Backpacking Vietnam – The 15 Things to Know Before You Go

All your burning questions about travelling in Vietnam — answered!

backpackers buying fruit in Vietnam

If you’re thinking about backpacking Vietnam, the first thing you need to know is that you definitely should! Now that decision is made, here are the essential travel tips to help make the most of your Vietnam backpacking adventure!

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Vietnam might be the perfect destination for backpackers, especially for those who are travelling to Asia for the first time. The people are incredibly welcoming, the infrastructure for tourism is well organized, and there is a huge variety in landscapes, culture, food, and interesting things to do.

Beyond that, Vietnam is still extraordinarily cheap, so you can backpack on a budget and still have a great time.

hotel sign cat ba vietnam
In Vietnam you can often pay just a few dollars per person for budget hotel rooms.

I’ve travelled to Vietnam so many times now that I’ve lost count. I’ve been there as a solo backpacker, as a cycle tourist, as a house and pet sitter, as a volunteer, and most recently as a temporary expat in Hoi An.

These adventures have taken me from the far north-eastern border with China all the way to the southwest coastal border with Cambodia, and all stops in between.

If it’s your first time backpacking in Vietnam, the tips below will help you make the absolute most of your journey to Vietnam.

So read on for your guide to…

Backpacking Vietnam – The 15 Things You Must Know Before You Go

1. How long do you need to backpack Vietnam?

Even though it looks small on a map, that narrow strip of land is deceiving. Vietnam is about a thousand miles from north to south, and on slow trains and overnight busses, this is a huge distance. Not only that, but across this distance there’s a huge variation in culture, food, landscape, and atmosphere.

women selling bananas in hanoi vietnam
Scenes like this are common all over Vietnam, which is one of the reasons we love it!

We’ve spent close to a year in Vietnam over the course of at least 7 different trips and have still not seen everything there is to see or learned nearly as much about the culture as we’d like!

Alas, you probably don’t have unlimited time to spend wandering Vietnam’s many incredible destinations. If not, here are our recommendations for what you can see in the time you have.

One month to six weeks

If you want to cover the three main regions of Vietnam – north, central, and south – without flying or rushing from place to place, you’ll need at least a month. Six weeks will give you a better chance to get off the beaten track, spend some time relaxing on the beach, and to avoid hellish 15-hour bus rides!

Three weeks

If you have 3 weeks or less, we recommend concentrating your visit in the north and central regions of Vietnam. Leave the south for another time unless your main goal in life is to visit beautiful beaches. If that’s the case, go beach and island hopping in the south and add in some adventures in Dalat and the Mekong Delta.

mekong delta tour vietnam
The Mekong Delta is so peaceful after hectic Ho Chi Minh City.

Two weeks

If you only have two weeks or less in Vietnam, just visit the north or the central region. The north is better for rugged adventures and breathtaking wild scenery, while central is better if you want a combination of history, culture, and beaches.

One week

If you only have one week in Vietnam, reconsider whether it’s worth going. If you only have a week of vacation, it would be much better to travel somewhere in your home country – you’ll have more time to enjoy yourself and less stress.

If you’re planning one week in Vietnam as part of a Southeast Asia trip, think again. With limited time, it’s much better to just go to one country and spend longer there, than to try and pack several countries into a couple of week’s vacation!

2. How much does it cost to backpack in Vietnam?

The great news about Vietnam is, even though it’s a hugely popular backpacking destination, you can visit very cheaply and still have a great time. Backpackers with a sense of adventure and a tight budget can still travel in Vietnam for under $15 per day.

banh mi from phuong hoi an vietnam
The tofu banh mi from Banh Mi Phuong doesn’t look all that pretty but it was the tastiest vegan banh mi in Hoi An.

Here are some typical costs of things in Vietnam:

  • A filling banh mi or noodle soup from a street stall is less than $1.
  • Hostel beds, in nice hostels with lots of amenities, cost $5–10.
  • A clean and comfortable double hotel room is about $12–20 per night.
  • A 5-hour bus ride will run you about $6.
  • A pair of elephant pants is $3–8.
  • A street food tour is $15–25.

Not including your flights or visa, for three weeks in Vietnam, budget $500–700. This leaves room for a few nights of more comfy accommodation, a few tours, and some nicer meals.

Handling Vietnamese dong

In Vietnam, the currency is Vietnamese Dong (VND). It is used for everything except paying for your visa on arrival. For that, you will need USD or Euros.

Dong is one of those currencies which can be desperately confusing because there are so many zeros.

$1 USD is worth about 23,000 VND. 100,000 VND is a little less than $5.

When dealing with currency like this, it’s important to always pay attention and take your time when paying for things.

It can be all too easy to hand someone 500,000 VND instead of 50,000! I have done it countless times. While most Vietnamese people are very honest and will point out your mistake, there are always a few bad apples waiting to take advantage of rich, mathematically challenged foreigners.

Wondering how to handle tips?
Check out our guide to tipping in Vietnam!

3. Where to go when backpacking Vietnam

We love travelling in Vietnam so much – there are seemingly endless options for fun, adventure, beautiful landscapes, and deep cultural experiences.

trekking in Sapa Vietnam
Trekking in the mountains of Sapa, Vietnam is an unforgettable experience.

Our don’t-miss highlights for backpacking Vietnam include:

Northern Vietnam

  • Hanoi, just an amazing city
  • Sapa / Ha Giang, for incredible views and cultural immersion
  • Bai Tu Long Bay / Cat Ba Island, a little touristy but you really have to see those karsts
  • Tam Coc / Ninh Binh, luscious inland karst landscapes

Central Vietnam

  • Phong Nha, incredible caves and a small village experience
  • Hoi An, touristy but so pretty and unique in Vietnam
  • Hue, great food and imperial history
  • Da Nang, beach city with lots of nightlife
winter in mui ne vietnam
People love visiting Mui Ne, Vietnam – this white sandy beach is one of the main attractions!

Southern Vietnam

  • Mui Ne, budget beach destination
  • Dalat, for highland trekking and the Crazy House
  • Ho Chi Minh City, big city life in Asia
  • Can Tho, to experience the mighty Mekong Delta

This is a just a shortlist of places to visit in Vietnam. For a more detailed look at our favourites, check out our Vietnam 2-week itineraries and our guide to transformational things to do in Vietnam.

4. What’s the best Vietnam backpacking itinerary?

While there is no optimal route for backpacking Vietnam, we can make some suggestions based on variations in the length of time you have there and where you plan to go next.

Need help to plan your trip?
Use our recommended Vietnam itineraries for two weeks in northern, central, or southern Vietnam. Add them together for 4 or 6 weeks!

Here’s a route that you can expand or reverse, depending on how much time you have and which other countries you are visiting.

10 days to 2 weeks in Vietnam

If you only have 10 days or 2 weeks in Vietnam, we recommend travelling only in the north. Fly in and out of Hanoi.

  • Day 1–3: Soak up the culture in Hanoi
  • Day 4–5: Trek in Sapa or Ha Giang
  • Day 6–8: Cruise Ha Long Bay or Bai Tu Long Bay
  • Day 9–11: See the karsts in Tam Coc
  • Day 12–13: Stay at a homestay in Mai Chau
  • Day 14: Back to Hanoi for your flight

3 or 4 weeks in Vietnam

If you have more time, you can also visit central Vietnam. After your northern adventures, head south to go:

  • Day 15–18: Caving in Phong Nha
  • Day 19–20: See the Imperial Palace in Hue
  • Day 21–23: Take in the night life in Da Nang
  • Day: 24–28: Visit the ancient city of Hoi An

You can then fly out of Da Nang or return to Hanoi and fly from there.

stephen walking along the street in hoi an
Hoi An, one of Vietnam’s most popular cities, is uniquely beautiful.

5–6 weeks in Vietnam

If you have even more time, then you can also add the south to your itinerary. Lucky you! From central Vietnam, you can make the long trek south by train or bus.

  • Day 29–31: Beach time in Nha Trang or Mui Ne
  • Day 31–33: Trek in Da Lat
  • Day 34–35: Marvel at Ho Chi Minh City
  • Day 36–39: Boat trip on the Mekong Delta
  • Day 40–42: Luxury beach escape on Phu Quoc

Arriving from Laos

If you’re coming overland to Vietnam from Laos, you have a couple of options.

  1. You can take the bus from Vientiane to Hanoi but that’s 18 hours of pure torture!
  2. Make your last stop in Laos at Muang Khua and then take the bus across the border, arriving in Dien Bien Phu. Much better option.
Ladies working at the market in Dien Bien Phu Vietnam
Ladies selling their fruits and nuts at market in Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam.

Leaving via Cambodia

If you plan to leave Vietnam and head to Cambodia, do it! We love Cambodia too.

There are two main routes out of Vietnam and into Cambodia.

The first option is to go by bus, or bus and boat, from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh. You can break this up by stopping in Chau Doc overnight.

The second option is a little more adventurous. Take the bus south to Hat Yai and then travel by hired scooter across the border to Kep. This is how I did it last time and it was a great independent adventure.

5. What’s the best time to visit Vietnam?

For backpackers heading to Vietnam, the best time to go is right now.

Seriously. Vietnam’s long coastline and varied geography means that it has three distinct climate patterns (or more). Since the weather varies so much from place to place, it’s hard to find a specific month or two when everything will be perfect everywhere.

Plus, budget travellers tend to have a better tolerance for “adventurous” weather and we are happiest when fewer people are around – meaning we can get better deals on accommodation and tours!

6. What’s the weather like in Vietnam?

Here’s what you can expect from the seasons in northern, central, and southern Vietnam.

kayaking cat ba island vietnam
Small kayak, big rock, Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

Northern Vietnam Weather

Best time to backpack: October & November, March

In northern Vietnam the best weather is from October to December, when it’s usually sunny but not unbearably hot — although we have sweated buckets in October plenty of times!

December is high season, so if you can go earlier in the year, you’ll find everything less crowded and less expensive.

For backpackers, March is also a great time to go north. It’s just before rainy season and not usually too hot. You’ll see fewer crowds than in December but it can still be busy at this time of year.

Central Vietnam Weather

Best time to backpack: February–April

The rainy season on Vietnam’s central coast tails off towards the beginning of February, making this month the ideal time to visit. Book your ticket for after the Tet holidays, which can close down lots of places for about a week as locals celebrate their new year.

If you’re a beach bumming backpacker, June to August are perfect in central Vietnam. It’ll be too hot to do much sightseeing but it will be perfect beach weather almost every day.

an bang beach hoi an vietnam
An Bang beach outside Hoi An, Vietnam in December.

We lived in Hoi An during November and December last year and really loved it. The weather was often cool and rainy but we also had plenty of hot sunny days to get out and explore. Hoi An is quieter at this time of year too, so you’ll have fewer crowds to wrangle.

South Vietnam Weather

Best time to backpack: Jan–March

Southern Vietnam has the least volatile climate of the three regions, with temperatures remaining hot but bearable throughout most of the year. Rainy season is from May to November — but the rain tends to fall in a predictable pattern with a short mega-downpour every afternoon.

This leaves the rest of the day for sightseeing, and keeps the dust down, too.

It can be very busy in December, especially in Ho Chi Minh City, when prices will rise accordingly. Wait until late January to visit for cool(ish) weather plus a less crowded experience.

7. Is backpacking Vietnam safe?

Safety First!

We don’t leave home without travel insurance and neither should you. World Nomads is ideal for short-term travel — affordable, great coverage, and responsive. For long-term travel, check out Safety Wing.

Yes! Vietnam is a very safe country to travel in. Whether you’re a solo female traveller, travelling with small children, or going as part of a group, you’ll find little to worry about in Vietnam.

Throughout my many months of travelling in Vietnam, in both busy cities and remote mountain areas, both alone and as part of a couple, I have never once felt threatened or had an unpleasant incident.

In fact, by far the most dangerous thing about Vietnam is trying to cross the street in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City!

Of course, as with any place you go, a little common sense goes a long way.

Just like anywhere, there are bag snatchers and scammers and dodgy guys in Vietnam – so always be aware of your belongings and surroundings to make sure you’re not a target.

Don’t get so drunk you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t wander around alone in unfamiliar areas late at night. Same stuff you’d do anywhere in the world to stay safe.

Still worried about safety?
Read our guide to solo travel in Vietnam to find out what it’s really like!

8. How do you get a visa for Vietnam?

Vietnam has a slightly more complicated visa system than the other countries in Southeast Asia. The requirements vary depending on which passport you hold, how long you want to stay, where you’re arriving, and whether you need multiple entry or not.

how to get visa to vietnam
This is what the Vietnam e visa official website looks like. Don’t get fooled by fakes.

Almost everyone will need to start by getting a visa letter from an online visa agency before you arrive in Vietnam. Bring your letter with you to the airport or land border and apply for your visa when you arrive.

Need your visa?
Our quick and easy guide to Vietnam visas will get your sorted in minutes, no matter what passport you have.

9. How to get around in Vietnam?

Another bonus for backpackers in Vietnam is the organized and inexpensive transportation network. The system is super easy for travellers in Vietnam to get around!

Here are our favourite ways to travel in Vietnam.

By Bus

The bus network in Vietnam is extensive and unless you’re going somewhere really crazy, you won’t have a problem getting a bus. Usually, you can book your bus ticket at your hostel, and someone will come and pick you up to take you to the bus station. You might pay an extra dollar for the service but it’s totally worth it! Busses are also extremely cheap in Vietnam.

They are usually slightly run down sleeper busses, where the seats recline three-quarters of the way and there’s a raised spot for your legs to stretch out. If you’re taller than about 6 feet, they can be pretty uncomfortable, so you might want to limit your time on the bus.

Busses can also be noisy, bright and smelly, so don’t plan on getting a great night’s sleep. I have found it possible to get some shut-eye on a few overnight bus rides though, so it can be done.

Recently, some bus companies have introduced snazzy VIP busses with bigger, comfier seats, better air conditioning, WiFi and more. So if you hate busses, you might want to look into this option, which costs a little more but might be worth it.

We use 12go.asia to book our bus and train tickets in Vietnam.

By Plane

There are internal flights in Vietnam and since the country is so huge, it can be tempting to fly. We say “don’t do it!”.

First of all, there’s a climate crisis on, so you don’t need to be adding extra CO2 into the atmosphere. Second, you came to experience Vietnam, so why spend your time flying over it? Third, Vietnamese airlines are notoriously unreliable so you will almost certain face flight delays and spend hours sitting in the airport instead of soaking up the culture.

If you’re short on time, plan a Vietnam itinerary that is focussed on one region of the country. You’ll find plenty of amazing experiences without having to fly.

Train

The train network is limited in Vietnam. You can take the train from Ho Chi Minh City to the west coast and up north along the coast, but stations are often pretty far from tourist destinations. The few trains I’ve taken in Vietnam have been pretty uncomfortable and noisy. Along with frequent delays and a higher cost, I would recommend taking the bus instead.

Motorbike

Buying a cheap motorbike and driving around Vietnam yourself is a popular option which will give you lots of freedom to come and go as you please. However, traffic in Vietnam is utterly crazy so if you’re not an experienced driver, take the bus instead. No one wants to spend their Vietnam holiday in the hospital.

10. How should you dress in Vietnam?

Unlike some of the neighbouring countries, where religion (or sexism) dictates a certain kind of clothing, there is no strict dress code in Vietnam. In cities and small towns, most Vietnamese people wear Western-style clothing and in the cities, some women wear extremely revealing outfits. In remote areas, many local people still wear their traditional costume and are generally more conservative with their clothing.

woman and child traditional head dress vietnam
Mother wearing a traditional head dress with her child, Tuan Giao, Vietnam.

As a tourist, you can choose to wear just about anything. It’s OK to wear shorts, tank tops, short dresses and whatever else you might pack for hot weather.

However, to show respect for your hosts and for those in the community who are more conservative, covering up a little bit is not a bad idea.

For women, I’d recommend leaving your super short shorts at home, along with your low-cut tank tops and extra tight mini-dresses. For guys, avoid wearing your chest-revealing sleeveless shirts except at the beach.

If you’re visiting temples or other religious sites, you will be asked to cover your shoulders and knees. This is where a sarong and a light scarf can come in handy.

To help deal with the hot weather and protect your skin from the sun, light loose clothing with long sleeves and long pants works best.

11. What to pack for Vietnam

Our biggest tip about packing for Vietnam is to pack light!

There are a few great reasons for this:

  • In Vietnam, many hostels and hotels are hidden down narrow alleys where cars can’t go, so you will be carrying your luggage quite a lot.
  • Hotels are usually narrow and tall, with no elevator, so be prepared to lug your bag up multiple staircases as well.
  • If you don’t pack something you need, it can usually be bought in Vietnam easily and cheaply.
Packing made easy!
Use our comprehensive packing list (with printable checklist) for Vietnam to be sure you don’t forget anything.

12. Is street food safe in Vietnam?

Yes! And no! There are a huge range of street stalls in Vietnam and they are only as safe as the person who runs them makes them.

vietnamese che selection in hoi an
Che might look a little strange — and it is — but it’s one of the few street foods that are vegan, so try it out!

Once, in Vietnam, we were sitting waiting for our food at a street stall when we saw the cook tip some honey from a jar into the dish and then, before putting the lid back on the honey, she LICKED THE EDGE OF THE JAR to clean away the excess honey.

So gross and potentially virulent.

However, most street stalls are not run like this and we highly recommend you try at least some street food during your trip.

Here are a few safe ways to eat street food in Vietnam.

  1. Take a street food tour. These are run by pros who already know where the best stalls are and have already fed the same food to other tourists, so you know you’ll be safe.
  2. Look for stalls with long lines or crowds. If locals will spend extra time in line at a stall, you know that the food is not only clean, but delicious. Don’t forget to check who is in that line. A more diverse crowd, including women and children, indicates a better offering. While if it’s just a line of local workmen, they are probably not as picky with what they eat.
  3. Eat at local mealtimes. Vietnamese people eat early. Usually 7am for breakfast, 11am for lunch, and 6pm for dinner. If you’re eating street food, go at those times so you’ll get freshly prepared food.
  4. Bring your own cutlery. Often in Vietnam, while the food is great, the chopsticks are disgusting. Bring your own portable cutlery, like these ones we use, for cleaner street eating.
Are you vegan or vegetarian?
You don’t need to miss out in Vietnam! Just grab our guide to finding vegan food in Vietnam.

13. Three things avoid in Vietnam

There’s not really a lot you have to watch out for in Vietnam. But there are a couple of things we recommend you avoid in Vietnam.

Avoid Mosquitos

If you’re a frequent reader of this blog, you’ll know that I almost died of malaria a couple of years ago. I’ve also had dengue fever a couple of times and so has Stephen. The good news is, we have never gotten mosquito-borne illnesses in Vietnam.

The bad news is, malaria and dengue fever do exist in Vietnam, along with Zika and Japanese Encephalitis. Wear your mosquito repellent and cover your arms and legs during the peak mosquito hours near dawn and dusk.

malaria hospital thailand
Me with the Thai hospital staff who saved my life when I got malaria.

Avoid taxi scams

We don’t know why but all around the world, taxi drivers seem to take great pleasure in scamming their customers. They’ll either overcharge, pretend they don’t have change, or drive you around in circles to up the fare. To avoid this, we use Grab (a ride-hailing app) whenever we can.

If it’s not possible, then hop into a Mai Linh or Vinasun taxi which are reputable companies with (mostly) honest drivers. Whatever you choose, bring small change with you and always follow your route on the map so you can keep track of where you are and where you’re going.

Avoid bag snatching

Not a huge problem in Vietnam but bag or phone snatching does happen. It works like this. Motorbike driver sees unaware tourist dangling their camera, bag, or phone near the side of a busy street. Driver revs the engine, grabs the item, and drives away. Say goodbye to your stuff. You will never see it again.

To avoid this, either wear a backpack or cross-shoulder bag or carry your shoulder bag on the shoulder that’s away from the street. If you have to check your phone, don’t do it while walking. Instead, step into a doorway or corner away from the street to look.

14. What Vietnamese words should you know?

Most Vietnamese people in tourist areas speak at least enough English that you will be able to get by without learning any Vietnamese. But where’s the fun in that?

Hello = xin chào (sin chow)
Please = làm ơn (lahm uhn)
Thank you = cảm ơn (kahm uhn)
Yes = dạ (ya)
No = không (khohm)
I am vegetarian = tôi ăn chay (toy ahn jai)

It’s very hard to pronounce phrases correctly but at least you’ll get a few smiles for trying!

15. Our Favourite Hostels in Vietnam

When it comes to hostels and other inexpensive accommodation, Vietnam is the best country in Southeast Asia. Hostels tend to be of very high standard, staff are amazingly friendly and helpful, and you can get a comfy, safe bed for $5 or less per night!

bunk bed in nguyen shack hostel phong nha vietnam
At Nguyen Shack in Phong Nha, dorms consist of two bunk beds and only three walls!

It’s almost always worth spending a dollar or two more instead of getting the absolute cheapest bed you can find. A couple of dollars can take you from dingy cockroach-infested fleapits to a gorgeous boutique hostel with all the bells and whistles. Totally worth it!

A Final Note About Backpacking Vietnam

Many backpackers to Vietnam make the huge mistake of trying to cover too much of the country in a single trip. Though it looks small on a map, Vietnam is deceptively huge and it can take a long time to get between destinations.

When planning your trip, stick to one or two regions and immerse yourself in the variety of activities available there. We want you to meet local people and get a chance to experience a few transformational activities! If you try to do too much, your memories of Vietnam will mostly be of long, uncomfortable bus journeys!

By planning more activities in fewer locations, you’ll get to see and experience the best of Vietnam.

We hope these tips for backpacking Vietnam are a huge help in planning and taking your trip. Our goal is to help you make every journey a transformational one, where you come back home a little different than when you left. If you have any questions about backpacking in Vietnam, give us a shout on Instagram or by email.

♥  Happy transformational travels, Jane & Stephen

If you're thinking about backpacking Vietnam, we say go for it! It's one of our favourite countries in the world and is perfect for budget travel. In this post we answer all your Vietnam questions based on our many trips to the country! #travel #vietnam #backpacking #budget #asia #transform #myfiveacres
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