A Backpacker’s Guide to Exploring Vietnam

A Backpacker's Guide to Exploring Vietnam
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A Backpacker’s Guide to Exploring Vietnam

With so many incredible places to experience in Vietnam, you will — without a doubt — be wishing you had more time. For us, we spent 10 full days in the country beginning our adventure in Ho Chi Minh City and ending it in Hanoi. 

From bustling city streets to pristine beaches, lantern-lit alleys to towering limestone cliffs, Vietnam is magical, genuine, and a place you’ll inevitably leave feeling as though you just scratched the surface. 

We spent the last couple of days reminiscing on all of our favorite stops and must-have experiences, and compiled them below into an easy, adventure-filled backpacker’s guide to exploring Vietnam. 

Stop #1: Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)

Ho Chi Minh City, A Backpacker's Guide to Exploring Vietnam

We spent a quick 24 hours in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) — as you know by now cities rarely make our bucket list when traveling — but we’re glad we stopped through, as quick as it was. We enjoyed a cute and convenient stay at Blue River Hotel and had our first street pho experience that we still talk about *longingly* to this day. 

Spoiler alert – stateside pho will forever be ruined. 

Our reason for choosing to stay in HCMC for one day was to visit the War Remnants Museum. It’s not often that, as Americans, we read about the stories of those who experienced the Vietnam war, or any war for that matter, from the other side. 

While the exhibits are evidently one-sided, it’s a knowledgable, humbling, and deeply tragic display that warrants a visit to better understand the war and its lasting and devastating impacts. 

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, A Backpacker's Guide to Exploring Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, A Backpacker's Guide to Exploring Vietnam

Apart from the museum, we did spend some time in the food and handicraft markets. If you’re a souvenir collector like myself, take a stroll through the Ben Tanh Market and grab some mementos — our house is happily and eclectically full of them. 

Also, if you have the time in your itinerary, take a tour down the Mekong Delta — we were sad we had to skip it to continue our quest north.

Stop #2: Hoi An

Hoi An, Vietnam, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

Perhaps our most anticipated stay in Vietnam, Hoi An completely lived up to its rumors of overflowing charm and personality. Like it’s name suggests, Charming Homestay is the most adorable, family owned (and run) place to serve as home-base while exploring the town. We cannot recommend this place enough — we still have the postcard they wrote us upon leaving. 

Vietnam, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Vietnam, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

Just as we had heard, the famous lantern-lit streets of Hoi An are magical in every sense. Take your time strolling through Old Town, visit the markets, and if you can get in without too long of a wait grab some dinner at the famed Morning Glory. 

 

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, A Backpacker's Guide to Exploring Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, A Backpacker's Guide to Exploring Vietnam

If you’ve got a big appetite and you’re down for a little adventure, consider signing up for Grasshopper Adventures’ Food Tour By Bike. The tour is a great way to explore the city, try local delicacies, and dine at local favorites. I still salivate thinking about the famous ma and pop bahn mi stop along the tour. 

Vietnam, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Vietnam, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

Unrelated side note: We had heard many other travelers rave about the tailor shops in town. While we all got custom shoes made from a local shop, this is something that can be skipped, in our opinion. It’s a unique experience and a fun souvenir but we found that, in our case, it added stress (getting the right fit, having them finished before we left, etc.) to an already tight travel schedule. 

Stop #3: Hue

Hue, Vietnam, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

When planning our Vietnam leg of the trip, one of the things we were most excited about was taking the trains. While there are several different ways to reach Hue from Hoi An, we highly recommend taking the train from DaNang. The ride is beautifully scenic and awards you views you would otherwise miss — but also, how many opportunities do you have to travel by train these days?! 

It’s worth the extra time. 

When we arrived in Hue, we could not believe how stunning and vast the beaches were. We had plans of staying at the hip Beach Bar but were upgraded, free of charge, to the luxurious Villa Louise Beach Resort due to an approaching Typhoon — weird circumstances but awesome, nonetheless!

Hue, Vietnam, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

We spent most of our time in Hue running between the ocean and pool, playing cards, and sipping on cocktails. The city’s outskirts are the perfect place to escape the traveler’s hustle for a bit and recharge those depleted, backpacking batteries. 

Hue, Vietnam, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Hue, Vietnam, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

If you’re looking to venture into the city, renting scooters are always an option; though, be forewarned — Hue traffic is absolutely nuts. 

At one point we were crossing a bridge into the city and I kid you not, we were in a mob of 200 other scooterists. It was actually in Hue that I joined the I-wrecked-on-my-SEA-backpacking-trip club (thankfully, no injuries!). I believe if you ask around most would consider this a backpacker’s rite of passage. 

At the very least, it makes for a great story.

Hue, Vietnam, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Hue, Vietnam, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

We made the trip into Hue to explore the Citadel and grab some dinner on Backpacker’s Street; however, in retrospect, we would have skipped venturing into the chaos and chosen, instead, to soak up some extra time on an empty beach away from the crowds. 

Do what feels right to you!

Stop #4: Hanoi

Hanoi, Vietnam, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

I’m not sure whether we were more excited about getting to Hanoi or the train ride taking us there. Turns out, both were awesome. 

While you’ll spend more time traveling via train from Hue to Hanoi, we recommend the overnighter — especially if you’ve never taken an overnight train, as we had not.

Hanoi, Vietnam, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Vietnam, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

As with all our wonderful stays in Vietnam, See You At Lilly’s was no different. Located in the heart of Old Quarter (but nestled down a quiet alley), Lilly’s is a great place to stay as it’s walking distance to many of the city’s attractions. 

Make sure to visit the Women’s Museum — and support the local female artists in the gift shop! — Ho Kiem Lake, and Tran Quoc Pagoda. Eat all the pho from as many hole-in-the-wall places as possible and try the famous egg coffee from Giang early in your stay because you’re going to want to drink it every morning, trust me. 

Hanoi, Vietnam, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

If you’re also a sucker for rooftop views (I’m not happy on vacation until I’ve drank a beer on at least one rooftop) enjoy a dinner at Avalon BBQ for a stunning view over the whole city.

A Backpacker's Guide to Exploring Vietnam

If you’re interested in not only consuming all the delicious food but also learning how to make it yourself, we highly recommend booking a cooking exchange through Traveling Spoon. The company connects travelers with local hosts to share in an exchange of conversation, cuisine, and culture. Our wonderful experience with Maia felt more like a reunion with an old friend than it did a traditional cooking class. 

After all, learning from and connecting with others from around the world is what traveling is all about.

Stop #5: Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, A Backpacker's Guide to Exploring Vietnam

To this day, we still swoon over our magical time spent in Ha Long Bay. Thanks to our hostel in Hanoi, See you at Lilly’s, we spent an incredible 2 days and 1 night (2D1N) aboard a luxurious A Class Cruises ship. 

 

While backpacking Southeast Asia, we had heard many mixed reviews of the Ha Long Bay cruises. Having had such a magical experience, it is evident how important it is to choose the right company — and not skimp on the price. 

Trust me, as shoestring backpackers, we nearly passed on the experience all together because of the hefty price tag. However, we had researched enough to know that if we were going to do a cruise, we needed to do it right. 

Vietnam, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations
Vietnam, Backpacking Southeast Asia: Must See Destinations

While on board, we never came close to but a handful of other ships, heard no loud music, witnessed nearly zero floating trash – as we had heard is the norm for so many other tours. 

We were spoiled with a nine course lunch (that is not a typo), roof deck sunset party, and sunrise Tai Chi. We toured through the different chambers of Surprising Cave, hiked to the top of Ti Tip Mountain, and swam in the emerald waters of the bay. 

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, A Backpacker's Guide to Exploring Vietnam

The cruise was, without a doubt, worth every penny. Do your research, spend the extra money, and experience the bay the right way. 

I’m not sure I’ll ever forget that feeling of sipping a chilled glass of wine on the sun deck as we weaved through the limestone cliffs. 

You owe it to yourself. 

Our time in Vietnam was full of kind encounters, raw adventure, and all of the pho and egg coffee one could wish for. 

It’s a place we hope to return to so we can finally partake in those adventures we had to skip on the first go around — such as camping in Hang En Cave, cruising up the Mekong Delta, or trekking around Sapa. 

We spent 10 wonderful days and hope to enjoy 10 more, one day. 

Have you visited Vietnam or is it still a bucket list destination? In the comments, tell us your favorite spot in Vietnam or a place you hope to visit one day!

Until next time, keep adventuring x

KEEP BELIEVING. KEEP EXPLORING. AND, KEEP RELENTLESSLY TELLING THE UNIVERSE ALL IT IS YOU PLAN TO DO. 

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