Backpacking Southeast Asia – Vietnam

Today, we’re kicking off a 4-part series on traveling in Southeast Asia! Keep reading for details on our trip to Vietnam that includes stops in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Check back over the next couple of weeks for information on Thailand, how to spend a layover in Tokyo, and the most common reasons we heard to no travel to SE Asia. 

Backpacking Southeast Asia – Thailand
How to Spend a 9-Hour Layover in Tokyo
6 Reasons Not to Go to Southeast Asia

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3 Weeks in Southeast Asia – Vietnam & Thailand

Does backpacking across Southeast Asia sound intimidating? It certainly did to me! Last year, Ben and I set off for a three week trip across Vietnam and Thailand. My main concern was fitting three weeks of clothing in one backpack! 🙂

I mastered the backpack, and we had an amazing trip. SE Asia has so much to offer for any type of traveler, whether you’re looking for luxury or budget-friendly options.  Keep reading for details on how we spent 10 days in Vietnam. Be sure to check back later for our guide to Thailand!

Backpacking Southeast Asia - Vietnam \\

Part I – Vietnam

9 days, 11 nights

  • Day 1 – Hanoi – Walking tour of the city, Hoa Lo Prison
  • Day 2 – Halong Bay Tour
  • Day 3 – Halong Bay Tour, back to Hanoi
  • Day 4 – Sapa trekking & homestay
  • Day 5 – Sapa trekking & homestay, back to Hanoi
  • Day 6 – Hanoi – Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Museum of Ethnology, flight to Ho Chi Minh
  • Day 7 – Ho Chi Minh – War Remnants Museum, Reunification Palace
  • Day 8 – Ho Chi Minh – Cu Chi Tunnels
  • Day 9 – Day trip to Mekong Delta

If you have extra time:

  • Travel through central Vietnam to Hue (pronounced ‘Hway’) and Hoi An. Both of these cities were highly recommended by other travelers. Hue is “Vietnam’s Imperial City”, serving as the capital under the Nguyen Dynasty for over 100 years. Hoi An is a coastal city, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is known for its tailor shops where you can order custom clothing.
  • Stop in Cambodia before heading to Thailand to visit Angkor Wat, voted the number one site in the world by Lonely Planet. Angkor Wat was constructed as a Hindu temple between AD 1113 and 1150 and is believed to be the world’s largest religious building. The Cambodian government recently announced they would be raising the cost of tickets, beginning February 1, 2017. A one-day ticket will increase from $20 to $37, a three-day ticket from $40 to $62 and a seven-day ticket will go from $60 to $72. It’s still worth a visit though!

Tips for a great trip:

  • Packing cubes are your friend. This was my first trip backpacking, and I was nervous about being able to fit everything for a 3 week trip into one bag!! Packing cubes helped save space and keep me organized. I didn’t have to unload the entire pack while I was digging around for something in the bottom. I like this set that comes in multiple sizes.
  • UPDATE: As of August 29, 2016, US Citizens are required to purchase a 1-year multi-entry visa to enter Vietnam. The stamping fee at arrival is $135 (cash only) plus the cost of the approval letter. Obtaining a visa from the Vietnam embassy before your trip is $220.  For U.S. citizens, save money by grabbing a visa on arrival.  If you’re arriving at a major international airport, you can hire an agent before your trip to obtain an official letter of approval that you present at the visa on arrival counter when you land. We used this site to obtain an approval letter for $26 (for two people) and paid $25 each for the visa at the counter in Vietnam. If you choose to obtain a visa beforehand from the embassy, you’ll pay $100 each. Tripadvisor provides a good overview of the process.

Turtle Lake, Hanoi


Day 1 – Walking tour of Hanoi, Hoa Lo Prison

After a very long flight from Chicago, we arrived in Hanoi late the prior evening and checked into the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel. Located within Hanoi’s Old Quarter, it is the perfect location – steps away from some of Hanoi’s best food, street life and shopping.

This hostel caters to younger westerners with a bar and restaurant, happy hours and nightly outings. They’ll arrange airport shuttles, as well as trips to Halong Bay, Sapa and more. We stayed in a mixed dorm, but if you’d like a little more privacy (and sleep), there are private rooms as well.

Hanoi Arch

Hanoi Temple

Hanoi Market


We started our first day with a guided walking tour of Hanoi provided by the hostel. It allowed us to get our bearings on the city, but we didn’t find it overly informative. Afterwards, we made our way to Hoa Lo Prison.

Referred to as the “Hanoi Hilton”, this site is all that remains of the former prison that was originally used by French colonists to house political prisoners and later used to house U.S. prisoners of war during the Vietnam War.  While one could argue that it’s filled with propaganda – the story you get here of how American prisoners were treated is much different from the accounts you can read in western history – we still found it to be an interesting and worthwhile stop. The site is open 8-5 every day, and admission is cheap.

Hoa Lo Prison

Hoa Lo Prison

Hoa Lo Prison 3

Day 2 – Halong Bay

On our second day, we hopped on a bus and began the 4.5 hour journey to Halong Bay. We booked our overnight trip the prior day, but you may want to consider booking in advance if you’ll be vising during the busier season. There are a ton of cruises to choose from at a variety of prices. Ask other travelers about their experiences and try to get recommendations.

Halong Bay is known for the thousands of limestone karsts and isles that fill the bay. Each junk boat (junk is the name for a Chinese sailing ship) may have it’s own itinerary, but ours started off with a cruise through the bay to a cave. We hopped off the boat and spent a little time exploring the well-lit, busy cave.

Halong Bay

Our next stop was a floating fishing village. Traditionally, the families that live in these villages have made a living from fishing and tourism. However, some of the communities are moving inland as recent storms have wrecked havoc on the villages and pollution in the bay has impacted the population of fish.

We disembarked from our junk boat to hop into smaller boats with a local who rowed us out to explore some of the karsts. The views across the bay are beautiful. The floating villages are such a unique piece of Vietnamese culture, and we were glad that we had the opportunity to experience it.

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

We cruised around the bay for a little bit longer before dropping anchor for the evening near a few other boats. We were able to hop into kayaks to paddle around the bay before eating dinner. We happened to be on the boat over New Year’s Eve, so we spent the evening celebrating with the crew and passengers!

Day 3 – Halong Bay

The next morning, we cruised back to the dock through the bay. After disembarking, we grabbed lunch nearby and started the bus ride back to Hanoi. Once in Hanoi, we asked our hostel for dinner recommendations and were directed to the popular Xôi Yến.

Known for the best sticky rice in Hanoi, we certainly felt like there were more locals than tourists when we arrived. We were seated at a small table on the second level, and our server spoke little English beyond “chicken”, “pork” or “beef”.

We ordered two meals and two beers, and it ended up being our cheapest meal in Vietnam! If you’d like to check it out, the restaurant is located at 35 Nguyen Huu Huan, Hoan Kiem District.

Afterwards, we grabbed a beer at the famous Bia Hoi Corner. Locals and tourists alike gather at the corner on small plastic stools to drink a beer and watch the people go by. You can grab a mug of bia hơi, a light beer brewed fresh daily that costs less than 30 US cents.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Day 4 – Sapa Trekking & Homestay

Our next day began with a 6 hour bus ride to Sapa for a trekking tour that we had booked in Hanoi. This ended up being one of my favorite parts of our entire trip! Sapa is a beautiful town in the mountains of Northern Vietnam. We met our local guide when we arrived and stopped at a restaurant for lunch before beginning our trek. Unfortunately, our bus had arrived late so we ended up taking a van out of the city to begin our trek instead of walking the entire way.

Our guide, So, with her family
Our guide, So, with her family

We began walking through a small village before arriving at the terraced ride paddies. The scenery across the hills was breathtaking as we made our way along them. Some women from a local tribe joined our walk to help us along with the hopes that they would be able to sell us their handmade goods when we arrived at our homestay for the evening. Only one person from our group ended up falling in a foot or two of water in a rice paddy. 🙂

We continued on through a bamboo forest and hiked down a hill next to a waterfall to arrive at our homestay. In total, we hiked 7-8 kilometers (4-5 miles) through the beautiful scenery. At our homestay, our host cooked us dinner before showing us to our beds for the evening. I was surprised at how cold it got in the evening, but thankfully our beds came with very warm blankets!

We huddled around a fire in our room for a bit before crawling underneath the blankets for the night. The trek was certainly challenging at times, and we were exhausted!

Our home for the night
Our home for the night

Day 5 – Spa Trekking & Homestay

When we woke, our host cooked us pancakes for breakfast while we waited for our guide, So, to pick us up. We took an easier trek for a few hours to another nearby village. So cooked us lunch in the village. It ended up being one of the best meals we had in Vietnam!

We were picked up by a van after lunch and taken back to Sapa where we said farewell to So. She was a fantastic guide, and we were so happy with our trip. We had a little extra time to wander around the town and market before eventually boarding a bus back to Hanoi.

Day 6 –  Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Museum of Ethnology,

On our last day in Hanoi, we started with a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The mausoleum contains the embalmed body of the former Vietnam leader, Ho Chi Minh. Visitors must dress modestly – I had to buy a scarf to wrap around my legs – and are not allowed to take pictures inside. Admission is free.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Afterwards, we headed to the Museum of Ethnology. Admission is less than $2, and the museum is full of interesting artifacts from Vietnam’s ethnic minorities. Real ethnic homes were built throughout the museum to show how different groups lived. There’s also a neat water puppet show in the afternoon.

Vietnam Museum of Ethnology

Water Puppet Show at the Museum of Ethnology
Water Puppet Show at the Museum of Ethnology

In the afternoon, we caught a flight to Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), where we stayed at the Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon for two nights. We were able to book this property on Marriott points and loved the break from hostels/guesthouses. The hotel had a rooftop pool and a fantastic evening buffet in the lounge.

Ho Chi Minh City

Day 7 – War Remnants Museum, Reunification Palace

We spent several hours at the War Remnants Museum on our first full day in Ho Chi Minh City. Formerly called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, this stop is not for the faint of heart. While at times biased, the museum highlights the atrocities of war through graphic photos and stories. It’s uncomfortable and emotional, but an important piece of history to understand.

Outside of the museum, you’ll also find U.S. artillery, armored vehicles and weapons. Give yourself a couple of hours to wander the museum. There’s a lot to read and see.

Less than a 10 minute walk away, you’ll find the Reunification Palace (also called the Independence Palace). As you enter, you’ll pass by the front gate where a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through, signifying the end of the Vietnam War on April 30, 1975. There a couple of tanks sitting on the front lawn.

Inside, the palace looks virtually unchanged. You can wander through the rooms on all levels, including the roof and the basement, where you’ll find the telecommunications center and war room.

Reunification Palace

Day 8 – Cu Chi Tunnels

The next morning, we opted to take a break from sight-seeing to spend the morning at the pool! It felt fantastic to sleep in and relax for a bit! After lunch, we joined a tour group (for $6/person) to head to the Cu Chi tunnels.

Located a couple of hours outside Ho Chi Minh City, the Cu Chi Tunnels are an elaborate network of underground tunnels dug by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. The tunnels served as underground cities in which troops lived, communicated, transported supplies and mounted surprise attacks.

Our visit started with a quick video on the war and tunnels. Afterwards, we were led around the park by a guide who pointed out tunnel entrances, booby traps and underground rooms. It’s unbelievable how narrow some of the tunnels are!

We even got the opportunity to crawl through a section of the tunnels that narrows the farther you go. There are several exits along the route for those who may not be able to make it the entire way (I didn’t!).

Cu Chi Tunnels

When we arrived back in the city, we checked into the Ngoc Thoa Guesthouse before exploring a bit. I much preferred guesthouses to hostel dorms. We paid $40 for 2 nights in a private bedroom with a shared bathroom and got way more sleep that we would have in a shared room. 

Day 9 – Mekong Delta

Our final day in Ho Chi Minh City consisted of a day trip to the Mekong Delta that we booked through our guesthouse ($10/person). While we enjoyed the trip, it probably wasn’t a highlight of our time in Vietnam.

Our tour included a quiet paddle down a small waterway, a stop at a coconut candy factory, lunch and a motor boat ride down the Mekong River.  Although fairly commercialized, it’s a slow-paced, relaxing tour that gives you a glimpse into the rural Vietnam countryside. If you’d like, you can also opt for a 2 or 3 day tour that includes a homestay. There’s also a popular floating market nearby.

Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Coconut Candy Making

On day 10, we packed up and caught a flight to Bangkok. Stay tuned for details on Part II of our trip. 🙂  Have you been to Vietnam? What was your favorite city? If not, which activity looked most interesting?

Thanks for reading! As always, please leave a comment if we can answer any questions or help you plan your next trip!

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