How to See the Best of Vietnam on a Budget

Whether you choose to start in the south or begin the journey in the north, this monthlong itinerary for budget travellers is here to help you navigate the country with expense in mind.

Itinerary

Day 1-5: Hanoi

Hanoi easily enamors visitors with its character and quirks. On the surface, it may come across as disorganized to a Westerner travelling through, but upon further inspection, you’ll discover order in the chaos. Many backpackers launch or complete their Vietnam excursion in the capital city. Hanoi is the gateway to attractions such as Sa Pa and Ha Long Bay and most accommodations are quick to offer storage space during ventures to these nearby getaways.

Where to stay in Hanoi

Want a chill (but fun) hostel?

  • See You At Lily's is a hostel known for its super accommodating management and ideal location. The relaxed vibe and welcoming atmosphere attracts a young crowd - predominantly solo travelers, small groups and couples.

Want a straight up booze fest party hostel?

  • Vietnam Backpackers Hostel (The Original) in the Old Quarter is the very definition of insanity, with all-out raves each night. The food was delicious, the people were friendly and the location is top notch. It's located directly across from Hanoi's beer street, where travellers can get .50 cent USD bia hoi drafts and delicious fare peddled around by local vendors.

Want a hostel that is too luxurious to feel like a hostel?

  • May De Ville Backpackers Hostel offers the price tag most backpackers look for but doesn’t compromise on the quality. About a 14-minute walk out of the town center, the hostel has an on-site dining area and a cinema room to kick back and relax after a long day of sightseeing.

Where to eat in Hanoi

Best banh mi: One thing is for certain: you must stop at Banh Mi 25 while you’re in Hanoi. This little food joint serves some of the freshest and satisfying sandwiches Hanoi has to offer. The small, red-colored food truck is located just outside of a locksmith.
Location: 25 Hàng Cá, Hàng Đào, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam

Best overall street food: If you're interested in trying a bit of everything, don't pass up the famous Hanoi Night Market. This option is perfect if you’re in a group or if you can't decide what to eat.
Location: Các Phố Đào, Hàng Ngang, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam

Best vegetarian pho: For the bohemian, health-conscious vegetarian, the popular Vietnamese chain Noodle and Roll has an incredible vegetarian version of Hanoi’s most popular export. The menu is vast and the flavors are on point.
Location: 39c Lý Quốc Sư, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam

What to do in Hanoi

  • Take a stroll along Hoàn Kiếm Lake (check out the Trấn Quốc Pagoda and Quán Thánh Temple while you're at it)

  • Observe Vietminh leader Ho Chi Minh's body at the Mausoleum (the famous One Pillar Pagoda is also nearby)

  • Pay a visit to Văn Miếu - Quốc Tử Giám, or The Temple of Literature; Vietnam's first national university

  • Walk through the Hỏa Lò Prison - a historical landmark where the French once held Vietnamese political prisoners during their struggle for independence. Later, the North Vietnam army held U.S. Prisoners of War captive in this prison, including Senator John McCain

  • Admire the neo-gothic architecture of St. Joseph's Cathedral

  • Learn more about the country’s complex history at the fascinating National Museum of Vietnamese History

hanoi

Day 5-7: Sa Pa Valley

After embracing the madness of Hanoi, take a trip out to the scenic hillsides. The rolling hills are humbling and enticing, and they’re home to various hill tribes. While some travellers are hesitant due to heavy tourism in the area, the experience is certainly worthwhile. Female tour guides from the hill tribes are keen to lead tourists through the mountains to experience what is known as a “homestay,” or an opportunity to observe how the tribe lives.

Some travellers prefer to book their tours ahead of time, while others are eager to barter with the tribal guides. It’s worth noting these young female guides trek the entire way each day, often with children on their backs. Don’t shortchange them as their lives depend on the income they make from tourism.

One thing is for certain: the views will be worth the intense trek. Opt for a smaller group; you will have more of an authentic experience that way. Be sure to ask your guides questions about themselves and their culture and understand that it will most likely be completely different than your own. More importantly, once you get to their home, respect and honor their rules.

Useful links for homestays:

sapa

Day 8-9: Ha Long Bay

This experience is a perfect opportunity to rest your bones after a few days of trekking through the rugged mountains. The limestone karsts spread across 600 square miles of the emerald Gulf of Tonkin is best appreciated by way of an overnight cruise. There are few options, but the adage rings true in this circumstance: you get what you pay for. For backpackers, there are two main options that are similarly priced starting at $70 for 2D/1N.

  • Party Cruise: for the partygoers looking to rave out one sea.

  • Chill Cruise: small and intimate, a laidback experience and one that is more centred around appreciation.

Day 10-11: Ninh Binh

This sleepy town is situated within the Red River Delta and isn’t commonly visited by tourists. However, this province is quite popular among locals as it’s home to Bái Đính Temple, the nation’s largest pagoda.

What to do in Ninh Binh

Rent a scooter near the train station and go on a 20-minute ride to Trang An. From here, you can book a tour on a bamboo raft through the delta and gaze at the rice paddies and towering limestone peaks. After the two hour ride, you can either stay the night or hop on a sleeper bus at night en route to Phong Nha, recently ranked the second most popular destination in Vietnam by Lonely Planet.

Days 12-14: Phong Nha

The combination of genuine locals not yet corrupted by greed and the untouched natural landscapes makes Phong Nha a must stop destination on a backpacking route.

Where to stay in Phong Nha

The two most popular spots in town are the lively Easy Tiger Hostel and its older, more relaxed neighbor, the Phong Nha Farmstay, owned by the same proprietor.

Where to eat in Phong Nha

Those interested in local fare should definitely check out Phong Nha Bamboo Cafe, where the food is not only delicious, but offered at a reasonable price. Visitors who have a taste for Western food can satisfy their cravings at Capture Vietnam Cafe, located adjacent to Easy Tiger Hostel. The vegetarian-friendly spot caters to all and serves up some of the most delicious food I’d eaten in Southeast Asia. The brilliant owner, American expat Hannah Delap, even offers her customers breakfast, lunch and snack deals for long-haul bus rides.

What to do in Phong Nha

One of the most unique things to do in Phong Nha is hitch a ride with Thang’s Phong Nha Riders, a motorbike-tourism company started by 20-year-old Nguyen Van Thang. Thang started his business to offer employment opportunities amon locals and elevate Phong Nha’s touristic ventures.

One of the more renowned spots in the area is the Pub with Cold Beer, a family-owned roadhouse known for its unique farm-to-table techniques. The wooden shack that once specifically catered to locals has quickly become a must-see destination for tourists in recent years. This place certainly appeals to adventurous eaters. Guests can catch, kill and cook their own chickens if they’d like but not to worry, the faint-hearted can opt to have the family do the dirty work for them.

The main draw behind a visit to the town is the Phong Nha Ke-Bang National Park. It’s not the cheapest option, but it’s totally worth it. Where else can you say you ZIPLINED ACROSS A BODY OF WATER INTO A CAVE?

caves

Days 15-20: Hoi An

This will be one of the most delightful stops along your route and, chances are, you may not want to leave. Many vagabonders tend to extend their states from a few nights to about a week. Allocating time allows you to make daytrips to the nearby My Son Sanctuary and lay out on An Bang beach. The town evokes a sense of nostalgia tranquility. Not only does this former port-city woo with its poetic charm, but it has some of the best food and architecture in the nation.

Where to stay in Hoi An

Want a bit of frenzy?

  • If you’re in the mood for a rager, the boys of the Vietnam Backpackers franchise will deliver. The atmosphere at DK’s House is lively, booze-filled and loud. Nightly blowouts seem to be the norm.

Want the mellow atmosphere but not the isolation?

  • A chilled out, but social option is the Sunflower Hotel, located on the main road of Hai Ba Trung. Not only does this spot have a decent size pool, but it’s close to lots of amenities in town.

Where to eat in Hoi An

Best banh mi: If you’re looking to eat some of the city’s best banh mi, my suggestion is to get your goods from Hoi An’s own Banh Mi queen, Madam Khanh. Her roadside stand is off on a small road and easily missable, so pay attention.
Location: 115 Trần Cao Vân, Sơn Phong, Hội An, Quảng Nam, Vietnam

Best overall street food: The Central Market in Hoi An has an array of decadent Cao lầu and crispy Banh xeo, cooked by seasoned mothers and grandmothers who bring their family’s secrets to the table.
Location: 73 Phan Bội Châu Sơn Phong, Hội An, Quảng Nam, Vietnam

Best vegetarian cao lau: While a meal at Morning Glory may be a bit expensive for a typical backpacker budget ($6-10 for a dish), vegetarians are afforded the chance to try Cao lầu (a Hoi An staple).
Location: 106 Nguyễn Thái Học, Minh An, Hội An, Quảng Nam, Vietnam

What to do in Hoi An

Hoi An is most famous for offering custom-made clothing, accessories and footwear. There are so many places to choose from and the quality of the fabric should be the utmost importance. Look at our Shopaholic’s Guide to Hoi An for a survey of the establishments you should visit.

hoi an

Days 21-24: Da Lat

This mountain town is quite literally a breath of fresh air. Chances are it’ll be a bit colder than the other cities you’ll have visited, which will be a welcomed change of pace. This town may look dull on the surface, but once you delve a bit deeper, you’ll discover it’s a bit more peculiar than meets the eye.

The hostels in this town are community-centric and more often than not, you’ll find yourself being invited to home-cooked, family-style meals every evening, which is an awesome opportunity to get to know fellow guests and a good investment as the money begins to tighten at the latter half of your trip.

Where to eat in Da Lat

Best nem nuong: This quaint town is known for having some of the best nem nướng, or “roll your own” spring rolls. One of the best spots in town to try this is Nem Nướng Dũng Lộc.
Location: Phường 4, Dalat, Lâm Đồng, Vietnam

Best coffee shop: If you’re looking for a place to unwind with a soothing atmosphere, then Artists Alley Coffeehouse is the spot to be. Tucked away from the main road, this little eatery is a perfect option for those interested in divulging in some comfort foods from the West.
Location: Dốc Sông Lô, Phường 1, Đà Lạt, Lâm Đồng, Vietnam

Best vegetarian meals: If any vegetarians are tired of asking for meatless options, Hoa Sen Vegetarian Restaurant is the place to be. While the prices may be a bit steeper in comparison to traditional fare, the crops used in the cooking are all super fresh.
Location: 62 Phan Đình Phùng Street., Dalat, Lâm Đồng, Vietnam

What to do in Da Lat

Da Lat is home to one of the country’s finest religious sites, Linh Phuoc Pagoda. This place is an absolute dream for pattern and color enthusiasts with the entire grounds bedecked in broken and recycled glass. It’s a spectacle to behold.

Another awesome spot in town is the Hằng Nga guesthouse. This unique building, famously known as the “Crazy House” was designed by Vietnamese architect Đặng Việt Nga. The psychedelic design takes tourists through a labyrinth of trippy spider webs, forests and gardens.

The artist lives on the premises and rents out the unique rooms to guests seeking a bit of a thrill along their Vietnam journey. While the house was denied building permits for years, Dang persevered and lived out her dream -  creating one of the most unique pieces of modern architecture in the region, if not the world.

If you’re a fan of the Crazy House, you should definitely check out Duong Len Trang, also known as 100 Roofs Cafe. Don’t Google it. Don’t ask any questions. Make sure you buy a drink upon entry and head straight down the stairs into the basement. You’ll know what I’m talking about.

A popular and unique way to see these attractions and more would be to sign up for the infamous Secret Tour, led by a local known as Mr. Rot. There won’t be much information online, but where’s the fun in learning about secrets ahead of time, anyway? Another super popular way to get around town is hiring Easy Riders, or local Vietnamese men who are keen to drive you around to show you the countryside.

Day 25-26: Mui Ne

Those interested in seeing some unique landscape won’t want to miss Mui Ne. This fishing town is small, but the stunning beaches that line the central coastal town are stunning. There are plenty of things to see and do in this seaside village and it’ll be a great place to recharge your batteries.

What to do in Mui Ne

Many travellers wake up before dawn to catch the sunrise at the White Sand Dunes. If you’d like, you’ll have the option to ride a quad bike on the dunes, but it is a bit pricey for the experience. Another popular activity is sliding down the nearby Red Sand Dunes by way of a plastic slide hawked by young children.

Walking along the Fairy Stream is a sight to behold because of the dazzling colors and the bucolic scenes flanking the freshwater route. The hourlong walk takes you through extraterrestrial landscapes.

Where to stay in Mui Ne

Mui Ne Backpacker Village is lively, affordable and features a swimming pool. It’s in the heart of town, so it’s easy to get to beaches, markets and plenty of restaurants in town.

About two hours drive from Mui Ne is the small fishing vilage of La Gi, which is home to Cocobeach Camp, a sprawling stretch of cute bungalows and colorful camper vans that gives off a feel good yearround festival vibe.

Where to eat in Mui Ne

If you’re a fan of seafood, this is the place to be. There are plenty of fish markets to choose from throughout town and the locals are more than willing to share. In addition, the fruits - particularly dragon fruit - are incredibly fresh as they’re grown nearby.

For those of you who can’t make up your minds, the Dong Vui food court is a must. Each of the food stalls is run local and expat chefs, catering to every need from burgers to vegan nachos. This is a great dinner spot to kick back and relax over a few beers.

Day 27-31: Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh City is a glittering metropolis and the country’s most dynamic city. The rich and daunting history can prove to be a challenge, but French colonial-style architecture, unique eateries and kind souls make it an unforgettable stop.

What to do in HCMC

  • Gorge on some local eats at the Bến Thành Market

  • Take a look at the art deco architecture and learn a bit of history at the Independence Palace

  • Admire the red brick facade of the enormous Notre-Dame Basilica

  • Send some snail mail at the Saigon Central Post Office

  • Learn about the American War through a different vantage point at the War Remnants Museum

  • Book a day trip to the far reaches of the city to dig up some history at the Cu Chi tunnels

Where to eat in HCMC

Best traditional meal: Traverse down a small alleyway off of Le Loi street and climb six stories to get to Mountain Retreat, a rustic affair that serves more traditional, northern-style sharing plates. Go for the rau muong xao toi, sauteed morning glory stir-fried in garlic and soy sauce, and cà chua nhồi thịt, Vietnamese-style stuffed tomatoes with minced pork.
Location: 36 Lê Lợi, Bến Nghé, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Best coffee shop: Ho Chi Minh City’s crop of coffee shops is a coffee lover’s dream. Interested in a French bistro experience? Head to L’Usine. In need of some chocolate pastries? Maison Marou is Saigon’s own Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory. Check out our article on the “Best Cafes in Ho Chi Minh City.

Best vegetarian meals: If you’re willing to break the budget for a totally unique experience, Padma de Fleur is a floral shop turned eatery that serves up homemade cookery rotated daily. A reservation must be made in advance but they are very accommodating to the vegetarians.
Location: 55/6 Lê Thị Hồng Gấm, Nguyễn Thái Bình, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Where to stay in HCMC

Want to be close to the action, but not have it inside the hotel?

  • If you’re looking for a colorfully cozy spot in the heart of Bui Vien, aka backpacker central, Hideout Hostel is your best bet. The dorm-style beds start around $8 USD per night.

Want to avoid any bunk bed setups?

  • If you absolutely abhor the top bunk, look no further and stay at the Long Guesthouse Hostel, also located on Pham Ngu Lao Street in the backpacker district. While this place is simple and no-frills, it pays not to have to be terrified of falling off the bed as you drift into slumber.

Want some privacy without breaking the bank?

  • If you’re sick of the dorm life, Vy Khanh Hostel is an excellent option. It’s location is close to many of the city’s best attractions. However, the major perk is that it’s situated in a back alley away from the madness.

ho chi minh city

Fast Facts

  • Currency: Vietnamese Dong VND₫ some people and places do accept USD$ from time to time.

  • Language: Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam but dialects change from north to south and within ethnic subcultures. A lot of people working in tourism in the major cities can understand English.

  • Visa requirements: For a complete guide to visa requirements for all nationalities, click here. All visitors passports must be valid for at least 6 months from date of departure from Vietnam.

  • Safety: With the exception of petty theft, Vietnam has a relatively low crime rate. Backpackers be advised: the first encounter with motorbike activity in Hanoi can be overwhelming. When crossing the street, the trick is to surrender to the flow. To read more about safety, click here.

  • When to go: The geography of Vietnam snakes through a number of climate zones, indicating a difference in seasons from north to south. The best time to visit Northern Vietnam is from September to December, and April to May when the weather is warm, sunny and relatively dry. The worst time to visit the north is January to March as the weather is cold, damp, rainy and dull, and June to August when the blistering heat and monsoon storms are unbearable. The best time to visit south Vietnam is December to May, during the dry season. But be warned that the months of April and May are scorching and can prove to be dangerous to those prone to heat stroke. June to November, the south of Vietnam is bogged down with heavy rainstorms.

  • Dress code: Vietnamese women dress more conservatively in the north near Hanoi than they do Ho Chi Minh City and neighbouring beach resorts in the south. Generally speaking, foreigners should respect the traditional cultural norm of not revealing too much leg, bust and waist in order not to attract unwanted attention from locals. Destinations such a Sa Pa in the far north and Hanoi (during the winter months) will require trousers, sweaters, covered shoes and raincoats. Remember to always cover your knees and shoulders when visiting religious monuments or government buildings. Bikinis and swimsuits are acceptable in swimming areas, but many Vietnamese choose to fully cover their skin to prevent them from tanning.


How To Get Around

  • Motorbike: This is the most popular option for hardcore backpackers and adventure junkies. Getting around via motorbike allows for ultimate schedule flexibility and the opportunity to explore the countryside with freedom of mobility. You'll be able to buy one easily from travellers who’ve completed their journeys and hostels with connections to auto shops.
  • Bus: This is a popular choice for those traveling the country extensively. The buses are cheap, [generally] convenient and easy to book. There is no need to pre-arrange bus seats prior to your arrival as there are plenty of agencies in Vietnamese towns and hotel, hostel and guesthouse staff usually can arrange the bookings in advance. The only time for concern is booking in advance during holiday dates. Check out the list of public holidays here.
  • Train: Opting for a scenic train ride is something for the books but may be inconvenient and more expensive than the bus or motorbike route. The popular Reunification Express line goes cross-country (read more about it here) but does not stop at Phong Nha, Hue or Hoi An. If you want to get to either town, take a bus.
  • Plane: For those short on time, airline travel is the way to go. Budget airlines such as VietJet and JetStar don’t skimp on value, but there are frequent delays. If booked in advance, a one-way ticket from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City is on average, about $50 USD.

 

by Laura Nalin

Laura Nalin is a travel writer whose been living and working abroad since 2013. She's been featured on Huffington Post, Elite Daily, and Thought Catalog, and her personal collective of travel-related chronicles can be found at Willful and Wildhearted.