fly into Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, not only do flights into these airports tend to be less expensive, but it also makes sense for traveling around Vietnam; you can fly into Hanoi and work your way south or you can fly into Ho Chi Minh and work your way north.

Please, take the entry requirements and Visa requirements seriously. While we were waiting for our Visas, we actually saw someone being turned away because they showed up without a Visa and without a pre-approved Visa on arrival letter. I'm not entirely sure what the end result was, but this guy seemed quite upset that he couldn't enter the country and his attitude did not seem to be helping the situation.

Where Should I Go?

If you're still early in the planning process—maybe you've only just decided you want to see Vietnam—you may be wondering where exactly you should go when you there. As previously mentioned, most backpackers start either in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City and then work their way south or north respectively, stopping along the way. Vietnam's layout actually makes it rather easy for backpackers.

On our trip, my husband and I went to Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang, Hoi An, Ha Long Bay and Hanoi. If we would have had more time, I would have loved to see Hue, Dalat, Sapa and Nha Trang.

What's the Best Way to Get Around?

You've decided where you want to go, but how will you get from place to place? It is said that one of the cheapest ways to get around Vietnam if you're there for an extended period of time is to buy a motorbike and then sell it when you're done. Renting a motorcycle, compared to other modes of transportation, is also very inexpensive.

However, please don't think that you need to rent (or buy) a motorbike just because you're in Vietnam. While most backpackers opt for the bus or train, we opted for domestic flights with VietJet. If you're pressed for time, I highly recommend you consider flying. Seriously, domestic flights in Vietnam are ridiculously inexpensive.

Sightseeing in Hanoi
Sightseeing in Hanoi

What Should I Do in Vietnam?

In order to make the most of your time in Vietnam, do your research ahead of time. I'm not suggesting you book sightseeing tours and day trips months in advance, but know what is available and what you're interested in seeing and doing.

Vietnam is beautiful. If you can, explore more than just the most popular tourist districts.

While I'm not here to make an actual list of things to do in Vietnam, I do recommend that you go to at least one rooftop bar. I preferred the chaos of the streets when I wasn't navigating it but rather watching from a safe distance with a drink in hand.

Also, get your laundry done. I don't care what your budget is; laundry services are so inexpensive. Tom and I paid $4USD to have laundry done in Hanoi.

My husband and I knew we couldn't do Vietnam without doing a Ha Long Bay cruise. If a Ha Long Bay cruise is outside of your budget, a lot of backpackers recommend going to Cat Ba Island and taking day trips from there.

Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay

I know that this is supposed to be a 'what to do' and not a 'what to avoid,' but if you're going to Ha Long Bay, I don't recommend swimming. I was warned prior to going that the water is "f***ing filthy" and it's true. After kayaking, both my husband and I noticed our hands felt absolutely disgusting. However, kayaking in Ha Long Bay was incredible. It was a bit of a workout, but the views were perfect. So, if you're in Ha Long Bay, do jump at the opportunity to kayak.

If you are in Ho Chi Minh City and looking for an amazing tour company, I recommend XO Tours.

Stopping for drinks on XO Tours 'Saigon by Night' tour.
Stopping for drinks on XO Tours 'Saigon by Night' tour.

Where Should I Stay?

Like any other backpacking destination, hostels seem to be the average backpacker's go-to option for accommodation in Vietnam. However, we quickly discovered while planning our trip that hotels were rather inexpensive, and with the exception of our Ha Long Bay cruise, stayed exclusively at hotels while in Vietnam. Airbnb is also a great option.

I Don't Speak Vietnamese, Can I Go to Vietnam?

Of course! If you're really worried, try learning a few basic phrases before you go.

What's the Currency in Vietnam?

The local currency is the Vietnamese Dong (VND). When we were there, the exchange rate was $1CAD = $17909.67 VND. It may seem crazy to walk around with a million dongs in your pocket (after a couple of days in Vietnam, you'll stop giggling at things like that) but really, it's only $56CAD. In all seriousness, pay attention to the currency, familiarize yourself with it, pay attention to 0's, etc...

Is There Good Shopping?

Be prepared to bargain harder than usual, and be prepared for the possibility that you might get ripped off. My advice, and this goes for any destination where you find yourself bartering over prices, is have a price that you're willing to pay and stick to it. Don't be afraid to walk away. More often than not, the vendor will call you back and take your offer.

I know some people say that Vietnam is great for shopping but personally, I didn't like the pushiness and I just wasn't in a mood to negotiate prices. I think I bought one pair of elephant pants for $5CDN and if I recall correctly, I didn't even try to talk them down.

Despite the pushy vendors, I will say that in general, I found the locals to be very nice.

On the topic of shopping, if you forget to pack something or if you run out of something while you're traveling (for example, toothpaste, shampoo, razors) you'll likely be able to find a replacement.

What's the Food Like?

This isn't really advice, but wise words to live by from yours truly: there's no such thing as too much pho. Eat pho daily. Eat it for breakfast. Remember that pho in the north is different than pho in the south, it will take many bowls before you can figure out which one is your favorite.

Pho and spring rolls
Pho and spring rolls
Bánh mì
Bánh mì

Tips for Eating in Vietnam

  1. The food in Vietnam is delicious, but remember, if you're eating street food, go somewhere that is busy. You want the food to be fresh, not sitting out all day.
  2. Please don't ask the wait staff if they have fortune cookies. Sorry, I couldn't resist throwing this in because yes, while enjoying a massive bowl of perfect pho, I heard someone call over the waitress and ask for their fortune cookie.
  3. Don't drink tap water. Bottled water is super affordable and readily available. If you're trying to be environmentally friendly, bring a reusable water bottle and then purchase the massive bottles of water from Circle K to create less waste.

How Are the Beaches?

Especially if you're coming from Cambodia or Thailand, you may find the beaches of Vietnam to be disappointing. Don't avoid the beaches of Vietnam, but don't go to Vietnam just for the beaches.

My beach day in Da Nang
My beach day in Da Nang

What's the Weather Like?

Once you know your dates, research the weather. Or, if you're flexible, research the weather and then pick your dates. We were in Vietnam in December and while we had some nice weather, it wasn't hot and sunny like Cambodia and Thailand and at times, we were dealing with monsoon rains and floods. If you're going to be in Vietnam during monsoon season, please, pack accordingly.

Flooding in Hoi An. At times, we didn't know where the street ended and the river began.
Flooding in Hoi An. At times, we didn't know where the street ended and the river began.
Exploring Hoi An in the rain.
Exploring Hoi An in the rain.

Have you been to Vietnam? Do you have any tips to add to this list? Any lessons learned from your travels? Recommendations for things to see, do or even avoid? If so, leave them in the comments below.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 M


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      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        17 months ago from UK

        This is a good account of your trip to Vietnam. I remember it in my youth as a terrible war zone, but now I hear of more tourists going there.

      • Guckenberger profile image

        Alexander James Guckenberger 

        17 months ago from Maryland, United States of America

        I would love to visit. ^_^


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