You’ve probably seen it in the background of countless war movies, but nothing can prepare you for the epic beauty of Vietnam. While it isn’t my favorite country in the world, it is very beautiful and there is no denying that. From the natural beauty of Sam Mountain and Halong Bay to the manmade artistry of the sacred temples and pagodas, to the rice terraces and beaches, Vietnam has a lot to offer travelers. Vietnam has suffered a long dark history of colonialism, communism, war, and poverty. Recently, the tourist industry is growing and has become a major source of national revenue for the past 10-15 years. You cannot escape learning about the horrid history whose effects are still visible on the faces, bodies the locals even today. Like India, many travelers either love or hate it here. Admittedly, it’s a hard country to travel through, but despite the challenges, you will find a very interesting and visually-pleasing place to visit.
Destination Guides for Vietnam
Accommodation – Hostels start at 130,000 VND per night. Private rooms average about 390,000 VND for a double room. In the past hostels were pretty scarce, though recently, hostels have started popping up all over the country to accommodate budget travelers. “Homestays” are often popular budget option, too.
Food – By eating at street stalls and markets you can get a bowl of pho or a rice dish for 20,000 VND. Most sit down restaurants are also inexpensive at around 40,000–90,000 VND. The fancier (and more touristy) the restaurant, the more expensive. A liter of water at a convenience store is about 15,000 VND, while a beer or soda at a restaurant is about 20,000-35,000 VND.
Transportation – Bus travel is very cheap in Vietnam. For example, the public bus around Ho Chi Minh City will cost a maximum of 3,500 VND. The train is also another inexpensive way to travel with the 791km long train journey from Da Nang to Hanoi costing 750,000 VND. Overnight buses (aside from saving on a night’s accommodation) are only about 100,000-500,000 VND and can take you to lots of cities in Vietnam. There are extremely low-cost airlines that can hop you around the country quickly for as little as 400,000 VND.
Activities – Many of Vietnam’s attractions are based around its natural beauty and as such, cost very little. For organized excursions such as touring the Cu Chi Tunnels you can expect to pay between 100,000–200,000 VND. Halong Bay tours from Hanoi start at 650,000 VND for two-day trips and increase exponentially from there. Half-day cooking classes and bicycle tours are heavily targeted at tourists, so they cost a bit more, and start at about 300,000 VND.
Money Saving Tips
Eat delicious street food – The food is usually excellent, really cheap and you can watch it being cooked in front of you. Stick to the local food and you’ll save money. The street-side pho, bread, meat sandwiches (called bahn mi), donuts, and bananas are your best deals all of which can be found around 20,000 VND on the streets.
Late-night travel – If traveling long journeys, try to take the late night “sleeper” buses or trains as this will save you the cost of a night’s accommodation. Depending on the company, you may even have a chance to comfortably lie flat as you ride through the dark countryside to your next destination.
Take the tourist bus – It is actually cheaper to take the tourist bus around the country than taking local transportation because of the “tourist” price you get at the bus station.
Don’t be afraid of taxis – Metered taxis in this country are affordable. If you are moving around town at night, this is a good, safe, cheap option (especially if you’re splitting the cost with a few others). A 30-minute ride will set you back around 130,000 VND. The best taxi companies are Mai Linh and Vinasun.
Fly for cheap – Vietnam’s low-cost airlines: VietJet and FlyVietnam are extremely inexpensive and adding luggage to your flight can cost as little s 120,000 VND. This is a great option for people with limited time to explore different regions of Vietnam.
Bargain hard – Tourists tend to be charged more than locals for everything from cycles (a three-wheel bicycle taxi) to clothes to street food. Bargain harder than you would ordinarily, and don’t underestimate the value of walking away.
Skip the SIM Card – Vietnam is highly connected to Wi-Fi. You can hook into Wi-Fi in just about every hotel, shop, restaurant, and convenience store for free! Unless you need to have connectivity during long bus rides or rural areas, I’d forgo the SIM card and take a break from connectivity.
Ask your hostel staff – Before you leave the hostel, ask them to estimate how much what you want to do should cost. How much should a ride to the museum cost? How much should I pay to have a gown like this made? They will be able to give you bargaining guidelines.
Stay a while – You’ll hear tales from many backpackers who have been to many different Vietnamese regions on a very short trip. A good way to save money and savor the experience is to slow down. Divide your time between a few spots and enjoy.
Factor in visa fees – Visiting Vietnam comes with a much higher visa fees than the surrounding Southeast Asian countries. Look up the visa requirements and fees before you arrive. Better to be safe than sorry!
Top Things to See and Do in Vietnam
Admire the pagodas – Vietnam’s most distinctive architecture can be been in the pagodas, which can be found all over the country. They are known for their beautifully intricate carvings. Pagodas are used as shrines and temples and are treasured by the Vietnamese people.
Wander around Hanoi – Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi handsomely combines French colonialism with Eastern influences. Enjoy an afternoon exploring the narrow streets of the Old Quarter or visit the countless temples and galleries dotted around this bustling city. Don’t miss the History Museum which showcases artifacts from Vietnam’s colorful history and the Ho Chi Minh City Mausoleum. Hanoi is also a good base for doing multi-day tours to Halong Bay, Hua Lu and Tam Coc.
Relax or find adventure in Dalat – Dalat is nestled in the hills of the Central Highlands and is popular with tourists who want to relax in the mountain air, so people flock here for serenity. Others go to Dalat to participate in a host of adventure sports that happen within a naturally beautiful backdrop. The hills around Dalat are filled with traditional tribal villages, which you can tour, but there is plenty to do within the city itself too. Visit the imaginatively titled palaces: Palace I, Palace II and Palace III.
Tour the Mekong Delta – The delta is a 60,000km long web of interconnected waterways, which span across three Vietnamese provinces. The area is filled with small craft villages, Khmer Pagodas, mangroves, orchards and the trademark floating markets. The best way to experience Delta life is to go on one of the many boat or bike tours. Spend a few days exploring the stunning region.
Crawl through the Cu Chi Tunnels – Crawl through the extensive network of nearly 500 km of tunnels utilized by the Viet Cong in the war with the USA in the 1960s. Tours involve a description of the tunnels, after which tourists are allowed to crawl about the maze and fire AK47s at shooting targets. It’s a sobering experience and not one meant for anyone claustrophobic. However, if you want a better understand the terror of the Vietnam War, this is a must-visit. Enter for about 100,000 VND.
Visit Cuc Phuong National Park – About 120km southwest of Hanoi lies Vietnam’s first National Park, Cuc Phuong. Covering 222 sq km, this place is home to over 2,000 species of trees and some truly rare wildlife including the Clouded Leopard, Delacour’s Langur and Owston’s Civet. It was my favorite park in all of Vietnam and the only place I didn’t find hordes of tourists. The entrance fee is 40,000 VND.
Hang out in Hoi An – Hoi An is one of the most popular destinations for tourists traveling to the country. The place is packed with historical homes and buildings and quaint cafes. It’s small and great for walking, buying suits (they have a huge fashion and tailor market), eating, nearby beaches, and relaxing by the river. It was easily my favorite place in Vietnam. It’s not unusual to find backpackers using Noi An as a resting ground while they recharge from constant traveling. This is a relaxing quality to it that makes staying for a while very attractive.
Explore Ho Chi Minh City – Also known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s largest city and is definitely worth exploring. Like most cities in Vietnam, you’ll be met with the roar of motorbikes speeding through colonial streets. Ben Thanh market is a must-see for amazing food and there is a great buzz of activity within the place. If flying into the SGN airport, it’s worth spending a day or two exploring the city. I recommend spending the night at The Common Room Project for a great hostel experience.
Hike in Halong Bay – More than 3,000 islands sit within the emerald green waters of Halong Bay, one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. Cat Ba Island has great for hiking and many tourists find themselves taking one of the cave tours. Tours here usually leave from Hanoi and last 3 or 5 days. Try to find a good operator as many oversell or lie about what their boats look like (ask for advice from your hotel staff or travelers who have just returned for the trip).
Get active in Mui Ne – Despite being a fishing village, Mui Ne has got a significant tourism scene, due to its popularity as a wind- and kite-surfing destination, and the rolling sand dunes that lie nearby.
See My Son – My Son is a set of Hindu ruins in Vietnam which date back to the Cham Empire. The Champas ruled over Central Vietnam from the 3rd to the 19th century. The temples here are of incredible historical importance, but they have been largely reclaimed by the surrounding jungle, and have fallen into a great state of disrepair. Don’t come here expecting something as marvelously preserved as Borobudur or Angkor Wat. Entrance fee is 100,000 VND for foreigners.
Visit the caves in Phong Nha-Ke Bang – Hang Son Doong is reputed to be the world’s largest cave, and is located in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. It was discovered by a local in 1990, and “rediscovered” by a British caving team in 2009. You can arrange trips to see this stunning cave. You’ll be blown away by its beauty.
Dive in Nha Trang – This area is full of seaside resorts, and has a distinct urban feel. However, the beautiful sand and clear water make it a main spot for scuba diving in Vietnam.
Check out the rice terraces – Outside of connections to the Vietnam War, the stereotypical image of Vietnam is of the many rice paddies. You can find these in the Muong Hoa Valley. If you’ve never visited rice terraces, you should make a point to see them in Vietnam. Visit them to learn about rice production and take stunning photographs of the unbelievable Vietnamese countryside.