Last Updated on February 4, 2019
While lumped together with Southeast Asia for geographic and tourism purposes, Vietnam stands out as a destination unique among its neighbors. Each region balances the other. The frenetic chaos in Saigon is just a stone’s throw from the sleepy colonial towns in the Mekong Delta. Hoi An’s charming, historic ancient town is a mere 40 minutes from the fast-growing and friendly Danang. History and tradition infuse every aspect of life in Vietnam—from food to religion—and the culture and people are remarkably welcoming to tourism, having built a thriving industry.
As such, modern Vietnam is a favorite hotspot for budget-loving backpackers traveling Southeast Asia, and destination travelers from all over the world. Although I had spent years traveling other regions of Asia, Vietnam was my final country to visit on mainland Southeast Asia. What an incredible experience. I have no idea what took me so long. I spent three months traveling south to north and I discovered cities across the country highlighting various aspects of Vietnam’s long history, from the War Remnants museum in Ho Chi Minh City to the Japanese and Chinese influenced Hoi An to the French-influenced coffee and baguette culture throughout. Vibrant, unique, chaotic, traditional—no single word sums the experience of traveling Vietnam.
If you’re visiting Vietnam, this guide covers the essential travel information you should know, pre-trip reading, how to travel responsibly in Vietnam, and specific travel and accommodation recommendations to jumpstart your research.
Before You Go, What You Should Know
Vietnam has a lengthy and complex history, with each layer still visible in modern Vietnam. From tangible evidence of French colonial rule to the aftereffects of the American War and a food culture deeply influenced by the international flavors and cultures—this country has a lot on offer from north to south.
Vietnam has a lengthy and complex history, with each layer still visible in modern Vietnam. Consider this a quick rundown on the basic backstory you’ll need to understand and enjoy your trip. Ruled by the Chinese in 111 B.C., Nam Viet (what we now know as Vietnam) was a part of the Han Dynasty. Over the next thousand years or so, Vietnam remained in the hands of the tyrannical Chinese, before regaining full control of their country in the 15th century. By the middle of the 17th century, Vietnam’s independence was being chipped away by France and in 1884 France gained full colonial control over Vietnam. France’s impact on Vietnam is a living, breathing, tangible part of modern Vietnam. The French brought a Western-style education system, European architecture and food, and also instituted political and cultural changes.
Not surprisingly, despite some good brought by the French, many Vietnamese were unhappy with colonial rule. The Viet Minh attacked French forces in 1946, which eventually ended with Geneva peace talks between the nations and the decision to split Vietnam in half: north and south. The communist insurgency began 1957 in South Vietnam; two years later, weapons and men from North Vietnam began infesting the south. In response, the United States increased aid to President Ngo Dinh Diem. By 1963, the Viet Cong, a communist group specializing in guerrilla warfare, defeated The Army of the Republic of Vietnam. In a U.S.-backed military coup, representatives from The Army of Republic of Vietnam overthrew and killed the President Diem; U.S. intervention in Vietnam would only escalate from this point forward.
In response to the threats posed by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, by 1967 the U.S. had sent roughly 500,000 troops to Vietnam. The Vietnam/American War lasted far too long, fueled by poor decisions made by U.S. politicians and resulting in horrifying escalation of violence throughout the war (this is a sad and informative visual history of the war). Many thousands of people were killed before Paris peace talks brokered a ceasefire agreement in 1973. By that point, the actions by American troops had forever changed the country as the after-effects of Agent Orange and other chemical weapons continue to impact the country even today.
Two years after U.S. troops left, North Vietnam invaded the south and took control of the country. As the socialists assumed control over the country, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese continued to flee, many resorting to crowding into small vessels—anything to escape life in Vietnam. This war is one key reason for the massive Vietnamese diaspora spread around the world.
It’d be great if the warfare ended there, but tired of the Khmer Rouge attacking remote villages near the border, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979 and removed the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot from power. Ten years later, Vietnam removed their troops from Cambodia. There is still a large ethnically Khmer population in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region. Since the 90s, Vietnam has grown and the government has stabilized, with tourism a major contributing part of the country’s economy.
The Fast Facts About Vietnam Travel
Electricity: 127V/60Hz (American or European plugs both work here, although only without the third prong)
Primary Airports: Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat Airport (SGN). Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport (HAN). Da Nang International (DAD).
Internet Situation: WiFi is rampant and thoroughly spread even into the smallest of Vietnamese towns. Saigon has a bustling café culture and these coffee shops all offer fast free WiFi. It’s also a standard amenity in all hotels and guesthouses.
Local SIM: Data is very cheap in Vietnam, even the tourist bundles (locals have different rates, so ask your first guesthouse owner to buy your SIM card if you’re a data hog and really need a lot). I paid 70,000 Dong for 16 GB lasting three months, and the tourist rate is about 150,000 Dong for 8 GB lasting two months. Because I had so much data, I tethered my phone and worked from my data when I encountered slow speeds. Read a full Vietnam SIM card guide here.
Visas: The visa situation for North Americans changes often and is entirely unpredictable. That said, in early 2017, the government implemented an online e-visa program that is fast, safe, and affordable. For more information, check the visa requirements here. While most visitors had to arrange a visa through a third-party company, that is no longer the case, so use the government site directly to avoid fees.
Festivals of Note: Tết is the country’s New Year’s celebration and is huge throughout Vietnam (late January or early February). Lantern Festival in Hoi An (14th day of every lunar month—not calendar month—so research to find out when it’s happening).
Safety: Vietnam is safe for travelers on the physical level—you don’t have to worry about bodily harm from the Vietnamese people. That said, theft is an issue and the scams center around money. Travelers should never walk the streets with cameras and bags draped on their shoulder or a motorbike might speed by and grab it from you. Wear your purses cross-body and cameras secured to your wrist or neck. For the same reason, don’t walk with your cell phone held away from your body (consider investing in a phone leash) they are fantastic and give peace of mind when wandering). In touristy areas especially, count your change. Confirm your taxi fare before the ride (or just use Uber, which is what I did—it’s explained more in the transportation section). Use TravelFish to research possible scams in places like Hanoi, Hoi An and Saigon. Since anything can happen on the road, I am a firm advocate of travel insurance and I always carry World Nomads; and this page shares my tips to pick a good travel insurance.
Budget: Vietnam may well be the most budget-friendly location in Southeast Asia, and that is saying a lot, because nearby Thailand, Laos, Cambodia are quite affordable. Budget backpackers sleeping at hostels and eating street-food will easily stay under $20 a day. The only activity requiring you to splash out on cash is a Halong Bay Tour—and often you will get better value for a bit more if you choose your tour company wisely. Mid-range travelers will spend $25 a night on nice accommodation (with A/C and spacious rooms), and another $10-20 on food. High-end travelers get a lot bang for their buck as even nice hotels and food are affordable—scale up from the mid-range budget of $45 a day depending on if you choose to splurge on food, accommodation, or both.
Food Considerations: Vietnam is one of the best food destinations in Southeast Asia. The country has a vibrant street food culture and a range of different dishes from north to south. If you are vegetarian, it’s possible to find food, but not always street food. And you have to be diligent. On my Vegetarian in Vietnam guide (coming soon!), I outline the considerations and obstacles. If you’re celiac, this is a fantastic and thorough post, complete with a downloadable GF translation card. This post shares the most common street food dishes you will find, and this book chronicles a beautiful food journey through Hanoi. And if you decide to eat street food (which you will!), follow these food safety principles.
Accommodation: While the links in city guides below go to a hotel booking site, many are also found on Airbnb, if you are member. (A Little Adrift readers receive an Airbnb credit here to give it a go.) For backpackers and families, Booking.com is perfect for pre-booking hostels and hotels; in high season the bigger towns book up fast. And if you buy a local SIM (which you should), you can easily call ahead and directly reserve spots en route. If none of these will do, check out my detailed guide to finding good places to stay.
Transportation: Most backpackers take an overland route starting in one of the two primary cities, either Hanoi in the north or Saigon in the south. Vietnam offers train travel in many areas and buses in others. It’s a very long country, so keep that in mind when you consider timing your trip. The distances are longer than you expect and if you’re cramming the entire country into a short week or two-week trip, you will need some long overnight trains and buses to navigate it all. Air travel is another option. VietJetAir is the country’s privately run low-cost carrier and you can find fares as low as $25 to hop around the country. This is mega convenient and I recommend using SkyScanner to search for fares since it includes all the regional low-cost airlines.
Locally, when you are within a city you will likely use mototaxis and taxis to navigate. Uber operates in this area and you can even catch a mototaxi with it! Instead of haggling with xe om drivers, I used Uber exclusively in the cities. And because of the taxi scams in Saigon and Hanoi, I stuck with Uber getting to and from the airports and such, but if you need to hail a cab, stick to either Vinasun or Mailinh. If you have a local SIM, Grab is the regional version of Uber and offers slightly better rates. Either option works, I used Uber because I already have an account that I’ve used in dozens of cities around the world; I highly recommend that travelers at least sign up for Uber and have it in your phone because you never know when it will come in handy to summon a ride and get out of a sticky situation (happened to me in South Africa!).
Weather: Vietnam is long, with a varied topography, meaning at least one region has poor weather at all times of year. This chart is by far the best visual to use in planning your trip weather-wise (although note that Jan/Feb is noted as clear for Sapa, when in reality it’s bitterly cold and often very foggy).
Possible Issues: In addition to the safety concerns listed above, many travelers rent motorbikes and scooters in Vietnam. This is a dangerous place to learn to ride. In the months I visited, I saw dozens of travelers with serious road-rash marring their bodies. If you rent a motorbike, please make sure it’s covered by your travel insurance (usually only if you are licensed to drive in your home country) and that you wear the proper gear to protect you if you fall (pants and good shoes). If you have respiratory issues, pollution is a problem in both Hanoi and Saigon, so bring a surgical mask.
Pre-Trip Reading Inspiration: Books About Vietnam
Fiction & Nonfiction Books About Vietnam:
- Catfish and Mandala: Travel memoir is often an intriguing way to learn about the culture. A Vietnamese-American return to the Vietnam he left as a young child when his family moved to California. He bicycles around the country, and the journey is beautiful.
- The War. There are no shortage of books about the Vietnam-American War. If you read just two, go with The Sorrow of War, a harrowing recounting of the war and aftermath written from the perspective of a North Vietnamese soldier, and Embers of War, a Pulitzer Prize winning account of the long path of policies and leaders that eventually led to the devastating war.
- Saigon: An Epic Novel of Vietnam: For historical fiction that perfectly accounts the war, but contextualizes it with romance, politics, story, and intrigue, this novel is a better read for those less inclined to learn about the war through drier non-fiction books.
- The Beauty of Humanity Movement: A Novel: Showcasing modern Vietnam in the context of its war-torn history, this beautiful novel takes place in Hanoi and is an easy read. If you’re looking for a better cultural look at contemporary Vietnam, however, Vietnam: Rising Dragon is my recommended non-fiction read.
- Inside Out and Back Again: A beautiful and lyrical story written from the perspective of a 10-year-old girl. This is a wonderful family-friendly read if you are traveling Vietnam with children.
- Eating Viet Nam: A journalist moves to Hanoi and begins a food journey through the back alleys and tiny street stalls of Vietnam. A great read for food lovers.
Podcasts and Online Reads:
- The Sandwich that Ate the World: A close look at the history of bánh mì, a tasty Vietnamese sandwich that is wildly popular in Vietnam, and how that love has spread around the globe.
- The History of Pho: This longread recounts the history of Vietnam’s other famous dish, loved the world over: Pho.
- The Vietnam Solution: An interesting piece about current American and Vietnamese relations and how the two countries overcame the war to work together in modern politics.
Find more regional fiction and nonfiction books and long-reads.
Socially Responsible Travel in Vietnam
Let’s talk about socially responsible travel in Vietnam, as well as the greater opportunities in Southeast Asia. This topic has many layers. From volunteering to donating to beggars to choosing ethical activities. It’s a complex situation. Animal tourism has a dark side, and responsible travelers should research alternatives. Child sex trafficking and tourism is particularly an issue in Vietnam. Environmental pollution from tourism has devastated parts of Halong Bay. There are a lot of considerations. All travelers should also read this post on giving to child beggars; you will face this conundrum, so it’s best to be ready. Read our full Vietnam Responsible Travel & Social Enterprise Guide (and one more general responsible travel in Southeast Aia to lessen your impact on any place you visit, then read below for specifics to Vietnam.
Let’s jump into activities you might want to do, as well as alternatives that are just as fun! And at the end, I share tips for responsible volunteering in Vietnam.
Engaging in Human Tourism
Vietnam is among the most unique places to participate in hill tribe tourism. Unlike the sketchy ethnic group tour options in Thailand, northern Vietnam has a well-developed infrastructure of hill tribe groups offering homestay and trekking. Most notably, Sapa O’Chau has a wonderful business model employing and supporting hill tribe communities. Also, throughout Vietnam, homestays are a common and excellent way to respectfully visit rural communities, support the local economy, while also learning a lot about the people and culture. Use the regional and city guides below for links to community-based tourism options, and responsible tour companies throughout Vietnam.
Riding an Elephant
If you’ve long dreamed of riding one of these majestic creatures, you should read up on their treatment and what it takes to actually break an elephant’s will enough for it to perform tricks and ferry around tourists. It’s a sad industry and one that has grown exponentially alongside tourism. Traditionally, the Southeast Asians used elephants for hard labor, to help clear land and forests. They make more money from tourism, however, and this has led to a cycle of over-worked and abused animals. On the flip side of the debate, feeding an elephant costs a lot, and tourism (including rides) help mahouts afford to properly care for their elephant. It’s a complex, complicated issue.
There are options though! To the best of my knowledge, there are no responsible elephant experiences in Vietnam. There are, however, several sanctuaries in Thailand and Cambodia that offer responsible traveler-elephant interactions. Travelers love the responsible experience. These sanctuaries are doing wonderful work to give elephants a home and a peaceful life. Avoid elephant experiences in Vietnam, and check out the Save Elephants Foundation to plan a visit in Thailand or Cambodia.
Side note. Generally, avoid riding any exotic wild animal. Riding ostriches in Dalat is gaining popularity and it’s beyond unfortunate. An ostrich’s body is not designed to hold an adult’s weight and these animals fully panic when ridden.
Buying Endangered Animal Products
Vietnam has a massive industry built around selling, exporting, and trafficking in exotic wild animals. Likewise, many of these animals are used for tourist souvenirs. Avoid purchasing anything made from wild or endangered animals—turtle shells, skins, ivory, etc. And do not buy exotic animal meat or turtle eggs for consumption. Engaging in these practices is either illegal or contribute to the continuation of these destructive practices.
Haggling Too Much
Bargaining is a fun part of the culture in Vietnam, and it’s surely something you should engage in freely when buying fruit, souvenirs, and even tours. But be warned that certain over-touristed locations have started a dangerous precedence for the locals. In Hoi An, for example, the prevalence of so many tailor shops has driven prices so low that some locations will accept a commission and lose money rather than lose business (the fabric is a sunk cost, so some are willing to lose net money if it means food on the table that night). Bargain respectfully and remember, your sale is directly helping the local economy, so spend money and feel good about infusing your cash into the local economy.
Many travelers are keen to volunteer or support responsible businesses on the road. If you’re backpacking Southeast Asia, you may want to stop for a few weeks or months and support a cause near and dear to your heart. Since not all NGOs and volunteer companies are doing great work, consider this list of vetted independent volunteer opportunities in Vietnam.
Supporting Responsible Businesses
Vietnam has standout social enterprises operating all over the country. I highlight a few in the city guides below, and I profiled my absolute favorite social enterprises in Hoi An. Consider researching all of the options for supporting social enterprises on your trip. Supporting social enterprises is one of the easiest ways to create a trip with positive impact. This means picking businesses that are using funds to support local communities and to offer training, support, or to protect natural resources. You can do everything from get a massage or pick a trekking guide—all with companies committed to social impact.
Things to Do in Vietnam: Explore City & Regional Guides
Starting in southern Vietnam in late 2016, I spent three months backing north through Vietnam. Many travelers pick a direction for their Vietnam travels since the country’s long and skinny shape lends itself to this style of travel—if you’re backpacking across Southeast Asia, your clockwise or counter-clockwise route through the region will determine where you start.
I used a combination of buses, trains, and budget airlines to skip over some long distances, but it’s super common for adventurous travelers to rent a motorbike and ride the length of Vietnam either independently, or on a tour, while exploring the vast number of things to do. Three months doesn’t make me an expert, but I did find information was surprisingly scarce in some areas (the Mekong Delta), so I offer these city and regional suggestions below as an accounting of how I did the trip, great accommodations I discovered, and my favorite social enterprises and tasty eats.
- Sipping tea at the Reaching Out Teahouse in charming Hoi An.
- Boating through the Ha Long Bay region from Cat Ba Island.
- Boating through the karst rocks in Tam Coc.
- Spending lazy days in the sun-drenched colonial towns in the Mekong Delta region.
Humidity, noise, and a friendly face greeted me when I landed in Ho Chi Minh City airport. My friend James has lived in Ho Chi Minh City (known as both HCMC and Saigon) for several years, and he met me at the airport and served as my official welcome party over the next two weeks I visited the city. We mowed down on spring rolls the first night, and then toured a range of tasty veggie spots and coffee shops around the city. I am far from the expert on this massive, vibrant city, so instead I’ll detail the handful of things I did before I traveled south to the Mekong Delta, and I’ll link out to other fantastic resources that will allow you to eat and sightsee your way around Saigon.
Things To Do in Saigon
- Take a self-guided walking tour of District 1 highlights. Most tourists stay in D1 and spend most of their time exploring this part of the city—it holds the bulk of the historical monuments, museums, buildings, and markets. Grab a map or use your smartphone to walk the city. You could start at Ben Than market, then pass the Ho Chi Minh City Hall and head toward Notre Dame Cathedral and Central Post Office—each of these are beautiful structures. Be sure to enter the post office and look at the old city maps along the walls. From there, you can either head to a coffee shop along the waterfront and beat the heat of the day, or loop around to visit the two primary museums that tourists should visit.
- Visit the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. You could combine this with your walking tour, or fill a different afternoon with these two activities. Each one is a must visit, though if you had to pick just one, I recommend that all Americans should visit the War Remnants Museum for a sobering take on the Vietnamese-American War.
- Spend a half-day visiting markets and temples in Saigon’s Chinatown, Cholon. Either take the bus or a mototaxi to Cholon in District 5. This makes for a fascinating morning wander, especially for photographers or those keen on visiting architecture and temples. Check out this blog post for all the details—I saved the map offline to my phone, then used it as a guide throughout the morning. I started at Binh Tay Market (furthest point east of D1 on the map), and walked back toward District 1, zig-zagging through town to see the buildings, pagodas, and churches. I summoned an Uber back to D1 once I had reached the end of the marked Cholon sites. All told, it took three to four hours at a very leisurely pace.
- Hang out at a coffee shop. The coffee culture is alive and huge throughout Vietnam, but especially in Saigon, where local chains dot every corner and hipster boutique coffee shops hide in plain sight. Many cafes have balconies overlooking busy intersections or streets, making for prime people-watching. These cafes are also the ideal place to work from if you have a bit of travel planning research or work on your docket. This post has a map you can use to find an expat’s extensive list of quirky, fun, and unusual coffee shops throughout the city.
- Take a day trip. There are several popular day trips from HCMC. The Củ Chi Tunnels is the most common and you can join a tour bus from the backpacker district for less than $10 for the day (negotiate, negotiate, negotiate). You could also head to the beaches of Vung Tau. Although I skipped this day trip in favor of flying to Phu Quoc, Vung Tau is a popular day or weekend spot that is quite easy to get to from HCMC, from what I am told. And lastly, you could take a day tour to the Mekong Delta—it’s a canned tourist experience with heavy sales pressure at points, but if you’re pressed for time, you could get a taste of the Delta on the day trip (I opted to spend nearly two weeks in the Mekong Delta and below I detail how you can navigate the sun-drenched delta towns). If you go for the day or overnight tours, consider researching more creative tour experiences, like the Delta by Vespa, or a private guide navigating you by motorbike through the interesting towns.
Places to Eat
Vegetarians in Saigon will find a wide range of tasty eats, although it’s hard to eat street food throughout the city unless you know where to look. But there are a plenitude of tasty vegetarian restaurants. Use Saigon Vegetarian and Happy Cow for initial ideas, and I marked a few of my favorite spots on the Google Map. Although many of the vegetarian street eats are sweet and dessert-like, I’ve included a few street food stalls on the map, too.
- Sample tasty food at Hum Vegetarian, Cafe & Restaurant. (32 Võ Văn Tần). Convenient place to eat just near the War Remnant’s Museum. It’s mid-range price but the dishes are beautifully prepared, the setting is lovely, and I highly recommended eating here. It offers both Western and Vietnamese dishes, but there are plenty of tasty dishes that do not rely on fake meat.
- Find evening street eats near Mani Vegan. (291/2 Võ Văn Tần). Although I didn’t sample this restaurant, there is a street food stall out front that serves delicious vegetarian soups and spring rolls. She’s there most nights and was the only one serving food on that corner, but be sure to confirm it’s “chay” before eating.
- Sip coffee at Quán Cà Phê Cheo Leo. This is a completely local spot beloved by those who sip local iced coffee and tea throughout the day. The owner has been written up in several local publications for her decision to continue preparing the coffee using traditional methods.
- Use this street food guide to eat well in Saigon. It includes a rundown of the dishes, as well as where to find them in the city.
- Grab your coffee from a new spot every morning. Chances are that your guesthouse or Airbnb has several neat coffee shops nearby. Star this free Google map of the city’s coffee shops and try a new one every day.
Places to Sleep
With several weeks in HCMC, I tested out a couple of accommodation locations before settling on an Airbnb located on a quiet street about halfway between the Ben Than market and the Pham Ngu Lau backpacker/party district. Just a six-minute walk to either area, it was central without having a party vibe and few other tourists. Those on an extreme budget and those wanting proximity to the backpacker scene will likely stay in Pham Ngu Lau, others should look for a place walking distance to the main sights in District 1.
- Book an Airbnb in a central spot. Airbnbs in HCMC average about $30 for a modern room that sleeps two people and often includes a kitchen nook where you could store breakfast items. Some have multiple bedrooms or beds and can sleep more, or a few even offer penthouse views for a bit more money. Start your search with these pretty rooms: a studio above a bookshop, a studio above a third-wave coffee shop, and a private room in the home of a local family.
- Stay at a central hotel. Uber-budget travels should look at Vintage Hostel Saigon and La Hostel Saigon. Midrange options are plentiful, including Ngoc Phan Guesthouse and Town House 50 Saigon (both a hotel and a hostel), and for a nicer central spot, consider Cap Town Hotel.
Many backpackers head to the Delta on a one- or two-day arranged tour from Saigon. This is a mistake. If you have a few days (or a week), head to the region as an independent traveler. For me, I took the one-day tour to My Tho from Saigon and I brought my luggage with me and then journeyed on to Ben Tre instead of returning to Saigon with the tour bus. This is convenient if you want an easy ride out of town, but the tour is awful. It’s one of the worst packaged tourist experiences in my many years on the road. Consider just heading straight to Ben Tre, or better yet, catch a bus to Can Tho, where I had a phenomenal tour organized from my guesthouse (more on that in second).
I took a mototaxi to Ben Tre from My Tho, and I spent two nights in Ben Tre, using my full day to take a long and scenic bike ride around the nearby islands. The next morning, I took a scenic cargo boat for six hours to Tra Vinh, a quaint and quiet city with a lively day market and a few interesting Khmer temples. From Tra Vinh, I took a cheap and fast bus ride to Vinh Long, just 1.5 hours. Near Vinh long is the Cai Be market; it’s a larger market with the bigger boats selling bulk vegetables to vendors in the area. My tour left at 6am and returned by noon, so I took an afternoon bus to Can Tho, which was less than an hour away. In Can Tho, I took a deep breath for the final push of early morning wake ups and river tours. I had the option of visiting the larger Cai Rang floating market and Phong Dien, or doing an alternative tour to Phong Dien and then a backwaters tour of the villages. I am so glad I did the second option as it was fascinating and exactly what I had hoped for in a tour of the Mekong Delta. From Can Tho, I took a cheap VietJet flight to Da Nang.
- Stay at the Oasis Hotel, this is the best accommodation option in town. It’s run by a Kiwi-Vietnamese couple, and the owner Ken is a character. It’s spotless, breakfast is tasty, and it has many cozy touches and a Western-style bed. Ken is a fountain of advice for onward travel too, especially if you are looking to explore the area off the path a bit.
- Relax with a drink. If you’re staying at Oasis, Coffee 3D is very close and is a great spot for an afternoon coffee or a sweet smoothie after dinner. It has wifi and a very relaxed vibe of teens and young couples hanging out.
- Bike through the countryside. Oasis provides free bicycles to guests and this makes navigating Ben Tre a cinch. Using the giant map painted on the guesthouse wall, I followed a route through the tiny paths and used tiny ferries to bike across two nearby islands. It was about an 18 kilometre ride that took about four hours with many stops for photos and coconuts to refuel—it was lovely.
- Visit the night market. Along the riverbank each evening you can find the usual street foods and wares for sale. It’s a pleasant, low-key town and the market reflects that.
- Visit the morning market. This morning market is my favorite in all of the Mekong towns. Tra Vinh sees few tourists and so the locals have a fresh and delightful joy in seeing you wander around. Many vendors beckoned me to their stalls and then asked to take their photo, or they asked me to photograph their son/cousin/reluctant brother, etc. It was a lovely way to spend the morning before my bus ride.
- Sleep somewhere central. Khách Sạn Thanh Trà is serviceable and central but completely underwhelming; this is where I stayed. They have several tiny rooms at backpacker to mid-range prices and will never be fully booked. If I go back, I will try Gia Hoa 2, which looks just generally a bit nicer. Or consider staying in the rural areas at a nicer location, like the Coco Riverside Lodge, which looks a bit swanky and lovely.
- Stop at the Chùa Mạc Dồn pagoda. This is located very near to the bus station (which is on the outskirts a ways out of town) so it’s easiest to pay for your mototaxi/taxi to stop for a few minutes here before dropping you off at the bus station.
- Cai Be Floating Market. I organized the tour from my guesthouse and it had overtones of the My Tho tour, but nicer. The tour stopped at a coconut candy factory and honey farm, but it there was no pressure to buy and far fewer tourists. If you’re into the idea of visiting these shops and seeing how they make it, opt for a tour from Vinh Long. Alternatively, if you’re just interested in seeing the Cai Be floating market then you can bargain at the dock and arrange a morning tour with a guide who will motor you out to the market in a tiny boat, show you around, and then motor you back—I would do this option if I ever return.
- Van Tram Guesthouse is very near to everything and was perhaps the nicest value of all my time in Vietnam. The rooms are large and spotless. The only downside is the karaoke across the street until 10pm-ish. I had planned to stay at Hotel Ánh Hồng, but it was fully booked and I was good with Van Tram as my alternative since it turned out the most central budget option. Also, most tourists stayed on the island in a homestay. Having just come from very rural areas, I opted to stay in a guesthouse, otherwise, I had picked out the Bay Trung Homestay.
- Eat veggie food or at the local market. The owner of Van Tram Guesthouse did me a solid by scooting me across town to a hole-in-the-wall vegetarian restaurant. It’s linked on my custom Vietnam map. The market is just outside the hotel’s front door and makes a great dinner spot for non-vegetarians. If you’re wandering near the market at sunset, check the map and walk across the small bridge—great views and a long board walk on the other side makes for a wonderful stroll.
- Sip drinks riverside at Cafe Hoa Nắng. While I would not eat here, I did enjoy a coffee mid-afternoon and a cold been in the evenings. This is more than just a tourist spot, it’s favored with locals and makes for great people-watching.
Can Tho has an airport easily accessible from the city center. Viet Jet flies from Can Tho to various other cities around Vietnam (I flew to Hoi An/ Da Nang, and many travelers also fly to Phu Quoc or Hanoi). This was my last stop in the Mekong Delta before I jumped half-way up Vietnam to Hoi An. The city is very plain; it’s primarily a stop-over point for travelers exploring the floating markets, or those en route to Cambodia. I actually traveled north, and then headed back down to spend a week lounging on the beaches in Phu Quoc—I highly recommended heading there after Can Tho so that you don’t have to back track.
- Visit Cai Rang and Phong Dien morning markets. Plan on a very early morning as the Cai Rang market begins as early as 5am. Many tours leave Can Tho around 5:30am so that you arrive while there is still a lot of activity. If you stay at a homestay then you will cut about an hour off of your morning commute to the market. These markets showcase a fading way of life. As bridges span more of the rivers, these floating markets are shrinking. It’s a lovely way to spend a morning.
- Stay at the Mekong Logis Guesthouse in Can Tho. I highly recommend this guesthouse; it’s among my favorite places that I stayed in Vietnam. The family is fantastic and so accommodating and the rooms are spotless and comfortable. The family goes out of their way to ensure you have all the knowledge and help that you need to enjoy Can Tho. I took Linh’s special tour. We rode motorbikes outside of town and then visited the smaller of the two markets by boat. After a tasty breakfast, we toured the smaller rivers and visited a few homes in the rural areas. She shares a lot about the culture and people as she shows you the region. The family speak French and English. Because I had already seen the market near Vinh Long, I appreciated that this tour included a few other aspects.
- Stay at the Nguyen Shack Homestay outside of town. I had definitely planned to stay here as my favored homestay in the Delta, but this place books up far in advance. It’s a lovely location and my best friend loved her time there so much that she wrote about the love story of the couple who run it. It’s outside of Can Tho proper and closer to the floating markets. You can arrange tours directly through them, too. And the market tours are generally cheaper from Nguyen Shack because you’ve already paid to travel outside of town.
Phu Quoc surprised me with its lovely vibe and laid-back beaches. After years of avoiding the party vibe on the busiest of the Thai islands, I had feared that Phu Quoc would follow a similar fate. Well, it’s not there yet. I tacked this trip on the end of my three months and I flew round trip from Hanoi for less than $100—Vietnam’s budget airlines have amazing deals. So, with flights secured I enjoyed a full week down south, with my last days coinciding with Tet holidays. I had anticipated either the place would be packed, or everything closed. In reality, most of the island is open during Tet, but the restaurants tack on a surcharge to every meal. You’ll find quiet beaches during the day, and a bit of a party at night, if you want it.
The night market underwhelmed me, but it’s there if you want seafood and souvenirs one night. Otherwise, head to a resort or bungalow for beach time. The island has a lot of investment income—new airport, new roads, new resorts, etc. So it’s developed, but in the anticipation of large-scale tourism, which it’s not there yet. It’s a beautiful island and I recommend at least a few days here, especially if you are at the end of your travels and need to detox a bit.
- Enjoy pristine sands at Sao Beach. Located a 30-minute motorbike ride from Long Beach, this is the most gorgeous white sand beach you can imagine. It’s very lightly developed, so pack snacks, sunscreen, and a good book. While there are many chair and towel rentals just near the parking lot, walk further down the beach for shady palms and open sands. To get there, I rented a motorbike from my accommodation and drove out there for the day with a travel friend.
- Stay at Kim Lien Phu Quoc Guesthouse for private budget accommodation. This guesthouse offers a convenient location and basic but clean accommodation. Although the bungalows are not beachside, you are incredibly close. It’s a one minute walk through Rory’s Beach Bar to reach the sand and sun. The family is exceedingly lovely too, and I enjoyed my time there.
- Splurge for luxury at La Veranda Resort. While I didn’t stay here, I chatted with a Canadian couple several mornings in a row who use this resort as their go-to vacation spot in Vietnam. The husband works for Vietnam Airlines and they escape here on long weekends.
- Sip drinks at Rory’s Beach Bar. This spot is pricey by Vietnamese standards and it’s straight-up Western, which is sometimes welcome. The Aussie owners serve the best cappuccino on the island and offer creative Western dishes if you are jonesing for a change of flavors. It’s also the central backpacker hangout spot on Long Beach, so head here if you want drinks and a bit of a party vibe in the evening.
- Eat at September Vegetarian. (141 Trần Hưng Đạo). Creative vegetarian fare and tasty smoothies. The restaurant is right on the main street, so the location is unfortunate, but the staff is friendly and the food is great.
- Enjoy beach-side barbecue. Around sunset, all the beachside restaurants on Long Beach set up barbecue stations and display fresh, iced fish and seafood. While expensive, my traveling friends said their meals were spectacular. Walk along the beach at sunset and you can peruse the selections and find ones that hit your price points and food preferences.
My custom Google Map shares a full list of cafes and vegetarian friendly spots and you can easily save this map and see it overlaid on your own Maps app while you’re in town. I was in Hoi An for several weeks, so I visited many places. For that reason, the cafes and restaurants are just my favorite spots that I found myself returning to time and again.
Things To Do in Hoi An
- Visit the historic sights in Old Town. You’ll buy a pass at one of the entrances to Old Town. This pass includes entrance tickets to any five of the 22 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Each time you enter one, you’ll need to hand over your pass and they will snip one ticket. The map shows the five I think you should visit if you buy just one tourist pass while in town. These include the three ancient houses of: Tan Ky, Duc An, and Quan Thang. Also visit The Museum of Trade Ceramics, and Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall—the most impressive of the ones in Hoi An. The Museum is low-key and the most interchangeable of the recommendations, so consider visiting a second assembly hall if you’re not keen on reading about the history of trading and how that built Hoi An.
- The Japanese Bridge is obviously gorgeous and worth visiting and photographing, but the shrine inside is quite small and I don’t recommend that you hand over a ticket to visit—you can walk across the bridge with just your tourist pass, no ticket required. No matter how hard they try to snip your pass, don’t let them unless you’re keen to see the shrine. Photos from the bridge are lovely, although you will likely want to circle around to the small footbridge that gives you reflective views of the Japanese bridge in the water. Visit both day and night as it looks entirely different and they do a great job illuminating the structure.
- Photograph Old Town. Hoi An is seriously pretty. It’s also seriously touristy. Moreso than any other spot in Vietnam, you will find yourself navigating waves of Chinese and international tourists. The crowds thicken throughout the day, so your best bet for gorgeous photographs is to roll out of bed early and stroll through town at sunrise. That’s when the sunshine-yellow houses look most atmospheric and you’ll be one of the few tourists up that early as the locals rush through breakfast and preparations for the day ahead. This is a great blog post outlining timing and how to get gorgeous photographs in and around Hoi An. I was crushed that I couldn’t take this photo tour, but the photographer was away leading a tour in Burma, so I’ll have to do it next time.
- Wander the central market. You’ll find a labyrinth of food stalls inside of the central market, and numerous fruit and vegetable sellers lining the streets around the market. This is a good spot for lunch (there is one veg-friendly restaurant in the northeast corner inside), and also just interesting to see and experience the bustle of locals going about their daily business.
Places to Eat and Drink
- Reaching Out Teahouse. (131 Trần Phú). Visiting this teahouse was a highlight of my time in Hoi An. It’s a quiet sanctuary away right in the center of Old Town. While the streets can be crushingly busy, the teahouse is run as a social enterprise employing deaf people from the local community. The staff communicate through gestures, small word blocks, and notes. It’s thoroughly lovely and I recommend the tea or coffee tasting and sampling all the handmade sweets. Read my full profile on this delightful social enterprise.
- Minh Hien Vegetarian Restaurant. (50 Trần Cao Vân). This is the best all-around vegetarian restaurant in town. They have an extensive menu with a range of options. This is a good spot to try vegetarian versions of local Hoi An specialties. They also have an informal cooking class every afternoon.
- STREETS Restaurant Café was one of my favorite nice dining experiences in the city. This social enterprise is right in Hoi An’s old city and has a hospitality and culinary training program for disadvantaged young people in the community. The restaurant not only provides opportunity to youth but also funding to the work of STREETS INTERNATIONAL, an organization that develops and operates sustainable programs for street kids and disadvantaged youth in SE Asia and throughout the world. I LOVED their vegetarian cao lau (this is a dish local to Hoi An) and you should try it here (they have a non-veg version too).
- Bánh mì Phượng. (2B Phan Châu Trinh). The most famous place in Hoi An for the iconic Vietnamese sandwich. The egg one is vegetarian option, but make sure to also reiterate that you want it vegetarian so that they don’t use pâté or any other meat ingredients. Meat-eating friends said it truly was the best banh mi of their entire trip through Vietnam.
- Sample other restaurants. Morning Glory has beautiful dishes of Vietnamese food and several tasty vegetarian options—it’s midrange prices but a great spot for meat-eaters to try the local Hoi An dishes. I deeply enjoyed the pizza at Good Morning Vietnam (near Morning Glory, the general Google Maps location is wrong; my map pinpoints it accurately). My custom Google Map shows all my other favorite spots. Or my friends Simon and Erin have shared a great guide to vegetarian restaurants in Hoi An, which provides a few recommendations that I did not include here.
- The Hill Station Deli & Cafe. (321 Nguyễn Duy Hiệu). A stunningly pretty spot, make sure you go upstairs. This is the most hipster spot in town and a surprisingly quiet setting to sit with a laptop or a book. If you’re into Instagramming against textured walls, you’ll be here doing that for hours. The menu offers artisanal cheeses and high-end charcuterie, as well as a mix of neat jams and other items from various provinces in Vietnam. The coffee is well-priced and equivalent to any place in town. The meals are a bit more dear, with most things starting at 100,000+ dong per dish. I spent Sunday mornings as the only person writing in the picture-perfect room upstairs.
- Faifo Coffee. This spot has excellent coffee and gorgeous upper floors with views of Old Town. Very chill place to sip coffee and relax.
- Near the beaches, try P&B Restaurant for food (corner of Nguyễn Phan Vinh and Hai Ba Trung) and Sound of Silence for a coffee—it’s has a great indie vibe. If you’re riding out to the beaches, stop by Jack’s Cat Cafe for a coffee and cat cuddles—this social enterprise supports strays.
Places to Sleep
- Longan Homestay is my absolute top recommendation for budget to mid-range travelers. This spot is a four-minute walk to the Japanese Bridge entrance to Old Town, and an easy 15 minute walk to the backpacker street. It’s on a quiet side street, so you will get a good night’s sleep. Plus, it’s nice to be away from the action, but still so close. The family is so lovely and I spent two weeks here so that I could catch up on work while still exploring from a convenient base.
- Backpacker accommodation is condensed into one area, and it’s a bit intense if you’re spending anything more than a few days in town. Stay at Tipi Hostel for the a classic uber-budget backpacker option where you’ll meet new people and it won’t break the bank.
- To stay near the water, head to An Bang Vana Villas for budget accommodation, and Under the Coconut Tree for mid-range prices in a quirky setting. Even if you pick a different hotel, ALA readers receive a discount on their first booking!
Central Vietnam experienced historic flooding and rains during my visit, and this impacted my time in both Hoi An and Hue. For that reason, I don’t have a heap of information on what to do. I spent three days in Hue, and it rained buckets each day. I stayed close to town, wore sandals, used an umbrella and poncho, and explore anyhow. Plus, I loved my guesthouse so much that I have to include it here. So if you are visiting Hue, you will need to use other guides too, but here are the things I loved from my friend time there.
- Stay at Hong Thien Ruby Hotel. One of the nicest places I stayed. The entire hotel is recently renovated. Although rooms are small, beds are cozy and all is spotless. It’s a great price too. Plus, the free breakfast is speedy and unlimited, and they always had welcome drinks and fruit plates when I returned from sightseeing. Can’t recommend it highly enough that you stay here while in Hue.
- Eat at Red Chili. There are many thoroughly tasty vegetarian items on the menu—good variety and well-flavored tofu dishes. The staff is friendly and didn’t mind when I camped out with a book and a hot tea one afternoon to beat the rain. It’s conveniently in the budget touristy area of town and makes for a great dinner or lunch.
- Eat at Lien Hoa Vegetarian Restaurant. This place is large and very popular with locals. The food was hit or miss for me as it’s heavy on the dishes made with textured fake meats. That said, the menu is extensive and it’s likely that there are many fantastic dishes (but the menu is not in English, so bring your cheat sheet of Vietnamese phrases and foods).
- Visit the Kinh thành Huế Royal Palace. The expansive Imperial City is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has large grounds and beautiful elements. Built in 1362, construction took 203 years to complete. This was the seat of religious and political power during the last royal dynasty in Vietnam, and visiting the Hue Complex is the primary reason many travelers pass through Hue.
- Venture out to Thien Mu Pagoda. Located on the river outside of town, this is a part of the UNESCO sites in Hue. Either arrange for transportation and a guide with your guesthouse, or you could easily bicycle out to this spot. This pagoda is included in the day tours outside of town.
- Consider using Hearts for Hue tour operators. Its main purpose is to improve the living conditions of the boat people in Thua Thien Hue Province, just outside Hue. It runs tours to local community projects as a way to generate income for its programs.
Densely packed and filled with history, visiting Old Town Hanoi is an experience unlike any other city in Vietnam. While some areas of Vietnam ooze charm (here’s looking at you, Hoi An), and in some the pace of life moves at a glacier pace (hello, Mekong Delta), Hanoi has a vibe entirely its own. The jumble of people, sights, smells makes every moment in the city feel alive. I spent more than five weeks in Hanoi house sitting over the holiday season. The expats returned home for the holidays, and I had a gorgeous flat overlooking the lake in Tay Ho—the residential and quieter part of the city. I spent one week of that time in a wonderful hotel in Old Town that comes with my utmost recommendation. While there are many guides to the city far more comprehensive than my own, here’s a brief list of my favorite places and sights.
Get Around: I used Uber almost exclusively in the city, although I used the public bus once or twice from the airport (so handy!), and used private VIP coaches between cities around Hanoi for my day trips. This map has the Hanoi bus routes if you’re feeling enthused to sort it all out. If you don’t use Uber or Grab, you should only use one of three trusted taxi groups Mai Linh Taxi (0438-222-666), Taxi CP (0438-262-626), or Hanoi Taxi (0438-535-353).
Things To Do in Hanoi
- Take a Hanoi Kids tour of Old Town. This social enterprise offers free personalized city tours run by students who want to practice their English and learn of other cultures. Any donations go to the organization, not the guides, which keeps the entire exchange as this sweet experience of pure cultural exchange. You can ask your guide to show you any aspect of the city—food, architecture, history, markets—and you will pay for their entrance fees into the sites, and any transportation, but nothing else. I went on the tour after an ALA reader raved about her experience, and I have to admit, I echo her sentiments—it’s a fabulous way to see the city and you will end the day with a new friend. Highly recommend.
- Visit the Temple of Literature. This Confucian temple is gorgeous and a real highlight of the various temples in Hanoi. It was the first national university in Vietnam and it’s well-preserved and lovely to stroll the shady grounds on a nice day.
- Walk around Hoàn Kiếm Lake and visit the temple. Old Town circles this lake, so it’s easy to visit. Walk around the lake on a weekend morning and you will see many locals using the parks for exercise and enjoyment.
- Relax at Omamori Spa. A social enterprise employing the blind, and the massages are spectacular. The only downside is that it’s far outside of Old Town, so you will need to use Grab or Uber for transportation. Call or email ahead for a reservation as it’s a small spot.
- Organize a tour to Sapa with Sapa O’Chau social enterprise. A phenomenal social enterprise offering tours to Sapa with local guides and a lot of input from the indigenous groups you would visit. Includes treks, homestays, and most anything you’re interested in doing in Sapa.
Places to Eat and Drink
If you’re on a gastronomic trip through Vietnam, then you should start your Hanoi travels by reading Eating Viet Nam, a chronicle of a journalist’s quest to eat the streets of Hanoi.
- KOTO Training Restaurant. (59 Van Mieu). This hospitality training restaurant aims to give at-risk and disadvantaged youth the possibility to learn and thrive in their lives. Located conveniently near the Temple of Literature, which you should visit, the food is priced mid-range and has many great Vietnamese dishes. It’s a social enterprise and mission worth supporting.
- Eat at the Hanoi Social Club. (6 Ngõ Hội Vũ). Delicious western food and has several great vegetarian options. It’s all very healthy and the vibe is cozy and nice, although very Western. There is live music certain nights during the week, so check the Facebook for details. Although not a formal social enterprise, the restaurant aims to hire those who have just finished the hospitality training programs.
- Sample favorite student street eats. This street food guide lists the most iconic dishes, and where the university students running Hanoi Kids go to find them.
- Mow down on chè, a local desert. On your evening wanders, stop by Chè 4 mùa (4 Hàng Cân), pull up a tiny stool among the locals, and point to whatever looks tasty. Although no one spoke English, the proprietress brought me the dish of the night, a sugary-sweet concoction with sesame and ginger.
- Try egg coffee! You can’t leave Hanoi without sampling egg coffee, which is unlike anything you’ve likely tried before. Originating during the war, when milk was in scarce supply, the frothy, sweet egg coffee drink is delightful. Although you will find many shops offering it, Giảng Cafe (39 Nguyễn Hữu Huân) is the best place to sample for the first time. Read more on the history of egg coffee, and this shop.
- Drink lots of coffee. Vietnam, in general, loves coffee, and Hanoians are no different. There are dozens and dozens of great coffee shops in Old Town. Use the map to find my favorites when you’re out and about.
Where to Sleep
- Mai Charming Hotel is my favorite spot in Hanoi. After several failed attempts at a good hotel, I found this budget to mid-range option, and then extended my stay since I so enjoyed my time here. Located near the cathedral, the staff go out of their way to make your stay amazing. Every single staff member learned my name and greeted me warmly, and provided great advice for onward travel. It’s central, cozy, and the free breakfast is filling. Rooms are newly renovated and bathrooms are modern—the most budget rooms are very small, but completely worked for one person. While there are certainly budget hostels, and pricier hotels, this place has good value for money.
- Hanoi Lotus Hostel for a nice budget travel spot. I booked a spot here after some long weeks of travel, when I was returning to the city and wanted to meet other travelers. There are many mega party hostels in Hanoi, and this seemed like a good alternative. A glitch in their system meant my booking didn’t go through, but I did check out the place and would easily try again if I needed a hostel option in the city (they have a private room).
Ha Long Bay & Cat Ba Island
This is a signature item on the bucketlist for travelers in Vietnam. It’s a stunning UNESCO World Heritage site and worthy of a visit, truly. Before I visited, I had heard awful stories from travelers who had been scammed or disappointed by the experience of visiting Ha Long Bay. The area is well trodden on the tourist path and, as such, there are a range of experiences on offer, and some are cringe-worthy. The moment that you step foot in the north of Vietnam, you will have no shortage of companies promising to arrange your Ha Long Bay excursion.
For my trip, I got myself to Cat Ba Island and only then entertained the various organizations trying to woo my business. I found a highly-acclaimed, locally-owned tour company and used them for a one-day trip around Lan Ha and Ha Long Bays. It was beautiful and I loved the experience. One of the sections below shares information for those also visiting via Cat Ba Island.
What Are Your Options?
- Book a Round-Trip Experience from Hanoi.
If you are short on time, this is likely your best option. The companies will arrange for your transfer from Hanoi to the coast (about 4-5 hours all-in from Hanoi to the bay area). They will then put you on a boat for a one- to three-day liveaboard experience where you cruise around the karst rocks. The quality of your live-aboard varies wildly depending on your budget and your tour company. After your cruise, your tour deposits you back on a shuttle and brings you back to Hanoi.
- Stay on Cat Ba Island & Explore From There.
Use the shuttle transfers to make the trip between Hanoi and Cat Ba Island (by way of Haiphong, since you’ll need to take a ferry to the island). From there, rent a room at the very affordable hotel rooms (private budget rooms are less than $10). Then organize either a day trip, or a multi-day experience. You will also have the chance to visit the beautiful national park on the island. From there, organize a shuttle back to Hanoi, onward to Sapa, or to Ninh Binh/Tam Coc.
- Visit a Different, Less Touristed Bay.
Ha Long Bay has very likely reached peak tourism capacity. The UNESCO area extends across the entire Ha Long Bay Archipelago and to many other bays that are equally beautiful. When on Cat Ba Island, you are adjacent to Lan Ha Bay, which you can easily visit on a Cat Ba cruise. But there is one other main option that is just emerging on the tourism scene. Several travelers that I met in early 2017 had beautiful experiences on Bai Tu Long Bay. The boats running here are a bit pricier, but they are better maintained and it’s a far more remote and tranquil experience.
How to Choose a Tour Company
My hands-down best advice: Wait before booking. Do NOT allow any hotel or tour operator to pressure you into booking a trip before you have sat down with several companies and then researched them all on Trip Advisor. The most common “scam”—which I use the word lightly because it’s not a full scam, it’s a case of unmet expectations—is to book you on a low-quality boat and take you on an underwhelming but well-trodden path. Some of the boats are dirty, dingy, and infested with rats or roaches. When you book through a budget hotel or operator, there is no telling which company is actually running your tour.
Find a reputable company. Truly take your time deciding which company you use to book the multi-day cruises. I painstakingly researched before selecting Cat Ba Ventures, a locally run business of repute and was well pleased with the quality of my tour. Here are a few things to consider before booking.
- Quality of the boat. Many of the boats operating in Ha Long Bay are very old; some of the rock-bottom priced budget options are patently unsafe. There are high-end luxury boats, but you would likely have a good trip on a mid-range choice too, it’s not necessary to go luxury to have a good trip, it’s just necessary to know the quality of your boat. The less touristed bays tend to use newer boats from what the locals told me when I chatted them up on Cat Ba Island.
- Sights Visited. If you take a budget backpacker tour you can be 100% sure that you will share the bay each evening with hundreds of other boats, and your boat may tend toward the closer caves and inlets that don’t require much fuel for the boat to visit. If you do just one night, you really lack the time to visit anything in the remote areas of the bay. When you start from a different bay, or the island, you are able to see less touristed areas since you are starting far from the most popular tourist city, Ha Long City.
- Reputation. There are hundreds of tour operators booking trips. They dot every single corner of the northern cities. Use Trip Advisor to find one that you trust. Read the hotel reviews too for any associated properties as many guests book through the hotels and then include the review of the boat trip in their general review of that hotel. Hotels make a hefty sum from your tour package so they have an incentive to charge more and book you on the most budget option they can find. This happens a lot. Research.
- Price. The adage “you get what you pay for” proves true here. You don’t have to blow money to enjoy the trip, but I would highly recommend considering Cat Ba Island as a base for budget backpackers instead of the packaged trips to Ha Long Bay. You will pay about the same, so it’s still budget, but it’s just alternative enough to provide a better experience for the same price.
Things To Do, Places to Eat, & Where to Sleep on Cat Ba Island
- Get to Cat Ba Island with a shuttle service. Your hotel in Old Town can organize transport, or you can book it through either Good Morning Cat Ba (what I used to get there) or email Cat Ba Ventures to organize (that’s who I used to book onward trip to Tam Coc).
- Use Cat Ba Ventures for your boat excursion. This company has, by far, the best reputation on the island for a strong standard of service. The tours are priced mid-range, and the vibe on the boats is very nice since everyone paid a bit more to enjoy their trip. I took their one-day trip with kayaking. Cat Ba Local is much newer to the scene, but as of early 2017, feedback from other travelers indicated it was a more affordable alternative for budget travelers looking for something a small step down from Cat Ba Ventures but still well-run.
- Go rock climbing with Asia Outdoors. This is the only organization you should use if you are keen to organize rock climbing; it has a highly trained staff and was the original company pioneering the rock climbing scene in the region.
Day & Weekend Trips Around the North
The north of Vietnam is a gorgeous region of the country and has many of Vietnam’s most notable backpacker experiences. If you’re heading south, there are also gorgeous spots worth an overnight stay at the very least.
Tam Coc/Ninh Binh
- Stay at Nam Hoa Hotel in Tam Coc. I love this hotel so much. The staff is lovely beyond measure. The rooms are small but spotless and freshly renovated. It’s mid-range if you’re solo, but budget if you’re a couple and able to split a room. Breakfast included and an easy walk to town. Bike rental is free and the bikes are in great condition. Highly recommend that you use this as your base, I will stay here again.
- Homestay at Nguyen Shack. Although I loved Nam Hoa Hotel, I would be remiss to not recommend Nguyen Shack as a gorgeous homestay option. This tiny Vietnamese chain of bungalows is thoroughly lovely. If you’re after a home-stay experience then it will get no better than here. Book in advance as it is often fully booked.
- Eat at Sunflower Restaurant. Vegetarian options and is a low-key, locally run restaurant serving good food. There aren’t a ton of eating options in town, so this is a good lunch or dinner choice.
- Visit Hang Mua Cave by bike. The bike ride here is flat and easy, or you could ask the taxi to Tran An to stop here as well. However, you get there, hike to the top here for sweeping views over the river. My friend Jimmy visited, and his Tam Coc photos show just how beautiful it is at the top if the weather is on your side (it wasn’t the day I visited).
- Bike to Bich Dong Pagoda. This is a pretty spot and an easy ride from town. Although it’s not a “must visit,” if you have an extra afternoon in town, it’s worth visiting.
- Take a boat tour from Tràng An. If you’re staying in Tam Coc, rent a taxi for a couple of hours and take the boat tour from Trang An, rather than those offered in Tam Coc. The tours are run with precision since this is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the scenery is stunning.