So you’ve purchased your 1 month visa, followed a bunch of Instagram accounts broadcasting the awesome places you’ve bookmarked into seeing in Vietnam, and now you have to make the ultimate decision:
North to South? South to North?
I personally chose North to South (no particular reasoning behind it, just made sense in my head!) which I found to be the preferable choice amongst backpackers but we did come across travellers who were going the opposite way.
Bike or Bus?
Even though I’ve been driving a scooter for a year in Thailand quite confidently, the idea of travelling the length of a country on a motorbike scared the crap outta me! However, that said, we did make the exception at one point when we drove the Hi Van Pass. I was really amazed over the amount of travellers we met along the way who chose to see the country driving a motorbike they had bought/rented. Their experiences sounded exciting, thrilling and challenging with nearly all of them having suffered either an accident or a breakdown, so I would advise checking your confidence and skills before deciding to do this.
Travelling to and around Vietnam
The only airports in Vietnam are in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. They are both around 30-40km away from the main areas which can be accessed by public transport (cheap option) or by taxi which may set you back the equivalent of $35. Vietnam really does have the best overnight sleeper buses with actual bed cubicles, which are turned into seats if preferred. Plus, they’re cheap and they save you a night’s accommodation fee. If biking the country is the way to go for you, there are plenty of bike rental shops which accommodate travellers who want to do this in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. Make sure you go with a recommended retailer with stores in both cities so you can drop the bike off there when you’re done. Alternatively, buy a second hand one and then sell the bike and your wisdom on to the next adventurous biker.
With all important decisions made, it’s time to pack your elephant pants and head to your first stop! And don’t worry if you haven’t got a plan, we didn’t either! We just got there and started looking maps and talking to fellow backpackers who will gladly offer their experiences and suggestions:
“You have to go to Sapa giiiirl!”
“Ho Chi Minh is crazy! Make sure you check out that sky bar!”
Honestly, Vietnam has one of the busiest backpacker trails because it’s so well defined and convenient, making it easy even for the most novice backpacker to follow and meet other like-minded backers. But, It is still good to know the hotspots and highlights of where and what you can do with your month in V’Nam so you have a blueprint idea.
I’ll be writing this itinerary from a North-to-South perspective but if you decided to travel the opposite way, well then read it backwards I guess…
1 MONTH AT A GLANCE:
- Hanoi: 2-3days
- Sapa: 3 days
- Halong Bay: 3 days
- Ninh Binh: 1-2 days
- Phong Nha: 3-4 days
- Hue: 1-2 days
- Hoi An: 2-3 days
- Dalat: 2-3 days
- Mui Ne: 2-3 days
- Ho Chi Minh: 3-4 days
Note: Make sure you take into account travel days and ‘rest days’ (trust me, you’re gonna need them!) But the amazing thing about ‘Nam is that there are so many sleeper bus options between places which cuts down your travel days and saves you money on accommodation – YAAAAH!)
STOP 1: HANOI
As soon as you step out of that taxi or bus, your senses will explode! The first thing I saw when I looked up was a cow’s carcass spread eagle over a motorbike. Motorbike horns were blasting, numbing my ability to figure out if I was about to get run over. The smell of cooking garlic and spices roamed the air around me and the heat smothered itself all over my body making me break out in instant sweats – OVERLOAD! Besides from this initial culture and body shock, Hanoi is an amazing place to start as it’s full of history, culture and it has the best food, so make sure you get your fill here!
What to do in Hanoi:
- Take a stroll around Turtle Lake (Hoan Kiem), fittingly named in honour of 3 rare turtles that are apparently living in the lake that are hardly ever seen. It has a temple in the middle of the lake that explains the history and background of the lake and its surroundings (remember to cover knees and shoulders if temple visiting!). It’s really quite calming to walk around, especially during the evening time as the sun sets.
- Visit Hao Lao Prison, where the French kept Vietnamese political prisoners captive before the prison was used by the Vietnamese themselves to hold American pilots hostage during The Vietnam War. Fascinating stuff and only 30,000 VND entry fee ($1).
Inside Hoa Lo Prison
- Look around Joseph’s Cathedral. A Catholic Church built by the French to replicate the Notre Dame. It really is beautiful inside and since the Vietnamese has taken over, it’s shrined in red and gold and it’s…. FREE!
Get lost in Hanoi’s Old Quarter which is buzzing with cafes, bars, markets and local produce. It’s filthy rich in history and culture and best explored without a map.
What to eat/drink in Hanoi:
Make a promise to me and to yourself right now that you will devour as many Banh Mii Sandwiches as possible during your time here because trust me, you will not find them as good anywhere else in ‘Nam. The Bun Cha is also really tasty here and make sure you eat locally! Find the cafes with the plastic chairs outside, they’re the best! Also, Hanoi is home to the original Vietnamese Egg Coffee. It’s ultra sweet – almost like drinking Creme Brulee – but something that is compulsory to do whilst in Vietnam. Pho which is Vietnamese Noodle Soup is also the best here even though you will find it everywhere.
Where to stay in Hanoi:
We stayed at Central Backpackers Old Quarter which we loved so much, we kept going back there during our pit stops between Sapa and Halong Bay. They also have a branch in the Centre which is called the ‘Original’. Both hostels offer free breakfast, free beer for 2 hours, free dinner when you purchase tickets with them and they run theme nights and pub crawls – all of which we took full advantage of! They also run free walking tours around the city at 10am which I highly recommend as they take you to all the hotspots mentioned above whilst slipping in history talks.
STOP 2: SAPA
What to do in Sapa:
- Explore Sapa’s amazing rice fields and waterfalls by hiking. There are so many hiking routes around the Sapa Valleys that you can take, low and high intensities depending on your fitness level. Your hotel/home stay will more than likely offer you a tour guide but we didn’t take one. Instead, the local kids took us to the nearby waterfalls and led the way up the hills and into the mountains (literally. They ran, we crawled).
- Hire a motorbike from the town and drive your way through the tribal villages. We also biked our way up to the Chinese border which has stunning views overlooking the Sapa valleys. You will pass the Love Waterfall and Silver Waterfall – a small entrance fee, but worth it! Bear in mind, the further North you go, the colder it gets so be prepared! I wasn’t and my fingers turned to ice as a consequence.
Get to know the locals. Most of the locals here make up the H’Mong Tribe but the Karen tribe also resides here along with many other smaller tribes. Sapa is one of the rarest places that have still preserved their culture and traditions into the everyday lives. Their traditional clothing is beautiful and their personalities are so warm. Their work ethic is something that would put us all to shame! They work so hard, and start when they are just children. You will see children taking on responsibilities that would make our westernised youth blush such as playing ‘parent’ to their younger siblings, carrying heavy bricks on their backs and rounding up the families’ water buffaloes.
Note: You may get the odd local following you trying to sell goods or act as a tour guide. If you don’t want their goods or services, politely decline and move on. Also, be aware of the roads. They are full of very deep potholes and driving around them on a motorbike was like riding a bull at a rodeo. Actually, I’m pretty sure I said “This ain’t my first rodeo” to the bike renter guy when he asked if I had driven before, innocently not knowing what I was letting myself in for…
What to eat in Sapa:
Overall, the cafes and restaurants were disappointing. Overpriced and limited. Instead, we chomped on the food provided at our homestay which was Deeee-licious! Their fried egg sandwiches and ginger tea for breakfast are something myself and my ‘Nam travel buddies still dream about to this day. If you stay at a homestay in Sapa, more than likely they will offer you a place at their table with the family for a small fee and my god, the family meals at our homestay turned us into vultures as we salivated over all the home-cooked food.
Where to stay in Sapa:
So i’ve harped on about this incredible homestay we stayed at – It’s called Miku’s Chill House. Miku is the home-maker and with her sisters and the children, they run the homestay extremely well. I can’t recommend this place enough. The best food. The best family. The best views AAAAND the best WiFi we had found throughout our trip! Miku does sell out often so book early in advance!
Chillin’ with our Ginger Teas living the blissful life 🙂
STOP 3: HALONG BAY
Recognised as being one of the Seven Wonders of the World, it’s no wonder people are raving about this place. Personally, I think it looks a lot like the South of Thailand where I had been living for the past year but beautiful in its own way too. The best way to explore Halong Bay is through an organised trip. We went with Central Backpackers Hideaway Tour which cost around $130 which is a lot of money but with that, is all of your transportation, food, accommodation and activities for 3 days and 2 nights.
What to do in Halong Bay:
- First thing we did with the tour group was boat jumping and swimming. They encourage you to jump off the roof of the boat and swim around the area soaking in the sights. We also kayaked around the formations.
With the tour group, you stay on your own private island with the rest of the group participants (who will quickly become your best friends) and together you will drink for cheap, play party games and decide it’s the best idea to go skinny dipping at 4am with the glowing plankton and pretend you’re starring in your very own ‘The Beach’ scene with Leo.
- The next day, our tour guide took us on a quirky bike ride through the nearby villages inland which led us to the foot of the mountain we were about to conquer. Another amazing idea myself and my new best friends had was to choose the ‘hard’ hike even though we were dying from hangovers and surviving off 3 hours sleep. I don’t know who we were trying to impress. Nevertheless, 3 hours later, we were at the top soaking wet with sweat. But the views made it all worthwhile.
STOP 4: NINH BINH
Ninh Binh is a majestic rural town located two hours from Hanoi and is often overlooked by travellers. Be sure to make time for this place! It’s full of gorgeous landscapes, history and culture. We did everything we needed to here in one day and caught a sleeper bus in the night. Trust me, you won’t regret it.
What to do in Ninh Binh:
- Take a boat ride along the Tam Coc River with Vietnamese boat women who row the boats using their feet! The boat takes you along the river where you can be at one with nature and soak in the rural countryside in peace. An extremely different picture to noisy, chaotic Hanoi making this the perfect place to relax. However, there is a ‘tourist snag’ where they will almost force you to buy fruit, drinks and snacks for you and then take more money and give snacks to your boat driver halfway through the ride. It’s pretty good pineapple though. It cost around $8-9 dollars each and lasts around 1.5 hours.
- Hike the ‘Lying Dragon Mountain’ for beautiful 360 degree views of Ninh Binh. It takes between 30-60 minutes to the top and only costs 20,000vnd (88c!) each.
- Visit Bich Dong Pagoda which is a set of three Chinese temples enclosed in a mountain. Inside, your eyes will feast on ancient Chinese Sanskrit, carvings and statues. There is a hidden passage into a cave within the mountain which is home to more temples, statues and bats! Be sure to take a torch if you’re looking to explore! It’s completely dark. Also, the road from Tam Coc to the Pagoda is absolutely, stunningly beautiful. Especially at sunset. You’ll be surrounded by pristine rice fields with the sunlight bouncing off the limestone cliffs. #instaworthy.
Note: Ninh Binh is an upcoming tourist hot spot so beware of tourist snags. If you hire motorbikes like we did, beware of parking fees. To save money, we parked elsewhere just before the sites and walked. Also, remember to cover knees and shoulders when visiting temples.
Where to stay in Ninh Binh:
We stayed in a 3 bed private room at King Kong Hostel purely because it was cheap and we weren’t really looking for a party atmosphere in this town. It did the job.
What to eat in Ninh Binh:
I had the best Vietnamese Rice Paper Rolls here in an unnamed restaurant (next door to King Kong!) and we found it to be much cheaper than Hanoi. Apparently, goat is really popular in this town and recommended. Unfortunately, I used up all my mealtime quotas on the rice paper rolls…
STOP 5: PHONG NHA
Phong Nha was definitely the most memorable part of my Vietnam trip. Packed with adventure, randomness and great people. This place has something for everybody but is a hotspot for adrenaline junkies and adventurers. They offer so many activities such as caving, bungee jumping, canyoning, trekking, white water rafting… Sounds amazing right?! I was prepping the Lara Croft side of me when I saw the prices. They are not budget friendly. Despite this, we hired motorbikes and created our own unforgettable adventures!
What to do in Phong Nha:
- Go caving. There are so many caves in Phong Nha and it’s home to the largest cave in the world – San Doong Cave which is on every adventurer’s ultimate bucket list! But, since opened to the public in 2013, the waiting list for a tour is a year long and costs more than my car (sob!). Apparently, Less people have seen the inside of Son Doong than have stood on the summit of Mount Everest which makes it all that more appealing. ALTERNATIVELY, there is PhongNha Cave and Paradise Cave which can only be reached and explored by boat and costs around $1 entrance fee as well as the price of the boat on top.
- Throw some ducks and ride water buffalos at The Duck Stop. This place is run by Vietnamese farmers, who want to give travellers an authentic experience into some of the country’s traditional past times. First of all, we stood in a line and threw ducks. The duck that was thrown the furthest wins. Sounds cray-cray I know and I’m still unsure whether I was involved in some mild animal cruelty but the ducks did land in the water and then they swam before they got fed dinner no harm done. I hope… Next, I rode a water buffalo along the field and into the water for a swim before eating Banh Xeo for dinner. A total immersion into rural Vietnamese culture and it only set us back 100k VND ($4!).
- Take a mud bath in The Dark Cave. This was one of my ultimate highlights of my whole trip. Despite being thrown in with a huge group of Chinese tourists who took an unhealthy liking towards our butts. To get to the cave, we had to zip line from a tower into the water and swim to the entrance – amazing experience until you hit the ice cold water and start screaming in a different tone. Then, a hike into the cave which is in complete darkness, (hence the name..) and the further into the cave you go, the further the mud rises until we were swimming in a mud bath, having mud fights. Much to the annoyance of the Chinese who didn’t want to get themselves covered in mud until they slip and fall into the mud which was hilarious! To get out of the cave, we had to slide down a mudslide which was equally hilarious, thanks to the Chinese. The ultimate playground for adults and what’s more – your skin and hair will feel divine.
Where to stay in Phong Nha:
We were given a recommendation to stay at Easy Tiger which is the most popular backpacker hostel in the town. So popular, they’re not even on any booking sites! You have to email them directly to book. We did this and they were sold out. So instead, we stayed at their sister hostel, Shambalaa and was given access to their amenities. Shambalaa was quieter and more comfy than Easy Tiger which is more of a party hostel with live bands playing every night, a pool and a gym area. You could easily spend a day just chilling here and getting to know fellow backpackers like we did.
What to eat in Phong Nha:
Phong Nha has some of the best Western food I’ve had in Asia! The Panini sandwiches and rosemary fries at Easy Tiger were godly. So many of the cafes and restaurants offer beautiful western and Vietnamese food. We also ate at the busy restaurant at the Dark Cave and ordered a humungous patter of meat, fish and food to share between us. It all went within 8 minutes.
STOP 6: HUE
Hue is strange. I have mixed views about this place. After experiencing so much culture, history and authenticity up to this point in ‘Nam, stepping into Hue was like stepping into an extremely hot Asian Spain. Loud music, flashy lights, trashy bars, expensive western restaurants and tourists. Everywhere. Well, as the saying goes – if you can’t beat them, join them. So we dressed up and found this kick ass nightclub called Brown Eyes Nightclub. But apart from partying with the Irish until 5am, this is what else you can do in Hue:
What to do in Hue:
- Explore the abandoned Water Park. This was always a recommendation from fellow backpackers: “OMG, you have to stop at Hue and go to the water park. It’s totally abandoned which makes it awesome”. I got there and it was just an abandoned water park. Huh. It was so hot that day, it was torturous. I prayed that the water park would just magically become fully functioning so I could slide head first into cold water. Not impressed. Could’ve visited abandoned and derelict sites back in the valleys of Wales, there’s plenty!
- Soak up some history at Tomb of Tu Duc. We rented motorbikes and rode out to the tombs which are about 30 minutes from the town centre to satisfy our new culture addiction. It was built for the Emperor in the 19th century to house his family. Now, it houses the bodies of him and his family (100 wives!) and children. Interestingly, despite the grandeur of the site, Tu Duc was actually buried in a different, secret location somewhere in Hue. To keep the secret safe, the 200 laborers who buried the king were all beheaded after they returned from the secret route. To this day, the real tomb of Tu Duc remains hidden.
- Hire motorbikes and experience the Hai Van Pass which is a motorway in between Hue and Hoi An. If you’re confident riding, be sure to do this! The landscapes along this road are beautiful and it’s surprisingly quiet. If not, there are jeeps and cars that will take you for around $65 and know where all the good photo stops are. The journey will take around 4-5 hours depending on how much you stop.
Where to stay in Hue:
We stayed at Vietnam Backpackers in the heart of the action. The quirky difference about this hostel was that you can book a double bed in a dorm room. WHAAAAT?! Unreal. So to save money, my gay BFF and I snuggled up! Absolutely marvelous idea! They’re very backpacker friendly with the theme nights and cheap drinks but the place lacked atmosphere. AHEM – Nightclubs!
What to eat in Hue:
Hue to me just seems very westernised and the Vietnamese food is not great. We did however treat yourselves to Italian food. Twice. And wine. Oops. Oh, but it was heaven. Zuccas – check it out!
STOP 7: HOI AN
Ah man. This town is cute AF! One word – Lanterns. This old, ancient town is drowning in them! Makes for a spectacular walk at night, even a few drinks by the river. Who would’ve thought lights could make such an impact? I made a promise to myself that night that I would own at least 10 lanterns when I grow up. When you’re not obsessing over lanterns, this is what else you can do in Hoi An:
What to do in Hoi An:
- Rent a bicycle and ride around this quirky town. I felt like a 1950’s girl swerving in and out of quirky lanes, riding past vintage cafes and into the countryside. All I needed was a dress full of flowers and a beehive ‘do. It’s probably the best way to explore and get yourself lost.
- Hoi An has beaches!! Coming from living next to a beach for a year in Thailand, I was craving me some sand and sea. The beach vibe here is relaxed and the water is refreshing. The beach starts about a 20 minute ride from the town but the further you go, the more you will be rewarded.
- Buy something tailor made personalised for you. Gaaah, this is one thing I regret not doing. It’s so cheap and the clothes are made beautifully. I came across backpackers with shirts, dresses, even suits that are designed by them, for them and god they looked good.
Where to stay in Hoi An:
Initially we stayed at a home stay as we were exhausted from our bike ride from Hue so we craved comfort and quiet. We were soon back of old selves the next day and switched up to a lively backpacker hostel called Sunflower Hotel. Everyone I had met along the way on my travels had graced this place with their presence. And I could see why when we got there. Pool, bar, cheap food and cheap drinks. It was so good, my travel bud didn’t leave the place for 3 days!
What to eat in Hoi An:
Oh there are so many options! You can find the world here. It’s a little more health conscious than the rest of ‘Nam with hip vegan places popping up amongst the history. The food at the hostel was also good and cures a hangover in minutes! There’s a food cart that stands outside the hostel every night and makes Banh Mii – Hanoi style! We were all over that like flies.
STOP 8: DALAT
In case you didn’t get a feel for the weather whilst reading my rambles, ‘Nam is HAAAAWT. Dalat offers a nice break from that. Located in the mountains, the climate changes so dramatically you can feel the bus freeze up. I had the best sleep of my life here. No noisy fans. No aircon drying up my skin. No sweat dripping off my nose. Just me and the duvet. B.L.I.S.S.
What to do in Dalat:
- Visit the Maze Bar and get lost trying to get a drink! The place was fricking grand. It has hidden bars located within the maze and you basically have to figure out how to get there through the maze without getting lost – FUN! Unless you’re a raging alcoholic then it’s just annoying.
- Party the night away at Rain Nightclub. The best night in Vietnam occurred here. We met the best group of people and got spoilt rotten by the local Vietnamese party-goers. None of us spent a single Dong. We had miniature whisky shots handed to us every minute, was fed fruit and birthday cake when we wanted… Yup. I had a taste for the high life.
- Rent motorbikes and drive around the mountains. Yeah, it’s cold so make sure you’re wrapped up! We visited the Elephant Falls, a coffee plantation and gate-crashed a Wedding Shoot! Productive day.
- Go The most popular hike for tourists here is called Lang Biang which is tough but rewarding. I didn’t go myself even though I do love a good hike. Was too busy biking and partying but if I had more time, I would’ve definitely done this.
Where to stay in Dalat:
We stayed at Dalat Sky Hostel which is a small family-run hostel but the staff are extremely friendly and totally committed to ensuring you have the best time. The cooked family meals every night and then organised games to get us all tipsy before sending us off in taxis to the nearest bar! Highly recommended!
What to eat in Dalat:
Umm… we didn’t really eat anywhere else but at our hostel. The food was undeniably good and free breakfast! We did drink coffee and tea at the plantation which was the perfect pit stop.
STOP 9: MUI NE
Mui Ne is around 4 hours away from Ho Chi Minh and can be described as a quiet, lazy beach town known for its seafood. This is the second and last time we booked an adventure tour and ignored our stubbornness to do it by ourselves.
What to do in Mui Ne:
- Take a scroll down the Fairy Stream. This place was just magical. You follow the path which is actually a stream into the jungle and feast your eyes on the sand formations. It just screams natural beauty with a touch of a fantasy aura.
- Ride a quad bike across the White Sand Dunes. This particular activity was pricey but so worth it! We felt like we were in the Sahara Desert but with views of a functioning town – MIND BLOWN.
- Drink beer at sunset on the Red Sand Dunes. We bought ‘sledges’ (scraps of metal) and slid our way down the dunes to our resting stop where we toasted to our adventures and basked in the sunset.
Where to stay in Mui Ne:
When I thought the hostels couldn’t get any more fancy, they got to ‘resort level’ here. We stayed at Mui Ne Backpackers which was practically a resort with a huge pool, restaurant and remarkable views. Found myself indulging in yoga on the front while the sun was setting. Seriously, life could not have got any better at that point! Another popular place to stay, equally as fancy, is Mui Ne Hills. We had friends staying there so we checked it out. Impressive.
STOP 10: HO CHI MINH
What to do in Ho Chi Minh:
- Visit Ben Thanh Market for cheap, quirky Vietnamese trinkets. If you’re like me and want to buy everything in sight because you have left over currency (which you had subconsciously saved for this moment…), this is the perfect place! It has clothes, jewellery, bags, souvenirs and delicious food. Even though the prices may seem fairly cheap to begin with, make sure you haggle a little. To these market locals, you have TOURIST in bright red letters on your forehead so they’ve just upped their price by 3. Just give it a go!
- Seek out French Architecture. This city is seeping with unique landmarks designed and built by the French during the colonisation. Visit the Notre-Dam Cathedral located in the centre of Ho Chi Minh. This impressive landmark was declared an official Basilica by the Pope, so even though it’s a major tourist attraction, it’s still very much an active place of worship so be aware of the opening times. The Central Post Office, designed by Gustave Eiffel who also designed the Eiffel Tower. Still a working post office if you want to send postcards home. Outside, you will find locals selling unique handmade 3D cards which are stunning.
- Learn about Vietnamese history by visiting the War Remnants Museum which shows the recent wars that Vietnam has suffered with special attention paid to the Vietnam War and the use of Agent Orange and how it’s still affecting this country today. Allow at least 2-3 hours if you want to get around the whole place. Also, the Chi Chi tunnels are located about 2 hours from the City Centre. Many hotels and travel agencies will offer trips to the tunnels for about 180,000 VND ($10). The tunnels were used by the Vietnamese during the war to hide. They had built homes, schools and even a church underground. Originally, the tunnels were around 200km long but due to decay, you can only visit about 90km. It’s a tight squeeze and gives you a real feel about how it must’ve felt for this community back then.
- Relax at a Sky Bar. There are a few in the city but we chose to go to Chill Sky Bar for some luxury and it didn’t disappoint. The views are spectaculaaar! We went in time for sunset in our best gear and sipped on cocktails, watching the city lights become more luminous as the night came out to play.
What to eat in Ho Chi Minh:
You will be spoilt for choice in this city. It has everything! I am extremely lucky to have friends living here who knew the best places to eat. They took us to a peculiar Vietnamese place called Bep Me In where we eat Mushroom Tofu – and I don’t even like Tofu! But, so fricking gooood. Go to the local markets, down the smallest alleyways and just follow the smells.
So there you go! One huge adventure in Vietnam done and a few ticks for the Travel Bucket List. If you just can’t bear to tear yourself away from this country or spend a few too many days dedicated to hangovers that you’re not quite yet finished, you can always extend it at any Immigration Office but make sure you realise this a few days before your expiry date as it takes 7 working days for your passport to come back with a new fresh shiny stamp!
Also, if you’re looking for ideas on where to go after your ‘Nam epic-ness, we went forth to Cambodia by bus which takes about 6 hours and costs about $6-12 depending on the bus quality. You can also catch flights to Thailand and the rest of SE Asia pretty easily. HAVE FUN!