My itineraries are meant for those who are backpacking or “flash-packing” – my advice is not suitable for those who are looking for a luxury vacation.
Interested in travelling to Vietnam? I spent one month in Vietnam, travelling from the north to the south by bus. I highly recommend at least one month. The country is huge and there is so much to see. Vietnam has it all; mountains, deserts, rain forests, beaches…
Prepare your trip! Vietnam requires a visa from most countries. Plan ahead. You can easily apply for and pay for a visa online, and pick it up when you arrive at the airport. It’s called a “Visa On-Arrival”. For an American the cost is about $45 (as of 2016), and you will need to bring a few passport sized photographs of yourself. Make sure it is just a head shot, with a white background, and don’t smile! It should be about 2″ by 2″ in size. Find more information at
Note: My itinerary starts by flying into Hanoi, and exiting Vietnam after Ho Chi Minh City. You could also reverse the trip by flying into Ho Chi Minh first, and working your way up to Hanoi, and even further north into Sapa.
Note: We skipped Halong Bay, Hue, and Nha Thrang. Halong Bay was more expensive and similar to Koh Phi Phi islands in Thailand, so we decided against it. Hue seemed rather boring, and Nha Trang was a party beach town that we decided wasn’t very important. Also, there are higher rates of crime there. However, I have met people who have traveled to each of these places and thoroughly enjoyed them.
Important Notice about the Bus System:
- Our whole trip through Vietnam was booked with an “open bus tour”. This means that you can select the cities you want to stop at, and pay for your whole ticket ahead of time. At each destination you simply go to the bus office, show them your ticket, tell them when you want to leave, and move on to your next destination. This is the easiest way to travel through Vietnam. It cost $65 USD and we stopped in 7 cities at this price. One city could not be included so we purchased a separate ticket for there.
- If you are going to take the open bus tour. You MUST book it through “The Sinh Tourist” if you want absolutely no chance of getting ripped off. In Ho Chi Minh this is easy, it is a large blue building in the backpacker area. In Hanoi though, this is very difficult as there are 100’s of places trying to copy it. There is even a place directly across the street with the same name and even puts a “52” number sticker on their door to confuse you of the street number. The REAL Sinh Tourist in Hanoi is located at 52 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street and also at 64 Tran Nhat Duat Street, which is near the highway and also the place where you leave from. Make sure you look at the other building numbers to be sure you are on the even side of the street with the correct #52. You will only ride their buses, they have a business in every city where you get dropped off and picked up from, it’s very convenient . You can stay in the cities for as many days as you wish, you just have to go to the Sinh Tourist the day before you want to leave to reserve your tickets.
We started our trip in Hanoi, spent 3 days the first time and 1 night a second time. Hanoi was our favorite big city in Vietnam. We stayed in a nice guesthouse that I can’t remember the name of but there are hundreds of options, with many only costing around $10 a night so you shouldn’t have a problem finding one. The best area is near Hoan Kiem Lake. We stayed to the west of the lake, and the major backpacker area is to the north. South of the lake is the French Quarter. For our second visit in Hanoi we stayed at the Atlantic Hotel, for $10. Basic accommodation but very friendly owners.
Hanoi Must See and Do:
Ho Chi Minh Museum, House, and Mausoleum:
Note: You must be dressed in conservative clothes, and proper shoes. They will not allow you to come in with shorts, tanks, or flipflops. They have strict opening and closing times, check these before you go.
Hoa Lo Prison: Learn about the French occupation and the Vietnam War.
Woman’s Museum: We were not able to visit this museum but heard from other friends that it is a must-do.
Hue Café: Once rated the 7th best coffee shop in the world. Try Weasel 1 coffee, it’s to die for and tastes like chocolate. The coffee beans are eaten by weasels, and the digestive system of the weasel changes the properties of the bean, leaving behind a smooth, hazelnut/chocolate flavor. My favorite coffee in the world.
This coffee shop only has 1 table and 4 chairs. The owners love visitors. If you are a repeat visitor, they may even give you a free cup of coffee!
Location: North of the lake, directly near the backpacker area, on 26 Hang Giay Street. Be careful, there are two Hang Giay streets, but the correct one is near the backpacker area.
People Watching: Enjoy a cheap beer at Highlands Coffee shop that is located north of the lake in the 5 story plaza. Sit out on the balcony at night and watch the traffic go around the circle from all directions. If you like tofu, they have a delicious tofu lemongrass Banh Mi sandwhich for only $1.50.
Bia Hoi: Drink Bia Hoi in the backpacker area for only 25 cents a glass. Bia Hoi is a fresh beer that lacks preservatives and is only good for 24 hours. Sit outside on the side walk in plastic chairs with the locals and engage in interesting conversation.
Pho: Try all the different road side Pho’s and other noodle soups that you can.
Hoan Kiem Lake: Take a walk around the lake. Hopefully you are there when the trees are flowering, it’s truly a magical sight. Be careful crossing the road to get to the lake, Vietnam’s motorbike traffic is insane!
We traveled to Sapa from Hanoi by bus. It was an overnight trip that took about 12 hours. Be careful when you get off the bus in Sapa. You will have a few hill tribe women trying to get you to stay at their hostel. Have a place in mind to stay and don’t follow them. Sapa is in Northern Vietnam, it can get cold here at nights and especially in the winter. Be prepared.
We stayed 5 nights at the Friendly Sapa Hotel. It was $10 a night for a cute room with a balcony and an amazing view of the mountains. Our rooms were equipped with fresh tea and water boiler. Breakfast was included. The Friendly Sapa Hotel had some of the best Vietnamese coffee in Sapa as well.
Sapa Must See and Do:
Cat Cat Village: Spend a few hours taking your time walking the loop around this village. Buy a cheap Northface jacket from the town if the weather is cold. At the waterfall, step inside the building to watch a traditional dance. Make sure to go on a clear day for the spectacular views.
Village Trekking: Trek to a village: either for the day or to spend the night. We highly recommend “Lily” our tour guide. She is a local woman who takes you to her house, which is a 3 hour walk, and cooks you lunch. Cost $15. You can book a lot of tours but giving money directly to the family is a lot more helpful for them.
Noodle Soup: at the local market.
Trekking in SaPa, Vietnam
From Sapa we traveled by bus back to Hanoi for 1 night, catching a bus to Ninh Binh the following day which takes roughly 2 hours. We stayed at the Ngoc Anh Hotel for 3 nights. Highly recommended. It costs $17 for a double room, which included breakfast, but isn’t near the small backpacker area. We visited that area and it really didn’t have much going on. The family at this guesthouse is incredible and cook amazing food. Rent a motorbike from them.
Must See and Do:
Tom Cuc: The “Halong Bay on land”, beautiful karst limestone mountains shooting up out of the earth with a small river running through and underneath caves. Take a boat ride but be firm that you will not purchase anything from them on the boat. Give the woman a tip she will appreciate it.
Mua Cave: Drive here on the way back from Tom Cuc. We didn’t actually go into the cave but climbed the 500 steps to the top. Here you will find a spectacular view of Tom Cuc. Make sure to bring water. One side of the view can be seen in the featured photo for this article. The other side is even more spectacular, which is seen below.
Van Long Nature Reserve: A must do. You may be the only foreigner there. Take a boat through these mountains and hope to see the rare monkeys that live here. Give the woman a nice tip she will appreciate it.
Tom Cuc View from Mua Cave
Travel time from Ninh Binh to Dong Hoi is about 8 hours. It’s a little tricky getting here, its not part of the open tour bus and they will drop you off on the side of the road. We spent 1 and a half nights here only to see Paradise Cave, one of the biggest in the world. We stayed at the Nam Long Hotel for $20 a night with breakfast included. It is more expensive but there is not much competition. The rooms are large and clean and the breakfast is decent, but their other meals are not very good. Motorbikes are expensive at $10 a day but you don’t have another option. Drive out to Paradise Cave, leave by 9:30 in the morning because it’s a long drive, you will want at least 2 hours there, and then drive home through the national park for some incredible views of the forest. We didn’t see Phra Nga Caves, only Paradise. To move onto Hue City you will go to the local bus station and ride a mini van, for $5 a ticket if I remember correctly.
To get to Hoi An we first had to take a bus from Dong Hoi to Hue City. From Hue City we continued with our open tour bus tickets to Hoi An, which takes roughly 4 hours.
We stayed at the Sunflower Hotel for 6 nights, for $22 a night with a breakfast buffet included. We were told this is the hot spot to stay, and they have a swimming pool as well and a decent bar area. If you’re looking to meet other backpackers, this is the place to stay but if you want a more quiet experience, I would not stay here. The breakfast buffet is huge and very good. I think most places in Hoi An were rather expensive to stay, so we felt okay with this price. I think if you stay in a dorm it’s $10. You can rent a bicycle or a motorbike. You can walk to the old town in about 15 minutes, but take a bike to the beach, about 6km away. There are some islands you can travel to from here, or to see old ruins and Vietnam war sites, but we didn’t go to any of these. We only walked around town, went to the beach, and relaxed. Hoi An has some of the best food in all of Vietnam, take full advantage by visiting as many restaurants as possible. Use tripadvisor!
Must See and Do:
The Old Town: see the lanterns lit up at night and the old merchant style houses. Buy a silk lantern only $2-5. Incredible architecture.
Have tea or coffee at Reaching Out Tea House, where deaf workers serve you and you use little blocks with words on them to communicate.
Banh Mi Phuong: YOU MUST EAT HERE. The best Banh mi’s in all of Vietnam, also shown on Anthony Bourdains show, No reservations. Absolutely fantastic and only $1 each. Spend the time to find it, its near all of the shoe shops, on Hoang Dieu street.
Vina Ngon Restaurant: located directly next door to the Sunflower Hotel, serves AMAZING food. Try the Vietnamese pancake, and the lemongrass tofu, it’s phenomenal. The food takes a little while to serve, so try to go when you are the only ones, probably best at lunch time, dinner could take an hour for your food.
Riverside Restaurant (maybe not the exact name but pretty close): our favorite cheap restaurant with 4,000 dong Bia Hoi’s (20 cents). The food is excellent and super cheap. Try their noodle soups, the homemade noodles are incredible. They are located across from the place where a lot of the boats load and unload.
Clothing: Have silk clothes made. If you have extra cash, “A Dong Silk” shop is known as being fantastic for making clothes.
The beach: Very quiet beach with white sand. We attempted to walk from the Sunflower Hotel, it took around an hour. Do yourself a favor and ride a bicycle.
From Hoi An we went to Dalat, but first you have to take the overnight bus to Nha Trang (11 hours), then the day bus to Dalat (3 hours).
Dalat is an adorable town, with excellent food and lots of activities to do if you rent a motorcycle. We stayed for 3 nights but wish we stayed longer. We stayed at “Les Sapines 60” for $15 a night and really enjoyed it until we left and noticed a few things missing from us from when they cleaned the room. Maybe stay elsewhere!! There are a lot of cheap options.
Must See and Do:
Linh Phuoc Pagoda: One of the nicest Buddhist temples I have ever visited, made completely of broken ceramics. Eat cheap vegetarian food in the shop and buy cheap dried vegetables and fruits.
Crazy House: Also called Hang Nga Guesthouse. You can stay for $35 a night if you want. It’s exactly how it sounds, a crazy house!! Amazing, go and feel like a kid again.
Nhat Lien Restaurant: just up the street from crazy house, they have AMAZING food and very cheap. Try the indian clay pot rice, lemongrass tofu, and their homemade special soups.
Hoa Sen Restaurant: Vegetarian restaurant with delicious cheap food, and they serve banh mi sandwhiches out front for 50 cents .
Windmills coffee: There are two shops, one has a balcony. Delicious blended cookie coffees and other flavored coffees. Super friendly staff who would love to chat with you.
News and New Art Café: Not to be confused with the “Art Café” next door. Here you can have a delicious meal and the owner will fingerpaint you an original picture while you eat.
Bike Around: Ride your motorbike around to see the greenhouses all over the city hillsides, visit the waterfalls, stop and ride the cable cars, etc. Dalat has beautiful countryside.
The Escape Bar: hear live music and sit on comfortable chairs. Drinks are expensive.
From Dalat we traveled by bus to Mui Ne, roughly 3 1/2 hours. This is where you will go to see the red and white sand dunes. We stayed for 3 nights. Rent a motorbike and go to both, the red dunes are only 15 min from town, the white dunes can take 1 and a half hours. Go to the white dunes for sunrise it is breathtaking. Go the red dunes for sunset. Be careful of the children at the red dunes trying to get you to sleigh ride down the dunes. They may tell you one price and then force you to pay more. Be careful at the white dunes if you rent a jeep to ride on the dunes. Again, make sure you settle a price and don’t let any children onto your jeep or drive your jeep. We stayed at the Hoang Kim Guesthouse and Resort for $10 a night. They have a nice swimming pool and overlook the ocean. Their restaurant does not have good food though, and there is no A/C unless you want to pay $15 a night.
Must See and Do:
Red dunes : for sunset
White dunes: for sunrise
Sindbad Restaurant: AMAZING. Near to the Hoang Kim Guesthouse. Serves delicious middle eastern food and INCREDIBLY cheap. We ate here 4 times!
Joe’s Bar ( I think!): great happy hour specials and a nice atmosphere to hang out and meet other travelers. You get a free shot, but you must ask!!
The Harbor: See all the fishing boats on the water, good place for pictures.
Ho Chi Minh City
Travel time from Mui Ne to Ho Chi Minh City is roughly 5 hours. We stayed on a side street near the backpacker area at a family run place called the Quang Hotel. It was $10 a night with A/C and the family was incredibly sweet. They have a pet golden retriever and a cat and you feel like a family there. We stayed for 3 nights. We both were not particularly fond of Ho Chi Minh. It’s not as easy to walk as Hanoi, it’s much more spread out. But the backpacker area is really nice with cheap bars and okay-priced restaurants.
Must See and Do:
War Remnants Museum: an obvious must do, but difficult to see. Bring tissues.
Baba’s Indian Restaurant: delicious Indian, but don’t order the Birayni, it wasn’t very authentic.
Pho Quynh: A chain Pho restaurant but with surprisingly delicious soup with loads of fresh greens and condiments.
Market: for cheap souvenirs, t-shirts etc. You can get Vietnamese t-shirts for only $1, so don’t go to a place that is charging $3-4.
Frozen Yogurt: There is a large frozen yogurt shop near the backpacker area. I can’t remember the name but you pour your own flavors and put whatever toppings you want, and you pay by weight.
Happy Hour: have some great deals in the backpacker area.