From being a war zone, Vietnam has risen from the ashes and is now a popular destination in Southeast Asia for backpackers. The country’s long and eventful history combined with its breathtaking landscapes make it an interesting place to explore, not to mention the easy navigation from north to south. Its relaxed visa policies also attract more and more visitors each year, boosting the tourism industry as well as the national economy.
Get started with your backpacking plans—here are some activity suggestions you might want to try!
1. Walk around Hanoi’s Old Quarter
Many backpackers start their trip in northern Vietnam, particularly in the capital city of Hanoi. It is mostly known for the Old Quarter, a string of narrow streets filled with old yet quaint buildings. Here, you may visit Buddhist temples and pagodas, shop in the city’s largest market, Dong Xuan, and see artifacts at the National Museum of Vietnamese History. After walking around and learning about the rich Vietnamese history, the best way to cool down is to have a chilled glass of fresh Vietnamese beer or a cup of Vietnamese coffee. Street side noodle stalls are also found everywhere in Hanoi!
2. Beat the heat at the world’s largest underground water park
Backpacking is also about discovering places and things uncommon to tourists but popular among the locals. One good example is Vinpearl Water Park in Hanoi, the largest underground water park in the world. It features an Olympic-sized pool, a spa pool, a wave pool, play areas for kids, and slides for all ages. The indoor water park is usually jampacked with locals during weekends, but is a quiet getaway during weekdays and a perfect way to beat the heat during the summer months in Vietnam. Plus factor: they have huge lockers that an average-sized backpack can fit in!
3. Enjoy early mornings by the lakeside
If you’re staying in Hanoi for a few days, find time to visit the Hoan Kiem Lake at the crack of dawn. It is worth waking up early for the tranquil views of the lake, and also for the sight of locals who gather here to exercise. Here, people work out in groups, while some prefer to do it alone. There are also locals who prefer taking a simple stroll along the lakeside. Another thing that makes the Hoan Kiem Lake so special: the tortoises thriving in its waters. These animals are considered sacred in the Vietnamese culture, making the lake an equally sacred place.
4. Experience rural life in Sapa
From Hanoi, you can ride an overnight train or a sleeper bus to Sapa, a township located in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains. Prepare your feet for hours of trekking, which will all be worth it when you finally see Sapa’s terraced rice fields. You may also visit ethnic villages of the H’mong, Tay and Dao hill tribes—the best places to observe the pace of life on this side of the country. Instead of hotels, backpackers prefer homestays for a better and more “local” experience. Most homestays in Sapa offer cooked meals, as well as rice wine.
5. Get tailor-made clothes in Hoi An
In the central coast of Vietnam lies the city of Hoi An, a popular tourist destination for its ancient town and canals. While it is a great place for sightseeing, did you know that Hoi An is also a recommended place to purchase tailor-made clothes? Throughout the city, you will find clothing shops that produce made to order items within 24 hours. The price will most likely depend on the kind of cloth to be used and the style you prefer. You can haggle if you wish, but make sure the price is still fair for the dressmaker—otherwise, they might give you a poorly-made output.
6. Relax by getting a mud bath
If you wish to take a few days off from strenuous activities, the coastal city of Nha Trang is the best place to settle down. It has a wide stretch of beach with white sand, ideal for frolicking and relaxing under the sun. A few kilometers away from the beach, there’s Thap Ba, where you can get thermal spa treatments. It is particularly popular for its hot springs and mud baths, but it also has facilities for kids, adult pools, sprinklers and a waterfall area.
7. Party like a local in Nha Trang
Nha Trang’s beaches are ideal for daytime relaxation, but it turns into a whole new lively world at night. You can find most of the popular nightclubs along the Tran Phu Beach, where locals, expats and backpackers gather to have drinks and to dance until past midnight. One of the most popular nightclubs in the coastal city is the Skylight Skydeck and Rooftop Beach Club. It is located on the 45th floor of a building, offering panoramic views of the South China Sea (locally known as East Sea). Another good option is the Sailing Club, located right in the beachfront. They frequently have international DJs as guests, and they also have fire shows and hip-hop dance performances.
8. Ride an ATV along red sand dunes
For thrill-seeking backpackers, the red sand dunes of Mui Ne is a must-visit. You can rent a plastic sled and enjoy sliding down from the dunes, but if you have a bigger budget, it would be better to ride an ATV to explore the whole place. Because of its unique reddish-brown sand, this attraction is also popular among photographers. The best time to come here is during early morning to watch the sunrise or late afternoon to watch the sunset. Meanwhile, if you have more time to spend in Mui Ne, you should also check out the white sand dunes in Bao Trang.
9. Enter the Crazy House
Featuring odd-looking mazes of ladders, pathways and slides surrounded by greenery, the Crazy House in Da Lat offers an outlandish sightseeing experience for visitors. It is also known as the Hang Nga Guesthouse, designed by Vietnamese artist Dang Viet Nga. Since 1990 up to the present, she continues to develop the place with the aim of bringing people closer to nature. You may come here for a visit, but if you wish to stay longer, you can book a room in advance. Nevertheless, seeing the artist’s unconventional take on combining nature and architecture is a must-experience for everyone visiting Da Lat!
10. Visit the temples and pagodas of Hue
Hue is home to various temples and pagodas that allow visitors to get a glimpse of its colorful past. There’s the seven-storey Thien Mu Pagoda for instance, a symbol of the city as a citadel, which was found in 1601. It has been destroyed and rebuilt several times throughout the centuries. Another must-see in Hue is the To Mieu Temple Complex, a walled compound where you will find urns of former emperors housed in a shrine. The largest and most intricate is that of Gia Long, the first emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty.
11. Learn about Vietnam’s war history
The Vietnam War, also known as the First Indochina War, has greatly affected the Vietnam we know today. When you are in Ho Chi Minh, it is a must to visit the War Remnants Museum and learn about the country’s war history. It features an exhibit of military equipment, including tanks and attack bombers. There’s also a photographic display, providing a visual narrative of the brutality of the Vietnam War. Half a million visitors come here each year, most of which are foreigners.
12. Marvel at French-inspired structures in Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh, formerly known as Saigon, was once a colony of France. Traces of French colonial rule are evident in the city especially in its architecture. An example is the Saigon City Hall, a cream and yellow building constructed in the 1900s, which is based on the Hôtel de Ville in Paris. You cannot enter the building itself but you can take photos outside. It becomes even more stunning when it is lit at night. Other French colonial structures you should see in Ho Chi Minh are the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Municipal Theater and Saigon Central Post Office.
13. Cruise aboard a junk boat
Boasting limestone karsts and emerald waters, Halong Bay is best explored aboard a junk boat. Some of the most popular and uniquely shaped islands you will see here include Voi Islet (Elephant Island), Ga Choi Islet (Fighting Cock Island) and Khi Islet (Monkey Island). Depending on your schedule, you can go for a day cruise, an overnight cruise, or a multi-day cruise. Day cruises provide a quick visit to Halong Bay’s must-sees, while overnight cruises offer both stunning sunset and sunrise views. If you can stay longer, multi-day cruises can bring you to the farthest islands. Most of these junk boat cruises also offer activities like caving, kayaking and swimming.
14. Go on a nature trip in Cat Ba
Can’t get enough of Halong Bay’s beauty? Come to Cat Ba National Park, a designated biosphere reserve that is located in one of the islands of Halong Bay. It is home to a total of 32 kinds of mammals, including the endangered golden-headed langur. You can hike up to a peak viewing tower to enjoy the views, which takes up to two hours round trip. However, during the rainy season, the trail gets slippery and muddy. If you want to go on a longer and more challenging hiking adventure, there is also an 18 kilometer (~11 mile) hiking trail. For your own safety, it is best explored with a guide!
15. Experience snorkeling and fishing in Phu Quoc
Phu Quoc, a Vietnamese island located in the Gulf of Thailand, is popular for its white sand beaches and beautiful resorts. Here, snorkelling and fishing are commonly combined in package tours where lunch, snorkelling gear and fishing equipment are also usually included. The tour may take six to eight hours, depending on the water levels and the weather. Meanwhile, the peak season is from December to January, because April and May can get too hot. Tip: you can get a discounted price for a tour if you come at the last minute and the tour provider is trying to fill the boat.
16. Get a blind massage in Hue
On Phan Boi Chau street, there is an institute catering to the blind, where you can get a massage for 60,000 VND (roughly 2.6 USD). For an additional fee, you can also enjoy an herbal steam-bath. This massage parlor is easy to find because it is popular among the locals. If you wish to make an appointment in advance, most local hotels can arrange it for you.
17. Shop for eco-friendly handicrafts made by disabled artisans
Before leaving Hue, don’t forget to check out its handicraft shops for beautiful handmade products. The Healing the Wounded Heart Shop, a humanitarian project by a local foundation, is where you can purchase items made by disabled artisans. These items are also eco-friendly, mostly made of recycle soda cans and telephone wires. Another reason to purchase your souvenirs here: the proceeds of the store fund heart surgeries for poor children. Meanwhile, for garments made from handwoven cloth and for hand-crafted jewellery, you can go to the Hope Center on Nhat Le Street.
18. See a 32 meter tall statue of Jesus in Vung Tau
One of the main attractions of the city of Vung Tau is Mount Tao Phung, located approximately 170 meters above sea level. Make sure to wear comfortable shoes when coming here because you would need to climb up a total of 800 steps before you reach a 32 meter statue of Christ. Its construction started in 1974 by the Catholic church and was delayed several times over the years. It was finally finished in 1994, and then immediately became a tourist attraction and a destination for pilgrims. If you can bear a little more challenge, you can also climb up to the outstretched arms of the statue, where you can enjoy a panoramic view of Vung Tau.
19. Explore a floating market
When in the Mekong Delta, it is a must to explore a floating Vietnamese market. It is a good introduction to river life, as well as the unique market culture on this side of the country. Some of the biggest floating markets in the Mekong Delta include Cai Rang, Cai Be and Phung Hiep. These markets are usually busy during early mornings, although you can visit at any time of the day. Most of the items sold here are fresh produce like fruits and vegetables, while smaller boats also offer beer, wine and soft drinks.
20. Taste local Can Tho food
Can Tho, a part of the Mekong Delta region, is a popular stop for food-loving backpackers. Forget expensive and fancy restaurants, because backpacking is all about experiencing a country just like a local. Go for those street food stalls and ask for their bestseller! There’s banh mi for an instance, a sandwich, which is a well-loved Vietnamese breakfast staple. It is best paired with the strong and aromatic Vietnamese coffee. Fresh fruits are also widely available on the streets of Can Tho, but the best place to get them is at Xuan Khanh market.
21. Enjoy the views from one of the Marble Mountains
Stretch those muscles and prepare for a trek when you visit the Marble Mountains! It is composed of five peaks, namely Moc Son (Mountain of Wood), Thuy Son (Mountain of Water), Kim Son (Mountain of Metal), Tho Son (Mountain of Earth) and Hoa Son (Mountain of Fire). Depending on the location of the hotel in Da Nang that you are coming from, travel time from the city proper to the mountains may take 15 to 30 minutes. Popular among pilgrims, there are several Buddhist temples on the Marble Mountains that you can visit, as well as caves and grottoes.
22. Visit a brewery in Hai Phong
The people of Hai Phong take pride in their local brew, commonly known as Bia Hoi. It is said to have a slightly sweet aftertaste that makes it different from another popular brew in Vietnam, the Bia Ha Noi beer. You can try Bia Hoi for yourself and learn why locals love it so much when you visit Hai Phong Brewery. It has a beer hall where lunchtimes usually means a throng of people coming in to enjoy cheap but delicious food and drinks. They guarantee that the beer served here is fresh, as it comes straight from the brewery at the back of the location.
23. See the everyday activities of locals in a fishing village
Ever wondered what it’s like to live in a small and faraway village? Come to Bai Xep, a traditional fishing village located in Quy Nhon. If you’ve been through Vietnam’s bustling cities, you will surely appreciate the simple yet peaceful everyday life of the locals. You can observe how the villagers go about their day, from haggling at the local market to preparing fishing equipment. This is also an opportunity to enjoy Bai Xep’s serene white sand beach. Other things to do include snorkelling and boating.
24. Be wowed by underground rivers and caves
More natural wonders await you at Phong Nha-Ke Bang, a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site featuring limestones, underground rivers, caves and grottoes. Its core zone spans approximately 857.54 square kilometers (~331 square miles), which also contains a 126 kilometer (~78 mi) cave system. The largest cave located within Phong Nha-Ke Bang is the Son Doong Cave, discovered in 2009 by British and Vietnamese explorers. Tourists are advised to go to the Tourism Service Center, where you pay for the entrance fee and boat service. Aside from caving, top things to do include mountain climbing and trekking.
25. Go birdwatching
Backpackers who are looking for a more relaxed encounter with nature can go to the Tra Su Bird Sanctuary, an 800,000 hectare (1,976,843 acre) forest home to thousands of wading birds. Here, visitors can take a speedboat and enjoy cruising through narrow channels surrounded by a sunken forest. Some of the most visible bird species you might encounter include storks, herons, waterhens and kingfishers. There is also an observation tower within the sanctuary, offering panoramic views of the nature reserve, as well as the surrounding communities. The best time to go birdwatching here is from December to January.
26. Meditate at a monastery in Tam Dao
Achieve inner peace at Truc Lam An Tam Zen Monastery, a Buddhist sanctuary located at Dai Dinh in Tam Dao. Here, visitors can experience the daily activities of monks and nuns, which includes chanting, meditation and listening to a public discourse on Buddhism. The monastery also offers beautiful views of natural landscapes surrounding the area. If you wish, you can even climb the steps up to its highest point for an even more peaceful vibe. This place is recommended for all backpackers, regardless of age and religion!
27. Learn about coffee production in Vietnam’s coffee capital
Coffee is an essential part of the daily lives of Vietnamese people. You can purchase coffee anywhere, from street stalls to beach fronts to upscale cafes. Meanwhile, if you wish to learn about the local coffee production, you should visit Buon Ma Thuot—the country’s coffee capital. It is located in the Central Highlands, which has the most ideal kind of soil and weather for coffee growing. One of the most popular attractions here is the Trung Nguyen coffee museum, which contains exhibits related to the history of coffee. It also has its own shop, where you can purchase coffee products you can bring home, and a small cafe where you can relax while having a cup.
28. Enjoy diving at Cham Islands
If you are a diving enthusiast, the Cham Islands in Hoi An deserve a visit. It is composed of eight islands, which are a part of the Cu Lao Cham Marine Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Over 202 species of fishes thrive here, as well as lobsters, mollusks and corals. The best season to come here is from June to August, when the water is calm and the ocean sediment is settled. Beware of jellyfishes though! For assistance and other concerns, you may go to the Cham Islands Marine Park Administration.
29. Take a dip in the so-called Elephant Springs
Freshen up after a long time in transit from Da Nang to Hue! A dip at the Elephant Springs will do the trick. Also known as Suoi Voi, it is a popular stop for travellers visiting the two cities and also for locals taking a break during weekends. The springs have waterfalls and ponds, which all remain in a good condition despite the huge number of people coming here. Contrary to its name, there are no real elephants here except for a boulder that looks like an elephant head. If swimming is not your thing, you can climb on some of the boulders or relax on mats offered by some locals.
30. Explore Tam Coc aboard a sampan
Prepare to be charmed by Tam Coc, a natural landmark in Ninh Binh featuring limestone outcrops and rice paddies. Riding a sampan is one of the most popular ways to explore the Tam Coc, while the best time to go is either early morning or late afternoon. A rower will accompany you during the whole sampan ride, and some will sell handicrafts for extra income. An alternative way to go around Tam Coc is by a motorbike. Also, if you travel by land, you will be able to visit the Bich Dong Pagoda and the Tai Vi Temple.
Vietnam for backpackers
Most backpackers travel with a purpose—which is to get to know a country or a culture at a personal level. They shy away from the luxurious aspects of travelling and try to immerse themselves with the locals instead. If you are currently looking for a backpacking destination in Southeast Asia, Vietnam would be a great choice!
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