Vietnam is a dream backpacking location – safe, cheap, and friendly. Whether you are looking for beautiful nature, historical sites, spiritual exploration, foodie delight, or big city nightlife and shopping, you’ll get your fix in Vietnam. Here’s a couple of tips and hacks from the road that will help you have a smooth experience backpacking in Vietnam.
1. Learn a few basic phrases in Vietnamese
Vietnamese pronunciation can be baffling unless you are familiar with similar languages like Chinese. This was one of the few countries where I barely learnt the language. However, at least start with these three phrases, and you will bring a genial smile to any local’s face.
- “Xin chao!” (pronounced “Sin chow!”) is the first thing you’ll learn to say, meaning “Hello!” You will hear this greeting from almost every local you meet, accompanied by a smile.
- “Cum Uhn” (strong emphasis on both syllables) – “Thank you”
- “Mot hai bai yo!” – “One, two, three, cheers!” when clinking beer glasses
2. A translation app is essential
Language is a legit barrier – the vast majority of the population speak only Vietnamese, and perhaps the most basic English phrases. Make sure you either have an offline translator downloaded on your phone, or have a local sim card with a data plan to use Google Translate. Once you have translated what you’d like to say, hand your phone over for your local friend to read – believe you me, you will probably pronounce it wrong and receive puzzled looks in return. Intonation is key. And unless you are familiar with East Asian languages, it might be beyond you for a long while. I’m usually complimented on my intonation when attempting new languages, but here I was way out of my league.
3. Pick a region to explore depending on your interests.
Vietnam is BIG. Unless you have enough money and time to traverse the entire country (a few months), a good idea would be to pick a region to explore in depth – north, south or mid-Vietnam.
The north, especially around Hanoi, is the historical centre. Around are pristine nature spots, including World Heritage Site Halong Bay. The south, and especially Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), is more modern and the place for nightlife and shopping. Outside the big city you will find beautiful beaches and the Mekong delta. My personal pick is the less touristy Central Vietnam, which has the culture, the history, and the beaches. My fave spot is Hue, a town where people have a reputation for being friendly, slow and laid-back. The hills around are full of Buddhist temples, so it’s heaven for a meditator like myself. I spend 10 days meditating at the mini Plum Village in Vietnam, read more about that here.
4. Hanoi’s streets are a chaotic maze.
In the town centre, be prepared to get lost, confused, and nearly run over by hooting scooters. All part of the experience! Each section of a street is named according to what is being sold, or what used to be sold there. So you could be walking in a straight line down one street, and suddenly after 2 blocks it changes name so technically you are on another street though you haven’t turned left or right! You’ll get used to it. Also, you probably won’t actually get run over by the melee of scooters. Drivers are used to swerving around pedestrians… ;0)
5. Sleeper buses are the real deal.
Between trains, buses and planes, my pick was the sleeper bus – which is what I used for the 12 hour trip between Hanoi and Hue. You literally get a little bunk to yourself to lie in. On the other hand, a train could be a beautiful ride for a shorter day-trip, though I hear they are too bumpy to catch sleep on. As for domestic flights, these are sometimes even cheaper than a sleeper train, so suss out all your options!
Shop around a bit before buying the ticket, as different travel agencies will quote you different prices. Walk around and inquire at several of the little tour shops you’ll see on the streets in town. I managed to get a super comfortable bus for 300,000 VND ($13 USD) into Hue, absolute luxury for a backpacker. On the way back to Hanoi, I found a slightly less comfortable but worth the discount bus for 120,000 VND ($5 USD). I actually slept like a log both ways.
Tops tips: Carry an eye mask in your hand luggage (the bright lights of street restaurants can be a hindrance to sleep), socks (in case the air conditioning is too much for you) and keep hand sanitizer handy. If you tend to get cold, carry a shawl too, but they do provide a blanket that was sufficient for this tropical gal. It’s a good idea to carry tissue paper for the toilet in case it isn’t available, but a backup plan is to use serviettes from the restaurants. Toilet stops are nothing to write home about but no worse than the average Indian toilet (which isn’t saying much). If you’re vegetarian, it’s a good idea to carry some food – my first bus ride, I could only buy dry bread with a measly egg in it. You will check in your big bag and can carry a small one in with you to stuff under the seat in front of you.
There will usually be 2 toilet/food stops, of around 30 minutes each, for an overnight trip like the one I did.
6. Grab app for bikes is a winner.
Grab is a local taxi app like Uber for cars, bikes or deliveries. I used the scooter option a lot to get to and from hostels. The most common form of personal road transport in Vietnam is the scooter (or motorbike). It’s cheap and convenient. Most of the drivers don’t speak English though, so I would have to ask (through gestures) random passersby to direct the driver on the phone to where I was waiting to be picked up.
Be wary of fake Grab bikes. When you get off a bus, you will be swarmed by various bike taxis, and some don the Grab helmet though they are not actually associated with the company. I ended up paying one guy a lot more than I should have had to because I thought he was Grab. I tried to “Match” his bike, but we had a language barrier and he was quite pushy so it ended in a bit of a nasty conversation at my final destination – not the best way to meet my host for the night!
Top tip: load your credit card onto the app as a payment option, and you will get ridiculous discounts. With the extra money that you get by using the credit card option, you can tip the driver well, through the app!
7. Beware fake taxis
These fakes look like real taxis, complete with paint, brand and meter! Especially rampant in Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi. I strongly advise getting the Grab app so you don’t have to deal with such complications and are presented a fair, indisputable price. That being said, key tips for identifying a legit taxi:
- Vinasun (white car) and Mai Linh (green car) are the only reputable companies, but the fake taxis misspell the names. Do not take “Saigon Tourist” taxis.
- The correct phone numbers to be displayed on the body of the car are Vinasun: 38272727, and Mai Linh: 383838.
- The driver is in uniform and wearing a tie, as opposed to non-uniformed fake drivers
- The taxi should be in good condition inside, not run down
- The taxi meter is big and has 4 fields: Fare, Time, Distance, Unit Price. Fake ones are tiny and only show price.
- There is an ID card inside with the driver’s details
- There is a taxi serial number and vehicle registration number painted on the side of the car
- Another tip is to look up prices beforehand on Grab so you at least have an idea in case your phone dies or you run out of data at the crucial time
More on one foreigner’s experience and advice here.
8. Get a tourist sim card
That being said, if you are backpacking in Vietnam, you need to get a sim card. The biggest companies are Viettel, Vinaphone and MobiFone. I bought a tourist sim with Vietnamobile, paid $6 once and was connected to 4G internet everywhere for 30 days. You can get it immediately upon arrival at the airport.
If, like me, you don’t like being connected all the time on your backpacking trips, just disable the apps that disturb you (WhatsApp, Facebook) until you are in a space where you are ready to be reminded of the existence of the rest of the world ;0)
9. Cover up for pagodas and temples (note there’s a difference!)
Firstly, these terms mean slightly different things in Vietnam than other countries where they can often be used interchangeably. “Pagoda” refers to a Buddhist place of worship, and inside you will likely find huge gold Buddha statues and relics. “Temple,” in Vietnam, refers to a hall for ancestor worship. Deceased heroes who have contributed greatly to their communities, regions or country, will have dedicated temples with statues inside – where people go to pay respect to the lingering spirits, give offerings, and ask for help in their daily lives. It goes even beyond heroes – in each and every Vietnamese household you will find an altar dedicated to the deceased of that family, where special prayers are held on the new and full moons.
Regardless, cover up out of respect when visiting sacred sites, whether temple or pagoda. Wear longer pants, and carry a scarf to cover your shoulders. Of the three doors at the entrance, never enter through the middle one as that is designated for gods and kings.
10. A poncho is essential
Especially so in monsoon season, which is when I was there. But regardless, it’s necessary. Pack one or just buy when you get there. You can get ponchos so big that you can ride a bicycle through the craziest monsoon rain and still keep your bag dry.
Speaking of the monsoon, it can actually be a great time to travel around Vietnam! It’s not as crowded as in high season, rates are lower, and the water is refreshing in the heat. I usually dread rain because it’s so cold, but it was so welcomed when I got drenched in the late summer heat!
11. Safety – don’t worry too much, especially outside the big cities
Vietnam is generally super safe. In Hue, I would walk around alone at 4am on the way to the pagoda for meditation. My only concern was barking dogs, not humans. I would leave the bicycle outside the restaurant without a lock or a care. The homestays often leave their front door wide open half the time with nobody inside. And even the room doors. Though I personally locked mine out of habit if nobody was home and I was leaving. That being said, there’s always the odd chance of an eventuality, so keep within your comfort zone, especially in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh where there are pickpockets and fake taxi scams.
12. Ice and fresh veggies are ok!
In many countries we are warned against taking ice in drinks bought off the street, but in Vietnam, with that heat, you need it. Top tip: look at the shape of the ice you are served and it should be a somewhat regular shape, almost cylindrical with a kind of gap in the middle. This is the readymade safe ice. The ice to avoid is that which has been unevenly crushed – then you can suspect that its source is not ideal for your stomach.
Fresh vegetables too, in a lot of places is ok to eat. Especially if you are vegetarian, you will be eating a lot of fresh veggies. I never had any problem or concern, and I have a sensitive stomach.
13. Eat, eat, eat!!!
The food is cheap, the portions big, and the nature of the food is light and easily digested. It will come right out. Eat away, my friends.
14. Toilet paper goes in the dustbin, not the toilet
Like in most Asian countries, the sewage system is not made to handle tissue, and throwing your tissue in the toilet can clog up the system. Most locals don’t actually use tissue – there’s a bidet attached to most toilets that is used to wash up after you are done your depositing business.
15. Get a pollution mask if staying in Hanoi or Saigon for a while
Air pollution is on the increase, especially in Hanoi. If you’re sensitive, or staying around the city for more than a couple of days, better safe than sorry! Get one with a proper filter.
Here’s a few options off Amazon:
16. There’s a cheaper way to get to/from the international airport!
When you’re getting in or out of Hanoi or Saigon, though many go for a shuttle bus or a private taxi, there is actually a great public bus that can save you several bucks. I personally found the bus system a little confusing (though I’m sure I’d get it if I used it a little longer), so asked my hosts which bus to take and where to catch it each time. Have the Grab app downloaded so you can use a bike to get to/from the bus station if it’s a little far.
It ends up being really simple – on my way out of Vietnam, in Hanoi, I just took a Grab bike from the hostel to the bus stand that I wasn’t sure was a bus stand. I stood awkwardly on the side of the road with all my luggage for around 5-10 minutes waiting for the correct bus (number 90, for where I was coming from), after which I got on and, straight to the airport on a very spacious bus with huge windows.
The Grab bike used with credit card cost me 23000 VND, I gave a 5000 VND tip, and the bus cost just 9000 VND. That cost me a total of 37000 VND ($1.60 USD), as opposed to the $13 I would have paid in a taxi. Alternatively, if you are on a domestic flight, you can use the local airline’s shuttle buses which aren’t usually too costly.
17. Vegetarians and Muslims, suss out your options!
Vietnamese love their meat. It’s in everything, especially pork. So if you don’t eat pork, or meat in general, make sure you specify clearly at restaurants, or ask those hosting you where to find vegetarian restaurants.
Top tip: Memorize this phrase “Toy an chai!” (ask a local how to do the intonation, a little raise on the middle word and dip at the end). It means “I am a vegetarian!” Use it everywhere, it will save you a lot of confused back-and-forth.
That being said, worry not – there are a lot of wonderful fresh fruits and vegetables in this tropical Asian country. And there are restaurants dedicated to vegetarians (given the abundance of Buddhists in the country). Even in the bigger regular restaurants, you are bound to find a couple of vegetarian dishes, or chicken for the Muslims.
Top tip: On Sundays, many restaurants close. One fine Sunday, I decided to use my online maps (Maps.Me and Google Maps) to search for a vegetarian restaurant. Wild goose chase! It took me 1.5 hours wandering around in the hot afternoon sun before I found myself something to eat. The first place was closed because it was Sunday, the second place was closed because the owners were away, and the third was non-existent since a year ago! Fourth time lucky – I came across a new Indonesian restaurant that served one vegetarian dish – Gado Gado. Phew!
18. Enjoy the fresh tropical fruit
When in South East Asia, you must try the variety of big, juicy tropical fruits. Do not miss out!
19. Sit on the tiny chairs!
You are bound to find little street vendor stalls set up with the tiniest little tables and chairs, that make you feel like a giant in a dollhouse. This is a classic Vietnam experience, and you will usually get freshly made food (right in front of you) at a cheap price at these!
Top tip: the more crowded the place, the better quality the food
20. Get out of the big city
There’s so much to see outside of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh – do go and explore!
What say you?
Ready to start backpacking in Vietnam? If you’re already there, got any more tips to add? Please share in the comments below <3