With striking landscapes, large stretches of lovely coastline, intriguing cities and excellent food, it’s no wonder the number of tourists in Vietnam has more than doubled in the last decade or so.
The country is changing at lightning speed, and with roads being improved, comfortable long-distance buses and a decent train network, it’s easy to get from top to bottom – or vice-versa – of this long country in a short space of time. Here are our top tips to help on your trip backpacking Vietnam.
1. Be wary when booking tours
Some hotels offer great tours at reasonable prices. However, in many cases – particularly if a hotel is suspiciously cheap – tour prices can be heavily hiked up and the excursions badly organized. Ask other travellers for personal recommendations and do some research before committing.
2. Always ask “How much?”
Many eating establishments – especially street kitchens – either don’t have prices on the menu, or dishes are written on a sign in Vietnamese only. Establish the price before you order, or you risk paying over the odds once it’s time to settle the bill. A bowl of noodle soup at a cheap street place starts from around 30,000đ (£1/$1.30).
3. Take a seat in tiny chairs
Street kitchens may not look that appealing, with small tables and toddler-sized plastic chairs spilling out onto crowded streets, but these casual restaurants can offer some of the freshest meals you’ll get in Vietnam – and the cheapest.
You can often see the food being prepared in front of you, and there’s usually a buzzing atmosphere. It’s clear where to get the best quality grub from by how jam-packed the place is.
4. Take a train journey
Trains are significantly more expensive than buses, and services tend to be slow. However, rail travel has its advantages: you’ll avoid the frequent near-collisions and general mayhem that pervades Vietnam’s roads, you’ll get to see much more of the rural scenery, and you might get to meet fellow travellers – and share their food, if you’re lucky.
Overnight trains, which should be booked a day or two in advance, have comfortable sleeping berths, and there’s usually a smoke-filled bar carriage to escape to if you’re struggling to get some shuteye.
5. Forget everything you know about crossing roads
In order to cross the road and get to the other side in one piece, especially in urban areas with heavy traffic, you have to forget everything you ever learnt about road safety, go against your gut instinct. Stay calm and alert, and walk out into the road slowly but confidently; the traffic will (usually) give way to you.
6. Count the zeros on your cash
Exchange rates with British pounds and US dollars are generally in the tens of thousands. Things easily escalate into the millions, so you need to have your arithmetic head screwed on tight, or at least the calculator on your phone at the ready. The 100,000đ note looks alarmingly similar to the 10,000đ, so look carefully at those zeros.
7. Get away from it all
Vietnam hosts around eight million tourists a year, and that number is rising. Quiet beaches with a few shacks a decade ago are now built-up tourist developments. To escape the crowds and for something a little different, stay somewhere off the usual trail.
8. Drink coffee
Vietnam is the world’s second-largest exporter of coffee, but most of the stuff that leaves the country is the low-grade instant variety.
However, what stays behind is top-notch: thick, strong and with a hint of caramel, it’s filtered through single-cup dispensers and especially delicious served over ice with condensed milk.
Weasel coffee, or cà phê Chồn, is a cut above the norm – maximum caffeine and supremely rich, it’s often regarded as one of the best coffees in the world.
9. Ha Long Bay via Cat Ba Island
Ha Long Bay is Vietnam’s number one tourist attraction. Most people take a single or multi-day tour from Hanoi, but if you prefer the flexibility of independent travel and want to save a few million dong, stay at mountainous Cat Ba island.
It’s relatively straightforward to head there on your own steam with a bus-and-boat combo ticket from Hanoi, and the relaxed main town has plenty of accommodation. You can then book a Ha Long Bay day-tour from there, and spend a few more days exploring the island’s spectacular national park.