A guide to backpacking in Vietnam

When I quit my job in June 2018 I decided to travel. I made a two-week trip to Spiti Valley followed by another fortnight in Ladakh the next month. I realised this was the best time to travel as I didn’t have to apply for leave and I had the freedom to plan longer trips. Since I had time on hand, my next destination was a backpacking trip to Vietnam for a little over a fortnight.
You need to apply for a Visa on Arrival approval letter prior to your trip. Upon your arrival at the International airport in Vietnam you can collect your visa by submitting this letter.
I had packed just enough to carry on my own.
Vietnam being a fairly large country has a difference in weather conditions between the north and the south. The South experiences tropical weather so think summer shorts and T- shirts. The weather in the north has a distinct winter and summer season.
  • Winter – November to April (cool and dry)
  • Summer – May to October (warm and humid due to rains)
The only concrete plan I had made before traveling was booking my flight tickets and my hostel for the first 2 nights. I flew into Ho Chi Minh city aka Saigon and my return flight was booked back to Mumbai via Hanoi. This meant the rest of the trip was planned on the go. My friend and I made a rough itinerary only after meeting a few travellers at the hostel and based on their recommendations. They had already covered Vietnam starting from Hanoi in the north and we were about to begin our journey from the South starting from HCM city.
Being on a backpacker’s budget means that you allot yourself a daily budget without compromising on the safety of your stay, food and transport.
Free wi-fi is available in most places but would recommend buying a local sim card with a good data package.
Here are a few helpful apps:
  1. Language Translator – It is easy to get by in English in HCM but the further you travel this app is a life saver. Also, anything written in English is pronounced completely differently in Vietnamese. The locals have different dialects and accents so it becomes easier to show them the translated script.
  2. Currency Convertor – INR 1 is equal to 310 VND (approx.) It takes a couple of days to get used to carrying millions in your wallet.
  3. Grab – This is equivalent to Uber. You can also rent two wheelers.
  4. Booking.com – Refer to the ratings and reviews by foreign nationals (I wouldn’t recommend going by local reviews) of places you intend staying at.

  • Ho Chi Minh

Saigon is a vibrant city.  To get around you could either walk, rent a two-wheeler or order a Grab Cab.
The War Remnants Museum should be on the top of your list on places to visit on Day 1
Independence Palace is walking distance from the War Remnants Museum and a visit will be worth your time.
Notre Dame Square makes for a good evening walk with the Notre Dame Cathedral as a backdrop after you have visited The War Remnants Museum and The Independence Palace.
Ben Thanh Market is an indoor market in the city. You’ll get everything from street food, spices, fabric, coffee and a whole lot more.
Bui Vien Walking street is the most vibrant street in HCM. The whole street seemed to be one big party. This usually features on the top for the night life scene in HCM. You could just google images for Bui Vien Saigon and you’d know exactly what I mean. The night walks here are a great deal of fun.
 
  • Mekong Delta

When you think of Vietnam the first image that comes to your mind is usually that of a local woman wearing an Asian conical hat rowing a boat on a river. Well, a trip to the Mekong Delta will ensure this is exactly what you will experience and more. There are organised guided tours ranging from day trips to overnights stays. You have the option to travel by yourself as well.
  • Cu chi Tunnels

Hotels/Hostels in HCM organise day trips to Cu Chi Tunnels. These guided tours take you through an interesting network of underground tunnels, carved out by hand. These tunnels provided safe hiding places for the Viet Cong against the US Forces. The tunnel network contained hospitals, living quarters, kitchens, bomb shelters, theatres, and weapons factories.
  •  Da Lat

This quaint hill station is an overnight bus ride from HCM. This town reminded me a lot of my hometown, Nainital due to the weather and lake, which means carry something warm to wear while visiting this town.
Here is where you get to visit the traditional Vietnamese Coffee plantations. Again, you can join a guided tour or travel by yourself. The tour includes visits to smaller villages on the hillside along with the stunning Elephant waterfalls.

Da lat also has its very own Cable car that runs from Robin Hill to the Truc Lam Monastery. The ride gives you a panoramic view of Da Lat which is breath taking.
  • Nha Trang

Only at a distance of 3 hours by road from Da Lat, you’ll reach the pristine beach destination of Nha Trang. This is where you ditch the warm clothes!
I’d recommend booking your accommodation walking distance from the beach. There are plenty of good restaurants by the bay as well. You can spend the entire day beach along the blue South China Sea.
Nha Trang is frequented by many Russian tourists. This is where I got my hair braided.
  • Ba Ho Waterfalls

To get here you have to ride 20kms away from the main city of Nha Trang. Ba Ho waterfalls comprises of 3 waterfalls. The hike involves climbing rocks through a dense forest. Cliff jumping and swimming are among the popular activities here.
  • Hoi An

An overnight bus ride from Nha Trang and you are in the fairy tale town of Hoi An. Imagine a quaint town with yellow walls by day, by dusk the lanterns light up the streets and by night you are transported to a town right out a story book with more lanterns than you can count. Even the little boats on the rivers are lit up by lanterns and the river gets filled with floating candles.
 If you’ve ever heard of ‘egg coffee’ this is where you could try it.
What fascinated me about Hoi An is that every second shop is a tailor-shop which means not only can you get customised dresses stitched but that it is made for you overnight.

  • Da Nang

By the time you travel to Danang all the way from HCM consider yourself in centrals Vietnam.
Danang is an hour’s drive from Hoi An. The trek up to marble mountain is what I did in the morning while waiting for the usual noon check in at my accommodation in Hoi An. Marble mountain doesn’t look like much from a distance but ensure that you have a good breakfast before you start to climb this one.
It starts of with a flight of stairs and to summit you have to climb the hollow of the mountain. Once you summit, you see the picturesque city of Da Nang along with an amazing view of the South China Sea.

  • Ba Na Hills

Two years ago, while scrolling through Instagram a picture that caught my eye was the Golden Hand Bridge in Vietnam. The post did not give the exact location as it was a fairly new tourist attraction. Long story short, I looked it up and the only reason for travelling via Danang during the trip was to visit this bridge.
The positive of not planning your trip is that you have zero expectations which is the best!
Ba Na Hills is 3 hours by road from Da Nang. I don’t want to spoil it for you in case you do plan on visiting, but I must tell you upon taking one of the longest cable car rides up to this hilltop the ‘Golden Hand Bridge’ is amazing and better than you’d imagine however the other less talked about attractions up there will blow your mind like it did mine.
There are guided tours however, I would recommend travelling to Ba Na Hills on your own as you can stay longer. On your way back you can explore the city of Da Nang by night including the Dragon Bridge which is a spectacular view when it’s illuminated.
  • Hanoi & Ha Long Bay

Towards the tail end we were done backpacking. Ha Long Bay was the last place on my wish list. With 3 days of the trip left We flew to Hanoi and headed to the Old Quarter to book the Ha long Bay Cruise.

We booked ourselves on The Oasis Bay Party Cruise which caters to a younger section of travellers. If you are travelling with friends this is perfect. It was a perfect balance of adventure, fun and relaxation.
These were a few of my highlights from the trip along with Vietnamese COFFEE, Bahn Mi and Pho!
BIO:
The writer of this guest blog is a very sweet friend of mine – Marissa D’Raunjo. No, I mean it – Literally too sweet! She is the kind of person that immediately brings a smile to your face. Those kind eyes and that bright smile of hers can light up your day! Marissa grew up in Nainital and studied in St. Mary’s Convent aka Ramnee which is where we met.
She completed the STEP program along with her graduation under the Oberoi Group of Hotels and went on to work in Sales and marketing with The Oberoi Group of Hotels. She also worked at the InterContinental Hotels Group SWA Corporate office and in 2015 sheleft the hospitality industry to take up a marketing role with a loyalty company. She has led trips to Spiti Valley, Triund and a couple of trips to Ladakh as a ‘trip captain’ organised by a community travel platform called Tripver. The story behing this is that she had used this platform on multiple occasions to travel to places in Himachal and eventually this led them to call her on occasions when they required a trip captain for their trips.
Other than Vietnam, she has travelled to The Maldives, Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Sri Lanka, Thailand and The Seychelles.
She likes painting when she is super tired, enjoys reading and listening to podcasts.
Travel tips:
  1. Book your flight tickets in such a way that you fly into one city and fly out via another city. Travelling back to a city that you have already explored will be a waste of time.
  2. Traveling overnight by road or train cuts down on your accommodation cost. You then have the day to explore your new destination.
  3. While USD is also accepted in places, use it only for larger transactions in case you have to, like flights and accommodation. It is much better to use local currency for everything else.

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