We have just finished up our one month adventure backpacking Vietnam and all I can say is wow. What an unbelievable country. Vietnam is a country famous for its natural beauty, unique culture and spectacular coastline. Whether you want to relax on a beach, overindulge in the local cuisine or explore on the back of a moped, Vietnam has you covered. I know a lot of people travelling here this summer so I hope this travel guide will be helpful when planning your trip.
All accommodation I mention is hyperlinked and budget-friendly, so please don’t expect the Hilton (unfortunately). However it’s guaranteed to be cheap, clean, cheerful and brilliant for meeting fellow backpackers.
Ho Chi Minh
Our trip began in Ho Chi Minh City, making our way up North. From our experience I believe the more popular route is north to south, however most people cover exactly the same places on the way. Ho Chi Minh City also known as Saigon, is the largest city in Vietnam with both historical and cosmopolitan areas. The hustle and bustle of this place is crazy, I’ve never seen so many mopeds on a road in my life! Please don’t rent a moped here (especially if it’s your first time!) the roads are far too busy and can be very dangerous. Vietnam really is the land where zebra crossings, one way streets and traffic lights mean nothing, so be careful especially in the cities.
I don’t have a huge amount to report from Ho Chi Minh City if I’m being honest. We stayed here for three nights and it was enough for us. It’s a very busy and crowded place. You can even squeeze everything into one day here if you are limited on time. We stayed in ‘The Walkabout Hotel’. This was in a great location, right in the centre of the town, close to the night market and a 10 minute walk from the War Museum. If you are travelling alone or just looking to meet people then I would actually suggest staying in a hostel instead. I know there is loads of good ones around this area. We really liked our hotel but in hindsight I wish we stayed in a hostel at the beginning of our trip. You just meet so many amazing people in hostels and end up travelling the same route together that way. Just makes the whole experience even better in our opinion!
For our first full day in Ho Chi Minh we went to the War museum and then wandered around the city. The museum is a real eye-opener and defiantly worth a visit. I found it so interesting learning about the Vietnam War, something I’ll admit I didn’t know a whole lot about beforehand. On the way to the war museum we were stopped by a local man carrying some coconuts. He started chatting to us and gave Darragh the coconuts to carry as a joke, saying he was “a strong man” haha. Being the naïve tourists that we were, we just thought he was being really friendly when he gave us two “free” coconuts. Needless to say he chased us down the street until we paid for them! On the way back we saw him do the same thing to another western couple. Moral of the story, don’t carry his coconuts! He has a serious little business made for himself scamming tourists.
Ok back to the point of the post now! Later that day we went to a really cool Brew House called “Pasteur Street Brewing Company”. Darragh loves his craft beers so this was somewhere he was dying to go! This is such a hidden gem and with craft beers being all the rage back at home, Darragh couldn’t miss an opportunity to taste some local beers! We opted for the sampler of six different beers which you can choose yourself. The food here is also delicious as a light snack to compliment your drinks. Just a little hint if you are trying to find it, it’s hidden down a little alleyway so keep an eye out for the sign on the street.
The next day went on a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels. These are a series of connecting underground tunnels that were used as a base for the Viet Congo’s during the Vietnam War. We booked the half day tour which cost about €11 each. This included entrance fee and bus. We booked through our hotel but there are several other tourist offices around the city where you can book it also.
Top Tip: When you ask for the cost of this trip in the tourist offices they will quote you the higher price of €32 each. This is the luxury tour. The only difference between the cheap tour and the luxury tour is that we went on a bus and lunch wasn’t included, however the luxury package includes lunch and you are brought to the tunnels by a limo van. For us it wasn’t worth the massive price difference, especially because the tour ended at lunch time anyway so we were free to purchase our own food then.
The tour was half a day with a quick stop to a souvenir shop on the way. The tour was really good and so interesting. Our tour guide was really witty and knowledgeable which made the whole experience more enjoyable. The tunnels are extremely hot and very small, so be prepared to get your hands dirty and sweat A LOT. The whole tour gave a different insight into the war and allowed you to experience first-hand how the gorilla’s lived during the war with the French and American army. I was in complete awe of these people for living in such dark, tight and very scary conditions. If you are anyway Claustrophobic then do not go in these tunnels! It’s not for you, trust me. I found it a once in a lifetime experience but won’t be experiencing squatting through tunnels for 50 metres again anytime soon! On the way back to the city you have the opportunity to go to the shooting range to try out the M1. This is not included in the tour but costs about $20 for 10 shots. The bus also stops at the War Museum on the way back so you could do both in one day if you wanted.
The night market here is really good. It sells everything from fruit and local arts and crafts to the classic fake sunglasses.
Where to eat
There are lots of different places to eat around the city to suit every budget. I would HIGHLY recommend eating in ‘The BBQ Garden’. The food here is SO good and is cooked at the table right in front of you. It was the décor that originally caught my eye, and the fact that it was really busy (always a good sign). It’s set up outside, underneath massive trees covered in fairy lights. It’s just so cute.
The next day we headed off to Mui Ne by bus.
Mui Ne is an emerging beach resort town located along a 10k coastal strip. It was once a popular spot for tourists to camp on the beach, however has since moved more upmarket with various beach resorts opening in recent years.
We got the bus here from Ho Chi Minh City which took about 3-4 hours. It was a sleeper bus so it was a very comfortable journey here. We booked the bus around the corner from our hotel in one of the many tourist offices.
We stayed in a family run hotel called ‘Hung Phuc Mui Ne Hotel’ just outside the main town. A very quiet area but right beside the beach. The hotel was lovely, cheap and absolutely spotless. The staff were so friendly so I would be very happy to recommend this place based on our experience. There was a beach bar called ‘Pogo’ about a five minute drive away from the hotel. Such a cool, chilled out place and the food and cocktails were excellent! I was very happy to be back on a beach.
Mui Ne is famous for its large red and white sand dunes. The next morning we got up at 4am to go to the white sand dunes for sunrise. The red sand dunes are closer but the white sand dunes 24km north east are the more impressive ones. Hence our decision to go here for sunrise. It was our first time visiting any type of desert/sand dunes so I was so excited to go here. Unfortunately we didn’t get the amazing sunrise we wanted, but the wind sculpted, pale yellow sands were still really beautiful to see. If you are expecting to experience the silence of the desert, think again. Prepare for a lot of tourists and quad bikes disrupting the peace.
Top tip: Don’t hire the quads. The charge €30-40 for these and they are useless. The majority barely make it up the dunes. You are better off walking up as it’s really not that far.
The red sand dunes were a lot busier. Expect for the hard sell of plastic sledges from children to slide down the dunes. We hired these for about 80cent. Unless you are supermodel light (which I’m defiantly not!) you won’t go more than a few metres. Still good craic though for 80cent, you can’t go wrong.
Overall the sand dunes are defiantly worth a visit. I really enjoyed it. Despite not getting the sunrise we wanted, it’s always a good idea to go early to avoid the crazy midday heat.
The driver also stops at the fishing village on the way back. The men catch the fish here early in the morning and the women sort through everything to sell. You can eat here too where they take live fish out of buckets and cook it right in front of you. So cool! The beach on the other side looks beautiful. We didn’t stay here but I heard it’s meant to be amazing. There is a hostel there called Long Son where you can stay in tents on the beach. This option was too hot for us but I know it’s full of backpackers so it’s great for meeting people.
We got the bus the next day to Dalat. This took about 3 hours. The roads here are CRAZY. I genuinely was terrified and thought we were going to die haha. After a lot of near death experiences and cliff edges we made it alive. Unbelievable scenic journey however!
Dalat was our second favourite place in Vietnam (after Hoi An). It is so different to the rest of the cities. The weather is a lot cooler compared to tropical hot. This was a refreshing break for us from sweating constantly. The Vietnamese describe it as their “alpine resort”. This was very amusing to us as the temperature was still in the mid-twenties. It’s a very popular destination among the Vietnamese for their holidays. It has got a large French influence and the surrounding farms consist of strawberries and flowers, not rice.
We stayed in ‘Tay Backpackers’ hostel. This was a really chilled out spot, really nice and super cheap ($10 a night). Tay the owner was so friendly and gave us so many recommendations on what to do and where to go during our stay. Defiantly would recommend staying here. It was also suggested to us to stay in ‘Backpackers Paradise’. This is about $20 a night but includes breakfast, a family meal each evening and is brilliant for meeting fellow backpackers. Unfortunately it was booked out when we wanted to stay, so I would suggest booking in advance if you want to stay here.
It’s all about the activities in Dalat. We did a canyoneering trip here with Viet Challenge tours. This was brilliant and one of the many highlights of our trip for us! The guides were so friendly and supportive of anyone who was a little nervous. The day consisted of ab-sailing down cliff edges, sliding down waterfalls and cliff jumping. The highest cliff edge was 18 metres and the highest jump was 11 metres. The jump was optional so if you are nervous then please don’t let this put you off. I would really recommend going for it! Lunch was also included so that’s always a plus.
You can also rent bikes or mopeds and take advantage of the many cycling routes. We rented a moped for the day and drove out to Elephant falls. This was a stunning mountain road with breath-taking scenery. The drive alone was something to experience. I plan on doing a completely separate post soon on the top things to do in Dalat and go into more detail on all the different things to do there(so many!).
Where to eat
Dalat has so many nice restaurants, bakeries and cafés to choose from. Some of our favourites where ‘Vuong Pizza’ and ‘An Café’ to name a few. ‘An Café’ was right across from our hostel and had the most impressive set up ever. The pictures don’t do it justice, you’ll have to go and see for yourself. The coffee here was so good and the offered freshly made smoothies and juices also.
‘Vuong Pizza’ was an Italian around the corner and oh my god was it good! The most delicious pasta dishes ever for a seriously reasonable price tag. Guilty of eating here almost every day, almost. Other places to try are ‘Lien Hoag’ bakery and ‘Primavera’ (another Italian hehe, can you guess my favourite type of food?)
Next up was the hugely anticipated Hoi An. We booked the sleeper bus through our hostel. This took 15 hours… yes 15, and cost $15 each. It’s really the only way of getting to Hoi An unfortunately. It’s actually not the worst, although the drivers are CRAZY. They also turn on all the lights randomly throughout the night. Not ideal at all. Despite being told that every bus has a stopover during the night, we got a direct bus. So it does exist and I would seriously recommend getting this. It just avoids the hassle of moving and waiting for another bus during the night.
Hoi An was our favourite city in Vietnam and probably of the whole trip so far. A beautiful ancient town that boasts grand architecture, an idyllic riverside setting and an atmosphere you cannot beat. The entire old town is a UNESCO World Heritage site where traffic and pollution is almost entirely absent. The streets are pedestrianised and sometimes requires a ticket to enter. Note the “sometimes”, you can get away with not having this.
It was recommended to us to stay in the ‘Sunflower Hotel’. This is actually more of a hostel but we managed to get a private room for just $18 a night. Definitely a party hostel, full of backpackers taking full advantage of the “all you can drink for 100dong ($4)” happy hour. It was in a great location. A little bit of a walk to the old town but there was a free shuttle that goes on the hour, every hour. You can also rent mopeds and bikes from the hotel for just $5 a day which is what we did. Most hotels are a bit outside the town as guesthouses are not allowed inside the old quarter.
Just walking through the streets of the old town is charming. There are so many chic coffee shops, unique souvenir shops and restaurants. All lit up with the famous colourful lanterns, just so gorgeous. You can also take a boat trip down the river at night and put floating lanterns in the water, SO DAMN CUTE. I loved it.
Top Tip: if you are travelling around Asia please wait until you come to Hoi An before buying souvenirs or presents. I can safely say that it was the first place where I actually saw different things that you can’t get anywhere else, even in the rest of Vietnam. The local arts and crafts here are just gorgeous. I wanted to buy everything haha. Unfortunately for me my backpack is already bursting at the seams.
Hoi An is also known as the tailoring capital of the world. You can get some seriously high quality stuff made here for a fraction of the price at home. Darragh got a suit made and I got some work clothes made. We went to ‘Kimmy’ and were very impressed. We were very happy with the finished product, the staff were brilliant and so professional. Defiantly recommend here, but feel free to shop around because there are LOADS of tailoring shops. I also got a pair of Birkenstock’s made for $12!! They are made here, what a steal!! I was thrilled with life haha.
The beach was also just a quick cycle from the hostel, we rented bikes and cycled there in about 10 minutes. Stunning beach with a really nice local vibe to it. There are lots of cycling trips you can do to the countryside. You can choose to go with a tour guide or just rent bikes and go yourself. Another thing we did in Hoi An that we absolutely LOVED was a cooking class. We did this with Hoi An Eco Coconut tours. It was a half day tour and cost $32 each. You first got to experience the hustle and bustle of the local morning market to buy your ingredients with the group. Then you went on a sightseeing boat tour along the Thu Bon River; where we got the opportunity to try out the traditional way of catching fish. The next part was my favourite. We paddled through the canals of the Bay Mau Nipa forest by basket boat and went crab fishing (but set them free afterwards). Then we arrived at the cooking class and learnt how to prepare a traditional Vietnamese four course meal, which took about 2 hours. Highly recommend this tour, honestly it was one of my favourite things we have done in Vietnam!
Where to eat
There are so many nice places to eat in Hoi An, especially around the old town. We ate in an Australian owned café called ‘Dingo Deli’. We were seriously craving normal western food for lunch and this place did not disappoint! It’s defiantly more expensive than the normal Vietnamese restaurant but it is SO good. You can get freshly made sandwiches/wraps/panini’s made to order and the pastries are to die for! It also has amazing coffee, which is very hard to come by in Asia.
For the most delicious traditional Vietnamese food head to ‘Madam Kieu’ in the old town. I could go on and on about where to eat here! A few more to try are ‘Rosie’s café’ for brunch (a must for smoothie bowls!), Mango Mango Restaurant and Morning Glory for dinner.
Next on our agenda was to make our way to Hue via the Hai Van pass, made popular by Top Gear a few years ago. A spectacular piece of road through the mountains overlooking the coast, voted one of the most scenic drives in the world. It was AMAZING. This is an absolute MUST for your bucket list. We done this with a company called ‘Le Family riders’ and they were so good. We had our own moped and drove ourselves and they drove our bags down for us. They brought us to so many hidden gems on the way including a fishing village and the ‘elephant Springs’ waterfall to swim in. We drove through Da Nang on the way also. This is another increasingly popular place to stop for many tourists. A large beach city that is developing at a rapid pace. Along the beach front you’ll see brand spanking new modernist hotels, restaurants and apartments emerging. We didn’t stop here, but after driving past the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen, I regretted not staying at least one night here. It looked heavenly. Da Nang is somewhere to watch.
Lunch is also included in the price at their family run floating restaurant. The amount of food we got was ridicious! The most impressive spread of fresh seafood, rice, fruit, chicken, beef etc… They also give you countless bottles of water, wipes and snacks throughout the day. We stopped at the famous ‘Marble Mountain’ on the way too. This is visually beautiful but it’s a major tourist trap and very expensive. I wouldn’t recommend going out of our way to visit this. The entire trip cost about $80 each but was completely worth every penny! If you don’t want to spend as much then you can drive yourself or hire what’s known as ‘Easy Riders’ who will drive you and your bags there.
Pronounced “Hway”, Hue is an old city that was once the capital and got the worst of the Vietnam War. The city now blends a mix of old and new as many of its finest buildings were destroyed. We stayed in ‘The Times Hotel’. A really nice, clean hotel in a good location. It cost about $12 a night. I would definitely recommend staying here.
In my opinion, there isn’t a whole lot going on in Hue. Most people just use it as a stopover point to get to Hanoi or Hoi An, depending on which direction you are going. For the one day we were there, we rented a moped and drove out to explore the Instagram famous ‘abandoned waterpark’. ‘Ho Thuy Tie’ is located about a 20 minute drive from Hue city and is easily accessed by tourists. It was built in 2004 to attract more tourists to Hue and cost $3 million to build. The park shut its doors just two years later. It now consists of cracked waterslides, empty aquarium tanks and broken, overgrown pathways and structures. It’s extremely eerie and has a strong apocalyptic feel to it. Talk of the park has been passed through the backpacker grapevine and is now a rite of passage to visit when in Hue.
Note: locals have caught on to this strange attraction and are now charging a small fee as admission to enter. No surprises there!
Another thing to do in Hue is to visit The imperial or ‘forbidden’ City. A walled palace reserved solely for the purpose of the emperor before being destroyed in the war. We didn’t stay long here as it was ROASTING, so bring loads of water and prepare to sweat buckets (fab!). As regards where to eat in Hue, head to Pham Ngu Lao street (where DMZ hostel is if you can’t find it). Lots of nice cafés and restaurants here.
The next day we got the sleeper bus to Hanoi. Again, we booked this through our hotel and it cost about $15 each. It left at 5pm and we arrived at 6am the next morning. Sounds horrendous I know, but it’s actually surprisingly comfortable…. If the drivers stopped turning on the lights during the night!
Note: Depending on your budget and where you want to go, it IS possible to fly your way around Vietnam. I am just documenting the cheap route and how we got around. HOWEVER there is a very unique way to avoid sleeper buses. Our good friend from home known as “Mr Dill” by his Vietnamese friends, lives in Hanoi and told us that it is actually cheaper to hire a limo than to get the overnight sleeper buses!! It’s the only way he travels apparently haha. I cannot 100% stand by this as we only found out at the end of our trip and didn’t look into it any further. Defiantly Google this if you’re interested, sounds unreal! Haha If only we knew sooner we’d be travelling like kings!
Hanoi is the capital and a cool little city. The streets surge with mopeds and locals breakfasting on noodles. The old quarter is quite nice and has lots of nice places to eat, artsy souvenir shops and market wares. If you are craving some delicious western food then ‘4’Ps Pizza’ and ‘Chop’ is the spot. The food scene in Hanoi in general is great, so you will have no problem finding amazing Vietnamese cuisine on every corner.
We stayed in the ‘Central Backpackers’ hostel. A serious spot with a free bar every night. Obviously this is more of a lively spot, but it is brilliant for meeting other backpackers. We also organised both our Sapa and Ha Long Bay trips through them which was absolutely seamless. Another popular hostel is ‘Vietnam Backpackers’, again it’s a party hostel but so much fun!
There is not a lot to do sightseeing wise in Hanoi. It is mainly a way point for two major destinations in Northern Vietnam, Sapa and Ha Long Bay. Both of these where absolute HIGHLIGHTS of our Vietnam trip. Sapa is a town on the Chinese border, north of Vietnam. We did a two-day-one-night homestay trek here. Quite a lot of trekking (about 15K a day) but they views were SPECTACULAR and we met some really great people here too. You can read my full blog post on our Sapa trip here.
Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO world heritage site and natural wonder of the world. It consists of thousands of limestone karsts and islets forming the most amazing dramatic landscape. Ha Long bay should be top of your Vietnam bucket list. A lot of people go here straight from Hanoi to Ha Long city but we opted for Central Backpackers ‘hideaway’ tour from Cat Ba. I would seriously, seriously recommend doing it this way! The tour was amazing and soooo much fun.
We did the one night package but you can stay for longer. It consists of an all-day booze cruise around the Bay where you can go cliff jumping, kayaking, snorkelling and just take in the spectacular scenery. Then you are brought to your own private beach where you stay in the most INCREDIBLE huts. Seriously, accommodation doesn’t get any better than this. I mean waking up to that view was the most amazing experience ever. You continue the evening with a BBQ, Beers and party on the beach. It’s a MUST to be honest. The next day you continue the activities and go kayaking or cycling and trekking depending on your tour package. You can read all about the tour we did in detail here.
We then went back to Cat ba where we stayed in the newly opened Central Backpackers hostel there for one night (also amazing! See pics below). Cat Ba island is much nicer and less busy then Ha Long city (which we heard terrible reports on).
So that rounds up our Vietnam adventure! I really hope it helps anyone who is planning a trip there. It really was such an action-packed month for us and one of our favourite countries so far!
As always, thank you SO much for reading. If you have any other questions on Vietnam please let me know.
(Ps: Reading back on this post it sounds like all we ate was western food haha. We actually ate Vietnamese food every day and it is SO good!! Everywhere serving Vietnamese food is delicious!)