Vietnam is a magnificent country. There is so much to see, and it’s traveler-friendly. Even though I don’t speak any Vietnamese, I had no problem getting to sights and cities as long as I did a little research. I stayed on the well established tourist route, which was probably why I found the country easy to travel through. It might have been more difficult if I had ventured outside of the tourist trail. That said, friends who motorbiked through more rural areas reported that locals were usually happy to help, even if there were language barriers.
I stayed in the country for close to a month and feel like I barely scratched the surface. I did the north-to-south route, starting in Hanoi on May 6 and leaving Ho Chi Minh City on June 4.
Below is a summary of the locations, accommodations, transport, and tours from my time in Vietnam.
Hanoi (May 6 to May 14)
- Accommodation: Cocoon Inn
- Cocoon Inn opened just a few months ago, so everything was modern and clean. In many Vietnamese accommodations, showers aren’t separated from the rest of the bathroom, so water sprays everywhere. At Cocoon Inn, the shower had a door, so it was easy to keep things dry. Each dorm bed had a curtain, which provided plenty of privacy. Cocoon Inn offered free breakfast, which was fine. The hostel was still working on setting up common areas and didn’t organize events, so it was difficult to meet people. I had a couple of friendly roommates but didn’t interact much with other travelers.
- Transport to Hanoi:
- 27-hour flight from New York to Hanoi, with stops in Frankfurt and Singapore. All the flight legs were with Singapore Airlines, so it was a pretty painless experience. Amazing service, excellent entertainment system, and decent food.
- Transport within Hanoi:
- I went to sights in Hanoi by foot. Cocoon Inn is in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, and the farthest walk (to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Temple of Literature) was 30 minutes. Hanoi was also my base for tours to Halong Bay and Sapa (listed in the following “Tours” section).
- Blog posts:
Phong Nha/Dong Hoi (May 15 to May 16)
- Accommodation: Nam Long Hotel
- The staff was friendly and allowed me to take a shower the morning I arrived in Dong Hoi, even though it was before check in. I had my own room, which was clean and contained all the necessities. The free breakfast was good. I booked a tour of the Paradise and Phong Nha Caves through the hotel (listed in the “Tour” section below), and the staff also booked a bus ticket from Dong Hoi to Hue.
- Transport to Dong Hoi:
- 11-hour overnight train from Hanoi to Dong Hoi. Seat 61 is an excellent resource for train travel in Vietnam and other countries. I’d recommend booking train tickets through a hostel/hotel or reputable travel agent. Don’t buy tickets online since there are some scams, and prices can be inflated.
- Transport within Dong Hoi:
- I took a taxi from the train station to my hotel. I didn’t see any sights in Dong Hoi since I focused on Phong Nha.
- Tour of Paradise and Phong Nha Caves with Phongnha Discovery Tours
- Blog post:
Hue (May 16 to May 19)
- Accommodation: Moon & Sun Hostel
- The staff was wonderful. They knew my name, asked about my plans, and made sure to get my breakfast order for the following day. The hostel is less than a five-minute walk to the main backpacker street. It’s quiet, and I had my own room, so there were limited chances to socialize. I did meet other travelers at breakfast, which was free and hearty.
- Transport to Hue:
- Three-hour bus from Dong Hoi to Hue, booked by Nam Long Hotel. I didn’t check the name of the bus company, but the ride was uneventful and perfectly fine.
- Transport within Hue:
- I walked to the citadel, which was 30 minutes from Moon & Sun Hostel. I used taxis and motorbike tour companies (listed in the following “Tours” section) for the other sights I visited.
- Blog post:
Hoi An (May 19 to May 24)
- Accommodation: Tribee Cotu
- There are three hostels in the Tribee family, and Tribee Cotu is the newest. Unlike a lot of hostels in Hoi An, the Tribee hostels are close to Ancient Town. The staff was lovely and remembered my name, and they served my favorite breakfast in Vietnam. Tribee Cotu doesn’t host its own social events, but it advertises the events at the sister hostel Tribee Kinh, which is just a couple of doors away. I easily met other travelers at the nightly happy hours at Tribee Kinh.
- Transport to Hoi An:
- One-day easy rider tour from Hue to Hoi An with Hue Riders
- Transport within Hoi An:
- I went to most sights in Hoi An by foot. I didn’t go to any of the beaches in the area, but other travelers rented motorbikes or bicycles to get there. A number of hostels are close to the beaches, if those are a priority for you. My Son was the furthest sight I visited, and I booked a motorbike tour with I Love Hoi An (listed in the following “Tours” section).
- Blog post:
Nha Trang (May 25 to May 26)
- Accommodation: Mojzo Dorm
- I arrived in Nha Trang at around 5:00 AM after a less-than-ideal bus ride. Upon arrival, the staff let me sleep on a bunk close behind the reception area and take a shower. Yet again, the staff remembered my name and made sure all my needs were met. The hostel offers free breakfast every morning, free tea every afternoon, and free beer every evening. They also have a family dinner every night for $3. Nha Trang was my least favorite destination in Vietnam, but the Mojzo staff and other travelers were great.
- Transport to Nha Trang:
- 12-hour overnight bus ride from Hoi An to Nha Trang. Don’t use the sleeper buses operated by Queen’s Cafe. The driving wasn’t crazy, but our driver smoked the foulest-smelling cigarettes inside the bus. Sinh Tourist and Phuong Trang/Futabus are supposed to be the most reputable sleeper bus companies. When booking a bus ticket with a hostel/hotel or travel agent, make it clear which company you’d like.
- Transport within Nha Trang:
- I walked along the beach, which was just 5 minutes away from my hostel. I planned to take an hour-long walk to the Po Nagar Towers, but the threat of rain deterred me.
- Blog post:
Lak Lake (May 26 to May 27)
- Accommodation: Home stay booked by Cuc, my easy rider guide from Nha Trang to Dalat
- Unfortunately, I can’t provide much detail about my home stay since Cuc took care of all the arrangements. I didn’t get to interact with the family, but the accommodations were clean.
- Lak Lake was the overnight location for my two-day, one-night easy rider tour from Nha Trang to Dalat. The staff at Mojzo Dorm in Nha Trang booked the tour for me. Cuc doesn’t have a website, but he was perfectly friendly.
- Blog post:
Dalat (May 27 to May 31)
- Accommodation: Wolfpack Hostel
- This is going to sound repetitive, but the staff was stellar (yes, they remembered my name). A hard-working family operates the hostel. They cleaned and dried my sneakers after a muddy hike, which was a wonderful surprise. They provided a great free breakfast and an awesome $3 family dinner. They also served free ginger tea and bananas throughout the day. The staff booked a bus from Dalat to Ho Chi Minh City.
- Dalat has many superb hostels. Every traveler I met who had stayed in Dalat raved about their hostel. Cozy Nook, Mooka’s Home, and Dalat Friendly Fun all got glowing reviews from travelers I met.
- Transport to Dalat:
- Two-day, one-night easy rider tour from Nha Trang to Dalat, as mentioned in the “Lak Lake” section
- Transport within Dalat:
- I went to most sights by foot. I took a taxi to hike up Lang Biang, and the round trip cost about 300,000 VND (roughly $13).
- Blog post:
Ho Chi Minh City (May 31 to June 4)
- Accommodation: Long Hostel
- The accommodations were clean, and it was nice to have a shower with a door. Sometimes there was a line for the shared bathroom, which served eight people. The hostel offers each guest two free beers from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM, which helps create a social environment.
- Transport to Ho Chi Minh City:
- Seven-hour bus ride from Dalat to Ho Chi Minh City with Phuong Trang/Futabus. As mentioned in the Nha Trang “Transport” bullet, Phuong Trang is one of the more reputable bus companies. The drive was uneventful and faultless.
- Transport within Ho Chi Minh City:
- I walked to most sights in Ho Chi Minh, and the farthest was about 30 minutes away. Most of the sights I visited were close to each other, so it took me less than 10 minutes to get to each sight once I reached the tourist area. I also took tours of the Mekong Delta and Cu Chi Tunnels (listed in the following “Tours” section).
- Blog post:
If I’m lucky enough to visit Vietnam again, these are some new destinations I’d consider:
- Ha Giang
- Ha Giang is a mountainous region near the Chinese border. It’s supposed to have beautiful scenery. It doesn’t seem to be as popular as Sapa, but it’s a destination for travelers who motorbike through Vietnam.
- Ninh Binh
- If I could redo my trip, I might visit Ninh Binh instead of Nha Trang. It has limestone hills similar to those in Halong Bay. Ninh Binh is easy to get to. It’s just a couple of hours from Hanoi, and it’s a stop on the train line that runs between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
- Phu Quoc
- Phu Quoc is an island to the southwest of the mainland. The beaches look stunning, with crystal clear water and white sand.
I’ve been tracking my expenses with the Trail Wallet app, which is awesome. The free version allows you to input 25 entries. Since I’m traveling for an extended period, I bought the full version of the app for $4.99. I consider this money well spent since I can immediately log my expenses after making a purchase. In both the free and full versions, you can categorize your purchases (accommodation, food, transport, etc.), which allows you to see what eats up the largest part of your budget.
During my 30 days in Vietnam, I spent about $1,708.28, or roughly $56.24 a day. This total does not include my flight from New York to Hanoi, which was $531.18. If the cost of my flight is included, I still spent less than $100 a day (about $74.65). I could have spent a lot less in Vietnam if I hadn’t gone on tours and/or drove my own motorbike. On days where I didn’t go on tours, I easily managed on a budget of $25 a day. You can spend even less than that if you’re not picky about accommodation.
My expenses were categorized as follows:
- Entertainment: $1,155.56
- My biggest expense by far. This includes tours, admission fees, a cooking class, and a few pieces of custom-made clothing. The clothing was my biggest expense at $240, with my two-night Halong Bay cruise at a close second at $225. Some of my tours (e.g., Halong Bay cruise, three-night Sapa trek, one-night easy rider tour from Nha Trang to Dalat) included food, transport, and/or accommodation.
- Accommodation: $201.09
- I had no problem finding good accommodation in Vietnam. I relied heavily on Hostelworld and Booking.com. I mostly stayed in dorm rooms, but I splurged on a private room or hotel on a couple of occasions. My most expensive accommodation was a private room in Hue, which was about $16 a night. My least expensive accommodation was a four-person dorm in Hoi An, which was $7 a night.
- Food: $182.42
- Food is fantastic and cheap in Vietnam. I could eat to my heart’s content on a budget of $10 a day, especially if I stuck to street food. All of my accommodations served free breakfast, which helped keep expenses low.
- This category includes drinks such as water, coffee, and alcohol. In big cities like Hanoi and HCMC, you can buy a 1.5-liter bottle of water for about 20 cents. The cost can be doubled in more rural areas. Obviously, you can save a lot of money by avoiding booze. When I drank, I tried to stick to beer since it was cheapest. A can or bottle usually cost less than $1. I’m not much of a juice or soda drinker, so that didn’t affect my budget.
- Transport: $116.35
- This includes taxis, buses, and trains. My biggest expense was an overnight train from Hanoi to Dong Hoi, which cost $32. I spent about $22 for a taxi from the Hanoi airport to my hostel, which was way too much. I booked the taxi through a travel desk at the airport, but I should have gotten an Uber/Grab or booked a taxi through my hostel. If you do either of these options, you can pay as little as a fifth of what I paid.
- Miscellaneous: $52.85
- This includes the processing fee for my visa ($25) and a Viettel SIM card ($16). I bought the SIM card from the same travel desk where I got my taxi from the Hanoi airport; I think I overpaid for the SIM card as well. Regardless, I got 4 GB of data for a month, which was plenty. Coverage was reliable, and I was able to use data in all my destinations. Wifi was decent in most of my accommodations, which helped limit the amount of data I used. I also made a few small purchases for everyday items like toothpaste and body wash.
Finally, below are general observations about Vietnam:
- There are a ton of tourism-related businesses in Vietnam, and it can be difficult to distinguish between them. Some even impersonate reputable companies to scam people. Companies are constantly looking for ways to separate themselves from the pack. When I visited travel agents, checked into a hostel, or joined a tour, employees almost always asked me how I heard about their businesses. Guides usually ask guests to write TripAdvisor reviews at the end of a tour. Some companies pay their guides based on the number of good reviews in which they are identified, so TripAdvisor is vital.
- According to my tour guides, May is a low season for tourists. Many of the sights I visited were quiet. I think April would have been an even better time to visit since the temperatures would have been cooler. July and August are apparently busy, even though it’s scorching hot in most of Vietnam.
- Travelers quickly become familiar with Mai Linh and Vinasun, the most reputable taxi companies in Vietnam. Mai Linh taxis are green, while Vinasun taxis are white with green and red writing. Taxis operated by these companies are metered, so drivers won’t try to rip you off. I had no problem finding taxis at popular sights.
- “I’m from the USA, but my parents are Korean” was my canned response to locals who asked where I was from. Saying I was from the US or New York wasn’t enough, as locals would always follow up by asking about my heritage. I got used to this as it seemed to be important information for them. Some locals guessed my heritage, and most were correct. This was a surprise since Americans are usually wrong. In contrast to locals, travelers took “I’m from the States,” or “I’m from New York,” at face value and didn’t probe further.
- NB: this should be obvious, but don’t play the ethnicity guessing game in the US with someone you’ve just met. “Are you Chinese?” is a rude way to greet someone.
- I didn’t get food poisoning in Vietnam, but I witnessed and heard from a lot of travelers who weren’t as lucky. I don’t know if I happened to choose more sanitary eateries or had a resilient stomach. Toward the beginning of my time in Vietnam, I had occasions where I felt a little discomfort, but I attribute this to my digestive system adjusting to a new diet. It did not remotely resemble food poisoning.
- I drank only bottled water and never drank from a tap. I had iced drinks and was fine. Ice cubes are made from filtered water, so they’re usually safe. Travelers should stay away from shaved ice though, as you can’t be certain what has happened to it. That said, I had a couple of drinks with shaved ice in more rural areas since I didn’t want to refuse a drink that was being offered to me. While I didn’t drink tap water, I brushed my teeth with it, and most travelers did the same. Brushing your teeth with bottled water gets annoying quickly.
- A French braid became my preferred hairstyle in Vietnam. I rarely wear my hair in a braid at home, but I found it to be the most versatile style in Vietnam. My hair stayed off my neck and shoulders, and a braid could fit under a motorbike helmet.
- Most common phrases directed to me in Vietnam: “Hey, hello. Motorbike?” “Taxi?” “Massage?”
- Most common phrase I said in Vietnam: “No, thank you.”