TRAVEL GUIDE TO VIETNAM

Last updated on 10-SEP-2019


CONTENT– Formalities / Travel Itineraries / Places To See / Basics / Accommodation / Getting Around / Food / Cultural Sense & Safety / Shopping / Budget



Vietnam is undoubtedly one of the favourite destinations in Southeast Asia among backpackers. This narrow strip of land adjacent to the South China Sea has a varying landscape to offer as you travel across the country. From breath-taking mountains and terrace paddy fields in the north to sand dunes in the south, from gigantic limestone islands protruding out of the sea in the north east to the vast caves in the Midwest, from the tribal villages to fast-developing cities, Vietnam is filled with abundant treasure, waiting to be explored.  My Vietnam travel guide tries to capture all the information needed to plan your trip. Because, Vietnam is a dream destination to those who are looking for an adventurous experience at an affordable price.


Formalities 

Getting a visa to the Socialist republic of Vietnam cannot be any easier. Citizens of most countries including India can apply for an e-visa for a nominal fee of $25. A tourist visa is available for 30 days.  However, what could be confusing is that many websites and agencies offer to process your visa and charge you double or triple the actual fee. So, here is the official Government website for e-visa application.  E-visa facility is available for most countries. Check if your country appears in this list.

Once you click on the e-visa tab, you are directed to enter the basic details about your passport, your arrival and exit ports and dates. You will also have to upload a passport size picture and the photocopy of your passport. One thing that is important is to know where you will enter and exit the country from.

You can choose to enter country by air, land or sea. All entry ports accept e-visa. A list of port that can be used to enter the country is listed in this link.

If you choose to enter the country from Laos or Cambodia border, you can use the land ports listed. Check the next section to decide your entry and exit points.


Travel Itineraries 

Most people who backpack in Vietnam enter the South or the North and make their way to the other end. The two major cities – Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Previously known as Saigon) is situated on either sides of the country. If you have limited time, then you could chose either the north or the south as your entry and exit points. That means, you will not be able to cover the entire country.

1 Week (Rapid) – Northern Vietnam (Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Sapa/Ninh Binh) OR Southern Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City, Mui Ne, Hoi An/Dalat)

2-3 Weeks (Moderate) – Hanoi, Ha long Bay, Sapa, Ninh Binh, Hoi An, Dalat, Ho Chi Minh City.

4-5 Weeks (Detailed) – Hanoi, Sapa, Ha Giang Loop, Ha Long Bay, Ninh Binh, Phong Nha, Hué, Hoi An, Dalat, Mui Né, Ho Chi Minh City.

You can make a custom plan by choosing the destinations you want to visit and then fly from one place to another to save time.


Places To See And Things To Do




NORTHERN VIETNAM

Hanoi – The capital city of Vietnam has an interesting blend of urban lifestyle and a traditional feel. You can find the locals hangout by the street side stalls, enjoying their food, a beer or Smoothies.

Some of the major attractions of Hanoi are – Temple Of Literature, which is one of the ancient universities in the country, Army museum, Ho Chi Minh Museum, Single Pillar Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Tran Quoc Pagoda, West Lake, Hoan Kiem Lake, Water Puppet Theatre and the French Quarter. During the weekends, visit the busy and bustling night market setup on Hang Dao Street. Many travellers walk to the Hanoi's train street at around 3 PM and 7PM to see the train speed along the narrow streets of Old quarter.

Hanoi is also the central location to get to various other attractions in the north. If you are short on time and cannot travel to other cities on your own, you can opt for a 1/2/3 day tour to Halong bay, Ninh Binh and Sapa from here. Many tour agencies all around the city offer a good deal.

Sapa – Sapa is a mountain town located around 350 kms form Hanoi. At Sapa, you could take a cable car to Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest peak. You could also choose to do a one day or two day trek to the peak. Bich Van Thien Tu Pagoda, Silver Waterfall, Ta Van Village, Bac Ha Market, Stone Church and Coc San Cave are some of the other attractions in and around Sapa.

The best way to explore Sapa is through trekking. Alternatively, you can hire a motorbike and ride around the villages in and around Sapa. More than seeing places, Sapa is known for the best countryside experience it can provide. I would recommend you to stay in a homestay, outside of the town. Small villages such as Lao Chai or Ta Van offer several homestay options. Spending a night or two with the local Hmong community would be an incredible experience. The locals would take you on a trek to the mountains and to the waterfalls for a nominal fee.

Ha Giang Loop  A four-day, 400km bike trip on Ha Giang loop can turn out to be one of the best things you have ever done in your life. The loop takes you through some of the stunning landscapes of Vietnam. Twin mountains, Lung Khuy cave and Heaven’s gate near Quan Ba, King’s palace near Dong Van, Lung Cu flag post and waterfalls in Du Gia are only some of the attractions. But the real adventure is to ride on the winding roads that cut through the mountains and to find yourself in remote villages.

Halong Bay – Hundreds of limestone islands looming out of the sea can only result in a spectacular view. Take a cruise and explore a few caves or go canoeing or diving. From a day trip to a two or three-day tour, the options to experience the place are unlimited. Since Halong bay is often crowded, many travellers choose to stay in Cat Ba island and take tours from there which are reasonably cheaper.

Ninh Binh  – Ninh Binh is often referred to as Halong bay on land. As you take a boat ride at Trang An, you follow the river as it makes it's way through several caves, by islands and Pagodas. The film set of King Kong is an interesting place to stop at. Tam Coc, situated 25kms away from Ninh Binh also has similar rides. A trek to the summit of Dragon hill above Mua caves is a must do. Apart from these places you could visit Hoa Lu – The ancient capital, Bai Dinh Pagoda, Ninh Van stone carving village and Ninh Hai Embroidery village.


CENTRAL VIETNAM

Phong Nha – Phong Nha is particularly famous for its caves. Take a boat trip to Phnog Nha cave and experience the Paradise caves by foot. The spectacular limestone formations inside these caves will leave you mesmerised. The Dark caves are particularly popular for mud bath, walk in the cave filled with sludge.

Hué – Hué, the ancient capital with its citadel attracts several tourists year round. Plan a half-day at the Citadel. The night market next to the perfume river is a delight to spend time at.  Rent a bike and explore the neighbourhood – Thien Mu pagoda, Minh Mang Tomb, Tu Duc tomb, Khai Dinh Tomb and Abandoned waterpark. And when you are done, take a bike ride to Hoi An passing through the Hai Van Pass.

Hoi An – A UNESCO world heritage site, Hoi An with its colonial buildings and night market attracts several tourists from around the world. Take a day trip to see the Hindu temples of My Son, built by the Champa Empire or ride to the Marbel mountains and Bana hills (Golden bridge). An Bang beach, Hidden beach, Cua Dai beach are some of the beaches to relax at. Do Snorkeling and diving at Cham Island. If you are heading north from Hoi An, you could chose to ride a bike to Hué through the famous Hai Van pass.


SOUTHERN VIETNAM

Dalat - Dalat is a hill town around 300km North east of Ho Chi Minh City. It is particularly famous for its orchards and farms. Make sure to buy some fresh tropical fruits likes Peaches, Mangosteen and Sapodilla. Visit the crazy house, Truc Lam Pagoda, Linh Phuoc Pagoda, Cau Dat tea farms, Civet coffee farms, elephant falls, Pongour waterfall, Datanla fall and Tuyen Lam Lake. Dalat night market is a paradise for food lovers.

Mui Né  Mui Né, a small fishing village around 200 km from Ho Chi Minh City, is a popular destination among travellers. Most people visit Mui Né to see the White Sand Dunes, Red Sand Dunes and a walk along the Fairy Stream. All these attractions along with a stop at a fishing village could be covered within five hours by booking a tour bus or a jeep. The tour ly begins at 4:00 AM to see the sunrise at White Sand Dunes. During the evenings, relax by the beach or go paragliding. Mui Né is also popular for its massage centres.

Ho Chi Minh City – Being one of the most developed cities of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City is a popular tourist destination. In the city, visit the Phuoc Hai Pagoda, Vinh Nghiem Pagoda and Giac Lam Pagoda to explore the culture. The Central post office and Duc Ba Cathedral retain some memories of the colonial past. Educate yourself at the war and History museums. You could catch a glimpse of the city from Saigon skydeck at Bitexco Financial Tower. Travellers stick around the Backpacker area which turns lively at night and the party goes on till the wee hours of morning.

From Ho Chi Minh, you can take day tours to Cu Chi tunnels or Mekong Delta. Cu Chi tunnels take you back in time with its well-preserved tunnel network built during the war. A day trip to Mekong Delta takes you to the countryside.

Other popular places to explore in Vietnam are  - Nha Trang, Can tho, Phu Quoc island, Cao Bang and Da Nang. Some helpful apps that indicate places to see around the city you are in are - Bpacking: Vietnam Travel Guide, Vietnam Travel Guide - Triposo. 


The Basics 

The first thing you will need when you land in any country is the local currency. I would highly recommend carrying a few US dollars that can be exchanged to VND at the airport. Attention! As you exit the airport at Hanoi (And perhaps other airports as well), you will find several money exchange counters. Do not be in a hurry. Check the exchange rates offered by all of them. The offers vary significantly. Instead, you can also use the ATM machines to withdraw money, which will attract a fee based on your bank guidelines.

It is advisable to buy a SIM card at the airport. Some networks only work in certain regions. So, make sure to get a SIM card that has connectivity across the country. I used Viettel SIM card. Viettel has network at every nook and corner of the country. The data package of 9GB cost me around Rs. 900 ($13). I used the SIM card for 4 weeks without a single recharge.

At Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, there is excellent bus service between the city and the airport. Therefore, avoid spending unnecessary money on transport and use the bus service for a cost almost ten times lesser than that of a taxi.


Accommodation 

Accommodation would surprisingly be the cheapest part of your expenses in Vietnam. The price for a descent hostel dorm can be as less as Rs 80 (Approximately $1).  Most homestays and hostels offer bed for a rate anywhere from Rs 200-450. Private rooms are also available at this rate. Most accommodations include a free breakfast. It is advisable to use Agoda app while traveling in Vietnam to receive some inexpensive deals. Most places are descent and sometimes, way too luxurious for the amount paid. Hostel world, as always works great in Southeast Asia. Additionaly, most places offer a laundry service for a nominal price of 20000-40000 VND (Rs 60-120) for 1Kg.

In Sapa, ensure to stay with the ethnic groups who approach you as you get off the overnight bus from Hanoi. It is perfectly safe to stay with the Hmong people who have reasonable offers for a stay at their house and a trekking in the mountains.

It is not really required to book a hotel or hostel in advance. There are plenty of options in the above mentioned tourist locations. Therefore, you can reach the destination and look for a place. However, if you would like to ensure accommodation in a particular place, then you could reserve online, a day in advance. Below are the names of Homestays and Hostels that I have stayed at –

Hanoi – Hanoi Culture Hostel

Sapa – Mama Bau Summit lodge (Homestay)

Ha Giang – Bong Hostel

Yên Minh (Ha Giang Loop) – Ha Anh Homestay (Highly recommended)

Dong Van (Ha Giang Loop) – CND Hostel

Du Già (Ha Giang Loop) – Backpacker Garden Homestay

Cat Ba Island – Luna’s House Hostel

Tam Coc, Ninh Binh – The Banan Tree Hostel

Phong Nha – Gecko Hostel,

Hué – Khe Sanh Homestay

Hoi An – Cucumber, Tribee Bana Hostel

Dalat – Mr Peace Backpacker’s House

Mui Né – Mui Ne Hills Budget Hotel/Hostel

Ho Chi Minh City – City Backpackers Hostel, Flipside Hostel



Getting Around 

The country has an excellent road and rail network. The buses are the most popular and the easiest mode of transport. Almost all hostels can arrange your bus tickets through a local travel agency. However, it is recommended that you ask around for a better price. It could be surprising to see the difference in price they can offer. For example, my hostel in Tam Coc was charging VND 300K for a ticket to Phong Nha while a shop just outside the hostel was selling the same ticket at VND 230K.  So it is always advisable to ask around. You could use the app VeXeRe to check prices and book bus tickets.

To travel within a town or a city, you could walk around or take a grab bike or rent a scooter or a bicycle. Grab is a popular app to find a ride or deliver food. Most hostels rent out an Automatic or a semi automatic scooter. The rent rates are mostly consistent in a given town or city. However, it is better to check around to see if you can strike a better deal. However, it is important to avoid riding in certain towns and cities. The hostel or hotel you are in, will guide you regarding this. For example, they had asked us to avoid entering the city of Da Nang as the cops often catch hold of travellers and demand a heavy fine. I had personally heard about a few cases from other travellers. At Hai Van pass we had to take a route around the town of Da Nang to reach Hoi An.

Many cities also offer bicycles for rent. It is a nice way to explore the cities like Hoi An and Hué.


Food



The cuisine of Vietnam may not be loaded with spice but you shall surely find a few favourites before you leave the country. To start with, leaving Vietnam without eating a Banh Mi is a height of ignorance. You can hardly miss them. Banh Mi is what the Vietnamese have done to the French Baguette. The bread is filled with some peanut sauce, vegetables and meat of your choice. You could choose to replace the meat with egg or just vegetables and cheese. A Banh Mi on a road side stall will cost you only VND 10K and depending on the area and restaurant can shoot up to 40K.

Fried rice, fried noodles and spring rolls are available almost everywhere in the country. A noodle soup called Pho is a very popular breakfast dish. You could order it with meat or only vegetables.  Bun Bi is one of my favourites. It consists of rice noodles topped with vegetables, peanuts and shredded tofu or pork. It is accompanied with a tangy-sweet fish sauce or equivalent for vegetarians.

Vegetarians can look for sign boards that say “Nhā Hāng Chay” which means – Vegetarian restaurants.  These may contain imitation meat but they are often made of tofu.

Most hostel, homestays and hotels offer something called a family dinner. All guests eat along with the family hosting them. A lot of good food is served and it often includes vegetarian and vegan options. The cost could be anywhere from 50K to 90K VND, depending on where you are staying.

Vietnam also produces several tasty tropical fruits. Mangosteens, Peaches, Mangoes, Sapodilla are some of the fruits that are to be tried while in the country.  Dalat is the place to find fresh fruits from the local farms.

When we speak of fruits, one cannot ignore the wonder called Smoothies. Smoothies are extremely popular in Vietnam. Mango Smoothies and Avocado Smoothies are a must try. Egg coffee and coconut coffee are some of the other attractions unique to Vietnam.


Cultural Sense And Safety 

Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism are the three major religions. There are also several other folk religions practiced by the tribes. While entering the Pagodas ensure to cover your shoulders and knees.

Traveling in Vietnam is perfectly safe. In most cities it is safe to be walking around even at wee hours of the morning. Therefore, Vietnam is also a popular destination for many Solo women travellers. Most people are polite and helpful to travellers as the country relies heavily on tourism. However, there are possibilities of finding some rude bus drivers. Avoid any kind of confrontations with them. 


What To Buy And Where? 

Most towns and cities are known for their night markets. However, most of them are targeted at the tourists. Therefore, bargaining is the way to go. Here is a list of places to shop at –

Hanoi markets, Old quarter – A series of streets sell cheap duplicates of branded clothing and other interesting artefacts.

Hoi An night market and Tailoring shops – Hoi An is particularly famous for its shops that stitch customised dresses and suits within 3 hours.

Night Markets – Almost every city or town has a night market. Most of the shops sell food but they also have some stores that sell artefacts. I found the night markets at Hanoi, Hué and Dalat particularly interesting.

When it comes to buying things, you should purchase a pack of coffee powder before you leave the country. Vietnam is the second largest producer and exporter of coffee. Try some new flavours such as Coconut coffee. Civet Coffee in Dalat is relatively inexpensive. You could also buy some green tea from the farms in Dalat.

Bamboo artefacts are also very popular with the tourists. If you are into collecting paintings, you must stop at the workshops on the way to Cu Chi tunnels that make paintings out of eggshells.  While in Sapa, buy some hemp fabric sweaters and bags made and sold by the tribal women.




Budget And Travel Tips 

An approximate daily expense is listed below. All costs are in VND (Rupees).

*Accommodation is Single dorm bed for Backpacker and private room for two in case of mid-range and luxury.
*Transport is an average cost of renting a bike in a town. Does not include long distance travel.

Traveling in Vietnam is relatively inexpensive. But that very reason can lead you to ignore the prices and pay as you go along without realising that they accumulate. In the end you would have spent more than what was necessary. Therefore, a few tips can help you keep a tab on your expenses.

Flight Tickets – I have normally observed that the flight ticket prices to and from Ho Chi Minh City are much lower than a flight ticket to Hanoi. So, it would be advisable to book your return ticket to Ho Chi Minh City and then take a one-way internal flight between cities.

Airport Buses– Both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have excellent bus service operating between the city and the airport. The bus ticket is almost ten times cheaper than the taxi fare. You can easily enquire about the buses to the airport at the hostel/hotel that you are staying at.

Share a boat – Some attractions at Ninh Binh, Tam Coc and Phnong Nha caves involve a boat ride where the ticket is charged per boat. So, if you end up traveling alone, you have to pay the rent of the entire boat. The solution is to make friends along the way. You could team up with other travellers at the hostel or directly at the ticket counter. For example, at Phong Nha cave we had to gather four people at the hostel and 5 others at the ticket counter to share the boat fee. Your social skills will come of real help here.  Because just like you, there are others who want to share a boat!

Ask around – While you book a bus ticket or if you are renting a bike, ask around! Do not stick to one place to strike a deal. Do not always rely on the price mentioned at your hostel or hotel. If you walk around, you will find several places offering a better deal.

Go directly to the bus station – You could book long distance buses at your hostel or several other booking offices in a given town. Asking around will help you find a good deal. However, even better is to go directly to the bus station and take a local bus. The bus stations are always outside of the town and it may need you to take a Grab bike ride or a taxi to get there depending on your luggage. While you book from hostel or a booking office, you will have a pickup service from the town. Sometimes, it may end up being almost the same. So, make a wise decision comparing the cost differences.

Try Grab bikes – If you have to get to some place around the town and do not want to rent a bike for the entire day, try Grab app to book a ride. It is often safer and easier as you do not have to negotiate for a deal. Sometimes, a Grab taxi might be available for a much cheaper rate.

Pick Your Food – If you want to really be tight on your budget, you can do it easily when it comes to food. Street food is extremely cheap in Vietnam. Well, you will have to walk to the non-touristic areas and you shall find a lot of Banh Mi stalls that sell one for as less as 10000 VND.  Vietnam is a country that produces some excellent tropical fruits. It is easy to find them almost everywhere and they are your cheaper and healthier options. Also, Bakeries and Circle K that have in-house restaurant can be other cheaper options. You could also pack a Banh Mi or make a sandwich of your own to carry while you are traveling around a town. Or between towns

Refill Water – I have often noticed that we spend a lot on water. Though it is cheap to purchase a bottle of water in Vietnam it still adds up to your cost and most importantly, it promotes plastic usage. So, I would highly recommend carrying your water bottle. Most hostels do allow refills. Some offer a refill for free, but some charge a nominal fee.

Negotiate – No matter where you are and what you are buying in a tourist location, it is important to negotiate. So do not go without trying your luck with some bargaining.

Avoid Booking Charges - Many websites charge a commission for hotel or hostel booking. There are plenty of hostels in almost every town. Therefore, it is really not required to book in advance. You can reach a town and look for accommodation. Thus, you can avoid paying the fee for online booking.




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