From the stunning views of Sam Mountain and Ha Long Bay to the man-made artistry of the sacred temples and pagodas to the rice terraces and beaches, Vietnam is stunning. There’s no denying that backpacking Vietnam (or simply traveling here on a vacation) is an experience filled with natural beauty, hectic cities, and some of the best food in the world.
Most people either love or hate traveling in Vietnam. When I first went, there was a negative attitude towards foreign travelers (for good reason), lots of scams, and just not a lot of good vibes. But, since that trip many years ago, the country has changed a lot: it’s embraced tourism, people have opened up more, there’s fewer scams, and Ho Chi Minh City has even become a hub for digital nomads.
This budget travel guide to Vietnam can help you plan your trip and ensure you make the most of your visit.
Table of Contents
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Top 5 Things to See and Do in Vietnam
1. Tour the Mekong Delta
The delta is a 60,000-kilometer (37,000-mile) long web of interconnected waterways, which spans three Vietnamese provinces and has been used since the 4th century BCE. What I love about this area is it’s filled with small villages, pagodas, mangroves, and orchards. The best way to experience the area is to go on a boat or bike tour, where you’ll experience rural Vietnamese culture. Some of favorite things include the Cai Rang floating market for the colorful fruits and veggies and vibrant atmosphere; Vinh Trang Pagoda for its impressive golden exterior and lush gardens; and the incredible Sadec Flower Village that is stunning and serene, even if you’re not a flower enthusiast. Spend a few days really getting to know the region outside the hustle and bustle of the cities. Day trips on the river start at around 575,000 VND per person.
2. Wander Hanoi
Vietnam’s capital dates to the 3rd century BCE when it was the capital of the ancient nation of Au Lac. I love to wander around the narrow streets of the Old Quarter. It’s a great place to get a feel for the city as there are tons of vendors, smells of street food, people watching, and bustle. Some of my favorite places to visit include the One-Pillar Pagoda, the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, and the Hanoi Water Puppet Theater. Be sure to check out the history museum to learn about French colonialism and Communist rule (from the Vietnamese perspective) as well as the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Hanoi is also a good base for doing multi-day tours to Ha Long Bay.
3. Explore Ha Long Bay
This iconic region is home to more than 3,000 islands and is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. The towering limestone islands are covered in lush jungles and surrounded by calm emerald waters. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s located 2-3 hours from Hanoi and travelers can take multi-day boat cruises around the islands (most are 2-5 days). During the cruise, you’ll visit floating markets, incredible beaches, massive caves, and either sleep onboard your boat or on one of the many islands. Just keep in mind that this area is super popular and is often overcrowded. Cheap tours start around 1,200,000 VND while a mid-range tour costs around 3,000,000-4,500,000 VND. Just remember that you get what you pay for and the cheaper boats might be a bit run down.
4. Hang out in Hoi An
Hoi An was a thriving port city between the 15th and 19th centuries and the architecture is incredibly well preserved (the entire Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site). It was easily my favorite place in Vietnam because I loved walking around, taking a thrilling sidecar trip in the countryside, and of course, Vietnamese cooking classes, which are great because you learn to prepare fresh fish caught right there. This place is famous for its tailors so if you’re looking to buy some custom made clothes at an inexpensive price, this is the spot to do it in. They will even ship it back to your home country.
5. Get adventurous in Sapa
This is northern Vietnam’s premier trekking area and it’s hugely popular with all sorts of travelers. Sapa is famous for its hill tribes, lush vegetation, beautiful hiking trails, and breathtaking mountains. If you’re looking to experience the scenery and outdoor recreation opportunities Vietnam has to offer, this is the place. This area is rich in culture because it is comprised of 85% ethnic Vietnamese minority groups that have different colorful traditional dress and unique styles of houses. To avoid the tourists, come during the off-season or take longer hikes to parts the crowds don’t go to.
Other Things to See and Do
1. Take a free walking tour
The first thing I do when I visit a new destination is take a free walking tour. It’s the best way to get the lay of the land, see the main sights, and connect with a local guide who can answer all my questions. Both Hanoi and HCMH (the two largest and most popular cities in the country) have a few free tours available that cover the main highlights and are a great primer to the country (Hanoi Free Walking Tours and Saigon Free Day Tours are two companies worth checking out). Just remember to tip your guide at the end!
2. Crawl through the Cu Chi Tunnels
This extensive network of tunnels spans nearly 310 miles (500 kilometers). It was utilized by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. 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 to better understand the terror of the Vietnam War, this is a must-visit. Admission is around 100,000 VND per person.
3. 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 and those who want to participate in a host of adventure sports (such as rock climbing, ziplining, and rappelling). The hills around Dalat are filled with traditional tribal villages, which you can tour as well. Expect to pay around 2,000,000 VND per person for a full day of ziplining and rappelling around waterfalls.
4. Visit Cuc Phuong National Park
South of Hanoi lies Vietnam’s first National Park, Cuc Phuong. Covering 222 square kilometers (85 square miles), 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 50,000 VND.
5. Explore Ho Chi Minh City
Also known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s largest city and is definitely worth exploring. Ho Chi Minh is the place to really gain an understanding of French colonialism as well as the US headquarters there during the Vietnam War, which you can learn more about at the War Remnants Museum. Like most cities in Vietnam, you’ll be met with the roar of motorbikes speeding through colonial streets. I loved Ben Thanh Market, which is a must-see for amazing food and there is a great buzz of activity within the place. Don’t miss your chance to get the best Pho soup in Ho Chi Minh, that means some of the best is right on the side of the street.
6. Get active in Mui Ne
Despite being a fishing village, Mui Ne has a significant tourism scene due to its popularity as a wind- and kite-surfing destination. The best highlight for me aside from the beach was riding on the rolling sand dunes similar in size to the Saharan ones and also the Jeep Tour to the Fairy Stream through a canyon, which is not something you get to do very often! Also, don’t miss the 9th-century Po Shanu Cham Towers with beautiful views of the Phan Thiet coastal town. Mui Ne is definitely worth checking out for a day or two when you’re passing by on the bus because it has a nice chill vibe to it, friendly people, and beautiful sunsets.
7. See My Son
My Son is a set of Hindu ruins in Vietnam that 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. The entrance fee is 150,000 VND.
8. 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 in all its glory with stalactites and stalagmites, an inner cave forest, and even cave pearls. You’ll be blown away by its beauty. Entrance to the caves is around 150,000 VND per person.
9. 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. Expect tours to cost around 600,000 VND per person.
10. Relax in Hue
Hue is generally passed by, making it a bit of a quieter stop along the tourist trail. Stroll along the beautiful Perfume River and into the Imperial Citadel. Don’t miss the Tu Hieu Pagoda and the Tombs of the Emperors, which mostly date from the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of the main tombs to see are the Tomb of Minh Mang, the Tomb of Tu Duc, and the Tomb of Khai Dinh.
11. Take a cooking class
Vietnamese food is delicious and the best way to learn about these incredible dishes is to take a cooking class. You’ll not only learn how to make some of these tasty meals but you’ll get to interact with a local chef who can teach you about their history and cultural significance. Many cooking classes also include a visit to the local market where you’ll shop for ingredients. Prices vary but expect to pay at least 800,000 VND per person.
12. Tour the former DMZ
The Vietnamese Demilitarized zone was the dividing line between the Communist north and anti-Communist south during the Vietnam War. It was in use from 1954 to 1976. These days, you can take a tour of the DMZ from Hue and learn about the conflict from expert guides who were actually involved in the war (or survived it as civilians). You’ll see secret tunnels, learn about military surveillance, and get insight about the conflict from a perspective not often shown in the media. Full-day tours from Hue start around 2,500,000 VND.
13. Buy a motorbike
If you’re an adventurous traveler, buy a motorbike and drive the length of the country. This is considered the best way to travel Vietnam by veteran backpackers who like to get off the beaten path. You can buy bikes in Hanoi or HCMC at either end of the country and then make your way to the opposite end, stopping along the way over the course of a few weeks. While it’s not for everyone, this mode of travel offers the most freedom as you’ll be able to visit a lot of places that the buses and trains don’t stop at. You can buy a bike for as little as 4,800,000 VND, and then you can sell it once your trip is done to recoup some of the cost. There are always backpackers looking to buy a bike in HCMC and Hanoi.
14. Sample the local coffee
Vietnam is the world’s second-largest coffee producer (after Brazil) exporting a whopping 1.5 million tons of it per year (after rice, it’s their biggest export). Even if you don’t drink coffee (I don’t), trying fresh coffee here is a must. Whether you just hop arounds cafes, do a tasting experience in Hanoi of HCMC, or head out to one of the many coffee plantations, learning about this vital crop (and also sampling it fresh) is an experience not to be missed. Expect a half-day plantation tour (with lots of samples) to cost around 700,000 VND.
For more information on specific cities in Vietnam, check out the following guides:
Vietnam Travel Costs
Accommodation – Hostels start at around 100,000 VND per night for a dorm room. These can be a bit rustic and no-frills. For a hostel with more amenities, such as free breakfast or a a free happy hour (as well as improved cleanliness), expect to pay double. Private rooms cost at least 350,890-425,000 VND per night for a double room. Most hostels include free Wi-Fi, and many also include free breakfast or free beer during certain hours of the day. Self-catering facilities are not very common since eating out is so cheap.
For those traveling with a tent, wild camping is not legal in Vietnam. While it is still possible to do as enforcement is sparse (especially if you’re sleeping in a hammock), I also wouldn’t recommend it. Insects and animals can be an issue, there are lots of landmines still undiscovered out in the brush, and robbery can occur. Stay safe and stick to hostels.
For a budget hotel with a double bed, expect to pay around 225,000 VND per night. This usually includes free Wi-Fi and free breakfast.
On Airbnb, a private room costs at least 325,000 VND per night. For an entire home or apartment, prices begin around 600,000 VND. Prices double when not booked in advance so plan accordingly
Food – Vietnamese cuisine is fresh, flavorful, and uses a lot of herbs and vegetables. Rice and noodle dishes are common as are various soups such as the iconic pho (a beef noodle soup). Wonton soup, meat curry, fresh French bread (known as bahn me, and grilled fish are just some of the popular dishes you’ll encounter. Standard ingredients include fish sauce, lemongrass, chili, lime, Thai basil, and mint.
You can get a bowl of pho or a rice dish for 20,000 VND. Street food is the cheapest and the most delicious food option in the country.
Most sit-down restaurants are also inexpensive at around 45,000-95,000 VND. The fancier (and more touristy) the restaurant, the more expensive.
Western food is also more expensive, usually around 110,000 VND for a fast food meal, so skip it if you’re on a budget.
If you want to splash out on a fancy three-course meal, expect to spend around 250,000 VND.
A liter of water at a convenience store is about 15,000 VND, while beer or soda is about 20,000-35,000 VND.
For those looking to cook their own meals, expect to pay at least 400,000 VND per week for basic groceries. Be sure to shop at the local markets to get the cheapest and freshest food. That being said, food is so cheap in the country that it’s simply easier – and cheaper – to just eat street food, especially as most hostels and hotels don’t have shared kitchens.
Backpacking Vietnam Suggested Budgets
On a backpacker budget, you can visit Vietnam for 600,000 VND per day. This budget covers a stay in a large hostel dorm, eating street food for all of your meals, limiting your drinking, taking the bus, and doing free activities in each destination. If you plan on drinking, add another 20,000-40,000 VND to your daily budget.
A mid-range budget of about 1,125,000 VND per day covers staying in a cheap hotel, eating street food and at the occasional sit-down restaurant, enjoying a few more drinks, taking the occasional taxi to get around, and doing more paid activities such as museum visits and water upper shows.
On an upscale budget of 2,460,000 VND, you can stay in a nice hotel, eat out for all your meals anywhere you want, enjoy lots of drinks, and more taxis, and do whatever tours and activities you want, including a multi-day trip to Ha Long Bay. This is just the ground floor for luxury though. The sky is the limit!
Vietnam Travel Guide: Money-Saving Tips
Vietnam is a very affordable country. In fact, it’s one of the cheapest in Southeast Asia. Even with the explosion of tourism in the last few years, it still remains very affordable. You’ll be hard pressed to spend money if you’re sticking to non-Western food, cocktails, and hotels. However, if you’re looking to travel even cheaper and save some money, here are some tips:
- Eat delicious street food – The street food here is excellent and 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, sandwiches, donuts, and bananas are your best deals.
- Late-night travel – If traveling on long journeys, try to take the late-night “sleeper” buses or trains as these 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. Tickets from one end of the country to another are very affordable.
- Fly for cheap – Vietnam’s low-cost airlines VietJet and FlyVietnam are extremely inexpensive. This is a great option for people with limited time to explore different regions of Vietnam. Both airlines frequently offer special deals and at the time of writing this, Hanoi to Da Nang is just 820,000 VND!
- Bargain hard – Tourists tend to be charged more than locals for everything from cyclos (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.
- Avoid paying tourist prices – 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.
- Bring a reusable water bottle – The tap water in Hanoi is not safe to drink. To save money and reduce your plastic use, bring a reusable water bottle with you. LifeStraw make a reusable bottle with a built-in filter so you can be sure your water is always safe and clean.
Where to Stay in Vietnam
To help you save money on accommodation, here’s a list of my recommended hostels and budget hotels in Vietnam:
How to Get Around Vietnam
Public transportation – Larger cities in Vietnam (such as Hanoi and HCMC) have reliable and safe public transportation. In Hanoi, there are buses that cover most of the city and generally have stops near all the major tourist sites. Tickets are paid for in cash on the bus and generally cost 7,000-15,000 VND depending on how far you go. HCMC also has a large network of buses, with tickets costing up to 10,000 VND (again, depending on how far you travel).
Cyclos (a bicycle rickshaw) is one of the cheapest ways to get around. A short ride costs as little as 12,000 VND, while a longer night ride costs upwards of 40,000 VND. A more popular option is the ze om, a motorbike taxi that has fares starting from 15,000 VND. You’ll have to hold on tight though (and make sure you wear a helmet as accidents are common).
Train – A lot of people love taking the train in Vietnam because it’s safe, affordable, and comfortable and, although some routes might be slow, you’ll get some amazing views of the Vietnamese countryside. The rail network also covers most of the country, so you can get just about everywhere you want to go (except the Central Highlands and the Mekong Delta). You can use the website Baolau to research train schedules and book your tickets. A train journey between Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi (which spans the entire length of the country) starts at 1,000,000 VND for a soft seat (not a berth). The journey takes three days. Hanoi to Hue costs around 600,000 VND and takes around 13 hours while HCMC to Nha Trang costs around 500,000 VND and takes 8 hours.
Bus – It’s easy to find long-distance hop on, hop off bus tours running the length of Vietnam. You can hop on or off at any stop along the way. They cater to tourists, but locals actually use this service too since it’s super affordable. Prices depend on route and operator but generally, Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh is between 815,000-1,600,000 VND.
Flying – Flying domestically in Vietnam is a good idea if you’re looking to fit a lot into a shorter trip. For example, a flight from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City takes two hours while the train ride would take at least 30 hours. One-way flights around the country start at around 590,000 VND.
Car rental – Vietnam is very easy to navigate by bus, so I don’t really suggest renting a car here — especially because traffic in the cities is very hectic and accidents are common. That said, car rentals are affordable, costing around 500,000 VND per day. An IDP (International Driving Permit) is required. For the best car rental prices, use Discover Cars.
Hitchhiking – Hitchhiking in Vietnam isn’t super common, though it is relatively safe and easy. However, since most vehicles are motorcycles, you’ll have much better luck picking up rides with people on motorbikes and scooters. Just buy a helmet (they’re super affordable) beforehand so you can ride safely. For up-to-date tips and advice on hitchhiking in Vietnam, check out Hitchwiki.
When to Go to Vietnam
In the southern part of Vietnam, the dry season lasts from December to late April/May while the rainy season occurs from May to the end of November. The rainy season usually just means brief heavy downpours in the afternoon, although sometimes the Mekong Delta will flood. The dry season is the best time to visit but keep in mind that it’s winter up north and it’s going to be a lot colder in the north than the south. Rainy season isn’t that but either but, like the name implies, it rains a lot.
May through November is still a good time to visit. Temperatures rarely dip below 20°C (68°F), but they can sometimes get as high as 40°C (104°F) in the hottest months (March to the end of May). The south especially gets very hot and humid during this time but it’s perfect beach weather!
Along the central coast, the rainfall pattern differs quite a bit. In the northern part of the region (like Hué and Da Nang), the rain lasts from September to February. February to May is the best time to visit this area. Temperatures soar from June to August, often in the high 30s°C (80s°F).
In Northern Vietnam, the weather is most pleasant from October to December.
The weather in Vietnam varies so much per region so it’s hard to pick the best time to go. But generally, it’s recommended to visit sometime between September-December and March-April if you’re hoping to get an overall experience in the country.
How to Stay Safe in Vietnam
Vietnam is an incredibly safe place to backpack and travel. Violent crime is really, really rare. Petty theft is the most likely thing to happen to you here. Always keep your valuables secure when out and about just to be safe. Lock your windows and use common safety sense, especially in bars at night and in touristy areas.
Traffic in the major cities (specifically Hanoi) is super hectic and there are virtually no rules of the road. There are also millions of motorbikes and scooters here (literally). For that reason, take extra caution when crossing the street. It’s best to just walk as directly and calmly as possible and let the traffic weave around you. If you’re not comfortable doing that alone, follow locals when they cross.
If renting a bike or riding on the bake of one, make sure you always wear a helmet. Accidents are incredibly common here, both in the traffic-heavy cities but also in rural areas where roads can be less than optimal.
There are some common scams in Vietnam, such as the motorbike scam where vendors try to charge you for pre-existing damage to your bike rental. When renting anything, take photos and videos beforehand just in case.
Be sure to always count your change. The money is similar looking here so oftentimes people will “mistakenly” give you the wrong change hoping you won’t notice that the 200,000 VND bill you just got is actually only 20,000. Always count your change here!
Most scams here are really just people trying to try to nickel and dime you and try to get you to spend extra money since they know, as a tourist, you have more than they do. You can read about common travel scams to avoid here.
Solo female travelers should generally feel safe here, however, the standard precautions apply (never leave your drink unattended at the bar, never walk home alone intoxicated, etc.). Use common sense when using dating apps while traveling and meet in public places.
Street food here is very safe, but whenever you’re not sure of where to eat simply find somewhere where there are locals eating. If it’s good (and safe) enough for them, you should be fine. Avoid meat that looks uncooked or that has been out in the sun too long. Always wash your hands before and after eating just to be safe.
If you experience an emergency, dial 113 for assistance.
Be sure to make copies of your important documents in case of theft.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past.
Vietnam Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel. They consistently have the best deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are the companies I use the most and are always the starting point in my search for travel deals.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Agoda – Other than Hostelworld, Agoda is the best hotel accommodation site for Asia.
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Get Your Guide – Get Your Guide is a huge online marketplace for tours and excursions. They have tons of tour options available in cities all around the world, including everything from cooking classes, walking tours, street art lessons, and more!
- SafetyWing – Safety Wing offers convenient and affordable plans tailored to digital nomads and long-term travelers. They have cheap monthly plans, great customer service, and an easy-to-use claims process that makes it perfect for those on the road.
- LifeStraw – My go-to company for reusable water bottles with built-in filters so you can ensure your drinking water is always clean and safe.
- Unbound Merino – They make lightweight, durable, easy-to-clean travel clothing.