Much to my parents’ disappointment I went to Vietnam for a 10-day vacation and came home 2-years later. Let’s just say Vietnam sucked me up, but it didn’t spit me out. I always tell people that this place has everything that you could possibly want from a country: culture, amazing food, amazing people, beauty, beaches, cities and great beer. Yes, the beer is important, but we will get to that later. Here’s the backpacker’s guide to Vietnam (that you won’t find on Lonely Planet).
Ho Chi Minh City
Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City can be a lot to take in if you’re just starting your travels. But the first tip in my backpacker’s guide to Vietnam is to start as you mean to go on, get involved and you won’t regret it! if you stick ‘top things to do in Ho Chi Minh’ into google it’ll tell you to go check out the Mekong River and Cu Chi tunnels. And yeah, they are awesome, but unless you fancy a bit of morning anxiety followed by a sprinkle of claustrophobia then maybe give the tunnel part a miss (petrifying, I genuinely got hit in the face by a giant bat). However, the Mekong River is a beautiful spot and worth a visit for sure…I just wish I could remember my local tour guide’s name because he was possibly the funniest person I’ve ever encountered.
Once you have some downtown go and grab some food from a local food market. And PLEASE! do not be afraid of tucking into a Banh Mi that has been knocked up on the side of a motorway by a woman on a bicycle. It’s all a part of being in Vietnam and it will probably be the best sandwich you will ever eat. (Remember: if you head to Vietnam with Contiki, your local guides will know the best places to grab a bite in each region).
Now let’s talk beer…you wouldn’t know it, but Ho Chi Minh is home to a couple of craft breweries. It’s a country full of expats who, like me, took a vacation and never looked back. So, embrace your inner-city hipster at The Heart Of Darkness, East-West, Winking Seal Beer Co Brewery or the multi-award-winning Pastur Street Brewing Co…and that is just a small taste of it…seriously there are a TON of incredible breweries in this awesome city. So fill your boots with a 12% double IPA and forget for a second that you are in Vietnam (and maybe your name). Whilst we are on the top of a cheeky beverage, it is also worth noting that this city has some awesome rooftop bars…seriously take your pick! The View, Air Saigon, Glow, Breeze Sky…treat yo’self.
Next up in my backpacker’s guide to Vietnam: Hoi An, you little beauty. It’s much loved, but still underrated in my opinion. My advice? Just chill out, take it slow, and take it all in.
First, head into the old town, people watch and grab a coffee. This may sound like something you can do anywhere but there is something special about doing it here…plus have you ever had a Vietnamese coffee?! Not only is it delicious but it is also bloody rocket fuel. Hoi An’s old town is also (rarely for Vietnam), a traffic-free zone. Which means the air isn’t filled with the smell of gasoline, and everyone gets around on cute bicycles with baskets on the front. It’s nice to have a slice of peace after the chaos of Ho Chi Minh City.
But once we’re out the Old Town (and now that you’re caffeinated up to the eyeballs), we’re ready to really get the heart palpitations going by doing the one thing we promised our parents we wouldn’t do. Get a bike. With an engine. Scooters (mopeds) are the main form of transportation in Vietnam and every man and his dog (literally) rides a scooter. The sights may be beautiful in Vietnam, but no sight is more magnificent than witnessing a man, his wife, his dog, his three children, a couple of chickens and a fridge freezer all loaded up onto the back of a single scooter.
You can rent a scooter anywhere in Vietnam and most places will charge you around $4-6 a day (don’t get mugged off and always feel free to walk away). Remember, the Vietnamese love a barter (it helps to have one of those Contiki local guides we mentioned earlier). Now take your new toy for a ride through town, stop off at some local cafes, take a ride down to the beach and shoot some pool roadside at a friendly bar with a cold beer. Talking of beer (again) go check out Kahunas beach bar for a lively one! Now let me touch on food…you are probably thinking that I am going to tell you to grab another Banh Mi or some local Pho (later but not now). No, no, no…tonight we are going Greek. Yes, you heard right…Greek…in Vietnam. Seems wrong but nothing has ever been so right! MIX is located in the old town and serves up a MONSTER of a Greek mixed grill and it is absolutely life-changing. Thank me later.
Hanoi is a playground that offers more than you can soak up in one trip. But here the key is to live and think like a local. Yes, the streets are crowded, and the roads are completely mental, and it might smell a little odd in some areas, but you can’t help but fall in love.
The food, the shops, the bars, the tiny little plastic chairs, the people… Hanoi has it all. One top tip from my backpacker’s guide to Vietnam is just to walk…get a little lost and duck in and out of cafés and bars all day. Oh, and if you’re looking a bit shaggy by now, get a haircut! Seriously, there are barbers and hairdressers in Hanoi who take their craft as an art form (just be prepared to be in the chair for a while…perfection takes time). If you’re solo travelling or feel like meeting some people head here with a Contiki group, or grab a beer in one of the hostel bars.
Another tip for my backpacker’s guide to Vietnam: don’t JUST eat the local stuff. As good as it is there are some incredible restaurants in Hanoi from Indian to Italian just jump in google and have a look. And then there’s Beer Street (look at us talking about beer again) which does what it says on the tin. You can sink a pint here for about $0.40…. seriously. Take $10 out with you and I guarantee you’ll have a great time. This is where you’ll also meet locals, backpackers, flashpackers, expats and everyone in between. On Friday and Saturdays the street comes alive with live music too! I did touch on this, but the shopping is great (and not all of it is fake). North Face clothes are produced in Vietnam which means you can get heaps of it out there super cheap. Expect to pay around $20-30 for a North Face Puffa Jacket. Happy days! From vintage shops to streetwear stores Hanoi is the place to sort out your wardrobe.
When you’re ready to leave Hanoi and if you have time head to Sapa mountains, you can do some wicked family stays here and really feel like you are away from everything. And then, of course, further north there’s Ha Long Bay. You could take a day trip here with the rest of the tourists, or you can do it Contiki style, and take a 2-day adventure on a private Chinese-Style junk boat, soaking up the sunrise and partying with your Contiki crew.
Either way, Vietnam is back open for business baby, and with this backpacker’s guide to Vietnam, I reckon you’re ready to take it by storm.