Vietnam…beaches, cities, jungles, mountains, caves, culture, coffee, and food – an adventure awaits around every corner. With one of the fastest growing economies in the world and the streets packed with nearly 90 million people zipping around on motorbikes, Vietnam is a country on the move. It’s a traveler’s haven with everything from liveaboard cruises through one of the new 7 Natural Wonders to trekking through rice terraces and minority tribe villages high in the mountains. You can go out in the neon lights of the fast paced club scene of Ho Chi Minh City, or dodge the authorities partying all night at one of Hanoi’s secret speakeasies. It’s a country of contrasts and has a little something for everyone. Let our Big 5 Vietnam Travel Guide help you sift through all the information out there with 5 simple steps to planning your trip.
Here’s Our Big 5 Vietnam Travel Guide
1) PREPARING TO GO:
Visa: Vietnam is one of the few countries in SE Asia where you need your visa sorted before you arrive. If you’re traveling from one of the neighboring countries, travel agencies and hostels can usually arrange this with a few days notice, for a small fee. If traveling from further afield, be sure you have your visa in your passport. You can also obtain a visa approval letter online from a number of services. With that letter, a couple passport photos and some cash, you can obtain a visa when you arrive at one of the international airports (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, or Da Nang). To be safe, check with your native government travel site.
Packing: Vietnam has tropical beaches in the south and mountain getaways in the north, therefore it has a wide range of weather. If you plan to see it all you need to pack accordingly – swimwear for the beaches and jackets for the mountains. Even Halong Bay, can throw you a curveball. While you expect warm sunshine cruising in a SE Asian Bay, you’re just as likely to encounter mist and cold .
If you plan on riding motorbikes, be sure to have long pants, proper shoes, and a jacket – don’t let road rash ruin your trip. Heads up, almost all helmets sold in Vietnam are not up to western standards. So, it’s not a bad idea to bring your own helmet.
* Travelin’ Note:If you forget your cold weather or rain gear don’t worry. You won’t be out in the cold for long. Vietnam is the The North Face knockoff capital of the world. Therefore, there’s plenty of knockoff retailers just waiting to gear you up for cheap in all the major tourist stops.
Due to Vietnam’s long, skinny shape, it’s easy to look at your itinerary from north to south or vice versa. We enjoyed traveling from the modern and western south to the more obviously communist and traditional north. Here’s a list of Vietnam’s top spots, in order of South to North:
Ho Chi Minh City: Spend your days getting lost in the city’s alleyways. HCMC has plenty of historical sites and tons of shopping. Plus there are massage parlors and restaurants on every corner. Make friends with a local and follow them to a ‘locals only’ street cafe just blocks from “tourist town”. Then, treat yourself to a cocktail at a posh rooftop bar. From above the city, enjoy watching the endless flowing river of motorbikes as the sun sets and the city lights come alive. If you’re not ready for it to end, no worries. Join the masses dancing the night away at any of the hundreds of bars in District 1. Ho Chi Minh City is Bangkok’s sneaky little brother. It seems sweet, but it has a wild side. Busy nightclubs, tons of shopping, crowded streets, busy night markets, lively bars, and mazes of alleys. This is HCMC!
* Side Trips from HCMC:
Cu Chi Tunnels: A great day trip from HCMC is to the Cu Chi Tunnels. It provides a great look at how the Vietcong sustained life through the Vietnam War…by moving underground. While at the site you can also fire live automatic weapons. You pay a pretty penny for the bullets, but where else in the world can you shoot military grade weapons? It’s a bit surreal to walk around a Vietnamese jungle with the sounds of live gunshots echoing all around you, which only makes the trip more worth it.
Mekong Delta: A great weekend trip from HCMC is to the Mekong Delta. One of our biggest regrets from our Vietnam trip is that we didn’t visit this area. We’ve heard it’s awesome. Great scenery away from the city lights. Homestay lodging gives you an authentic taste of Mekong life and Southern Vietnamese traditions. There are lots of tour operators in HCMC offering all kinds of tour options. No matter what you want to do or how long you want to stay, you can find someone willing to give it to you.
Phu Quoc / Mui Ne / Nha Trang: The most popular Southern Vietnamese beaches…visit one or visit them all. Having just spent a month on Thai and Cambodian beaches, we sacrificed heading to these beaches in exchange for some time in the Jungle. But we wish we had the time to do it all.
We heard great things about all 3 of these beaches. Phu Quoc is known for its laid back island vibe. You can rent a scooter and explore, or just chill on the beach and soak up the sun. In addition to it’s superb beaches, Mui Ne offers sand dunes that you can sandboard. Nha Trang has a resort town vibe. The beaches are great and there’s plenty of infrastructure, but is quite popular with Russian tourists and can get very busy. Vietnam’s beaches are not like the calm protected bright blue waters of Thailand. They’re on the open ocean. Consequently, seas can actually be quite rough.
Cat Tien National Park: About 100 miles North of Ho Chi Minh, Cat Tien National Park offers serene nature. You could easily take a self guided walk along the marked paths. Animal lovers can hire one of the knowledgeable guides to help you seek out pygmy slow lorises, birds, siamese crocodiles, etc.
We stayed at an amazing place named the Forest Call Lodge. It’s an award winning eco lodge with brand new stunning bungalows. Its onsite restaurant serves up dishes with ingredients from their organic vegetable garden. The owner is an ex-Cat Tien ranger who’s done great things to help preserve the park. He and his family will make your stay one to remember. If you’re on motorbike, Cat Tien is a perfect stopover between HCMC and Da Lat, and a great excuse to stretch your legs.
Da Lat: You really should head to the mountains and check out Da Lat. A big reason we loved Da Lat was the place we stayed – Da Lat Family Hostel. The proprietors of the hostel are a mother and daughter duo. The second you walk into this place you’ve joined their family. They organize canyoning trips with your fellow backpackers by day. By night, “Mama” cooks up a super cheap and crazy delicious family style dinner. They serve cold beers and awesome fresh passion fruit mojitos…one or two of these and you’re good to go.
If you’re looking for 5 stars, this is not your place. They have moved to a newer, more modern facility since we stayed there, but by all accounts the family vibe still thrives. If you’re looking to have a great time and make some friends, this is your spot. I would venture to say that of all the hostel experiences we’ve had across 6 continents. Da Lat Family stands out as the place we felt the most at home.
While in Da Lat, don’t miss the Hang Nga Guest House, affectionately known as “The Crazy House”. Designed by a Vietnamese architect, the building was inspired by the work of Gaudi and draws parallels to the art of Dali. Weather you stay there or take a walk around the grounds, you’re guaranteed an interesting experience. In addition to canyoning, there’s plenty of outdoor activities. We cruised around the countryside on our motorbikes to the region’s coffee plantations and vineyards. Elephant Falls is a nice motorbike ride on pristine roads just 30 minutes from town. There’s also a decent night market with delicious street eats in town. Beware! Due to its elevation, Da Lat can be much cooler than the coast or HCMC, so be pack accordingly.
Hoi An: Hoi An’s old town is UNESCO World Heritage listed. It’s well preserved buildings, now converted into shops and restaurants, create a very romantic feel. It’s port city past is still very much present as the old city rests on the coast of the South China Sea. The town is rich with historical buildings and landmarks.
Folks from all over the world come to Hoi An to get custom made clothes. Suits, dresses, gowns, even shoes are all available to be custom made.If you plan on having clothes made, it’s probably best to get it out of the way on your first day. This should help prevent “rush charges”.
If clothes is Hoi An’s passion, then eating is its’ pleasure. Hoi An has some great places to eat. Anthony Bourdain featured a hole-in-the-wall banh mi stand in Hoi An, Bánh mỳ Phượng. This place is extremely legit! We ate there everyday. It’s got to be one of the best sandwiches on earth. Don’t miss the house speciality banh mi kep thit heo – 4 kinds of pork and fresh vegetable fixings. If you really want a treat, get the deluxe version which adds fried egg to the mix.
Morning Glory is a great sit down restaurant that specializes in Vietnamese street food. Probably our favorite dinner in Hoi An, though, was at Bale Well. It’s a tourist friendly local’s joint, uniquely set in an alley. The food of choice – skewers right off the grill and straight to your table, with fresh veggies and soy paper to create your own delicious spring rolls. The owner will even show you how to properly make their signature satay rolls. It’s a can’t miss for meat eaters! While in Hoi An, you should shop ’til you drop and eat ’til you pop.
* Side Trips From Hoi An:
An Bang Beach: Either rent a bicycle or moto, and spend a leisurely day pedaling or zipping around Hoi An before making the short trip out to the sand. It’s not a great beach for swimming, but you can play in the waves a bit. Or, just take a break from it all. Catch some rays and enjoy a local beer and some snacks from one of the many beachside cafes. Be sure to check out the truly unique traditional basket boats. If you’re lucky, you’ll witness local fisherman battling the waves in these tiny woven boats.
My Son: UNESCO World Heritage listed, My Son ruins are from the days of the Champa Dynasty, dating back to the 4th century AD. The ancient ruins are about an hour motorbike ride from central Hoi An. I would recommend heading out there early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the tour bus crowds. Visiting the small complex on your own lets you truly enjoy the serenity of the quiet countryside. Or, if motorbikes aren’t or you, you can always join one of the tour groups.
Marble Mountains / Danang / Hai Van Pass: This is one road trip you won’t want to miss. If you don’t trust your own driving or don’t have your own wheels, Vietnam has motorbikes, with or without drivers, for hire. Head out to the Marble Mountains, and check out the truly unique mountain top Buddhist and Hindu temples. Take a break at Danang’s long beach, or continue up over the Hai Van pass. This stretch of road was featured on Top Gear UK. While very short in comparison, it reminded us of California’s Pacific Coast Highway. If the weather is good it’s an awesome drive. Be sure to stop and take in the view along the way.
Hue: The old capital, Hue has a rather impressive UNESCO World Heritage Citadel (aka Imperial City). The old walled city offers a great break from Vietnamese traffic (or for those motorbiking across Vietnam, it’s a great break from “bike butt”), because you can only enter the complex on foot.
Also worth checking out in the area are a few royal tombs – Tu Doc Tomb, Thieu Tri Tomb, Tomb of Dong Khanh, Minh Mang Tomb, and Gia Long Tomb. Hue is a great place to explore on motorbike. City tours are another popular way of seeing all the sites. You can even take a tour up the Perfume River. Hue has a rather big backpacker scene, with hostels, guesthouses, bars, and restaurants centralized into one area.
* Travelin’ Note: If you are traveling by motorbike, you’ll probably want to stop in Hue for the best English speaking mechanic you’re likely to find in Vietnam, Kim Thein. He’s fast, honest, and no nonsense. If you need repairs, go see Mr. Thein. We rocked up around 4:30pm needing oil changes, new brakes, and tail light repairs. Even with a busy shop, he had our bikes back to us by dinner’s end.
Khe Sanh: One of the hardest hit areas during the Vietnam War, I would really only recommend making a stop in Khe Sanh to history buffs or those needing a stopover on the long ride between Hue and Phong Nha. While in Khe Sanh you should swing by the old American combat base. There are some vintage aircrafts and tanks, a small museum, and some army bunkers to check out. Be firm with the onsite hawkers trying to sell you old war memorabilia. Otherwise, they will not stop following and harassing you.
* Travelin Note: Please tell me you aren’t skipping the most epic sections of the Ho Chi Minh Trail by taking the highway between Hue and Phong Nha. The Ho Chi Minh Trail West is, without a doubt, the way to go. This is the most remote and spectacular stretch of road in Vietnam. I highly recommend it. Plan accordingly though. Khe Sahn is a full day’s ride from Hue, while Phong Nha is an even longer day’s ride from Khe Sanh.
Phong Nha: Phong Nha is a place you absolutely should not miss. It’s pastoral surrounds create a pristine scene along the Song Con River. Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park is UNESCO World Heritage listed, and the home to the recently discovered world’s largest cave system. If you have $3,000 (USD) and 6 days you can see Hang Son Doong, the world’s largest cave. Otherwise, there are a variety of cave tours on offer. We did a 2 day 1 night tour to the world’s 3rd largest cave, Hang En. Its very easy jungle trekking and super peaceful cave camping. Tulan is another option and is supposed to be a bit more of an adventure. Check out Oxalis for tours to the caves.
If you’re not keen on an overnight, or are short on time/money, there are a couple other caves in the area. For a peaceful cruise through a cave, Phong Nha Cave is reachable by boat from the town center. For some more adventure, Dark Cave is accessed by zip line and a short swim. What makes Dark Cave so unique is its buoyant mud. Who knew floating in mud could be so fun? Lastly, there’s Paradise Cave. Complete with boardwalk and lighting, Paradise Cave can get overrun with visitors. So, as an independent traveler it’s better to visit during off hours.
While in Phong Nha, A Pub With Cold Beer – yes that’s really its name – offers a great off the beaten path meal. The name is accurate, in that they have cold beer, but inaccurate in that they’re less of a pub and more of a barn. With some picnic tables on a beautiful bluff, they offer spectacular views of the rice paddy strewn valley below. Most noteworthy though is their chicken…the ones you see running around when you arrive. So, just pick one out. They grill it up and serve it with salad and fantastic peanut sauce. It’s probably as “farm to table” as you can get…the table is at the farm!
There’s a great homestay network in Phong Nha that’s made up of Jungle Boss Homestay, Ho Khanh’s Homestay, Phong Nha Mountain House and Phong Nha Farmstay. I’m recommending these over the other accommodations in town because the homestays offfer some local flavor. Easy Tiger Hostel is great if you prefer a backpacker vibe. Their staff is off-the-charts helpful, and the restaurant is a refreshing break from Pho. Most of the homestays, as well as Easy Tiger, organize tours.
The Halong Bay-esque mountains offer some amazing road trip opportunities. One of the more heavily bombed out areas from the war, Phong Nha has a unique history. We meant to stay in Phong Nha for 3 days, and ended up staying for more than a week. Phong Nha was a definite highlight for us!
Hanoi: You’re either starting or getting close to the end of your trip in Hanoi. Regardless which end of your trip you’re on, you’re stoked to be there. Hanoi is the communist contrast to the capitalist Ho Chi Minh City. Both densely populated major Vietnamese cities offer stark differences. In HCMC you’ll rage all night in the endless sea of night clubs. In Hanoi you’ll hide from the cops in the secret after hours speakeasies. If you stay out all night, you’ll probably end up at a bar (read warehouse) overlooking the river. Enjoy!
Stay in the Old Quarter. There’s lots of accommodation serving almost every budget range. The street eats and nightlife are bustling, and it’s walking distance to the bulk of Hanoi’s attractions. We crashed in a dorm at Hanoi Backpackers on Ma May and then moved around the corner to Central Backpackers to score a sweet private room – both were very well run, clean, helpful, and busy. The Old Quarter is also a great place for souvenirs or North Face knock offs, and prime real estate to set up shop if you’re looking to buy or sell a motorbike.
The street eats in Hanoi are on point. Therefore, locals come down to the Old Quarter to eat in many of it’s historic and well known restaurants. Hanoi is a great place to do a food tour. The Hanoi Street Food Tour is top notch and will get you all the unique flavors Hanoi has to offer, and then some.
If you don’t try Bia Hoi in Hanoi…you’ve failed. It’s everywhere and it’s awesome. Bia Hoi is beer brewed that day with no preservatives. This means the alcohol has to be consumed within about 24 hours. Alcohol content is less than normal but so is the price. For about 30 cents (USD), you can get a 12 ounce cup.
The bia hoi scene works a little something like this: Vendors set up plastic tables and stools on a street corner. You rock up, grab a stool, get a bia hoi and watch the streets buzz with motos and people. The bia hoi lady will inevitably become your new best friend. By evening’s end the tables, stools and people will have multiplied, spilling out into the street. If the cops come by, quickly grab your beer, stand up, throw all the stools under the tables, and look cool. No, you’re not fooling the cops, but it keeps them happy. It’s part of the ritual of nightlife there, only adding to the charm of Hanoi.
* Travelin’ Note: The Old Quarter is abuzz with travel agencies hawking Halong Bay and Sapa tours. It’s nearly impossible to pick ‘the right one’. As a result, making a decision can be tough. Know what you want (i.e.1 night party cruise vs. 2 night luxury cruise) and what you’re willing to spend. Then, find a travel agent you like and cross your fingers..
* Side trips from Hanoi:
Tam Coc / Mai Chau: Unless you have extra time, we suggest picking one or the other. Both offer idyllic settings away from the crowds of Hanoi. We stopped in Tam Coc on our way from Phong Nha to Hanoi. Here amazing limestone outcrops pop out of rice terraces. Take a boat ride through grottoes, visit a temple, and climb to a stunning viewpoint, and you’ve done it all. We didn’t visit Mai Chau, but our friends describe it as beautiful and peaceful. You’ll want to stay right in the middle of rice paddies in a stilted homestay. Both of these slow-paced villages are a great place to chill out.
Halong Bay: Upfront and honest..one of the new 7 Natural Wonders of the World and UNESCO World Heritage listed, Halong Bay is a tourist trap. There are literally hundreds of options for tours. Do your due diligence, talk to a few travel agents, and consider spending a little more money to insure a decent boat with good food. If you’re just looking for a backpacker booze cruise, there are plenty of those. I imagine it’s quite worth the added cost to take one of the boats that go out to less populated areas of the bay. The regular tourist route is rather crowded. And, unfortunately weather can make or break your time in Halong. The area is beautiful and kayaking is fun…if the sun is out. Otherwise, bundle up and dive into a good book, because the mist and fog can completely mask Halong’s unique beauty.
Sapa: The gorgeous mountain retreat of Sapa sits above the rice terraces and villages of Northern Vietnam’s ethnic minority groups. You can hike through ethnic villages by day and stay with one of the families by night. Some of the Hmong villages in the area are basically set up for tourists. So, choose your ethnic village trekking wisely.
Most people trek to Cat Cat Village, which has unfortunately changed the feel of the village into a small tourist town (there’s even a bar). We suggest trekking to the Red Dzao village of Taphin. It’s worth it simply for the herbal bath, so be sure you request a homestay that offers one. A secret blend of 30+ jungle herbs brewed in steaming hot water. Any aches and pains you have will disappear after a soak in the tub…and by tub, I mean whiskey barrel. Taphin is a less traveled route, if there is a less traveled route. If you’re serious about hiking, you can climb Phang Xi Pang (aka Fansipan), Indochina’s highest peak, but it’s not for the faint of heart.
Beyond trekking, Sapa is a great place to relax enjoy the mountain views. There are plenty of restaurants and coffee shops, and great shopping for local handicrafts, gear, etc. Bac Ha Market is a great side trip if you happen to be there on a Sunday. Sapa is a great place to rent a motorbike and cruise the windy mountain roads past bright green rice terraces. Head out to Tram Ton Pass (Vietnam’s highest road) to watch the sunset over the stunning Hoang Lien Son mountain range.
It takes about 5 hours to get to Sapa from Hanoi on the Sapa Express (bus). The train is a bit slower, but perhaps a more romantic option. Since motorbikes aren’t allowed on the nice, new highway, it’s quite a long ride from Hanoi. So, many people take their motorbike on a bus or train for at least one leg of the trip. There are a ton of accommodation options, but we really liked staying at Sapa Backpackers (owned and run by the same people as Hanoi Backpackers). They offer hotel like views at hostel prices.
* Travelin’ Note: If you’ve reached the end of your Vietnam journey, Sapa is very close to Lao Cai. From here you can walk across the Chinese border (assuming your visa is in order).
Vietnam is a food lover’s haven. The Night markets buzz with locals snacking on street food while they shop for fresh groceries. From Pho noodle soup to banh mi sandwiches, Vietnam’s packed with flavor! Ho Chi Minh, Hoi An and Hanoi are all especially good spots to try great regional cuisine. Here’s our quick Vietnam travel guide to food.
- Coffee – Kari hated coffee well into her 30s…then she went to Vietnam. If Vietnam can get a lifelong coffee hater to love coffee, imagine what it offers true coffee lovers. Civet coffee, secret recipe liquid Toblerone coffee, iced coffee, hot coffee, black coffee, condensed milk coffee, egg coffee – it’s an important part of their culture, and it’s all delicious!
- Pho – Probably the most prevalent dish in Vietnam, this rice noodle soup is usually served with meat (beef or chicken), cilantro (aka coriander), bean sprouts, green peppers, and basil. Just about every region has their own take on pho, so get out there and compare them all.
- Banh Mi – An amazing french inspired dish, banh mi is simply translated to ‘bread’. Just like a hoagie or submarine sandwich, banh mi has many options and is served for any meal. Most versions include some sort of meat(s) paired with cilantro, cucumbers, chilies, pickled carrots and daikon, mayonnaise, chili sauce, and cheese, but vegetarians can ask for just Laughing Cow and veggies. Those on motorbike, pick some up in the morning for a great roadside snack later on.
- Spring Rolls – They’re a staple of Vietnamese cuisine and they’re delicious. So, try them fresh or fried, at street carts or in restaurants, with or without meat. You can’t go wrong!
Vietnam is pretty well connected. It has a reliable train system and trusty bus companies, with countless route options, and sleepers for long haul trips. If time is your concern, Vietnam has a number of regional and international airports. As a result, domestic flights are pretty affordable, if you purchase in advance. Vietnam is not a hard place to get around, just pick your poison.
While public transportation is an easy option, may I suggest motorbike? South to North or North to South seeing Vietnam by motorbike, can be incredibly rewarding. Lifetime motorbike riders and beginners alike have tackled the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Kari and I are “beginner” riders and we each made it the whole way in one piece. It can be done! So, if you’re looking for real adventure, Vietnam is the perfect place to explore via motorbike. Check out our Big 5 Guide to Buying a Motorbike in Vietnam.
* Travelin’ Note: If you want to get the real feel for Vietnamese culture you’ve got to get on a motorbike. While some think this sounds like a dream, others find it utterly terrifying. So, for those not comfortable driving, our friend, Trinh Trung runs a company that does the driving for you. They also offer other kinds of tours in and around HCMC, Hoi An and Hanoi.
5) TRAVELIN’ PICK:
If you haven’t noticed the heavy hinting and not-so-gentle nudging to get you to ride a motorbike across Vietnam, allow me lay it out for you. I want you to join the masses. It probably seems daunting, but it’s so doable!
There are no excuses! You can buy, rent, or even hire a driver with a bike. If you have time to cross the entire country, great, but if you only have time to get on a motorbike for a day or weekend trip, fine. So, whatever your preference, make it happen! Rather than feeling like an outsider, join the 37 million on motorbike. As a result, you’ll get to enjoy Vietnam’s gorgeous landscapes and open mountain roads on an adventure of a lifetime!