Backpacking Vietnam in 17 Days
While living in Vietnam back in 2016, I made the decision early that I needed to backpack throughout the country. I had never done truly backpacked before and felt it was absolutely necessary to do, especially in Vietnam, which is such a backpacker friendly nation. I’d lived in both Thailand and Korea before this and never had the opportunity to either of these countries in their entirety, which I felt pretty bummed about. Since I lived in Ho Chi Minh City, I made the fairly obvious decision to take buses in a northern direction starting from there, stop at each key city, and explore each one for a couple of days each.
Vietnam has specific types of intercity buses called sleeper buses. In sleeper buses, there are three rows of bunk-bed-like reclined seats and passengers typically sleep on the bus going from one destination to another (hence the “sleeper” in the title).
In theory, this may have you imagining yourself all snug in a bed on a smoothly-operating bus, but they unfortunately aren't this way! If you are over 5 feet 10 inches (178 cm), you're in for a rough ride. Your feet will be crushed, your arms will be smothered, and you'll be dripping with sweat the entire time, since they barely run the air conditioning. However, they are one of the most convenient and most popular ways to get around Vietnam, especially since you go to sleep on it and wake up the next morning at your next destination. Plus, they’re very affordable!
Word of advice: bring something to help you sleep, earplugs, and several sources of entertainment if you take one of these buses!
My first stop on my backpacking trip was a small city named Mui Ne. It was only about a 4 hour bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City, but I still had to take a sleeper bus. I left around 7 AM and arrived in Mui Ne in the early afternoon. When driving through Mui Ne, I was surprised by how beautiful, clean, and quiet the city was. The coastline was pristine and inviting with its golden sand beaches and clear water. It was nothing like the bustling, overpopulated, and stifling Ho Chi Minh City I’d grown used to!
I booked my room through AirBNB and stayed at the Papaya Guesthouse, which was located right next to the beach. It was a lovely and quiet motel that was just fine for a poor backpacker like myself to stay for a night or two.
I spent that first day on a tour of the White and Red Sand Dunes in Mui Ne, which was a unique sight to see, being that the coastline was not far away.
Overall, Mui Ne was a comfortable and obviously underrated city. I enjoyed some home-cooked food from my Airbnb host, some awe-striking views of sand dunes, and was able to relax on the beach.
Death Ride to Da Lat
The next city on my itinerary was Da Lat. The bus ride to Da Lat is one I will never forget. I was put on a small bus that fit around thirty people. Da Lat is located very high up in the mountains of Vietnam, 4,900 feet (1,493 meters) above sea level to be exact. For the entire ride, the bus driver drove around 70 miles per hour up and down steep mountain sides with cliffs only inches to our side. I honestly feared for my life the entire ride. The bus driver even rear-ended another vehicle at one point during the journey, but didn't seem to think anything of it and moved on. Somehow, someway, we all managed to make it to Da Lat without any injuries or deaths by heart attack.
Da Lat was easily one of my favorite cities during my trip about Vietnam! Everything about this city was different from the rest of Vietnam. It was clean, drenched in greenery, and had optimal weather: a casual 75 degrees (24 degrees C)!. I couldn’t help but compare it to Ho Chi Min City, recalling the occasional waft of sewage, the humidity causing every inch of me to be drenched in sweat, and not much greenery whatsoever to admire.
I stayed at The Sunshine Room in Da Lat. It was a great place to stay because it was right in the middle of the city and everything I needed was within walking distance.
The same day, I went on a day tour through Da Lat city. The tour guide was able to show me most of the city in only a few short hours. I only planned on staying in Da Lat for one full day, so a quick tour of the entire city was a great way to see it in such a short period of time.
After Da Lat, I headed back down the windy mountains to the beach city, Nha Trang. Nha Trang was much more populated than Mui Ne and Da Lat. It looked like we were back in Ho Chi Minh City, but instead of Vietnamese civilians everywhere, there were tons of foreigners-- and a beach. I immediately realized that many people residing in Nha Trang were actually from Russia! On almost every sign, there was Russian, then Vietnamese. I was more often spoken to in Russian than in English!
I stayed at Truong Giang Hotel. It was a pretty decently sized hotel in the center of the city. There were restaurants, shops, and the beach all within a two-minute walk. My hotel host told me of a few cool places to eat and see at night, but I ended up eating at Ganesh Indian restaurant, which was an excellent move because it was some of the best Indian food I’d ever eaten!
I only spent one full day in Nha Trang, but during that one day, I spent it at a tiki bar on the beach, sipping on colorful and boozy cocktails for a few hours. While I was enjoying my drinks, I noticed some sudden dark clouds rapidly approaching. I didn't think anything of them (probably because of the alcohol!) until a powerful wind storm blew all the umbrellas on the beach into the air! I ran as quickly as I could back to my hotel and miraculously made it right before the torrential rain hit. That certainly put a damper on my beach day!
The following evening, I left Nha Trang on a sleeper bus.. My bus ride to Hoi An was an overnight ride that took twelve hours. The bus ride turned out to be tolerable because I slept most of the ride. Phew!
I arrived in Hoi An at six AM, the morning sun just peaking its head up on the horizon. I jumped in a taxi and told him the address of my homestay. But, he ended up dropping me off nowhere near where I needed to be. I ended up walking around, simultaneously rubbing sleep from my eyes and fiddling with my heavy backpack, then asked for help. No one was enthusiastic about helping me, but after about thirty minutes of searching, someone offered to take me on his motorbike to our accommodation. …Paid, of course.
This was my first home-stay on my backpacking trip and boy, did it really open my eyes to the wonders of homestays! We stayed at a woman's home, which was named Sake Home. Our host spoke absolutely no English, but the language barrier didn't stop me from enjoying her delicious home cooked meals and spending some time with her!
Throughout that first day, I explored Hoi An by bicycle, which is common to do here and I can highly recommend! I spent time at the beach, ate a seriously bangin’ sandwich at Dingo Deli, and enjoyed some delightful Vietnamese Coffee at a small, local cafe on the side of the road. At night, I meandered aroud Hoi An Ancient Town, Hoi An's main attraction. When I arrived, I was stunned by the amount of tourists, flooding the area. It was difficult to enjoy Ancient Town because there was so many people screaming, running around, and taking an absurd amount of photos. However, if it wasn’t for the tourists, I’d imagine I would’ve been in awe of the colorful lanterns, illuminating the ancient buildings and the small river cutting through the neighborhood.
I ended up at an all-you-can-drink bar for most of the night. I met three people from England, who were exploring the entire country as well. We spent the entire night drinking, dancing, and playing games with them.
In the morning, I headed out to Da Nang, which was just a quick 45 minute bus ride. When arriving in Da Nang, I noticed it was a well-built city that was clean and directly on a golden beach.
In Da Nang, I stayed in a studio apartment just a five-minute walk to the beach (which sadly doesn’t exist anymore!). Immediately after checking in, I walked to the beach, kicked off my sandals, and walked on the smooth, shimmering sand, letting the warm water lick my feet.
During the evening, our Airbnb host invited me to eat dinner with him at a seafood restaurant by the ocean. It was a local Vietnamese restaurant, where we enjoyed local seafood and, of course, beer!
Before departing from Da Nang the following afternoon, I went to the top of a fancy hotel that overlooked the ocean and city. I hung out up there for a few hours, sipped on a coffee, then caught my next bus to …
I arrived to Hue at around six in the evening. My first impressions of the city? Cramped, hot, and crowded. The main reason that I wanted to head to Hue was for the food. According to what people had previously told me, Hue has its own unique style of food. This was due to the fact that the emperor during Hue's heyday demanded the best food be given to him and his people. So, the recipes had been handed down from generation to generation and the food continues to be unique to the city to this day.
That night, I went to a Korean-style restaurant (still not sure why I did that) and tried Banh Khoai (a Hue-style savory pancake), sausage, and spring rolls. The food was relatively good! Not amazing, as I’d hoped, but I guess that’s what I get for getting Vietnamese food at a Korean restaurant!
The following day, I went through the debilitating heat (a whopping 130° Fahrenheit (or 55° C) with humidity!) to try a place that specialized in Hue-style food that our AirBNB host from Da Nang recommended. I tried some food items special to Hue and honestly, they all sucked. It was cold, had little flavor, and most of it had a gooey texture that I was just not into!
When leaving the restaurant in a cloud of disappointment, I saw a restaurant right across the street with the same name as the restaurant I went to! So, I’m quite sure I went to the wrong restaurant. Considering it was terrible, but it came highly recommended, I would say I definitely did.
During our stay in Hue, I honestly didn't do too much. Pathetically, I stayed in my hotel in the air conditioning most of the time because it was just too blisteringly hot! I mean, seriously. I couldn’t walk for more of a block without being soaked in sweat and being out of breath.
Word of advice: don’t go to Hue in July! If you do, be prepared for your body to fry in the streets.
Phong Nha is a national park containing a vast number of caves conveniently placed on turquoise waters, all the while being filled with jagged, towering limestone mountains. When I arrived there via yet another sleeper bus, I instantly noticed how much cleaner the air was and how open and quaint the town there was. It was basically just one street of buildings, like hotels and restaurants, with a good number of foreigners. Not as many as other places I’d gone to, so that was great!
After getting a good meal and night’s rest, I went to the Phong Nha cave because it was cheaper than the others and it was more of a local way to get to the cave as well. We took a Vietnamese boat with a Vietnamese family and it was such an awe-striking ride. I glided over the turquoise river while being surrounded by these towering mountains. It was honestly better than the cave, but I’ll get to that.
Once I arrived to the cave, I noticed that it was dark (duh) and so cool, which was so refreshing after being outside in Vietnam’s soul-crushing July heat. I waltzed around the cave a bit, admiring some intricate stalactites that were purposefully illuminated with a myriad of colors from .
I ended up leaving Phong Nha that same night. I got on yet another “pleasant” sleeper bus at around nine at night and set off for the glorious, the magical, the majestic…
The time I was supposed to arrive—and the time I told my AirBNB homestay host I’d arrive—was six in the morning. However, the bus jolted everyone awake and kicked us all off in Ninh Binh at three in the morning! We were all shocked and left scrambling, rubbing sleep from our eyes in this small and dark city. By some stroke of serious luck, I was able to magically contact my AirBNB host, who said it was fine for me to come early— and I didn't even have to pay for an extra night! I (eventually) made it to his house in pretty much the boondocks with the aid of a very lost and confused non-English-speaking taxi driver.
After sleeping for a few hours, my host and his wife kindly made me a buffet of Vietnamese food for breakfast/lunch! It was honestly one of the greatest meals I have ever had! We had so many delicious and well-prepared food options and I simply couldn't get enough! Fried spring rolls, fried rice, sauteed morning glory (one of the greatest of Asian green vegetables), and plenty more goodies.
Afterwards, I took a taxi to the main attraction in Ninh Binh, which was about a thirty-minute cab ride from our homestay. Once there, I took a boat rowed by a Vietnamese woman using only her feet through some of the most beautiful scenery in my backpacking experience and, possibly, life.
The ride cost about 200,000 dong, which was not badly priced, considering how magical the ride was— and how long it was! A whopping 2 hours. So worth it and one of the greatest experiences of my life.
After that, I was exhausted and burnt to a crisp, so I returned to the homestay. Then, I walked around the area and got spoiled with even more beautiful scenery!
Later, I got yet another life-changing buffet-style dinner with some homemade, very pungent and strong alcohol! I drank and ate heavily with my AirBNB hosts and it was one of my favorite meals throughout all of my travels!
The next morning, I had yet another ridiculously delicious buffet-like breakfast, but this time I got to enjoy it with other backpackers, one from Scotland and another from Australia. It was a lovely breakfast, of course, but it was nice to have some real and deep conversations with complete strangers who had similar life views with me.
After an hour and a half ride on a local "bus," or like a minivan, I arrived in Hanoi. I stayed at a "fancy" hotel in the backpacker area of Hanoi, which was actually a nice area. It was cramped with a good amount of people, but it had everything I needed around me: food, bars, and people!
I booked a tour with The Sinh Tourist, the agency I had been using throughout my backpacking excursion and headed to Halong Bay the following day.
After a three-hour bus ride, we arrived at the famous Halong Bay! We all stepped onto an unsurprisingly dingy boat and were served some not-so-appetizing food. Unfortunately, it was a cloudy day as well, so the scenery wasn't quite what I thought it would be.
I kayaked out of a fishing village, which was in the middle of Halong Bay, and around the immediate area, which was actually really nice! It was quiet, peaceful, and serene.
I got back onto the boat and went to yet another cave! It was a beautiful and vast cave, but there was a ridiculous amount of other tourists!
After the cave, we all headed back to the dock and then headed back to Hanoi— another 3 hours!
Lesson learned: don’t do a day tour from Hanoi. It would be better to stay a night in Halong Bay to get the full experience and not feel rushed.
The bus returned to Hanoi around dinner time and I had a seriously amazing panini at this tiny panini place on the backpacker street! They had Cuban, Italian, Spanish, and other various (and decadent!) panini flavor. They unfortunately don’t have an online presence, but if you go to the backpacker area in Hanoi, it'll be there and you should definitely give it a try!
That night, I decided to go out to a club or a bar on the backpacker street. I went to a club at first that played really ear-grating techno, so I left there pretty fast. I then went to the chill bar next door and ended up spending the rest of the night with an incredibly friendly Australian couple I met there!
The following day, we cut my trip a little short and skipped out on Sapa, which was apparently another gorgeous place in the North of Vietnam. I was exhausted and felt that I saw enough of Vietnam. Plus, I felt my wallet thinning, so I just headed back to my place in Ho Chi Minh City.
Word of advice: 17 days is doable for Vietnam, but you’ll feel exhausted from constantly being on the move. Try to extend your time, if you can, and try to fit in Sapa!