Looking for your next beach vacation? Vietnam consistently ranks as one of the top destinations, offering a cultural smorgasbord, complete with a distinct cuisine sure to please any foodie’s palette. And it’s all possible at a budget backpacker’s rate of less than 2500 yen/ day.
I’ll try not to bore you with the typical itinerary you can find on the thousands of travel websites, and just give you some off the beaten track tips and the how-to’s of keeping under budget.
Sapa and Bac Ha (3 days, 4 nights)*
Hanoi (4 days, 4 nights)
Halong Bay (day trip)
Hue (day trip)
Hoi An (5 days, 6 nights) **
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) (5 days, 5 nights)
Mekong Delta (2 days, 1 night)
Don’t go to Sapa or Bac Ha if you aren’t ready for the overnight train (approximately 9 hours) there and back. Depending on your budget and luck, you may end up in the middle bunk sandwiched between a crying baby and its mother and a snorlax you’re afraid might be over the bunk’s weight limit. On the hard-sleepers, there are six bunks in a room, and as the name suggests, beds are less padded. With three bunks on each side instead of the two found in soft sleeper compartments, less vertical room is afforded. The lowest bunk is the roomiest and often the most expensive, but worth the extra hundred yen or two to be able to sit fully up right. There is also the option of sleeper buses. I’ve been advised to get a bottom chair off to the side and near the back of the bus by a few who have used them.
It’s highly recommended to go up to Sapa during the summer months when the cool temperatures allow you to escape the heat of the city and to view the vibrant green rice terraces. Since I went during the winter break, I only stayed one night before heading to Bac Ha, best known for the Bac Ha market (occurring every Sunday). It’s the most accessible market of its kind to which many of the Vietnamese minority groups travel great distances on foot to reach. I would recommend going to the live animal market where you can climb a set of stairs to view the oxen trades. Beat the rush of tourists by arriving around 7 am. Since I prioritized the market, I didn’t take the daily bus from Sapa (typically arriving at 9 am), but rather stayed in Bac Ha in order to stroll into the market early. Accommodation in Bac Ha is sparse, but you can find dinner, bed and breakfast for 1500\ yen. Those on a tighter budget can negotiate for the meals to be removed; they offered to take off 500 \for me. Another Sunday market, 12 km north of Bac Ha, is the Lung Phin market. Lung Phin is definitely worth it if you want the off the beaten track experience. When I went, I was literally the only tourist in the market, and everyone was a lot more welcoming about getting photographed. This market is frequented by three different native tribes, so you will be able to see a more diverse selection of traditional garments.
Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and its second largest city. The chances are your hostel or hotel will be situated in the Old Quarter, but if it isn’t, you should definitely make time to visit. It is where Hanoi becomes most alive, and has the most interesting street food. The French Quarter on the other hand, is quite bare of anything interesting, so I think it can be skipped.
Pho is a soupy noodle meal that originated from Hanoi. It is one of the cheapest and most delicious meals you will ever eat in your life. Make the most of your time in Vietnam and eat an ample amount of it. More expensive, but equally necessary for a complete life, is egg coffee. Please do not leave Hanoi without trying this heavenly beverage, or else I feel you will be deprived of tasting the best drink you’ll have ever tasted. I still dream about it at night. Egg coffee is quite dense and sweet, so it is best enjoyed a whiles after a meal.
Hanoi Kids is a volunteer program that gets university students to tour you around. They only ask that you pay for your student’s expenses on the day, such as museum admission and any food you eat together. You can customize the tour as much as you want, so you’re capable of setting the tour’s price tag. They can take you to any of the big attractions, and will even show you where they serve the original egg coffee.
Halong Bay is the top scenic destination of Vietnam. This is where to take your postcard-perfect photographs. You can do Halong Bay for under 4000\ if you don’t care to stay overnight on a boat. However, this means you won’t be able to go as far out, and might miss out on some of the spectacular views. If you are willing to make your own arrangements to and fro Hanoi to the port, go to the counter (our saleswoman had very good English) and hire a private boat. We were able to get a three person crew boat for six passengers for under 2000\ each. Make sure to ask to see the boat before you sign the papers. This is how we were able to get a boat with a top deck at the bow of the ship. You may get the option of kayaking and stopping at some caves.You don’t need swim trunks to kayak, but you will need pocket change for the cave’s admission fee. Another plus to having a private boat is you aren’t squashed into single file line and ushered along at a snail’s pace in the caves. If you aren’t going on an all-inclusive boat, make sure to buy snacks and liquor in the city before. This also applies to trips in Ninh Binh and the Mekong Delta, as the boat crew will no doubt try pushing their merchandise onto you at three or four times market price.
Hue is en route from Hanoi to Hoi An. I recommend planning your train journey so that you visit it on the way, instead of backtracking from Hoi An. Hue was previously the imperial capital of Vietnam, so it has the cultural beauty of Nara but without the deer or greenery. It was our group’s humble opinion that the place was a bit lacking. It does, however, have many local dishes and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hue opens and shuts at regular business hours, so don’t visit it for the night life.
Hoi Anis treasured for its relaxed atmosphere and hip eateries. Maybe my expectations were too high, but the town didn’t really resonate with me. My experience could have been soured by the unpreparedness of our “homestay” for our arrival (claiming we were a day too early), a shopkeeper letting the air out of our bike tires, our bikes being outright stolen, 12 000\ being extorted from us for each lost bike, or the worst tailoring ordeal I’ve had to suffer through(don’t go to Phuong Nam Tailors unless you want to fight for adjustments). Lessons learned: homestay in Hoi An means a normal hotel where no one speaks working English, don’t let your bikes out of sight, and only get items copied at tailors. The extent of a tailor’s skills is apparent through their model items; don’t expect tailors to create great pieces they don’t have a sewing pattern for.
Hoi An has evolved to become very touristy, with only tailors, souvenir and knick-knack shops lining the street, and bright lanterns to overload your visual system. In the town’s center, you will see more tourists than natives. I recommend Hoi An for those wanting an escape from ‘real’ Vietnam (often necessary during a long backpacking trip), to meet other travelers at a bar, or to enjoy an English breakfast.
Ho Chi Minh City, commonly referred to as Saigon, is the hub of Vietnam. Here you will find the biggest and latest-opening bars and clubs. Most of the cultural sites and beaches are located a side trip away, so make sure to leave plenty of room in your itinerary for them. The Cu Chi Tunnels (recommended) will take a full day, especially if you plan to travel inexpensively on the local buses. To cut down on commuting and taxi rides back from bars, book accommodation in district 1. This area has plenty of very nice restaurants, and bars as well as the Ben Thanh Market. You can spend a whole day in the Ben Thanh Market, browsing through all the stalls packed tight with everything you can think of and eating safe (in terms of food poisoning) local cuisine at the eateries located at the market’s center. As it is all indoors, it is great on an overcast day.
Try to pick clear, sunny days for visiting the Mekong Delta. There are a few places to explore the Mekong Delta, but the most recommended is in Can Tho city. We got two boats for five people at approximately 1500\ each person. This included a trip to two river markets and a rice noodle making factory. We chose to go in two separate boats (smaller boats can go through smaller canals), and without a guide (500\ less each and no droning speeches). Don’t forget to bring small change, because your boat drivers will expect a tip.
Very useful general tips
– Always buy your own tickets for transportation if you have time. If you go through your hostel or hotel, they will always add a hidden service charge (despite a lot of tickets having the actual value written on them).
– Take the local buses, they are dirt cheap (25 – 30 yen/ ride). Avoid them if you are claustrophobic or get motion sickness easily, but take them for a very unique experience (a Spanish couple on my bus got hand fed by one of the locals that loaded the cargo onto the bus). These buses also run from airports and will save you over 1500 yen each way. Just make sure to check the schedule ahead of time, since some buses don’t run in the evening.
– The practice of keeping guests’ passport is standard in Vietnam so don’t be shocked when they ask. The best security is to make sure they have good reviews online.
– Bargaining in the north will take more effort on the customer’s side than in the south. Walking away will rarely incite the call backs you expect, and remember, walking away is your last power move, going back means the ball is in their court.
– Personalize your trip by looking up the local events occurring in your destination cities. I used the mobile app Triposo which is completely functional offline.
– Eat Banh Mi often.
*overnight trains counted as a night in destination location
**Hue and Hoi An lie close to the middle of Vietnam, so it’s possible and quite recommended you visit them even if you are sticking to the north.