Vietnam is one of the most popular destinations in Asia amongst backpackers and adventurers. Its heavenly bays strewn with islets and valleys covered in lush rice paddies have since become some of Asia’s most iconic views. There’s an incredible amount waiting to be discovered here, and the warmth and friendliness of the locals will have you falling in love in no time. If you’re planning on backpacking in Vietnam or simply want to know some fantastic tips and tricks for your next holiday, you’re in the right place!

Forget all the stereotypes in Vietnam War-era action films. Vietnam is so much more than that! It’s a country filled with colourful cities steeped in history and mountains shrouded in myth. Beautiful temples and bustling markets, snaking rivers and breathtaking bays – these are just a few of the incredible experiences that await you here. Vietnam’s wealth of culture and lush scenery has made it a popular choice with backpackers, and I can only recommend everyone who has the chance to do it!

However there’s certainly a fair amount to take in while you’re there, and you might be a bit stuck for ideas or even good Vietnam itineraries. Luckily for you I’ve put together a whole host of fantastic tips and tricks in this Vietnam Travel Guide to help you make the most during your time in this truly fascinating country. Maybe I’ll even see you there… ;)

The Ultimate Vietnam Travel Guide

Before you go – what do you need to know?

Important FAQs | Driving in Vietnam | Vietnamese Cuisine

During your trip – which places should I visit?

Ho Chi Min City | Phu Quoc | Mekong Delta | Da Lat | Nha Trang

Hue | Phong Nha-Ke Bang | Hanoi | Halong Bay

Backpacking Itinerary in Vietnam

Vietnam FAQs at a glance

Here’s a quick little guide to essential facts you should know about Vietnam before you go. You’ll find the answers to everything from visas and weather to even some slight geographical difficulties.

Where is Vietnam?

Vietnam is a long country in south-east Asia which borders Cambodia, Laos and southern China. The capital is Hanoi which is situated towards the north of the country, however the country’s largest and most economically important city is Ho Chi Min City.

Planned round trip or classic backpacking?

This is totally up to you of course, but if you feel more secure booking all your accommodation in advance then by all means go for it! If you’re going to sort out places to stay while you’re there, be sure to have a little look around to compare what prices are going and try to haggle a little as you will be able to save a fair few pennies as you go. The same goes for transportation and tours.

When is the best time to go to Vietnam?

The best time to go to Vietnam? To be perfectly honest with you, that’s kind of a hard question to answer! The country is pretty much spilt across the middle between Hue and Da Nang into two climates – the tropical south and the sub-tropical north. That means that things are slightly cooler in the northern regions from November until May, and it also rains less too. However in the south things are always very warm year-round. However try to avoid the rainy season from May until October if you can (although low season does come with some great prices!). Generally speaking though, Vietnam is worth it no matter what time of year you go!

How to get to Vietnam from Ireland

Unfortunately there are no direct flights between Ireland and Vietnam but there are loads of cities you can potentially fly to! You’ll also find that prices can be pretty similar between departure airports. As a rule of thumb, Dublin tends to be the cheapest airport to depart from, but you might also be able to find flights from Cork and Shannon that work to a similar price – and also save you driving all that way to Dublin Airport.

Another option could be looking at flights from London and then planning yourself an extra night either side so you can stay the night at a hotel before embarking on the next leg of the journey. Vietnam Airlines offer direct flights to various Vietnamese airports from Heathrow with a duration of around 12 hours. And lets face it – the extra flights to London really aren’t going to cost that much! ;)

Gurutip: Definitely book open-jaw flights where you fly to Ho Chi Min City and depart on your return flight from Hanoi. You could do this the other way round as well! This way it’ll be a lot easier for trips across the country as otherwise it’s a long way back to where you started!

Which visa do I need as an Irish citizen?

Irish nationals are able to obtain a so-called ‘loose leaf’ visa from the Vietnamese Embassy. This is essentially a document with your travel dates and personal details on which you present with your passport once you’ve arrived in Vietnam. Your passport should be valid for at least one month after your return date. You can get full details of the application process at the Vietnamese embassy’s website. There will be a small fee to pay but turnaround times are pretty quick! Also while there are third-party websites that offer visa services, you should always go direct with the embassy as you’ll minimise the risk of fraud or misuse of your personal details. You can never be too careful!

Which vaccinations do I need?

You aren’t compelled to have any particular vaccinations before you go, but again if you would like to be extra peace of mind then certainly make an appointment with a GP and see if there are any recommendations they might have. Any extra vaccinations will have to be done a few weeks before you go. The Tropical Medial Bureau has some handy tips in regards to vaccinations. You should also definitely bring a travel pharmacy with you and – most importantly of all – take out travel insurance!

What currency and language is used in Vietnam?

The currency used in Vietnam is called Dong (VND) and works out to around 27,000 dong for every Euro. You’ll find cash points all across cities and provinces so don’t worry about being caught short. In most restaurants and hotels you could even pay with US dollars. In terms of any language barriers you may have, Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam, but unlike most Asian language it’s actually based on the Latin alphabet – sometimes this can be a godsend if you’re in a bit of a pickle! Street signs and recognising vocabulary will come to you a lot more naturally.

Lanterns in Hoi An, Vietnam
Photo: istock.com / Holger Mette

Driving in Vietnam – an absolute nightmare?

Once you’re in Vietnam, you’ll quickly realise one thing that’s pretty much omnipresent: motorbikes! They’re the main method of transportation, ferrying people, families and even mobile market stalls. If I could sum up the way of the road in Vietnam, it’s that whoever beeps the loudest gets priority. You’ll be able to rent motorbikes and mopeds pretty much everywhere – and if you really wanted to, even buy one! Sometimes you might not even be asked for your driving license. Travelling by motorbike probably offers the most authentic and unique way of travelling the length of the country.

However I’d only really advise you do this if you’re comfortable on two wheels, as it’s not uncommon to hear of tourists being involved in accidents. A safer substitute that still comes with that authenticity is taking the bus, which will get you to your next stop for next to nothing. Longer journeys might be even better suited for night busses which you can book – take a look at 12go.asia for help on planning routes with public transport.

Eating and drinking in Vietam

You’ll more than likely have tried some Vietnamese dishes in Asian restaurants at home already. If so, you’ll know just how delicious Vietnamese food is! It’s a cuisine that features plenty of aromatic herbs and a excellent dash of spice and flavour along with it. Meat and fish tend to feature heavily but vegetarians will be delighted to know that there’s plenty of alternatives packed with veggies!

Probably the most famous Vietnamese dish of all is pho, a broth with delicate rice noodles, meat and vegetables and seasoned with chilli, lime juice, a splash of fish sauce and a sprig of coriander for good measure. This stuff is seriously moreish and you’ll find it served everywhere no matter what time of day it is. It’s actually even part of breakfast too! Definitely follow your nose and browse the many street kitchens and food stands as they’re great if you’re on the move and are feeling a bit peckish.

Vietnamese pho noodle soup

Definitely be sure to try out the bánh mì, which are essentially a Vietnamese spin on your classic sandwiches, or those insanely moreish spring rolls. Their larger cousins, the summer rolls, aren’t deep fried – instead these are fresh veggies and fillings such as chicken or prawns wrapped in a really delicate case, so if you want a lighter or more healthier snack these are top-notch!

Food is just the half of it – the drink is just as important! You just can’t avaid Bia Hoi while you’re there. It’s the typical beer of Vietnam; it’s a light pils-type beer that’s freshly brewed and contains absolutely no preservatives in it, so it tastes best as soon as it’s been bottled up. And here’s the best bit – it only costs around 20 cents (5000 dong)! And coffee lovers will definitely get their fix too. Try the ca phe sua da – this is coffee that’s brewed directly above a cup using a drip filter, with sweet condensed milk added to the mix. Vietnamese coffee is also usually poured on ice too!

vietnamese people paddling in the Mekong river, Vietnam shutterstock_106635710-2

Plan your trip to Vietnam

There’s countless places that you could potentially see during a trip to Vietnam. But to help make your planning a bit easier, I’ve gone ahead and picked out my top 10 places to see in Vietnam. It’s a long and narrow country, covering a length of around 3000 kilometres, so no matter what your itinerary looks like, it’s always better to go from the very north to the south, or the other way round. The route that I’ve picked out goes from south to north, starting in Ho Chi Minh City and ending in Hanoi and Halong Bay.

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City is massive, colourful, loud and chaotic – but it’s an absolute must during your travels there! The city exemplifies big city life as we’d imagine it in Vietnam. A good seven million people live here, and there must be a pretty similar number of motorbikes on the streets too. You’ll often hear of Saigon during your holiday. This was actually the original name of the city, but when North and South Vietnam were finally reunited, the city was named after the Vietnamese revolutionary who was a key figure in the country’s political leadership. Yet even to this day a lot of the locals still stick to old ways.

While you’re there, be sure to check out the backpacker quarter between Pham Ngu Lao and De Tham Street in District 1. This a great place to be if you’re looking to meet fellow backpackers on your travels. You’ll also find plenty of street food, markets and bars where you can kick back with a can of Saigon and get chatting with new acquaintances. Literature lovers will love Nguyen Van Binh Street, also in District 1, as it’s literally filled with nothing but bookshops. Many titles are in Vietnamese, but since there’s just so many books you’ll find that there’s plenty in English too. People looking to pick up a souvenir or two will find them at the Ben Thanh Market, the largest in the city.

Crowded marketplace with street vendor in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam shutterstock_62087224 EDITORIAL ONLY Stephen Bures-2
Photo: shutterstock.com / Stephen Bures

However I really believe that an important part of going to Vietnam is also learning about its history too. The War Remnants Museum is extremely popular with tourists from the western world and is pretty much a must during your time in Ho Chi Minh, though I will say it’s not exactly for the faint-hearted mind you – the exhibitions about Agent Orange and its atrocious effects on both nature and people can be very heavy-hitting at times. It’s also possible to do a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels from Ho Chi Minh. To see the tunnels in person really brings you that much closer in person, but it’s best not to actually enter if you suffer from claustrophobia.

Relaxing in Phu Quoc

Phu Quoc is nothing short of an island paradise – I’m sure anyone who’s been here before will agree with me there. The largest and island in Vietnam is about 40km off the coast in the Gulf of Thailand. Enjoy the sun on the fine sandy beaches, go for a swim in crystal clear waters and even go snorkelling in the An Thoi Islands. Duong Dong, the main settlement on the island, is where most of the action happens. At the market next to the harbour you’ll find locals selling all sorts of fresh produce and ingredients. The most famous (and touristy) beach is Bai Truong Beach, or Long Beach, so you’ll find many resorts, hotels and restaurants directly by the beach – and there’s plenty of development yet to come as well. If the area’s a bit to hectic for you, then I recommend heading to the east coast. In my opinion I’d say that Bai Sao really is the prettiest beach on the whole island. Meanwhile, the centre of the island is perfect for those of you wanting to have a few adventures. The roads are just built for cruising around on a motorbike and exploring the beautiful national parks!

Bai Sao Beach, Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam shutterstock_299278025-2

Many say that Phu Quoc is “like Phuket 30 years ago”. But tourism’s certainly booming here! In fact the island could soon be up there with places like Bali and Phuket when it comes to top island destinations in Asia. There’s already a lot of development and massive hotel resorts being built, so as your Guru I recommend that you come here before it’s too late! The quickest way to get here is by flying from Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. You can get return flights for around €30 and accommodation prices are for the most part just as affordable.

Mekong Delta – discover Vietnam’s traditional side

This region, where the tributaries of the Mekong River gradually fan out towards the sea, is one of the most important routes for transporting food and goods in Vietnam. In fact it’s even known as the “rice bowl of Vietnam”! Rice paddies stretch out as far as the eye can see here. You’ll be able to experience more traditional sides of Vietnamese life here, cycle through areas almost untouched by tourism, and admire lush vegetation all around as you sail down the rivers and canals. I’m sure you’ve heard about floating markets in Thailand before, but there’s also plenty here too where you’ll see people out on their boats trading all sorts of exotic fruits, vegetables and rice.

The enormous Mekong Delta can be explored in many different ways. From simple day trips to cruises lasting several days, anything is possible! Most tourists will be coming from Ho Chi Min City. Have a look in local travel agencies and see if there’s any trips on offer that take your fancy. If that’s too touristy for you, then there’s nothing stopping you from setting your own itinerary and discovering the region at your own pace.

Da Lat & Vietnam’s Highlands

With the nightbus from Ho Chi Minh you’ll be able to reach the peaceful town of Da Lat, situated in the Vietnamese mountains. You’ll notice how refreshingly cool it is here – no doubt thanks to the fact that this town is a good 1,500 metres above sea level. In fact this place is even popular amongst Vietnamese tourists, who come here at the weekends to escape the hectic and hot streets of larger cities.

Farmers working in green tea fields
Photo: istock.com / Dalattraveler

The city is made up of an interesting mix of French villas dating from colonial times and colourful Vietnamese houses. One of the town’s most famous structures is the Linh Phuoc Pagoda, famous for its insanely colourful, almost kitschy ornamentation. Meanwhile at Xuan Huang Lake, lovey couples slowly sail in their swan boats enjoying romantic moments together. Once evening slowly draws in, make your way to the market in the centre of Da Lat. You’ll find fantastic food here thanks to many street kitchens. If you fancy doing a day trip somewhere while you’re here, then you’ll be glad to know that there’s all sorts of lakes, waterfalls and rainforests in the surrounding area.

Insider tip: Be sure to check out the 100 Roof Bar. This place is so big and so nuts that you almost have to come back here several times to just see it all. The bar is like a labyrinth of several floors – sometimes indoors, sometimes outdoors – with cave-like rooms, aquariums, rooftop jungles… You name it, they’ve got it! You should also check out something called Easy Rider. These are Vietnamese bikers who’ll bring you along for a fantastic little tour. It’s a great opportunity to see everyday life in Vietnam and have a little chat about the politics, culture and traditions here. You even have the freedom to individually plan your trip with the driver!

Na Trang

The main thing to see in Na Trang is… the beach! You’ll find quite a lot of tourism here, but if you like experiencing a few modern beach resorts, chic boutiques and a lively beach promenade then you should definitely treat yourself to a little stop here – even just to escape the fairly unglamorous backpacking life for a little while! The beach is lined with palm trees and the waters are incredibly clear. It’s actually a fantastic place to go diving because of it, so be sure to browse which tours are on offer and go for a provider that offers high safety standards.

Vietnam NHA TRANG shutterstock_98382038-2

Wonderfull Hoi An

During my time in Vietnam, I definitely fell for one town in particular. With its sleepy streets, small shops and lovely restaurants, it’s hard to not fall under Hoi An’s spell. Once one of the largest ports in south-east Asia, the historic Old Town of Hoi An is now one of the few places that managed to escape heavy damage and destruction during the Vietnam War. To further protect this wonderful piece of history, the Old Town has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Spend some time exploring the maze of streets and get a feel for the town’s character. Seeing all of the lanterns across the streets truly is magical. And if your feet ever get tired from all the walking about, then why not kick back at An Bang Beach? Just a short way to go through some rice paddies and you’ll be there in no time.

The imperial city of Hue

Hue is one of the best places to visit in Vietnam if you’re wanting to learn more about culture and history. The name Hue translates into “harmony”, and as cheesy as it may sound, you really can sense it here! Life here is laid-back and relaxed; you get the feeling that everything is in its right place.

A must during your time here in Hue is the Imperial City citadel. This was once the royal residence of the Nguyen dynasty and its architecture and layout was inspired by the Forbidden City in Beijing. At the time, only members of the royal family were ever allowed to enter – it was strictly off-limits to us normal mortals, hence why the Imperial City was also a Forbidden City in itself! Today only 80 of the original 300 structures remain, but you can get a fantastic sense of how this grand and ornate palace must have looked like in its heyday. If you have enough time, you should definitely check out the royal tomb of Minh Mang, situated around 12km south-west of the town. Perfect for a day trip on a motorbike.

Royal Palace, Hue, Vietnam shutterstock_297673793-2

For the proper bikers amongst you, I have a huge recommendation. When you’re driving to Hue from Hoi An, be sure to go along the Hai Van Pass. Spectacular mountain roads and coastal views await. Hit the road early in the morning for the best experience, but don’t forget your layers as it gets very cold at the top of the pass. Many motorbike rental agencies will allow you to rent a bike from one town and drop it off at the next, so definitely look into this when you’re in this part of the country.

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

Head’s up folks – here’s my ultimate insider’s tip for any backbacking holiday to Vietnam! In the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park I witnessed some of the most impressive landscapes, hiked past water buffalo and explored rural villages and awesome caves. In fact you’ll find the largest cave in the world here!

Tropical valley

During your time in the national park, you absolutely should do a boat trip to Phong Nha Cave. The motorboat will ferry you up a couple of hundred metres into the cliffs via an underground river. Paradise Cave is another place that’s not to be missed either. You’ll see the most bizarre rock formations in the world – some of the stalactites here are so mindbogglingly huge that you just have to wonder how old this place must be! A wooden walk-way will take you through the cave system and the chambers are well illuminated, allowing you to admire the details and shapes in the rock. However at the moment there are still loads of caves that still are yet to be explored, and some may be closed to tourists all together. Experienced bikers can always explore the national park on two weeks, but otherwise hotels and hostels will also help arrange tours as well.

Rock formations in Paradise Cave, Vietnam

A trip to the national park isn’t exactly for those of you who need their warm showers and hairdryers every turn of the way. There can be power cuts or limited power supplies where you stay. And I really recommend booking your hostels or accommodation in advance since there’s only a handful of places to stay within the park itself!

The capital of Vietnam – Hanoi

After your time in the unforgettable caves of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park I’m sure you’ll be eager to get back to civilisation. Luckily you have another highlight of the trip to look forward to – Hanoi! The capital of Vietnam is smaller in size than Ho Chi Minh, but when you’re out on the streets it feels just as busy. Once you learn how to cross the streets you’ll start feeling like a local in no time!

The city is a fantastic place to experience Vietnamese culture. Definitely see if you can find accommodation near the Old Quarter as you’ll find loads of fantastic dining, shopping and nightlife there as well as plenty of pagodas and temples. No matter what time of day it is, you’ll spot something going on. Early in the morning you’ll spot locals practising thai chi in the park next to Hoan Kiem Lake, while in the evenings you can watch beautiful sunsets from the Long Bien bridge. During the weekends there’s also a night market where you’ll be certain to find some trinkets to bring home with you. If you reckon you have a strong head for heights, then be sure to check out the observation deck in the Lotte Tower. It’s situated up on the 65th floor and offers the best views of the city, especially at night time. While you’re up there, try to pluck up the courage to head out on the Skywalk with its glass walls and floor. Whatever you do… Don’t look down!

After you’ve done all your sightseeing in Hanoi, you’ve got one last stop to look forward to. I think it’s far to say you’ve saved the best till last!

Mystical Halong Bay

In the far north of Vietnam is the beautiful Halong Bay. Sheer cliffs and tiny islands seeming rise straight up from the turquoise waters, sometimes reaching more than 100 metres in height. I’ve never seen anything so fascinating! There’s everything from one-day trips to mini-cruises that last several days, but for me personally I’d recommending getting the bus and the local ferry to Cat Ba Island and taking a day trip from there. Along the way you’ll be able to do all sorts of activities, including swimming, canoeing, paying a visit to Monkey Island and of course stopping off for a bit of food along the way. Plus it means that you can give yourself plenty of time to explore Cat Ba as well. It’s the largest island in the bay and the vast majority of it enjoys protection as a national park. It’s so much better than taking the larger tourist cruises that include Cat Ba in their itineraries as you’re not really given a lot of flexibility in your planning and you’ll more than likely spend more money that way too.

There’s plenty to see and do here as well. Watch magical sunsets, explore the island by motorbike and see if you can catch a glimpse of the critically endangered white-headed langur, a species of monkey with less than 70 left in the wild!

Wonderful Vietnam

I think after having a read through this itinerary you can see why people really do fall head over heels for this place once they go! If you’ve been suffering from the travel bug recently then trust me when I say that backpacking through Vietnam is one of the best remedies for it. And while you’re counting down the days to your flight, definitely watch the Top Gear Vietnam Special as a friend once recommended me. Really does get you so excited for it! ;)

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