If you’re looking for a super cheap but bang for your buck holiday destination, look no further than the beautifully diverse country of Vietnam. The prices of pretty much everything makes this country backpacker haven. Fresh food lovers of the world know Vietnamese cuisine is a major player in the culinary world. In other words come for the holiday, stay for the food, LIVE for the coffee. We visited 9 cities traveling from South to North and the contrast between certain regions makes for a very interesting experience. It feels as though you’re visiting different South east Asian countries with each new city you see. Each region specialises in their own dish too! If you want to feel as though you’ve travelled extensively whilst not even crossing a border Vietnam has it all.
Ho Chi Minh City
We touched down in Ho Chi Minh City, previously called Saigon and still affectionately referred to in typical conversation as Saigon. The first thing you notice here as you make your way to the backpacker district is the CRAZY traffic. The people on their scooters trying to get ahead of the pack is insane! Traffic lights are practically non-existent! If you’re a pedestrian practice a bit by crossing roads with a local.
We tried our first Vietnamese drip coffee here. It was delicious. You can have it hot or over ice. If a sweet coffee is what you prefer, like me, you can add condensed milk. From Ho Chi Minh we booked a day trip to Cu chi tunnels through our hostel. Make sure you eat Pho (an amazing noodle soup broth that can be made with any meat or no meat for vegetarians) and Ban Mi baguettes!
Ho Chi Minh is also home to the War Remnants Museum which is definitely worth a visit. Here you will get to see a range of military aircraft and artillery on the grounds outside while inside there are a range of exhibits with very graphic material giving you a small taste of the atrocities felt by the Vietnamese people. The museum is heavily one-sided with a lot of anti-American propaganda but I think it’s understandable as to why! Therefore a lot of what you read should be taken with a pinch of salt. This museum does however give you an insight into the horrors of the war. The Agent Orange exhibition was especially heart-breaking.
Catch a bus to Mui Ne for the beach and some seafood! We stayed at the backpacker resort hostel here which was nice but there are plenty of locals around who have private rooms that are so well cared for and nice a cheap. Just shop around for one you like. From here we took a day trip with the hostel to the white and red sand dunes. The red dunes were covered with trash which was very sad to see and we just wanted to leave quite quickly. The White dunes at sunrise were lovely and gave you a sense of inner peace as you watch the dawn come. Here you have the option to hike the dunes yourself or hire a quad bike if you’re feeling adventurous and awake at this time of the morning!
Up into the clouds we go! We took another bus to Dalat, high up in the mountains. It was a welcome change from the stifling heat to the cooler climate that the cloud covered mountains offered. Dalat is filled with superbly rated homestays, so really take your pick of the lot, you’ll always get a good deal. We stayed at Friendly Fun Hostel (which is actually a homestay as the family live downstairs), which has won awards through hostel world and TripAdvisor alike. Lan, the owner, is such a beautiful person and will go out of her way to help you. The group “family” meals are well worth it too and you can help yourself to drinks during your stay using an honour system to tally up your total owed at the end of your stay. Lan let us have our water for free though!
In Dalat we mostly just partied through the rain. We went to the 100 roof bar with an eccentric hand carved maze! Find your way through to the bar at the top! We also took a day trip to do canyoning with Highland Holiday, which was a really cool experience.
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Hoi An is the mid way point for most travellers in Vietnam. You do not want to miss it. I found it to be the most charming destination! The Old Town was perfect to bike around and if you’re looking for cheap clothing you have the choice of a city full of tailors! My one regret was not getting something made by the talented tailors. The sacrifices of full-Time travel and living out of a backpack.
This was also my favourite accommodation yet. We stayed at Rice Village Homestay. We were the only ones in the place because while the rating is great and price even better for a private room the location is a little bit out of the main town but perfect I think as it is in between the beach and town! They had free bike hire which makes it so easy to access everything. Thuy (said like Twee) was the best hostess and cooked us huge breakfasts every morning with iced Vietnamese coffees! She was so kind to us, she knew we were looking for a place to do a cooking school so she offered to teach us for FREE as we were the only people staying there and she had time. All we had to do was pay for the ingredients which we all bought together from the local market place.
This was the most authentic experience we had while in Vietnam. Going to a local market with a local and learning to cook fresh and fried spring rolls and also Hoi An’s specialty savoury pancakes! We ate so much great food that we got to learn to cook for when we (eventually) go home.
If you do stay at Rice Village please say hello to Thuy from us! And make sure you go to dinner down the road at the restaurant by the river. This was the best Vietnamese food we had aside from our own cooking of course 😉
Hai Van Pass via scooter
If you’re going to be crazy and get a scooter to see the whole of Vietnam, I tip my hat to you. If you’re wary of this, and you have every right to be, at least do this one section of Vietnam by moped! Not an experienced rider? You can hire someone to be your driver and you hop on the back! Of course, use your common sense, don’t book with dodgy back street vendors and travel with others if you can.
Anyway, this was one of the most beautifully scenic rides of my life. The Hai Van pass was travelled by the guys from Top Gear. We stopped to take lots of pictures and even raced a train at one point!
Hue in my opinion can really be done in one day. Make sure you shop around for hostel deals. While here we visited an eerie abandoned water park with a huge dragon like sculpture at its centre piece. Some of the main backpacker hostels here do pub crawls if that’s what you’re into! I suggest the DMZ bar for a bit of pool and some beers.
Phong Nga Caves
The only place to stay while in Phong Nga is Easy Tiger hostel, booking by email is essential and very easy to do. We heard about Easy Tiger through the backpacker grapevine and we’re glad we managed to book a room 2 days before. While the food is a bit pricier than most places in Vietnam the facilities are great and the pool is a good place to cool down from the heat!
People visit Phong Nga for the caves and the information you get on the caves from the staff at Easy Tiger is next to none. They have morning meetings for people interested in visiting the caves that group you up so the long boats are cheaper. You also get so much history and advice on what else you can do around Phong Nga, including the best coffee by the riverside!
Hanoi is where we went shopping! The market streets are crazy good and have everything you could ever think about buying! Another place to be careful of traffic though, watch your step on the “sidewalk”. Whatever it is you’re looking for you have to find the street that sells it. Bag street, clothes street, shoe street etc. I found a pair of rip off Nikes for $16 AUD (4 months on and still going by the way!). Go shopping with a price in mind that you’re willing to pay and always haggle, because you can!
Sapa is an absolute beauty if you time it right with the weather. I know people who got stuck in the freezing minus degree temperatures so check the forecast before you book your bus! This is the ideal place for roughing it at a Farm home stay.
We didn’t book anything, we hopped off our bus into the cute little crowd of “mummas”, the matriarchs of their families willing to take you home and host you! We met Mumma Tee and Mumma Zee a mother and daughter in law who took us on an hours trek back to their farm village. We hired moped drivers to take us some of the way and I will never forget as we rounded the corner, out of the township, the sight of the rolling mountains is indescribable.
Once back at the farm we helped prepare dinner and afterwards we played a drinking game involving flipping coins into shots of rice wine! The next day we trekked around Sapa to neighboring villages and to check out the amazing scenery. It did rain a bit while we were their so make sure to take a poncho!
Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay
Getting to Cat Ba island was a bit interesting as we booked the cheapest way to get over we were taken on a bit of an interesting drive on our bus but nonetheless we got there in the end! The first night we stayed at one of the main backpacker pastels which we found had the cheapest price for a day trip around Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay. This included swimming spots, lunch and refreshments, snorkelling and kayaking. Take sunscreen!
It was rather sad to see how much rubbish was dumped around certain spots in Halong and Lan Ha. There are tours you can volunteer for do help clean up the affected areas, we found out later on! Aside from this there was still beautiful scenery and wildlife about.
For the rest of our stay on Cat Ba island we stayed at Le Pont Bungalows (good to stay at but not to eat at unfortunately, Cat Ba was tricky for food, we recommend Oasis bar!). At Le Pont we hired a bike to. Further see the island and it was gorgeous but we did get a flat tire and get stuck at Woodstock hostel. Lucky for us we just relaxed and read a book while waiting for a mechanic to help us.
Vietnam was one of our favourite countries to visit. It was one of the cheapest and most easy as it is set up perfectly for tourists! It’s so laid back and you can just book as you go which is seriously our style of travel!! We met so many other travellers here and locals alike that will stay with us as lifelong friends. If it’s not already on your list then there you have it! Another amazing country waiting for you to explore and make the memories of a lifetime. Have a question or traveling to Vietnam soon? Don’t hesitate to comment or email us!
Sam and Kirsten x