Backpacking in Vietnam – 3 Week Route From North to South

Vietnam – known for its friendliness and hospitality – is also a country with huge distances and stunning diversity in nature.  This is the country where Neil and I first met.

How are you going to explore this enormous country, with a distance of 1700km from the green north to the Mekong Delta in the south?  Hopefully the route we took will help you when making your final plans for backpacking in Vietnam.

I travelled this route with my travel buddy in September 2015 and since then, Vietnam has been my favourite country in South East Asia.

hanoi bridge at night
Hanoi At Night

Hanoi

We started our trip in Hanoi. I read lots about this city and read that you either like Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) or you prefer Hanoi. By everything I read I was expecting to be a HCMC lover, that’s maybe why Hanoi surprised me so much and it turned out to be the other way around. We stayed in the Old Town, with its small packed streets where it’s always busy, It’s lovely to just walk around and enjoy the atmosphere.

Don’t worry too much about crossing the street, cars, motorbikes and buses will keep coming, and you will wait forever to cross the street unless you just go! Keep on walking and make sure you stay close to Asian citizen. It’s worth just looking for 5 minutes and make a small video to show at home, unbelievable how crowded those cross overs in Hanoi are. It can be really warm in Hanoi so it can be worth to ask a cyclo driver to drive you around to see a few of the hotspots.

Top sightseeing attractions are the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, The Temple of Literature and The Perfume Pagoda.

Make sure you settle on a price first and don’t forget to agree it’s in total and not per person. Top sightseeing attractions are the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, The Temple of Literature and The Perfume Pagoda. Don’t forget to walk around during day and night time in Old Town. Street food sold everywhere and enough little shops to buy enough souvenirs. We stayed in Hanoi two full days before we took the night train to Sapa. We knew we would be back in Hanoi to spent some more time before we would travel to other parts of Vietnam.

Sapa Vietnam
Beautiful View – Sapa

Sapa

One of the things that makes it so easy to travel around in Vietnam is the great (night) trains. We mostly used the night trains because it saves you time during the day, traveling goes quicker and it saves in money you don’t have to spent on a hotel. The night trains in Vietnam were the best I’ve traveled with and sleeping was actually pretty comfy. It’s also possible to go by bus to Sapa, we even heard afterwards that it might be faster as well because of the new highway which at those days just was opened. If you go by train you first travel to Lao Cai and then take a (mini) bus to Sapa.

We didn’t stay in the town Sapa but in the national park named Eco Palms House. It’s a hostel and you can rent out your own hut. I really recommend this place, a little bit more expensive then the hostels in town, but the quality of the hostel and the location is more than worth it! Beautiful set up and staff were extremely friendly and helpful. After being in the busy Hanoi it’s breath-taking how pretty the view from the balcony is. We stayed here two nights and used the days to walk around in the national park.

Do some climbing on the hills through the forest and visit the locals in the small villages around. Be prepared the will follow you around just to sell you a small bracelet, even though they’re seven months pregnant, like what happened to us. They even invited us to come and have a tea in their house afterwards. It was real interested to see how they live and decorate their houses. No proper floors in the house and animals just walked in and out.

From Sapa we went back with the night train to Hanoi from where we had booked a boat tour to Halong Bay.

Halong Bay - North Vietnam
Halong Bay – Northern Vietnam

Halong Bay

We booked the boat tour via a tour operator who also owned a hostel in Hanoi Old Town. Because we arrived early we got a room for free at the hostel and were able to sleep a bit and shower before the bus came pick us up to bring us to the harbor of Halong Bay.

We booked a party boat tour but when we arrived at the harbor there were only five other guys and just us two girls. Not the party we expected! Drinks were for free and those British and American guys were loads of fun. This is where Neil and I actually meet for the first time. We visited the caves and canoed around through Halong Bay by ourselves. The evening continued with more drinks and jumping of the boat, scary high!

Next morning with a little hungover we split up with those guys because we had an extra night on the Cat Ba island. Unfortunately, we were to hungover to do the climb on the mountain to see the pretty view. So after a beautiful boat tour in a small motor boat we relaxed at a pretty private beach. Next day the big boat with some other ‘party’ guest on it brought us back to the harbour from where we took the bus back to Hanoi.

Hue - Vietnam
Hue – Vietnam

Hué

From Hanoi we took the night train to Hué, a historic citadel. The city itself was extremely hot, which made it hard for us to give the pretty historical buildings the interest they needed. Even though it’s hot visiting the imperial city is worth it. It’s refreshing to let you be driven around with the cyclo’s. If you’re hot from viewing all those buildings, combs and citadels you can get a refreshing drink and some street food at the Dong Ba Market. Walk over the market and smell all the local spices and products.

From Hué it’s possible to do a day trip to the Phong Nha Caves, which is only 180 km away. The Phong Nha- Ke Bang National Park was listed in UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in 2003 and hosts the the largest cave in the world and covers 300 different grottoes and caves. The deferrization of the colours in the cave is surprising. From the drop off of the bus we first took a small boat to the caves from where we we’re dropped off in the cave and walked via a walking path out. Because it’s a day trip from Hué it’s easy to combine I would really recommend it and it also gives you a nature break from the city.

From Hué we took the bus to Hoi An. It’s a lovely route via the Hai Van Pass and gives you a good view of the beautiful and variable nature.

Beautiful Hoi An
Beautiful Hoi An

Hoi An

Hoi An, my favourite city inf the whole of Vietnam. This tiny town, known for its tailor-made cloths, with a small river trough the city and everyone biking around with a beach around the corner. I could have stayed here for weeks, but there were more places to see in Vietnam and we didn’t had months off work unfortunately.

We would meet our American friends here again to celebrate my birthday and later at the beach we would meet Neil and his British friend as a coincidence again. All along the way you will see that many people travel Vietnam from North to South or the other way around and you will see people you saw before more often. We had a nice hotel in the centre of the town, close to the popular bars without having any noise pollution.

Almost every hotel has free bikes available and it’s a pretty straight forward journey to the beach. After some look around in the town we decided to go to the beach, because we hadn’t seen the Vietnamese beaches yet. In the evening the whole city gets lighten up with candles in the river and those pretty lanterns. Sometimes you see groups of kids dressed up like dragons on the streets and they will start to preform shows, sometimes against other groups. It’s their way of entertainment. We had an incredible time here and if you visit Vietnam, don’t miss out on Hoi An!

Easy Rider Tour - Vietnam
Easy Rider Tour – Vietnam

Easy Riders

Many people travel through Vietnam by motorbike, but I’m not the best motor driver and we didn’t had time for moths we decided to travel Vietnam mostly by train. But how can you go to Vietnam without traveling by motorbike? The Easy Riders had the solution for us. From Nha Trang, where we arrived via a night train which we took from DaNang just outside of Hoi An, we arranged with the Easy Riders to go inlands to Da lat and drop us off the next day in Mu Ne. The whole journey at the motorbike.

We started from Nha Trang because that was the only option to meet the Easy Riders. If you don’t need Nha Trang for something like that I wouldn’t stay there anymore. This city is really Russian orientated and we had even trouble finding a restaurant where they would speak English or have an English menu. The beaches and restaurants look nice, but like I said before it’s mostly focused on Russians.

On route there are many beautiful views and as soon of you want to take a photo of anything they will stop to let you, it’s all up to you!

The drivers belong to Easy Riders are really nice, they speak good English and even though I was a bit scared at the beginning because of the busyness in traffic they are really good drivers. Take enough breaks so your butt doesn’t start to hurt. On route there are many beautiful views and as soon of you want to take a photo of anything they will stop to let you, it’s all up to you! We had coffee, lunch and snacks at local shops where you even pay less than what you’re used to on the night markets.

At the end of the afternoon we arrived in Da Lat, a mountain village. One of our drivers took us out at a local BBQ restaurant and dared us to order something we had never eaten before. My travel buddy choose goat first, which was a pretty save choice. Afterwards I had to choose and I choose frog legs for us. Uncooked it looks like what it is, feels a bit unnatural but to be honest it just tasted like chicken. It wasn’t the weirdest thing we saw in this restaurant and all the locals loved to show and share their unique BBQ meat. Nice to expand your horizon with locals!

The next morning, after a good night of sleep after an exhausting day on the motor bikes, it was time for day two. Back to the coast. It’s unbelievable how fast the mountain nature can change into desert sand fields and a coastline. Vietnam has so many different landscapes near each other, beautiful to see.

Mui Ne
Mui Ne

Mui Ne

Mui Ne is a nice relaxing area with many hotels and resorts. We stayed here a couple of nights to just relax a bit before we would go back home to Holland and had to work for the rest of the year. The nice thing of Mui Ne is that if you’re done with all the relaxing there are nice things to do in the area as well. Mui Ne has beautiful white and red sand dunes, which makes you feel like you’re in the desert. Try out sliding down the sand dunes or run them up or down yourselves. Definitely worth giving up one beach day to go to the sand dunes. Try to plan it so you can watch the sunset in the red sand dunes, beautiful how the colours change.

From Mui Ne we took the sleeping bus to Ho Chi Minh City, the last destination of our journey unfortunate.

Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City

Phạm Ngũ Lão street is the backpack location to stay in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). It’s not big and not as crowded as Hanoi. Straight away you see that HCMC is way more developed compared to Hanoi. It’s nice to have some drink and local food in this area and enough sightseeing on walking distance.

From HCMC it’s possible to go to the Củ Chi tunnels on a half day or day excursion. We went on a day excursion, we started with going to the Cao Dai church. Interesting to see this for us new religious movement and the decoration they used to their church. If you have enough time, it’s interesting to see and to be part of one of their church services. The Củ Chi tunnels are definitely something you can’t miss. It’s impressive to see a part of how they flighted their side of the war in the jungle. If your walking in the tunnel yourself, it’s scary to imagine that they are chasing you and you have to run for your life.

Seeing the side of the north Vietnamese soldiers we went to the War Remnants Museum to see it from the south Vietnamese and American side. We were warned before we went to this museum, but even though it was really impressive. The footage and photo’s they saved of this war. The images of the results of the napalm bombs dropped are unreal and bring goose bumps to your arms. Although this isn’t a ‘fun’ thing to do it is something you can’t miss out on this one when you’re visiting HCMC.

Looking back on our three weeks travel in Vietnam it is for sure my favourite country in Asia. We saw so many different sights of Vietnam. From the green north with it pretty rice fields and mountains, to the UNESCO Halong Bay, pretty beaches and friendly locals. Definitely a country I will come back to! Have you been to Vietnam already? Which city was your favourite?

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