Essential Tips for First-Time Backpackers to Vietnam
Even though it is only the 5th largest Southeast Asian country, Vietnam has easily one of the widest range. Stretched out 1650 km from north to south, the country moves from a tropical coastland in the south, to mountain-tipped sub-tropical sceneries in the north. It also means you get almost 3,500km of coastline. This diversity makes it one of the top destination for regional travel.
Image: Max Pixel
But no matter where you go in this diverse country, one thing holds true - cheap finds are everywhere. Not only are essentials like accommodation, transport and food, wallet-friendly, it seems backpacker areas tend to be in sightseeing hotspots too! That makes Vietnam not only a backpacker's dream destination, but of great value to the budget traveller, without sacrificing on options.
We're looking at a 5-day trip costing only $350 all-in, with an additional $250 to places like Da Lat, or Sapa. If you like your walking and are not a shopper, then it can go as low as $200 for a city - that's just 5 premium meals in Singapore!
Image: a_brlnr | Flickr
To start figuring out what to do in Vietnam, just pick your anchor city. I'll recommend using Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south.
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon, is the most populated city in Vietnam. And you can feel the buzz once you step off the plane. Rivers of motorcycles, Vietnam's transport of choice, flow through the many roads, seemingly impossible to cross. But get the hang of it, and you'll start appreciating the urban character of Saigon.
Its main draw is tied to its key role in the wars. Grand structures - some French colonial, others Neo-Romanesque - dot the city, with most in District 1, which happens to be a favourite area for backpacking folks. Head to Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien streets for budget traveller offerings.
Stroll leisurely between the Reunification Palace, Opera House, City Post Office and the majestic Notre-Dame Cathedral, all found within a small area, and mostly free! Or venture into history at the Museum of Vietnamese History, Revolutionary Museum, or famous Cu Chi tunnels.
Image: Austin Adventures | Flickr
Optional day trip
Da Lat is a highland near HCMC. It offers cooler weather, where a hot bowl of Pho tastes especially good. Nature lovers can get a kick from walking through and around the dramatic Pongour Waterfalls, while the key draw has to be the legendary Crazy House, also known as Hang Nga Guesthouse. This whimsical structure brings out the kid in anyone!
Vietnam's capital is a charming mix of the old and new. Tight clusters of shops busy with daily trade offer an eyeful for shoppers and browsers alike. As a budget traveller, you can easily pick up many souvenirs at bargain prices here.
Base yourself at Hoan Kiem Lake, a tranquil oasis in the bustling city. There are many of backpacker-friendly options in the Old Quarter north of it, but within the many alleys around the lake are also plenty of cheap eats and buys. This abundance in affordable options makes Hanoi one of the best destinations in any backpacker's Vietnam itinerary, while granting atmospheric sights to see in the eclectic city.
There's the sprawling Ba Dinh Square where the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum resides, along with plenty of pagodas, monuments and the Botanic Gardens. Wander around the French Quarter with its mix of ritzy cafes and traditional food shops. Admire the architecture of the Opera House, then walk down the generous boulevards, and find a nice spot for some egg coffee. Hanoi's magic lies in the next turn, so don't be afraid of getting aimless.
Optional day trip
Image: Max Pixel
Hanoi boasts two contrasting day trip options. Ha Long Bay is one for the seafaring folk, where you get on boats and drift between scenic limestone hills and islands. Sapa is a hiker's dream. With stunning rice terraces and Vietnam's tallest mountain Fansipan, this cloudy paradise is only a train ride away.
Finding cheap accomodation in Vietnam
AirBnB is a great go-to. You will not only find an astounding range of variety and price points, but also in great central areas. The Vietnamese are hospitable folks and you will likely get plenty of recommendations, giving your average night of $30 great value.
Another option for that homestay experience is Homestay.com. Select Vietnam and you'll find some choice and cheap listings as low as $5 a room a night!
Eating on the cheap for the budget traveller
Vietnam is a food haven - and a cheap one at that! Crispy spring rolls, savoury Bun Cha (vermicilli with grilled pork), and the magnificent Pho, you don't have to look very hard to find a good outlet. Just look for the stools and order away!
Best of all, you're guaranteed to get your fill with $5 a meal. Most will average $3, with some smaller stalls offering it at 60 cents! And for those who like your brew, find beer from 50 cents to $1 easily at any eatery. Even for those wanting to eat in air-conditioned comfort can enjoy meals from $5 - $10. And the famous Vietnamese coffee? Just 50 cents for that powerful caffeinated shot.
Get from point to point cheaply
No two ways about it, if you're looking for Vietnam's cheapest transportation, it's the heart-racing xe om. Literally meaning "hug vehicle", you hope onto one a motorbike's pillion seat and weave through the traffic. It's fast, cheap, and beats any jam. At only about $1 a kilometre, it's the best value for sightseeing - not to mention a highlight in any Vietnam itinerary. And don't worry about that backpack, the experienced drivers will make sure you arrive safe and sound. And if all else fails, use GrabBike!
For taxis, it's good to ask them to go with their meter. And keep an eye out on them as some doctor their meters. When in doubt, go for Vinasun taxis.
Image: shankar s | flickr
Intercity travel is common in Vietnam, so you'll find the buses readily equipped and very comfortable. Check out the sleeper and seat hybrid we were on from HCMC to Da Lat at only $15! You get a small tray area and a nook to tuck your feet, with ample reclining space.
When exploring, if anyone comes up to you offering transport or tours, just decline them if you're not interested, and don't ask for the sake of asking. And if you do hop on one of the local rides and they suggest other destinations, give a firm no. If not, you might end up paying more for that detour.
Other Dos and Don'ts
- Tourism is booming in Vietnam and so many students offer to be free guides for their practise. Don't be surprised if you are approached at famous spots like Hoan Kiem lake. Just confirm that the service is free (they usually speak decent english), but it's always nice to tip them to help their school fees!
- Learn a few local words to bond! Vietnamese always enjoy this and may be softer towards you when haggling. Try xin chao (hello, pronounced sin chow) or cam on (thank you, pronounced karm urn).
- Haggle when shopping and taking transport, but not too much. Locals are savvy to your tactics too so as long as you are getting a decent value, go for it or you'll waste precious time.
- Get your insurance! Part of Vietnam's charm is its bustle, but you will want to focus more on the sights than to worry about losing your belongings. Though generally safe, keep your valuables close to you, and away from the roads.
- Pronunciation can get tricky, so get a card from your accommodation and show it to your driver for a fuss-free trip back.
Sold? This SEA destination doesn't hold back when it comes to character and flavour, and luckily at low prices too! Include this in your backpacker plans - you won't regret this, pho real.