After travelling to South East Asia last year, I knew I had to come back and visit the countries I didn’t get to see. I skipped Vietnam and Cambodia last time, so when I was deciding on a destination to escape the European winter, those countries seemed like obvious candidates. As a digital nomad, I work while I travel, so I can’t move around as much as other backpackers. For that reason, I figured a month for each country would be plenty. Boy, was I wrong! Due to the shape of Vietnam, travelling from north to south or vice versa offers a clear route. But a month is hardly enough to see everything there is to see, especially if you want to do it by motorbike (which I highly recommend!). If I did it all again, I would get a three-month visa, buy a bike in Hanoi and tour the whole country like that. Due to a lack of time and bad weather, I skipped Ha Giang and Sapa which was a shame. But I did get to see a lot of awesome places in the month I spent here.
I’ll be honest, Vietnam didn’t steal my heart, but we developed a solid platonic friendship 😉 Here are my top 5 places I visited:
Hanoi really pleasantly surprised me! I’m not usually a big city person, but the Old Quarter of Hanoi feels like a village inside a metropole. The traffic is crazy, there are people everywhere and I loved it from the moment I set foot there. The colours, the smells, the noise: it is just so vibrant and alive. Despite my usually great sense of direction, I kept getting lost and just wandering around the meandering streets lined with shops and street food. The backpacker nightlife in Hanoi’s Old Quarter is also great and I spent many a night hopping between bars and street food stalls. Make sure to also catch the train from and to Sapa as it crosses at the famous train street.
Although I could spend days strolling through the Old Quarter, it is worth venturing outside. On weekends the road along the Turtle Lake become a pedestrian zone where cute schoolkids will want to practice their English skills on you (and they’re really good!). Visit the Women’s Museum for a fascinating insight into the life and role of women in Vietnam and Vietnamese history. The Hao Lo Prison (also known as Hanoi Hilton) shows you the dark side of Hanoi during the colonial times and the Vietnam War.
Where to stay: The Old Quarter is the place to be and in my experience, it’s worth shelling out a dollar a night more to avoid a total party hostel. Babylon Garden Inn is a great hostel with comfortable dorms, good vibes and a killer rooftop bar, the perfect place to make some new friends.
2. Cat Ba
Instead of going to the overcrowded, polluted and touristic part of Halong Bay on an organised Halong Bay tour, take a few days to visit Cat Ba Island. This island lies in a quieter part of Halong Bay so the tours that depart from here are much better. You get the same stunning views, but for less money and they won’t be obstructed by party cruises. Rent a motorbike and drive around the island through the beautiful scenery and little villages. Climb the mountain in the National Park for some stunning views that will make you feel like you’re in Jurassic Park or King Kong.
Where to stay: Central Backpackers in Cat Ba is located just out of the main town and away from the mass tourism. It’s close enough to shops and restaurants, and they offer motorbike rental as well. A really good hostel with comfy beds and a pool!
3. Hoi An
Hoi An is undoubtedly the most beautiful city in Vietnam and the end destination of my motorbike trip. This old colonial city boasts some amazing architecture and streets lined with colourful lanterns. I spend a few days just wandering around the historic part just looking at the pretty streets. It is especially gorgeous at night when the city lights up from all the lanterns. Definitely go to the river at night to take a boat ride, release a lantern and visit the night market.
Hoi An is also known for the many tailors that offer their services here. You can get any kind of clothing custom-made and tailored here. Just be prepared to bargain hard for a good price. I had a bathing suit and a dress made for 45 USD, but that took some serious negotiating skills. If you want quality tailoring at a fair price, go to New Look tailor, the owner is a lovely and talented woman.
You can also rent a motorbike or bicycle and bike around the countryside or to the beach. Hoi An really has everything and warrants a few days stay at least.
Where to stay: There is really only one place to stay in Hoi An and that’s Tribee’s. This local hostel chain has one party hostel (Tribee Kinh) and a couple of more laid back ones, one even has a pool (Tribee Ede). They also offer great free activities such as tours and cooking classes.
4. Da lat
If you’re getting tired of jungle, heat and rice fields, take a trip to Da Lat. This city is so different from the rest of Vietnam! It lies in mountains filled with pine forest, gets quite cold at night and generally reminded me of a European ski resort, although also a bit of Japan. The best thing to do here is to rent a motorbike and visit the beautiful waterfalls around Da Lat (one even has an alpine rollercoaster!). In the city, definitely take a look at Crazy House, which really lives up to its name. Nights are best spent eating at the night market, followed by a visit to Maze Bar (same designer as Crazy House and a backpacker staple) and let them take you to the after party at 6th Floor.
Where to stay: Tigon Dalat Hostel was one of my favourites in Vietnam. The staff is incredibly friendly, it’s small with a great social atmosphere and the views are just stunning. The location is not perfect, but still walking or Grab distance, and they rent motorbikes.
5. Mui Ne
After a month of backpacking, I was looking forward to spending a few days on the beach. The perfect place to do this is Mui Ne. This former fishing village is now a bustling seaside town filled with Russian tourists. It is basically a strip lined with hotels, shops and restaurants, but it still has some charm. The wind in Mui Ne make it perfect for kitesurfing, although less perfect for sunbathing, so get a hotel with a pool. There are some sightseeing tours, but unless you are really bored, the sand dunes really aren’t worth the money. Police checks are frequent here so renting a motorbike is out of the question.
Where to stay: Mui Ne Hills Backpackers is nothing special if you’re looking at the dorms. But the beauty of this hostel lies in the amenities. There are three(!) pools you can lounge in and around, an all-night party bar and a semi-decent restaurant. Around the corner are some stores and local restaurants and it’s a short walk from the beach. If you can’t make friends here, you’re doing something wrong.
I included direct links to hostels in this post, but if you want, you can use this link to Booking.com to get a 10% discount.
What were you’re favourite places in Vietnam? Which would you add to this list?
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