Welcome to my backpacking travel guide to Vietnam. From the bustling motorbike filled streets of downtown Ho Chi Minh City, to the untouched islets and towering peaks of Ha Long Bay, to the historical and cultural attractions of Hoi An’s ancient town, to Sapa’s rice terraces fixed into steep hillsides – this country should undoubtedly be on every traveller’s radar.
In my opinion Vietnam offers up pure magic. In its people, food and landscape. It never ceases to amaze me and even after living here for two years there is always something new and exciting to do, eat and see. I think this is what keeps people here, extends traveller’s itineraries and what makes people want to come back again and again.
There is just something in the culture that interweaves with the landscape. The combination of the new soaring skyscrapers with the old hole in the wall coffee shops. Mixing the traditional and the modern is what makes Vietnam unlike any other country out there.
Before I unpack this Vietnam travel guide, let me tell you more about myself. I was born and raised just outside Toronto, Canada in the greater Toronto area. I finished an Undergraduate degree in Health Science from Western University in London, Ontario and completed my Master’s in Education from Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec.
When I was 18, I took a trip to Poland with my grandpa to visit his hometown in Tomaszów, Lubelski. He hadn’t been back in 25 years and didn’t quite know what to expect and quite frankly neither did I. As soon as we touched down in Warsaw, I suddenly became in charge of our itinerary and was put to work immediately. Grandpa was officially on holiday.
Instantly, I became our tour guide which made me quickly realize that you don’t need a fancy tour bus or extravagant itinerary to be able to travel. I guess it really is thanks to my grandpa for being such a happy-go-lucky traveller that definitely sparked something in me because I’ve been travelling ever since!
After I finished all of my schooling I was free to work and roam the world for a bit. Of course photography had always been intertwined with my travels and it quickly became a passion with every place I got to see.
However, coming back home to work, save, travel and repeat became quite repetitive and I wanted to take a leap into the unknown. So on February 16th 2018 I packed two suitcases and moved to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
My Favourite Places in Vietnam: Ninh Binh and Sapa
After living in Vietnam for two years, I can safely say that my favourite place has to be Ninh Binh. And that’s without a hint of a doubt! When I used to think of myself living in Vietnam, I thought I would be living there, in the midst of soaring rice terraces, petting my buffalo as I walked to work.
Although, I was obviously far removed from living that fantasy as I’m based in the metropolis of Ho Chi Minh. When I did travel (only a few hundred miles) to find these breathtaking views I couldn’t contain my excitement.
This is the Vietnam I dreamt about, a photographers dream. And this is where I got to see the true beauty of Vietnam for miles upon miles for the very first time.
Another favourite place and one of my best memories from my time in Vietnam was driving my motorbike through Sapa’s small villages amongst the winding valleys with my friend, Alex. Riding through the age-old rice cultivations of the highland ethnic tribes and taking in all the scenic sights of the mountain ranges disguised in terraced rice fields was unforgettable.
However, this was no easy feat as the roads were rugged, craggy and all around rough. We actually couldn’t stop laughing at how much our butts were hurting from the bumpy ride. There is so much beauty in Sapa and slowing down to let a mama buffalo and her babies cross the street is incomparable to anything I’ve experienced before.
Vietnam Travel Guide: Must-See Destinations
The first destination on my Vietnam travel guide is Ho Chi Minh City. This city is all about eating, so eat all the street food or join a local street food tour. Dishes you can’t miss: Pho, Banh Mi, Banh Xeo and Banh Canh Cua.
The coffee scene is also undeniable here so be sure to check out some rustic cafes scattered throughout the city such as the vintage and old school Saigonese Café Apartment Building, Cong Café and Café 81.
The main event of this region is of course Hoi An, so make sure you leave enough time in your itinerary to spend a night or two in this Ancient Town in order to see all the lanterns light up at night.
Wander through the old streets on bicycle and explore the yellow painted houses. The night market in Hoi An is well worth a visit and while you’re out at night make sure you release a lantern on the river. I also did a cooking class – the Thuan Tinh Island Cooking Tour – which I recommend for anyone staying a bit longer in Hoi An.
After a couple of magical days I recommend traveling up to Hanoi and seeing Ninh Binh along the way. Stay in the little village of Tam Coc and enjoy all that this town has to offer. Visit the Bich Dong Pagoda – a temple carved into the side of a mountain – and climb the Mua Caves to get those breathtaking views over Tam Coc.
Once you get to Hanoi, I recommend taking a stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake, wandering through the Old Quarter, eating some delicious Bun Cha and checking out the famous train street. From Hanoi, you can travel to Ha Long Bay and experience one of the most beautiful destinations in all of Southeast Asia.
I did a 2-day cruise from Hanoi through to Ha Long Bay and this was the best way to experience Ha Long Bay. If you want to spend more time in this region you can stay on the beautiful Cat Ba Island to discover more of Ha Long Bay’s hidden gems. Here you can visit the national park, journey to Monkey Island and relax on one of the many beaches.
Sapa is next on our Vietnam travel guide and it really is a special place. Enjoy the small quaint town before heading to a homestay in the valley. Life here is simpler so enjoy being in peaceful nature and trekking through rice terraces. Visit Mount Fansipan – the tallest mountain in the Hoang Lien Son Range – and one of the highlights of Sapa.
Bonus destination: Phu Quoc. This island is located in the south of Vietnam, near the border of Cambodia, and is all about beaches and relaxation. Check out the seafood market in town which is hosted every night. It’s called Dinh Cau Market and has some of the best food I’ve ever tasted in Vietnam (and that’s saying something!)
How to Immerse Yourself in Vietnamese Culture
There are a couple of sure-fire ways to experience the best of Vietnamese culture while you travel. They revolve around the type of food you eat, the accommodation you stay at and the transport you use to explore Vietnam. If you stick to street food, staying in homestays and traveling on motorbikes/scooters – you’re Vietnam experience will be authentic!
1) Street Food: Street food stalls are run by dedicated and hard working owners who spend hours mastering their craft, creating different components for their dishes. They’re proud of their food and love to share their culture. When exploring Vietnam you should enjoy the local ways as much as possible and street food is a great place to start.
2) Book a Homestay: Homestays in Vietnam can be found in most cities and towns, but many are located in remote areas, meaning tourists are less likely to visit. Homestays give you more of a chance to observe a slice of real Vietnamese life and meet locals and families along the way.
In busier spots like Sapa Town, homestays are the perfect excuse to get away from the hustle and bustle and experience that traditional village life! And trust me, it is absolutely lovely!
3) Hop on a Motorbike: a unique experience in Vietnam is exploring by motorbike. In a country packed with motorbikes getting around on the back of one is truly an unforgettable experience. In booming cities like Ho Chi Minh there is no better way to get around than to hire a bike and zip around the city’s many districts.
The Wonderful People and Food of Vietnam
I think Vietnam’s greatest asset is its people. I know that most people here have warm hearts and open doors. This is something you’ll notice whether you’ve been here for 10 years or 10 minutes.
Strolling the streets is enough to get you at least 100 smiles from locals. People here work hard and almost never complain. They open their doors to strangers and love seeing others enjoy their culture.
Everyday of my travels in Vietnam has allowed me to meet the loveliest locals! Whether that was eating bun cha at a local food cart or taking a taxi across the city. Even the smallest of interactions have always been wonderful. People of Vietnam are genuinely curious and interested in foreigners and they love to ensure you have an amazing time.
Although, the one thing Vietnamese people absolutely love to do is watch to see if you enjoy some of their stranger foods. This is something I never get tired of. Showing off my love for fermented fish sauces and blood sausage cubes has become somewhat of a specialty of mine!
And to be frank, Vietnamese food is absolutely delicious, distinct and unforgettable. It’s definitely a major highlight on any itinerary and should not be overlooked. If you look at my Instagram you know the only thing I do here is eat to my heart’s content. It’s that good! So my one piece of advice would be: eat until you can’t no more. Some of my favourite dishes are:
- Banh Xeo: Vietnamese pancake stuffed with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts
- Bun Cha: grilled pork and noodle
- Cao Lau: a noodle dish from the town of Hoi An which typically consists of pork and greens on a bed of rice noodles
- Bun Bo Nam Bo: beef and noodle dish
- Banh Bot Loc: Vietnamese shrimp and pork dumplings steamed in banana leaves
- Flan: sold in little containers by vendors everywhere (especially in Saigon)
Vietnam Travel Guide: Practical Everyday Tips
The first thing you need to know about Vietnam is that there are visa requirements. Most countries need a visitor visa and approval letter before entering Vietnam. So, be sure to do some research and obtain any necessary paperwork before your arrival.
Once you’ve arrived, I recommend not stressing. The good thing about travel in Vietnam is that it can be relaxed. There is always a way to get to where you need to go. Whether that be by motorbike, plane, sleeper bus, taxi, train or private car.
You will almost never get stuck somewhere and there are plenty of inexpensive options to get from point A to B. This also goes for hotels and homestays. Last minute bookings are never a problem.
Another tip I have is to cross the street slowly. It may seem impossible and dangerous from an outsider’s perspective, but this is customary in Vietnam. Cross slowly and you’ll be on your way! Next, you might want to learn some Vietnamese: “xin chào” is hello and “cảm ơn” is thank you!
Finally, Vietnam is still a cash happy country so make sure you bring plenty of Vietnamese Dong (VND) and don’t rely too much on your cards. Also, download the Grab App as this is a widely used taxi app (the Uber of Southeast Asia) where you can hire either a motorbike or car.
Thanks for reading my Vietnam travel guide! I hope you found some useful information for your trip to one of the most amazing countries in the world.